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2012 NFL Season Preview: The AFC North

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The Cleveland Browns have a new owner and a new QB, the Pittsburgh Steelers have new faces on the offensive line with old results, the Cincinnati Bengals hope to stave off sophomore slumps and the Baltimore Ravens are still trying to make it over the hump. If all you need is water-cooler credibility, you may now proceed to the next article.

However if you are fan who has been busy with the Olympics and baseball -- here's your friendly wakeup call that football season is here! Well, almost.

Pittsburgh Steelers

As long as there are six Lombardis in the lobby, Pittsburgh will remain atop this division -- even with Baltimore as the defending AFC North champs (which they may not be had Ben Roethlisberger been able to walk in December).

2011 wrap-up:

1. These are not your father's pounding Steelers. They made 221 first downs last year through the air and only 96 on the ground.
2. The offensive line cost Pittsburgh another Super Bowl run. And yes, Ben holds onto the ball too long.
3. On the field, Roethlisberger has now officially become an underrated quarterback on his way to greatness -- if he can stay upright.

2012 offseason:

1. In case you've been on the North Pole -- Hines Ward retired.
2. Pittsburgh hired Todd Haley as their new offensive coordinator. Haley has the best QB he's seen since Kurt Warner and Big Ben has a passing innovator at the helm. If Mike Wallace ever reports for work, the team will have three terrific young WRs.
3. The Steelers drafted O-linemen David DeCastro and Mike Adams. The new group has thus far done nothing to raise the spirits of Steelers fans -- or Mrs. Roethlisberger.
4. The running game is firmly in the backseat, but rookie Chris Rainey appears to be a Darren Sproles-esque rushing dart.

Storylines:

1. How will strong-willed Ben and fiery Todd Haley get along? Who cares? It's Pittsburgh, where men are men and everybody is best buddies in the "W" column.
2. Exactly how old is that defense? As old as they play. Last year they were first in almost every category -- except takeaways.
3. Based on 2011, No. 7 is either all grown up -- or faking it pretty convincingly. Will it last?

Baltimore Ravens

Okay, I'll say it: Lee Evans caught that ball. Now that I have that out of my system, the Baltimore Ravens came into the 2012 NFL season playoff bound -- only to hit a huge record-scratch with the loss of sackmaster Terrell Suggs to an Achilles injury.

2011 wrap-up:

1. After finally actually winning the AFC North, the purple birds came up just short (or wide left) of the Big Game.
2. Rookie WR Torrey Smith emerged as a deep threat.
3. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still intimidating, but D-lineman Haloti Ngata is finally becoming a household name.
4. DB Lardarius Webb had one of those definitive "breakout" seasons while also serving as a dangerous return specialist.
5. The 2011 draft class was a success: Tyrod Taylor is the entrenched No. 2 QB, CB Jimmy Smith and DE Pernell McPhee both are keepers.

2012 offseason

1. Ravens fans everywhere heaved a huge sigh of relief when diminutive rusher extraordinaire Ray Rice signed his new contract.
2. For those of you just tuning in, former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is the new head coach of the Colts. He took DE Cory Redding with him.
3. The offensive line lost Ben Grubbs. Second running back Ricky Williams retired. Lee Evans is no longer a Raven.

Storylines:

1. Joe Flacco wanted a contract extension last year and still hasn't gotten it.
2. Rookie rusher Bobby Rainey could shine as a change-up back..
3. Ed Reed is not the player that once struck fear into Tom Brady's heart.
4. Can Suggs make it back this season or will the team be trying to replace both Ray Lewis and Suggs going forward?
5. For a team that won't admit it's in rebuilding mode -- there sure is a lot of turnover going on.
6. Will the offense run more through Flacco and less through Rice and can the defense muster that all-important rush into the face of opposing QBs?

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals mounted an unlikely rookie-led resurgence that resulted in a playoff appearance and a return to NFL respectability.

2011 wrap-up:

1. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green made it all the way to Hawaii in their rookie seasons. Carson who?
2. The team finished the season 9-7 and gave notice that the AFC North is now a three-horse race.
3. Marvin Lewis is a survivor. While it may be more a function of an owner's tight wallet than of gridiron genius, he is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL.

2012 offseason:

1. The New England "law firm" of BenJarvus Green-Ellis has arrived to tote the rock in Cincy. His presence provides Dalton with an excellent short-yardage receiving target.
2. Cincinnati just lost Guard Travelle Wharton for the year. So much for solidifying the O-line.
3. The secondary is a mass of uncertainty. Veteran corner Leon Hall and FS Reggie Nelson will be there, but the other spots are unsecured. The team drafted talented but character-challenged Dre Kirkpatrick -- who promptly fractured his knee. Safety Robert Sands had a good first game.
4. LB Vontaze Burfict was a huge rookie risk, but may have saved his job by intercepting Tim Tebow in front of a national audience in the preseason opener.
5. Special teams (with apologies to excellent holder Clark Harris) needs to become a strength and not a season-killer.

Storylines:

1. Who will emerge as the No. 2 WR? There are Brandon Tate, Armon Binns, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Slot man Jordan Shipley is coming back from a torn ACL.
2. Bruce Gradkowski is the current backup QB, but if Colt McCoy were to become available -- just a thought.
3. Will kicker Billy Cundiff really get another shot in the Harbor City?

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns enter the 2012 NFL season with a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back, a rookie WR, a rookie RT, a rookie SLB -- and a rookie owner. Truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam has bought the Browns from Randy Lerner. Thank goodness.

After a decade of tight purse strings and general apathy, Haslam's Tennessee uber-masculine energy is a breath of fresh air. Whether that wind blows out the current management and coaches won't be known for a while.

2011 wrap-up:

1. Pat Shurmur may have more NFL connections than anyone outside of the Ryan family, but he hasn't had a lot of luck. With an injured and discontented Peyton Hillis, a struggling QB and a WRing corps afflicted with a case of "the drops," the Cleveland offense averaged 13 points per game.
2. A good young secondary and one of the best linebackers in the league (D'Qwell Jackson) helped the Browns shine in pass coverage. Rush D? Not so much.

2012 offseason:

1. The Browns drafted top rusher Trent Richardson, who just had his second knee procedure since February. Then they drafted 28-year-old rookie QB Brandon Weeden, who was a minor league pitcher for five years.
2. Weeden has landed the starting QB job, leaving last year's QB Colt McCoy twisting in the wind. With four rookie starters, Shurmur will look like a genius if the Browns' offense becomes credible in 2012.
3. Then the injuries started. The team has lost starting DT Phil Taylor to a torn muscle, LB Chris Gocong to an Achilles injury and starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita to a bounty-gate suspension.
4. Oh and star cornerback Joe Haden just tested positive for a stimulant and will undoubtedly miss four games.

But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln....

Storylines:

1. Has Weeden's experience given him maturity and leadership strengths or a tired arm?
2. Will Richardson's body hold up to the pounding of trying to carry an entire offense?
3. Will Colt McCoy stay in town as a backup?
4. Will there be wholesale front office changes?
5. Will any WR hang onto a football?
6. Will rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson make the most of his shot in the starting lineup?

Sometimes being a Cleveland Browns fan is an exercise in completely baseless optimism.

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