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North Division

In order of predicted finish (2008 record)

September 03, 2009|Sam Farmer

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Big questions: Can the Steelers handle success? They couldn't in 2006, when they came off a Super Bowl victory only to lose six of their first eight games. They had to scramble to finish 8-8, missed the playoffs, and coach Bill Cowher capped things off by resigning. It was the second time in club history the Steelers missed the playoffs the season after winning it all. Then again, they've also twice won consecutive Super Bowls.

Big moves: The Steelers are a homegrown franchise that seldom makes any noise in free agency. They do have some promising draft picks in defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, and receiver/returner Mike Wallace, one of the fastest players in the draft.

Bottom line: This could be another big season for the Steelers, who return 20 of 22 starters and have an offensive line that, despite struggling during the 2008 regular season, played as a unit in the postseason. Ben Roethlisberger proved (again) he's a clutch performer in big games.

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Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Big questions: The Ravens came within a victory of the Super Bowl last season, but can they take the next step? If so, they'll do it without defensive coordinator Rex Ryan -- now coaching the Jets -- and outstanding linebacker Bart Scott. Also, can second-year quarterback Joe Flacco pick up where he left off in the regular season? Despite two playoff victories, he struggled in the postseason, including three interceptions in the championship game at Pittsburgh.

Big moves: Baltimore lost more talent than it gained in the off-season, although six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk was a key acquisition. The un-retirement of Pro Bowl receiver Derrick Mason really helps a banged-up receiving corps.

Bottom line: A lot hinges on the growth of Flacco, who completed only 38.3% of his passes inside the opponents' 20, and the effectiveness of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. If those things go well, the Ravens will be back in the playoffs.

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Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)

Big questions: Will Carson Palmer be healthy enough to return to his Pro Bowl form? And how will he adjust to losing his favorite target, T.J. Houshmandzadeh? It really hurts that first-round pick Andre Smith, the would-be right offensive tackle, missed all of training camp because of a holdout then broke his left foot in practice Tuesday.

Big moves: The Bengals have made some major changes on the offensive line, including the drafting of Smith and the release of their right and left tackles. Receiver Laveranues Coles was added, as were safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson.

Bottom line: When he's protected and healthy, Palmer is among the five best quarterbacks in the league. But Palmer, sidelined last season because of an elbow injury, has missed a significant chunk of camp because of a tweaked ankle, and is playing behind a cobbled-together line. That's not encouraging.

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Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Big questions: Will the Jets West approach work? New Coach Eric Mangini, fired after three seasons in New York, brought seven former Jets with him to Cleveland. With his clamped-down style, he'll try to do something that player-friendly Romeo Crennel couldn't -- turn around a once-proud franchise. The most pressing issue: Who will start at quarterback, Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn?

Big moves: No matter who wins the starting quarterback job, he'll have fewer capable targets. The Browns shipped troubled-but-talented tight end Kellen Winslow to Tampa Bay, and receiver Donte Stallworth is suspended for the season because of his DUI manslaughter case.

Bottom line: The Browns should be better on defense, and their offense . . . well, it couldn't get much worse than the 2008 version, which last scored a touchdown Nov. 17. Cleveland's offense failed to reach the end zone in the season's final six games.

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