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AFC North preview: Browns rising; Steelers hitting the wall?

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With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Tom Blair tackles the AFC North below.

Most significant changes from 2017

You might be tired of the Browns, but it's hard to start this section with any other team. They basically changed almost everything, adding significant new names up and down the roster on both sides of the ball, including at the most important position in sports (and all of Northeast Ohio and, perhaps, the world). It seems to have paid off, at least in the form of good vibes on "Hard Knocks." For the first time in the lifetimes of many on this planet, it is within the bounds of observable reality to envision strong QB play in Cleveland, with not one but two competent-to-good bodies to man the spot in Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield. The Browns' turnaround has been multiple decades in the making. Will it come to fruition in 2018 -- or in time to keep coach Hue Jackson employed? For now, it's appropriate to imagine Liev Schreiber dropping a sonorous and optimistic button on this paragraph. Things are looking up on the shores of Lake Erie.

The Ravens performed a significant bit of roster rehabilitation, boosting the pass-catching corps with solid veteran (Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead) and rookie talent (Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews) -- though Hurst's career will get off to a delayed start as he recovers from foot surgery. And, of course, Baltimore snagged its own exciting, young quarterback prospect, dual threat Lamar Jackson. With the offense beefed up and the defense returning most key elements from an encouraging 2017 campaign (although suspended cornerback Jimmy Smith will miss the first four games), the Ravens are serious playoff contenders.

Andy Dalton was sacked 39 times in 2017 (sixth most in the league), while the Bengals' run game ranked 31st. So Cincinnati traded for established left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafted center Billy Price 21st overall. Getting tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver John Ross back healthy should open things up a bit for Dalton and running back Joe Mixon. The Bengals said goodbye to longtime defensive fixtures Michael Johnson, Adam Jones and George Iloka. But the guts of the D, which posted respectable rankings in both points allowed (16th) and yards allowed (18th) in 2017, are intact, with front-line anchors Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins landing long-term extensions.

The Steelers didn't make a ton of moves, befitting a team coming off its second straight division title (and third in four years). First-round pick Terrell Edmunds could contribute at safety, while JuJu Smith-Schuster will get a chance to shine as the No. 2 receiver following the trade of Martavis Bryant to Oakland. Beyond figuring out how to fill the void left by injured linebacker Ryan Shazier, the biggest roster move, if you could call it that, will be getting dynamic running back Le'Veon Bell on the field after yet another contract-related preseason absence wraps up.

One player to watch on each team

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Joe Flacco, quarterback. The idea that Flacco's job was at risk always seemed like one of those juiced-up offseason narratives bound to be completely forgotten by the time the late afternoon games kick off in Week 1. He's never really posted inspiring numbers (except for that time in the 2012 playoffs), but he does boast a career record of 92-62 -- only Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers have won more games than Flacco since his rookie year of 2008. Yes, Jackson looms, but this is still Flacco's show. With an improved receiving corps and full health, Flacco has a chance to shake off a humdrum 2017 campaign and punctuate his Ravens legacy (or even prolong his tenure) with a season that reminds people he can be a pretty good quarterback. (No matter what Jalen Ramsey says.)

CINCINNATI BENGALS: A.J. Green, receiver. It can be shockingly easy to overlook the fact that the Bengals boast one of the best receivers in the game. Green has been denied a playoff spotlight the past two years, but he's been an incredibly steady source of production for this franchise from Day 1, providing a spark for an outfit that can otherwise tend toward the achingly ordinary. He's made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven NFL seasons to date and has more 1,000-yard campaigns (six) than any active receiver besides Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Antonio Brown. But Green is also 30 years old and entering the penultimate year of his current contract. John Ross and Joe Mixon tantalize with their promise, but now is the time to fully appreciate Green -- before it's too late.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Josh Gordon, receiver. Gordon hasn't participated in a full NFL season since 2013. But he's also the owner of the 13th-most prolific receiving campaign in NFL history -- that 2013 effort, in which he racked up 1,646 receiving yards. He could be a relative non-factor, either because of rust, injury, fit with the coaching staff or yet another off-field misstep. Or he could dramatically accelerate the Browns' rebuild, vaulting them from the realm of feel-good try-hards into actual relevance and respect while regularly demonstrating his prodigious talent.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Bud Dupree, linebacker. The Steelers ranked seventh in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed while racking up a league-high 56 sacks. In Year 4 of the Keith Butler era, can Pittsburgh's D finally escape the long shadow of Dick LeBeau and form its own distinctive identity? Dupree is moving from the left side of the defense to the right side, with the goal of amplifying his pass-rushing prowess. If the 2015 first-round pick is able to ramp up his sack totals, Dupree could emerge as a next-generation star alongside stalwarts Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and promising youngsters T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds.

What we'll be talking about at season's end

I see two options:

1) The utter demolition of the status quo. Ben Roethlisberger suddenly hits a wall and Bell struggles to get going upon his return, leaving the Killer Bs fatally off-kilter -- and Pittsburgh misses the playoffs. Flacco is benched for Jackson in Baltimore midway through November, while Ross outgains Green in Cincinnati. The Browns, meanwhile, coalesce behind Jackson, riding a feisty defense, the reemergence of Gordon and Taylor's brand of mistake-free football to, yes, their first division title since 1989.

2) The comforting rhythms of history repeating itself. The Steelers coast to 12 wins while Antonio Brown nabs the MVP award, Bell warms up quickly and Roethlisberger announces he will play another 10 years. The Ravens win nine games and the Bengals win seven -- or vice-versa -- while the Browns fall far short of the HBO-inflated expectations that were set for them in the preseason. This prompts another coaching search, throws the trustworthiness of both August football and reality TV into doubt -- and keeps catharsis out of reach in Cleveland for at least one more year.

You can decide which of these scenarios is more likely to come true.

Follow Tom Blair on Twitter @TomBlair426.

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