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Predicting the 2012 NFL Season: the AFC North

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bill-swift - September 9, 2012

We are hours away from the first full slate of games in the 2012 season, and I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little excited. Like many guys, I'll be mowing my lawn and taking care of my 'honey-do' list on Saturday (college games will not be any good for at least another couple of weeks) so that I can stay glued to the television on Sunday.

That means that there is still time to rub the crystal football and see what predictions I can get from the great beyond. Since I was asking about the AFC North this time the ghost were more than happy to talk.

Baltimore Ravens:

The Ravens have been one of the best teams in the division since they drafted Joe Flacco back in 2008 and there is no reason to think that trend will not continue this season.

Flacco has not exactly lit up the scoreboards or been fantasy football gold, but he has been an efficient game manager and a good passer when he needs to be averaging right around 226 yards a game the last three seasons. He has one of the best all-purpose running backs in the league in Ray Rice (over 2,000+ all-purpose yards two of the last three seasons) which definitely makes any QB's job a lot easier.

The offense may finally be ready for a breakout season due to a much improved passing game. Anquan Boldin is hands down one of the best in the game. Jacoby Jones will help add a vertical element to the passing game, and if Torrey Smith can continue to improve opposing defenses are in trouble.

If anything might hurt the Ravens this year it's the defense. Losing end Cody Redding and safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura will hurt. The injury to linebacker Terrell Suggs will sting most of all. The team still has plenty of play makers in the group, but the key will be how well they adjust to the increased work load created by the departures and Suggs' injury.

Cincinnati Bengals:

The Bengals surprised everyone last season by actually being competitive. This year they will not be a surprise to anyone making the further development of their young core vital to this season's success.

Andy Dalton showed some surprising poise last season against some pretty tough teams. Fellow rookie A.J. Green sure helped with 1,000+ yards off of 65 receptions. Jermaine Gresham turned in a solid year with just under 600 yards on 56 catches. However, the problem this season will be everyone will key on them because the team does not have any other play makers. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis can handle being a full-time back things might be okay, but the team will really need another wide receiver to step up.

For the team to actually return to the playoffs for the second year in a row it will be off the backs of the defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a stellar job of getting the most out of who the team lines up. As a result, no one really stands out as a hands down play maker. Linebacker Thomas Allen led the team in tackles with 99 followed by Rey Maualuga with 88; good numbers, but not eye-popping ones.

Corner back Leon Hall will continue to shut down one side of the field, but the team need someone on the other side after losing Jonathan Joseph to free agency last season. Jason Allen might be the best person to fill that role for now, but once Dre Kirkpatrick is healthy the team is hoping their '12 first round pick will be up to the job.

Pittsburgh Steelers:

Whenever you have a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger on your team you are going to be pretty darn good. However, to be more than just good you will need a little help. It's not 100 percent clear whether Big Ben will have enough of it.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace held out on the team throughout the preseason, but assuming he gets up to speed as fast as he thinks he can he'll provide a definite threat. No. 2 wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller will help keep secondaries on their toes along with Wallace. Should Emmanuel Sanders continue to be improve the Steelers could find themselves really airing it out this season.

Where the Steelers may hurt is in the running game. Rashard Mendenhall was having an okay season before getting hurt towards the end of last season, and its unclear when he'll be able to return. Isaac Redman filled in rather well in the last two games of the season. Jonathan Dwyer had a solid game against Tennessee in Week 5, and could finally get his chance at the start of the season with Redman nursing an ankle injury.

Having the best defense in the league will help take some pressure off Big Ben and the lack of a dependable running game. Safety Troy Palamalu is one of the best in the league as is nose tackle Casey Hampton. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are tremendous play makers, but both missed time last year to injury. Safety Ryan Clark and corner back Ike Taylor give the secondary three play makers in the secondary, but the team is unsure who will start at the other corner.

Cleveland Browns:

The Browns have lost double-digit games in each of the last four seasons, and it is not real clear that this season will be any different.

Out of the line-up is Colt McCoy and in is rookie Brandon Weeden. After four preseason games it doesn't seem as if that is a good idea, but since he's 28 there is little chance the team will take him out of the line up. Part of the problem is that the team lacks any proven play makers. The best chance to have any this year appear to be rookie running back Trent Richardson who has been injured all preseason and another rookie in Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon.

Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron does pretty well considering he does not have too many studs in the group. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson had a stellar season last year with 158 tackles. The next highest total was from tackle Ahtyba Rubin who had 83. The team was hoping that Emmanuel Acho would be the next play maker when they drafted him out of Texas, but he's been placed on injured reserve.

Prediction:

Cleveland is obviously out of the running in the North, but if Weeden can continue to improve and Richardson live up to his draft position in a couple of years they might be good. Cincinnati will be okay, but they will just miss making the post season this year. Pittsburgh will put up a good fight, but without a dependable running game and an offensive line like a sieve Big Ben will not be enough.

That leaves the Ravens. With their defense and a Joe Flacco determined to be even better this season the Ravens are a shoe in to take the division.

Division Winner: Baltimore

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