AFC North preview
Defenses could be the key to finding out who comes out on top
By Rob Lancaster. Last Updated: September 5, 2012 1:26pm
The AFC North is always a tough division, both in terms of who emerges into the post season and in that the team play extremely physical football.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh will fancy themselves not just for the play-offs but with the potential to go all the way to the Super Bowl, although both will realise that time is running out due to their ageing defenses.
The Cincinnati Bengals surprised many last season by finishing with a winning record - this year, the NFL are ready for their rookie offensive tandem and the going might be a little tougher.
As for Cleveland, they have wiped the slate clean with their offense and are starting all over again, again. They must begin to show improvement, particularly now there is a new owner in charge.
Star man: Ray Rice
The Ravens came mightily close (as in a drop in the end zone and a missed kick) from putting out the Patriots in last year's play-offs. They will again hope to be a factor, though the window is closing quickly considering their defense isn't getting any younger.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren't quite the forces of old but the most crucial piece of the defensive puzzle for Baltimore is Tyrelle Suggs, and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year may not make it out onto the field this season due to an Achilles injury.
With a tricky schedule and minus their best pass rusher, the onus is on the offense to step up. Tail-back Ray Rice is a star performer but the same cannot be said yet of quarterback Joe Flacco.
With Torrey Smith providing a deep threat and the ever reliable Anquan Boldin still going strong, it's time for Flacco to fire for Jim Harbaugh's team.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Star man: AJ Green
The Bengals did much better than expected last season with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton at the helm, clinching a wild-card spot with a 9-7 record. However, the franchise hasn't had back-to-back play-off campaigns since 1981-82.
Coach Marvin Lewis struck gold on the rookie quarterback-receiver combination of Dalton and AJ Green, though the pair aren't going to sneak up and surprise anyone in 2012.
Cedric Benson has gone at tail-back but BenJarvus Green-Ellis has arrived from New England in free agency - he isn't going to beat teams with speed but is a tough runner who is yet to fumble in his pro career.
It may be that Cincinnati don't really need that many points anyway. A strong front four (or three, depending how they choose to line up) should result in plenty of pressure being put on opposing QBs and they have a talented secondary that is led by the excellent Leon Hall.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
Star man: Joe Haden
The Browns have new owners and new (although not always young) faces on offense. It may be good long-term planning from president Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur, but the duo may not be around too much longer if results don't show signs of improving.
They will have three rookies starting at key offensive positions - quarterback Brandon Weeden (who actually turns 29 in October having intially tried for a career in baseball), running back Trent Richardson (who has already undergone knee surgery before making an NFL carry) and receiver Josh Gordon (who had off-the-field in his college career and had to go through the supplemental draft).
Their cause isn't helped either by the fact their best defensive player, cornerback Joe Haden, will be suspended for the start of the campaign.
In such a tough division it's going to take time for Cleveland to be competitive - they may be time some of their current staff do not have.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Star man: Ben Roethlisberger
Perennial Super Bowl contenders, the Steelers have relied in recent years on their vice-like defense to take them deep into the play-offs. This year, however, things could be about to change.
Todd Haley has arrived to take charge of the offense and despite leading running back Rashard Mendenhall coming back from serious injury, Pittsburgh will want to get back to running the ball. If they can do that effectively, it will open up the field for Ben Roethlisberger - who needs some sort of protection from his offensive line - to release playmakers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.
While there is a new man calling plays on offense the status quo remains the same on defense - Dick LeBeau loves to dial up a blitz. The key to them stopping teams will be staying healthy, particularly Pro Bowlers such as James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and the human wrecking ball that is Troy Polamalu.