Guest Post by Niles Pender - NFL Fan Appeal
The AFC North established itself as one of the powerhouse divisions of football during the 2011 season. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers continued their normally strong play, each going 12-4 behind a strong defensive approach and team football. Even the Cincinnati Bengals got in on the action, posting a surprising 9-7 record. Let’s take a look at how each team will measure up during the 2012 season, which is now just a few short months away from kickoff.
Baltimore is the team that will be on everybody’s radar, and rightfully so. Thanks to a third-ranked defense that featured a handful of players who are All-Pro talent, Baltimore stormed its way to a 12-win season and a berth in the AFC Championship Game last season. While they fell short to a feisty Patriots team led by Tom Brady’s stellar play, they still managed to show the world that they are a contender.
Obviously the big question for Baltimore heading into 2012 is how the team will fare without linebacker Terrell Suggs, last season's AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Many will recall that Suggs suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the offseason. Although he initially tried to claim that the injury occurred during authorized team workouts, several sources have stated that he actually suffered the injury during a recreational game of basketball.
Regardless of the cause of the injury, Baltimore will have to do without a linebacker who helped anchor the team. A less talented defense might see a major drop in its effectiveness after the loss of someone at Suggs’ skill level. Fortunately for Baltimore residents, the Ravens are stacked with talent – they still have Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed. They added a few cogs during the draft, such as linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and are in great position to return to the top of the AFC.
The other face of the AFC North is the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s easy to forget that they only lost four games during the 2011 campaign. After being stunned in a Wild Card matchup against the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos, the Steelers are going to be itching for the chance to put together another solid season and make a bid for the Super Bowl.
There are a lot of positives for Pittsburgh heading into 2012. The team had the top-ranked defense in all of football last season, and they’re going to play through the upcoming season with most of the same talent that helped them reach that point. On the offensive side, they still have the always-versatile Ben Roethslisberger. With more strong play by Mike Wallace at wide receiver and the continuation of Antonio Brown's terrific route-running, Pittsburgh won’t lose a beat during 2012 unless they suffer an injury or make a boneheaded trade.
The other two teams in the division, Cincinnati and Cleveland, didn’t have the powerhouse seasons that Baltimore and Pittsburgh did. Still, there is reason for optimism. Cincinnati posted a surprising 9-7 record after coming into the season with some major question marks on offense. As it turns out, they didn’t need Carson Palmer. Rookie Andy Dalton looked impressive all season long at quarterback, and fellow rookie A.J. Green was equally impressive at wide receiver. With the continued growth of both players, and the addition of rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on defense, the Bengals have a legitimate shot at making some noise in the postseason. It was a rough year for the Browns, who went 4-12, but they added Trent Richardson at running back as the third overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Now that they Peyton Hillis saga is over, the team should be able to focus a little bit more and perhaps win a few more games.
Looking at the rosters for all four teams, it’s not inconceivable that all three of last year’s teams who made the playoffs will do the same again this year. Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati have all maintained their key players. We’ll find out in September whether they all still have what it takes.