The AFC North has been a two-team division for the past decade and nothing has changed this season. Once again it’s a battle between Pittsburgh and Baltimore with Cleveland and Cincinnati also-rans.
1. Will the Ravens win the title for the first time since 2006?
We’ll get an early idea as Pittsburgh invades Baltimore for the season kickoff for both teams a week Sunday. There isn’t much between the teams and for the Ravens to finish on top they must have Joe Flacco outperform Ben Roethlisberger in the head-to-head games. One key addition for the Ravens may be the arrival of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who promises to unleash a more aggressive, blitz-oriented defence.
2. Is there any chance of Carson Palmer will return to the Bengals?
In a word, No. Palmer wants out and says he is going to stay out despite reports that the two sides were talking in late July. Palmer, though, has yet to file his retirement papers but the Bengals are adamant that they won’t appease his request by trading him. If he stays out and doesn’t play, he will forfeit his $11.5-million salary.
3. Will the Browns show improvement under new head coach Pat Shurmur?
Shurmur should definitely be an improvement over Eric Mangini. Shurmur was the quarterback coach in Philadelphia for the bulk of his 10 years there before moving on to St. Louis, where for the past two season he was their offensive coordinator. Shurmur was instrumental in aiding Donovan McNabb’s growth in Philly and worked well last season with Sam Bradford. The feeling is he will accelerate the development of Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Shurmur should accelerate the Browns improvement.
4. Who will finish on the bottom, Cleveland or Cincinnati?
Last year the Bengals suffered through a 10-game losing streak but won two of their last three to finish 4-12. The Browns, meanwhile, spun through three quarterbacks before settling on Colt McCoy and ended with a 5-11 record. Going head-to-head, last season they split the two games. With McCoy gaining experience from last season and the Bengals going with rookie Andy Dalton, I’m picking the Browns to finish ahead of Cincinnati.
5. Will former Bills receiver Lee Evans make an impact with the Ravens?
The arrival of Evans should have a two-pronged effect on the Ravens. First off, as a receiver who can stretch the field, he should take some of the coverage away from Anquan Boldin and open things up for the gifted receiver. Secondly, he will remove a lot of the pressure from rookie speedster Torrey Smith. He should be a prime target for Flacco.
6. Can Joe Flacco win the big one?
In his three years in the post-season Flacco has gone 4-3 and has frustrated Ravens fans to no end. When he needs to elevate his play in the big games, such as the Ravens nemesis Ben Roethlisberger does on a consistent basis, Flacco has too often come out flat. In his three post-season defeats, Flacco has thrown just one touchdown against six interceptions and posted a QB rating of just 47.5. Flacco needs to lead his team over the Steelers and then take it all the way to the Super Bowl. He has the tools.
7. Is Colt McCoy the real deal?
A third-round pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy wasn’t supposed to start last season but injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace forced the Browns to turn to the University of Texas pivot. In eight starts, McCoy was just 2-6 but he proved to the team and its fans that he is their quarterback for the present and the future. McCoy will be helped by the Browns going with a west coast offence but he still needs a big uptick in his receiving crew. But, yes, he is for real.
8. Has Andy Dalton been thrown to the Wolves?
With no Carson Palmer, the Bengals have decided to go with rookie Andy Dalton, their second-round pick from Texas Christian. For the Horned Frogs, Dalton was 42-7 as a starter but that’s not how it’s going to be this season for the Bengals. The Bengals are a bad team (they were 4-12 last year) and without much talent and help around him, it will be an extremely trying season for Dalton. The hope is he’s tough enough to endure it.
9. Will Troy Polamalu return to form?
The Steelers better hope so. When he is fit and right, there is no better defensive player than the Pro Bowl free safety. He is a true game-changer due to his quickness to close on the ball and the free range he has been given in the secondary. However, the reigning defensive player of the year suffered an Achilles injury at the end of the regular season and when he returned in the post-season was a non-factor. He needs to prove he’s healthy
10. With T.O. and Ochocinco gone, who catches the ball in Cincinnati?
Don’t look for any Pro Bowlers in this group. With the T.Ocho Show a thing of the past, the heavy lifting falls to veteran wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell plus youngsters such as slot receiver Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham. That opens things up for rookie receiver A.J. Green, a first-round pick from Florida. It’s still slim pickings for rookie QB Andy Dalton.