If the National Football League conducted a survey of random fans, challenging them to name the NFL’s best division of 2011″, conventional wisdom would either suggest the NFC East or NFC South. Given the brand of football these teams played, both divisions have a legitimate case. With that, neither team has a strangle hold on such an honor.

The one division that isn’t getting the recognition it deserves is the one where all four of its defenses ranked in the top ten of 2011. Even though the division’s lone under .500 representative lost 12 games, it stayed competitive in eight of those blemishes.  Collectively, this division combined for league best 37-27, win-loss record. This division is the AFC North.

Let’s see what’s in store for the Ravens, Bengals, Browns & Steelers, shall we?

BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4 in 2011,  AFC North Division Champions)

Key Losses: LB Jarret Johnson, G Ben Grubbs, DE Cory Redding, DB Tom Zbikowski, LB Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles tendon), K Billy Cundiff

New Faces: DB Corey Graham, G Bobbie Williams, WR Jacoby Jones, K Justin Tucker, LB Courtney Upshaw.

Losing Terrell Suggs for a majority of the regular season is an item you won’t find on Baltimore’s 2012 wish list. Still, its defense is stacked enough to maintain ferocity. We all know what the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata can do. The two that Ravens Nation will likely inquire most about is Nagata’s front line mates Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones. Can Cody build on his 34 tackle mark of a season ago? Finally, if Jones can be half the menace off the edge that his brother UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones is in the Octagon, right tackles are in for some long days in the office.

By extending Ray Rice’s tenure another four years, Baltimore knew the importance of maintaining its greatest offensive threat.  With that, the Ravens still have some offensive projects in the works. Can Joe Flacco do what Eli Manning did a season ago and speak his greatness into existence? Has Torrey Smith emerged as Flacco’s primary target? Can Anquain Boldin recapture the magic he once had in Arizona? Can Jacoby Jones be the double threat (Wide Receiver & Special Teams Returner) he was in Houston?  Finally, while there can only be one Todd Heap, can Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta do in B-More what Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are doing in New England? Should the offense pan out to complement the defense, the sky’s the limit for Charm City.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-7 in 2011)

Key Losses: G Bobbie Williams, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Jonathan Fanene, WR Jerome Simpson.

New Faces: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Dre Kirkpatrick (first-round pick, No. 17), G Kevin Zeitler (No. 27), CB Jason Allen.

Barring any unforeseen circumstance, Andy Dalton and AJ Green could be the kind of duo that leaves Bengals fans asking “Carson and Chad who?” For now, they’re looking to match, if not surpass their own success of a season ago. To aid Cincinnati’s scoring efficiency, the Bengals brought in red zone threat Ben-Jarvis Green Ellis, also known as “The Law Firm”. If anything stifles this team’s progression, it’ll be its offensive line. The front unit is heading into the regular season banged up. Whether the “big uglies” are able to lick their wounds or look to depth for sustainment, they’ll have to do something to assure their offense doesn’t take more steps backwards than it has forward. Another area to keep an eye on is the tight end play. Will year three be a charm for Jermaine Grisham?

Defensively, the Bengal faithful won’t have much to worry about. If anything, confidence in this unit should grow, now that Ohio native Nate Clements has been added to a secondary that already has the likes of Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson surveying all things downfield.

Do not be surprised if the striped cats emerge as the dark horse to take this division.

CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12 in 2011)

Key Losses: RB Peyton Hillis, RT Tony Pashos, S Mike Adams, LB Chris Gocong.

New Faces: QB Brandon Weeden (first-round pick, No. 22), RB Trent Richardson (first-round pick, No. 3), WR Josh Gordon, DE Frostee Rucker, RT Mitchell Schwartz.

With new ownership comes new hope. Jimmy Haslam III, who previously had investment in the Pittsburgh Steelers, now owns 70% of the Dawg Pound. When you think Pittsburgh, you think stability. Haslam hopes to envelope the stability and winning spirit he witnessed in Steel City and transfer those to a team longing for a culture change.

One aspect that has sparked such change is Cleveland’s defense. Since the appointment of Dick Jauron in 2011, Cleveland’s defense has fielded a product that has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. Ironically, not one of the Dawg Pound’s defenders was selected to the Pro Bowl. That’s no indictment on them since team progression takes greater priority over individual accolades. The only obstacle to overcome, which should be minor, is the eventual suspension of cornerback Joe Haden for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Also with new hope comes new faces.  In the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns selected running back Trent Richardson (Pick #3, Alabama) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (Pick #22, Oklahoma State). With  left tackle Joe Thomas, Cleveland’s lone 2012 Pro Bowl Selection, leading the charge, the offensive line could provide opportunities for these pups to excel. Weeden is going to need help from a receiving corps who on paper, doesn’t even strike concern in the hearts of opposing secondaries. Can Greg Little emerge from the heap of average receivers to become Weeden’s lead target? Personally, I can’t help but wonder what happened to wideout Mohamed Massaquoi, who had a stud senior season in Georgia. Also, what contributions will Joshua Cribbs make to the offense moving forward.  Last, but not least, nothing helps a rookie quarterback through the growing pains like a tight end. Can veteran Benjamin Watson be the security blanket Weeden needs? To cap off Cleveland’s eventual turn around, Brad Childress returns to his rightful position as offensive coordinator, dawning the brown and orange.

Overall, the Dawg Pound is stampeding in the right direction. I’m not ready to write them in as a surprise wildcard team, but do not bank on them to maintain its unwanted tradition of being this division’s floor mats.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4 in 2011)

Key Losses: WR Hines Ward, LB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu.

New Faces: G David DeCastro (first-round pick), T Mike Adams, RB Chris Rainey, NT Alameda Ta’amu, TE Leonard Pope, offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

An area with this team that has maintained its direction is Pittsburgh’s secondary…specifically, its exterior. The Steel City has struggled to secure a reliable cornerback in recent seasons. Thankfully, it has two safeties in Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu who possess the uncanny ability to cover field/ground/space. In addition to this tandem, Pittsburgh’s front seven can and does make up for what the cornerbacks lack. With savvy veterans like Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, who can penetrate virtually any wall an offensive front creates, linebackers Lamar Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison will only reap the benefits that await them on the other side of the ball.

Looking at Pittsburgh’s “other side of the ball”, it too has some spots that garner concern. First, the offensive coordinator.  After an unsuccessful run as Kansas City Chiefs’ head coach, Todd Haley was brought into Steel City to run all things offense. Word is he and Ben Roethlisberger were at odds throughout training camp and preseason.  With kickoff being inches away, it behooves these two to have their issues ironed out before the coin is tossed. Then there’s Rashard Mendenhall. On the heels of a late, season ending leg injury, eyes will be on him, wondering if he can return to his form of 2009 and 2010.  Missing a majority of training camp, can wide receiver Mike Wallace pick up where he left off? In what way will veteran tight end Heath Miller contribute to Pittsburgh’s offensive production? Finally, the most vital piece to this offensive puzzle is the offensive like.  As it flows, so goes the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Through it all, Pittsburgh will somehow be a force to reckon with. When it’s all said and done, they could find themselves once again looking up at the division champions.

Next up, The AFC South!

By Antoine Hoffman

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