AFC North preview: Expect Flacco to take on bigger role in Baltimore


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So Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, is out for at least the first half of the season because of an Achilles injury, and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are a year older and perhaps a step slower.

So why are the Baltimore Ravens still a bona fide contender for the Super Bowl and the favorite in the AFC North?

The answer -- get this -- is quarterback Joe Flacco.

Had it not been for a Lee Evans drop in the end zone with 27 seconds remaining in the AFC championship game, the Ravens and not the New England Patriots would have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants last year.

The Steelers know what Flacco is capable of doing. He is 4-2 against the Steelers the past three regular seasons and twice brought his team from behind late in the fourth quarter to beat them at Heinz Field.

With an aging defense, coach John Harbaugh appears ready to hand the offense to Flacco. Over the preseason, the Ravens have gone to a no-huddle offense that has drawn rave reviews. If Harbaugh allows Flacco to direct the offense in the same manner in the regular season, it would be a new dimension to a team that has been known for being conservative.

Much in the same way the Steelers morphed from a defensive-oriented team in the mid-1970s to an offensive-oriented team later in the decade, the time could be right for the Ravens to use the weapons they have at their disposal.

In addition to Flacco, Ray Rice is regarded as one of the top running backs in the league and speedy receiver Torrey Smith gives the Ravens big-play ability down the field.

Cincinnati

Coach Marvin Lewis finally found his quarterback and big-play receiver of the future in the draft last year. And through free agency this spring, he added one of the top running backs on the market to solidify his offense. Now Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have to help the Bengals find something that has been eluding the franchise for the better part of a generation -- consistency.

The Bengals made the playoffs for only the second time in the past 20 years last season. They haven't made the playoffs in consecutive years in almost 30 years (1982-83).

Lewis built one of the top defenses in the NFL last season. The Bengals ranked in the top 10 in the league in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense, and they figure to be tough to score against this season.

The questions are on offense, but there are reasons for optimism that the Bengals can be more productive this season.

Dalton surpassed expectations as a rookie, when he threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns while only throwing 13 interceptions en route to a 9-7 record.

Dalton's go-to receiver is Green, who burst onto the scene during his rookie season. Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and scored 7 touchdowns.

What the Bengals were missing last season was a consistent ground game. They ranked 19th in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2011. Lewis did not bring back Cedric Benson and instead signed Green-Ellis, who rushed for 667 yards with the Patriots last season. He will team with Bernard Scott to form a nice 1-2 punch.

One thing the Bengals have going against them is a more difficult schedule.

They feasted on weaker opponents last season -- 3-1 against the NFC West -- and made the playoffs despite going 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens.

AFC North teams this season play the NFC East, which might be the top division in the league, so it's highly likely the Bengals are going to have to find a way to beat the Steelers and Ravens this season to make it back to the playoffs.

Cleveland

New owner Jimmy Haslam wants to mold the Browns after the Steelers, whom he knows quite well after being a minority owner the past few years. But it's going to take some time before Haslam can flush out the front office and get his type of evaluators and coaches in the building to make that happen.

For now, don't look for much improvement on the field.

The Browns were 4-12 last season and might have a hard time doing much better this year with a rookie quarterback, rookie running back and a banged up defense that lost one of its best players for the season in training camp.

Brandon Weeden, the 22nd overall pick from Oklahoma State, is the new quarterback, taking over for Colt McCoy. Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick, has potential, but his first training camp was cut short because of a knee injury.

And the defense, which ranked 10th in total defense last season, lost linebacker Chris Gocong for the season with an Achilles injury and will be without defensive lineman Phil Taylor for the first half of the season because of a pectoral injury.

On top of that, cornerback Joe Haden could be facing a league suspension for a failed drug test.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

The most difficult schedules in the division based on 2011 records:

Cleveland Browns: .527 (135-121); NFL rank: 3rd

Baltimore Ravens: .523 (134-122); NFL rank: 4th-t

Cincinnati Bengals: .500 (128-128); NFL rank: 14th-t

Steelers: .500 (128-128); NFL rank: 14th-t

OF NOTE: The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants have the most difficult schedule (.547, 140-116) and the league runners-up New England Patriots the easiest (.453, 116-140).

Steelers

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published September 6, 2012 4:00 AM


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