In the fourth of eight daily divisional NFL debates, we debate the AFC North. This is a very close division. It’s winner seems to always be decided in the final week, which makes for some of the most exciting and entertaining Football of the entire season. And while the Ravens and Steelers have dominated this division throughout the last decade, there is a new force emerging that could take over this year. Led by Andy Dalton, they are the Cincinatti Bengals. Along with the Ravens, they are the two favorites to win the AFC North, but who will actually come out on top? Read below to find out.
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[one_half] By: Sam Lanctot
The AFC North could be up for grabs to three different teams this season. Obviously Cleveland isn’t in the discussion, but Pittsburg, Cincinnati, and Baltimore all have a legitimate chance to win. With that said, I think the Ravens will end up as division champs, and here’s why.
Let’s start with the division. Like I said, Cleveland is out, at least for this year. The Bengals are a young team, especially the offense, and because of this will be sporadic. They will look great at times, and other times will make stupid mistakes that cost them. I see them being a wild card team again. The Steelers used to be great. Now they only seem good, and are heading in the wrong direction. The team has an underwhelming and aging offensive line supplemented by two unproven rookies. Ben Roethlisberger is breaking down, and the team currently doesn’t have a running back with Mendenhall still not back.
Baltimore, on the other hand, is aging as well, but supplements that age with more proven youngsters on both sides of the ball.
Joe Flacco is a good quarterback. He can’t carry a team, but he certainly can win with the talent around him. He has an elite running back in Ray Rice, who runs like a bowling ball. He can do it all, rushing for over 1,300 yards last year and leading the team in receptions as well. He hauled in 76 catches for over 700 yards. He is, put simply, a beast.
They have a talented tight end in Ed Dickson, who should progress further in his second year as a starter. Anquan Boldin, while no longer elite, is still a solid receiving option, collecting almost 900 yards last year. Second year speedster Torrey Smith should be more consistent in 2012, and will most likely become Flacco’s favorite target.
The offensive line is still good, anchored by veterans Matt Birk and Michael Oher. The team added two lineman in the draft, but neither is expected to start from day one, and instead learn behind some underrated starters.
Terrell Suggs is out. I had to lead with that as it is a devastating blow to this team. However, that just means rookie Courtney Upshaw will have an increased role this year, and I have liked what I have seen from him so far. He seems comfortable in the pass rusher role, and could excel early. Ray Lewis is still the leader of the team, even if he isn’t it’s best player. It’s a role he seemed born to do, and is still a phenomenal talent. The other linebackers on the team ought to perform again this season, especially Jameel McClain, who has improved in each of his four seasons.
Haloti Ngata is the most dominant defensive tackle in the game. No one can do what he does, racking up sacks from the nose tackle position (five last year), as well as stopping any runs up the middle.
The defensive backs are underrated. Sure, everyone knows of Ed Reed’s talents, but what allows Reed to roam as he does is the play of those around him. The other safety in Baltimore, Bernard Pollard, has started every game he has played since his second season, and is an amazing tackler. The corners are excellent, with return specialist Ladarius Webb finally getting a shot to showcase his defensive talents last season. He did not disappoint, snatching five interceptions and shutting down many a receiver. Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith are great options at two and three, and can play with most receivers in the NFL.
The Ravens are an improved team from a year ago, when they went 12-4, and I don’t see any reason for Baltimore not to win this division again in 2012. [polldaddy poll=6519842] [/one_half]
[one_half_last] By: Arif Hasan
The Bengals will win the AFC North, and have quietly become one of the more well-rounded teams in the league. In the long slog of the NFL season, it is usually the team with depth, flexibility and multiple points of strengths that can grind it out and win their division. The Bengals are that team.
On offense, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton’s Pro Bowl year was phenomenal and it turned into one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the NFL, despite the fact that they’re rookies.
And they’ll only get better.
Green heads a deep receiver corps, and rookies Sanu and Jones are primed for breakout season while Binns provides an excellent receiving option outside.
Enabling that is strong line play from one of the most underrated lines in the league; they allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL. The addition of Zeitler on the right makes the line even more powerful.
On defense, they have one of the NFL’s best secondaries, and allowed the fifth fewest passing yards per play in the league. The addition of Kirkpatrick will only make them better.
Geno Atkins is a dominant defensive tackle. Lined up with him are top 5 defensive end Carlos Dunlap and the growing Jamaal Anderson. This is one of the best defensive lines in the AFC.
Minding the defense is the fantastic Rey Maualuga, and the Bengals have excellent depth at linebacker, with Vontaze Burfict massively outperforming his expectations.
I can understand why Sam chose last year’s division winners, but the Ravens have a lot of problems.
First, the offensive line will weigh them down. While Yanda is great, Birk is regressing in a big way. The overrated Oher and much-maligned Bryant McKinnie have caused huge problems. Together, the two of them alone gave up 14 sacks. They still don’t have an answer at right guard.
Joe Flacco is terrible under pressure, and only completed 42% of his passes when being rushed. His TD/Int ratio under pressure is bad as well, giving up interceptions at twice the rate of touchdowns.
Expect him to be under pressure more often and his already pedestrian passer rating to freefall.
Beyond that, they have terrible playcalling with Cam Cameron, who shies away from using Ray Rice effectively to win games. He doesn’t call for efficient plays, often eschewing passes that move the chains for inconsistent deep bombs.
There’s a reason that a full-strength Ravens lost to teams like the Titans, Jaguars and Chargers: Cam Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The Ravens defense needs change, too, to accommodate the loss of Suggs. A few years ago, the defense was designed around Lewis, and after that it employed a modified Cover-1 Robber to take advantage of Reed’s skill.
Those schemes relied on Lewis’ and Reed’s athleticism, something they can’t go back to. Moreover, current DC Dean Pees has only designed Ravens defenses with Suggs; he hasn’t created one without that pass rush, and that pressure is critical to his system.
The rush hides the weaknesses of a secondary that is asked to do less on the backside of plays, a rush that Courtney Upshaw cannot recreate—especially because his talent lies in stopping the run.
Without having to focus on Suggs, offenses can now take away the threat of Kruger or Ngata much more easily and nullify the rush.
Suggs was the most important player on the team and his absence dooms their chances of winning the division.