by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

BALTIMORE (12-4 in 2011; Won AFC North on tiebreakers; lost AFC Title Game 23-20 at New England)...The Ravens swept the Steelers last season, giving Baltimore the AFC North championship and the valuable first-week bye in the playoffs. The Ravens eventually lost the title game when the normally-reliable Billy Cundiff hooked a 32-yard FG wide left at New England, handing a Super Bowl berth to the Patriots without N.E. having to duke it out in overtime with John Harbaugh’s stubborn crew.

Despite that loss, there are plenty of signs the North balance of power has finally shifted slightly in favor of Baltimore. QB Joe Flacco now has 44 regular-season wins, the most in NFL history in a QB’s first four years. Moreover, Flacco is not only the first QB to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, he is also the only QB with at least one victory in each of his first four playoff campaigns. And last season the Ravens finally uncovered the long-sought deep-receiving threat they have craved in Torrey Smith of Maryland, who caught 50 balls for 841 yards and 7 TDs as a rookie. Flacco will throw to Smith with more confidence this season, while the physical Anquan Boldin and TEs Ed Dickson & Dennis Pitta handle the possession stuff. Meanwhile, Temple rookie RB Bernard Pierce offers the promise of taking some of the load off all-around RB Ray Rice (1364 yards rushing, 704 yards receiving).

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While the rugged Raven defense has likely lost 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs (14 sacks last season, 7 forced fumbles) to an Achilles injury, top draft pick Courtney Upshaw of Alabama has been exceedingly well trained in multiple defenses by Nick Saban and should fit right in. Plus, likely future Hall of Famer Ed Reed (57 career ints. in the regular season, plus 8 more in the playoffs) has decided to return for at least one more year at safety. As long as nothing serious happens to Flacco or Rice, it’s Baltimore again in the AFC East.

PITTSBURGH (12-4; lost in Wildcard Round 29-23 at Denver in OT)... Does it seem to you that Ben Roethlisberger is an “old” 30? The big QB assumed the starting role with the Steelers in his rookie season. But--partly because of his willingness to trade a bit of punishment in order to buy a little more time before throwing--Roethlisberger has absorbed more than his share of injuries. And to just about every body part. Now, the slowing but burly passer must adjust to a rebuilding OL, a new offensive system, and a new offensive coordinator (Todd Haley) who has a history of previous abrasiveness. All perhaps without the healthy support of top RB Rashard Menedenhall (ACL in regular-season finale last season). And with WR Hines Ward in retirement. And speedy Mike Wallace a camp holdout.

Even the hard-hitting Steeler defense is a cause for concern despite the fact it led the NFL at 14.2 ppg last year. The great Troy Polamalu admits he has lied about past concussions in order to stay on the field. Jarring OLB James Harrison is babying a balky knee in camp. Steady DE Aaron Smith is retired. The “intimidating” Pittsburgh defense had the fewest takeaways in the league last season (15), leading to a -13 team turnover margin! What’s up with that?

Head coach Mike Tomlin (two Super Bowl appearances; one title) is one of the steadiest and best in the business. But he has more than a few issues this season.

CINCINNATI (9-7; lost in Wildcard Round 31-10 at Houston)...Credit the Bengals for being a surprise entrant in the playoffs last season as the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Cincy owner Mike Brown didn’t flinch under the Carson Palmer retirement ultimatum, drafting TCU QB Andy Dalton and turning the offense over to the poised “Red Rifle,” then dealing the over-the-hill Palmer to Oakland for a first-round pick (which turned out to be Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick at No. 17). Dalton impressed in his rookie season with 3398 yards passing, 20 TDs and 13 interceptions, capped by an appearance in the Pro Bowl (subbing for Super Bowl QB Tom Brady).

Let’s not forget that the Bengals won the AFC North in 2009, finishing 10-6 with a 6-0 sweep of the division. And Cincy’s red-haired wonder QB can be expected to improve upon his rookie figures this season.

But in the Queen City, the cash from the Bengal front office rarely flows readily, so team depth is always an issue. And, sure a-bleeping-nough, free-agent G Jacob Bell retired in spring for fear of brain damage in the future and free-agent G Travelle Wharton (ACL) was lost in the first few minutes of the first exhibition game. So much for offensive line depth. There’s still enough talent around for the tiger-striped troop to make things tough on the Ravens and Steelers. But the preseason personnel losses and the number of returning fragile players seem to be too many. If the Bengals make it to the playoffs again this season, throw these tigers an extra steak.

CLEVELAND (4-12)...A new owner (truck stop magnate and former Steeler fan Jimmy Haslam), new team president (former Eagles’ boss Joe Banner), new passer (former Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden), and new RB (top pick Trent Richardson of Alabama). So it’s not difficult to forecast that this will be a transitional season for the Browns in many ways. Too bad Cleveland fans are already dreary of transitional seasons for their Browns, who have been to the playoffs only once (2002 season) since they were reconstituted in 1999 after a three-year hiatus (following the infamous departure of the Art Modell Browns to Baltimore).

Yes, there are many nice “pieces” (as GMs and sports-TV talking heads are now calling players) in place on the Browns. For example, LT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack, WR Greg Little, WR/KR Josh Cribbs, FB Owen Marecic, NT Ahtyba Rubin, DT Phil Taylor (when healthy), LB D’Qwell Jackson, and CB Joe Haden.

But 29-year-old rookie QB Weeden is the product of a prolific “flippy football” program in Stillwater, where the receivers ran deep and many of the defenses he faced ran shallow. Look for plenty of growing pains in Cleveland, where Weeden’s lack of mobility, tendency to launch passes into coverage, speedy NFL DBs, and the breezes off Lake Erie will test his mettle. It’s hard to envision an escape from the AFC North cellar for the Browns...unless the Bengals keep losing key players.


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