The AFC North is a division of dominant teams -- as well as the Cleveland Browns.
All joking at Cleveland's expense aside, the division is difficult to predict simply due to the various factors influencing each team. The Steelers are introducing a new offensive system, the Ravens and the Steelers are both battling aging concerns on defense, and the Bengals' sudden success last season relies heavily on young and unproven talent if they hope to move forward with more success. There's nothing simple about the AFC North entering the 2012 season.
The Ravens seem to be the consensus pick to win the AFC North. Yes, they're fielding an aging defense, but it's a defense that played at a very high level in 2011. Even with some inherent fall off, they should still hold one of the most dominant units in the game. If Joe Flacco can step up his game just a little more, they could be a very serious Super Bowl contender.
The Steelers, in my mind, are the wildcard team in the AFC North, and I'm not talking in terms of playoff position. Any time you install a new offensive system, a number of things can happen both in a positive or a negative way. If Todd Haley's offense takes hold quickly, the Steelers have a complete team, and they'd be tough to beat. It's all about the offense for the Steelers in 2012.
The Bengals should be simply looking to get back to the playoffs in 2012. Winning the division would be great, but it's still unclear if that's a reasonable goal. Andy Dalton will need to continue to be an effective manager, allowing his defense to set the offense up for quick and easy points. The youth movement is on in full force in Cincinnati, so expect some wild results.
There's little to no doubt in my mind that the Browns won't be in the playoffs following this season. They don't have nearly enough talent, and they're in rebuild mode. Still, look for them to make significant progress throughout the season. That's what the Browns' front office will be focused on, and if they do well enough, the playoffs may not be out of the question a season from now. The Browns' season is all about patience and perseverance.
The AFC North has no clear front runner at this point. Look for the Bengals and Browns to grow throughout the season, and look for the Ravens and Steelers to show signs of weakness as the season drags on. The AFC North seems to be a true three horse race, and it should make for a nail biter finish to the season. Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely the AFC North sends three teams to the post season again which raises the stakes that much higher.