AFC North preview: Don’t sleep on Bengals

AFC

When the subject of the AFC North comes up, everybody wants to talk about the Steelers and Ravens.

Nobody wants to talk about the Browns. And, hey, everybody gets that.

But the Bengals don’t enter the conversation often enough. Cincinnati merely is a team that won the division three years ago, made the playoffs last year, and again should be in the thick of the division hunt.

Cincinnati’s star rookie pass tandem (QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green) returns for Year 2. A quietly bolstered roster could make the Bengals the NFL’s most under-regarded team heading into the season.
But the front-runners should remain out front.

After opening against one other last year, the Steelers and Ravens don’t knock heads until late in the season — on Nov. 18 (at Pittsburgh) and Dec. 2 (at Baltimore). Those tilts still ought to determine the division winner.

Cleveland probably will field one of its lamest teams in the franchise’s expansion era. And that means a particularly rank brand of lame.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS
LAST SEASON: 12-4, playoff wildcard

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Big Ben Roethlisberger might not win over many admirers off the field, but remains one of the NFL’s elite pocket passers … The return of holdout Mike Wallace last week, plus WRs Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, and underrated TE Heath Miller, give Roethlisberger and new OC Todd Haley all the weapons they need to turn the Steelers passing game back into a juggernaut … The D is still loaded and good.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The OL was the only weakness last year, and the draft was to have solved that. But 1st-round OG David DeCastro blew out a knee last week and is done for the year, and 2nd-round OT Mike Adams sprained a knee and now is a backup. Huge setbacks … Defenders believe injuries to key starters derailed a special season last year. This year? Happening again.

SNARKY QUESTION: How long before the fiery Haley and Roethlisberger clash in a team-splitting disagreement over the direction of the offence?

PREDICTION: 11-5. Tough division, tough schedule.
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BALTIMORE RAVENS
LAST SEASON: 12-4, AFC final runnerup

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: RB Ray Rice rocks as runner & receiver … If Lee Evans catches that pass, or Billy Cundiff kicks that FG, everybody would be rightfully saying Joe Flacco had bloomed into a big-time QB on that clutch drive in the AFC final …  Flacco has another year of familiarity with WR playmakers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. And healthy Tandon Doss or FA pickup Jacoby Jones might provide a dangerous No. 3 … LB Ray Lewis is leaner and swifter than he’s been in years … Rookie PK Justin Turner is a weapon you’ll be hearing about.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The loss of OLB Terrell Suggs, the NFL’s defensive player of the year in ’11 (Achilles tear), is enormous. End Jarrett Johnson‘s departure via free agency further unsettles the D … The schedule is ridiculous. Check it out.

SNARKY QUESTION: How much more flak can Flacco endure if he hasn’t indeed turned the corner?

PREDICTION: 11-5. Tough division, tough schedule. Hey, we said they and the Steelers were clones.
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CINCINNATI BENGALS
LAST SEASON: 9-7, playoff wildcard

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: QB Andy Dalton has so much more room to grow, and WR A.J. Green is a superstar already … If he can get healthy, rookie Dre Kirkpatrick can help settle a vital position, CB, which can allow the D to remain uber-aggressive and legit Top 10 in the NFL … BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whom Tom Brady handed off to only a few times a game when his shoulder was tired, should ably pick up all of departed RB Cedric Benson‘s rushing load.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Dalton’s other favourite pass target in ’11, WR Jerome Simpson, is now a Viking. Leaves big hole … The OL interior is all new, but rookie road-grading OG Kevin Zeitler is an upgrade … Last time the Bengals made the playoffs two years in a row was five years before 25-year-old Dalton was born.

SNARKY QUESTION: Can you blame roller-coaster-weary Bengals fans for not leaping onto this team’s bandwagon just yet?

PREDICTION: 9-7. A repeat of last year would be more than acceptable. And admirable.
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CLEVELAND BROWNS
LAST SEASON: 4-12

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Other than the trade-up-and-drafting of phenom rookie RB Trent Richardson, and a decent OL in front of him, let’s just skip to the next section. Move along and watch your step, please.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The team’s chances on offence rest almost entirely on that rookie RB’s ability to quickly bounce back from an early-camp knee scope. That knee injury was the worst possible thing to happen to this team … Rookie QB Brandon Weeden looks OK, but by the time the club surrounds the 28-year-old with more proper parts, he might be retirement age … The wideouts aren’t good, and drop a lot of balls … The D’s best player, CB Joe Haden, reportedly faces a four-game suspension for failing a drug test, and has been getting into it at practices with wideouts and even HC Pat Shurmur.

SNARKY QUESTION: Bambino schmambino. Is any other sports franchise — or sports city — cursed worse than this one?

PREDICTION: 2-14 Look away, people. Look away.

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