By Pete Prisco | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
You can make a case that the AFC North is the best division in football. You have two teams that have been perennial playoff teams the past decade in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and you have a rising team in the Cincinnati Bengals.
I like the riser the most this season.
The Bengals surprised a lot of people last season when they earned a wild-card spot with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. With a year of seasoning under his belt, Dalton should be even better throwing to second-year receiver A.J. Green.
The key for the Bengals on the other side of the ball is the defensive front. They have eight good players they can run at on offense, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The return to health of Leon Hall on the corner will help.
The Steelers and Ravens will be right there with them all season long. Both teams should again be good on defense, but they each have concerns on that side of the ball. Age is creeping in on both units and the Ravens will be without top rush player Terrell Suggs for most of the season because of a torn Achilles tendon.
Cleveland is the bottom-feeder of the division, but they will be feisty each week as they build for something in the future.
Post-camp outlook: The Bengals had a lot of injuries this summer, including losing guard Travelle Wharton for the season and center Kyle Cook for an extended period of time. That will force some adjustments up front on the offensive line. It's up to Dalton, who knows the offense much better, to take a big step forward. The team needs a second receiver to emerge as a threat opposite Green. The defense will be led by the front with Atkins and end Carlos Dunlap leading the way. They will come at the quarterback in waves.
Best that could happen: They get deep in the playoffs. That would mean big growth by Dalton and staying healthy.
Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. If Dalton were to have a sophomore slump, that would be possible. I doubt it. But it's possible.
Last word: This team has been a punchline to jokes for a long time. Not anymore. They are a young team that is on the verge of big things. It might be coming at the right time with Pittsburgh and Baltimore having some age issues with key players. If they can avoid major injury issues, this Bengals team has a chance to go deep into the playoffs. I mean it. After an opener with Baltimore, the schedule is favorable for a month or so to help the young players grow together. If that happens, watch out.
Post-camp outlook: The big dynamic for this team heading out of camp is how new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will mesh his thinking with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Haley likes to run it, but this is a team built to throw it. Haley also has an edge that can rub players the wrong way. The Steelers line suffered a blow when rookie guard David DeCastro, who was the starter on the right side, went down with a knee injury. There is also concern about the running game. Can Issac Redman handle the load? The defense should again be a top unit under Dick LeBeau, but James Harrison needs to be on the field to complement LaMarr Woodley.
Best that could happen: They win another Super Bowl. They should be explosive on offense with Roethlisberger throwing to Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace and the defense is ... well, the Pittsburgh defense.
Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. That would mean that the offense didn't mesh with Haley's style and the defense showed some age.
Last word: This is a fierce team that will fight every opponent every week. They were disappointed in losing to Tim Tebow and Denver last year in the playoffs. But with the way they play defense, and Roethlisberger's ability to make things happen, they will be competing for a division title. I just think there are too many concerns to win the division. But if they do, we know what they are capable of if they get into the playoffs.
Post-camp outlook: The new-look Ravens of the preseason, an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, were impressive. Quarterback Joe Flacco looked so comfortable running the thing. My question is whether they continue to do that. The Ravens seem to have an identity problem on offense. What do they want to be? If they are going more up-tempo, it's the right thing to do. The defense will have issues without Suggs in closing out games. I also think Ray Lewis is nearing the end. Even so, the front office always seems to find guys to help fix things.
Best that could happen: They win the Super Bowl. If Flacco looks like he did in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots, and is allowed to do more in the passing game, the Ravens will be tough to stop. Receiver Torrey Smith has star written all over him.
Worst that could happen: They miss the playoffs. That would mean identity issue on offense and age being a problem on defense. Oh, and nobody stepping up to replace Suggs and his ability to knock down the quarterback.
Last word: They are the chic pick to win this division. But I just wonder about the offensive dynamic. When they throw, players complain Ray Rice isn't getting the ball enough. When they run Rice too much, they get bogged down. What are they? And just minimizing the loss of Suggs because they've been good on defense is foolish. Sack, fumble, game over is hard to replace.
Post-camp outlook: It's not optimistic. How can it be? They are starting a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden, who didn't look great in the preseason, and they have an offense that is void of real playmaking threats -- although there are some young players of interest. Running back Trent Richardson missed the preseason recovering from knee surgery, so his start could be slow. On defense, they have good players in some key positions, but one of those is corner Joe Haden, who is suspended for the first four games.
Best that could happen: They win six games. That would be impressive in this division with all the heavy hitters. It would mean Weeden is significantly better than he looked in the preseason.
Worst that could happen: They win one game. That's what I predicted when I played out the season, taking a lot of heat from the city of Cleveland, but it is possible. They have a lot of work to do.
Last word: Cleveland fans have been patient for a long time, but they need that more than ever now. This team is building to something, but it can't happen overnight. In this division, with all the good teams, it makes it even tougher to do. The Browns will take their lumps this season. But there are some good pieces in place, especially if Weeden is the guy they think he can be.