AFC North a two-team race unless young squads step up

With a potential settlement to the NFL lockout looming, analyst Elliot Harrison takes a quick glance at where each division left off following last season. This is a look at the AFC North.


Baltimore Ravens

Where we left off: Baltimore was the best team in the NFL that didn't win its division. The Ravens didn't allow opposing offenses to get in the end zone much, giving up the third-fewest points in the league (270). Joe Flacco continued to be steady, if not spectacular, with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He takes criticism for not having a lot of defining moments, but the lacking element of Cam Cameron's offense is a big-play threat -- not the quarterback.

Issues of concern: The Ravens had no vertical presence at wide receiver in 2010, an area that could haunt them come playoff time. In fact, Baltimore only generated 47 plays of 20-plus yards, 29th in the NFL. The club is hoping second-round pick Torrey Smith gives them something in that department. Inconsistency on the offensive line was a problem. Another issue is the secondary, where the corners were just OK. The health of Ed Reed always remains a question mark.

Two things to hang your hat on, Ravens fans:
1. Ray Rice is so undervalued. His numbers were down in 2010, but he still managed 1,776 yards from scrimmage. That's not a down year.
2. Leadership is at a premium, starting with general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh, right on down to Ray Lewis and Reed. Baltimore has more of it than any team in the league.


Cincinnati Bengals

Where we left off: The season started with so much promise, as the Bengals were 2-1 heading into a very winnable game in Cleveland. Unfortunately, Cincinnati dropped 10 in a row, many of them very close games, to fall off the map in the AFC North. Carson Palmer continued his recent trend of being completely unpredictable (great one quarter, awful the next). Mike Zimmer's defense couldn't stop the 2-minute offense, couldn't hold the fort in short-yardage situations, and really struggled to create a pass rush. Still, this 4-12 team wasn't very far from being .500.

Areas of concern: Palmer. It looks like for all intents and purposes he's either retiring or playing elsewhere in 2011. That means the Bengals might go with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. If the organization moves forward without Chad Ochocinco, the young receivers -- Jordan Shipley, rookie A.J. Green, and tight end Jermaine Gresham -- will have to step it up. The Bengals won't win anything until they improve on their 27 sacks from a year ago. Losing corner Johnathan Joseph in free agency wouldn't help, either.

Two things to hang your hat on, Bengals fans:
1. Don't sleep on Cedric Benson. He got taken out of some games last year in which Cincinnati was behind, yet still ran for 1,111 yards.
2. Green gives this club a bona fide vertical threat, and with Shipley and Gresham doing damage inside, Dalton will have a good core to work with.

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Cleveland Browns

Where we left off: The Browns were Jekyll and Hyde last season, delivering shocking upsets over the Patriots and Saints, and then laying an egg in both games vs. the Steelers, as well as at home vs. the Ravens. Cleveland went 1-5 in the division for the third straight year. Former coach Eric Mangini couldn't get this team over the hump, and Rob Ryan's defense struggled to close out games. Cleveland was outscored 105-66 in the fourth quarter. Both are now gone. Still, there is hope, as Colt McCoy showed flashes while Peyton Hillis had a huge year with 1,177 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.

Areas of concern: Cornerback Joe Haden proved he could play in his first season, with six interceptions and 57 tackles. Eric Wright, however, allowed quarterbacks to complete over 63 percent of their passes on him. Offensively, Cleveland needs a big-play threat like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Speaking of, most people thought Mike Holmgren wanted A.J. Green, whom the Bengals drafted before Cleveland had a chance. It's understandable. For McCoy to succeed, the starting wide receivers (Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie in 2010) need to have more than 65 catches between them.

Two things to hang your hat on, Browns fans:
1. A solid tight end and productive running back are a young quarterback's best friends. Cleveland has both in Ben Watson and Hillis.
2. The offensive line, led by Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, is pretty solid.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Where we left off: The Steelers lost in the Super Bowl, but it's pretty hard to pick on this group. The defense was its usual rock-solid self, leading the league in points allowed and finishing second overall. The offense found a budding star in wide receiver Mike Wallace, who racked up 1,257 yards in just his second season. Ben Roethlisberger returned from his suspension a productive quarterback, as expected. What wasn't anticipated was Pittsburgh going 3-1 without him.

Areas of concern: Age. Nine of the 11 regular starters on defense last season are either over 30 or about to turn 30. Youngster Ziggy Hood (24) played well, but the Steelers need first-round pick Cameron Heyward to step in and contribute. As good as the defense is, the corners are vulnerable, and thus the organization addressed that area in the middle rounds of the draft. Hines Ward's 35-year old legs have to be a concern, as well.

Two things to hang your hat on, Steeler fans:
1. I'm an unabashed Dick LeBeau fan. He's back. Enough said.
2. While everyone pays attention to his Twitter account, did anyone notice that Rashard Mendenhall had a nice year on the field? Uh, 1,273 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns ain't bad.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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