2012 NFL Division Predictions: AFC North

It'll be a struggle at the top between the Ravens and Steelers. And one has a better projected record, while the other has higher playoff odds.

We've looked at the NFC East and the AFC East already, but now it's time to turn our attention to the Black and Blue Division. Out of any individual division race, the AFC North is the closest: the Ravens and Steelers are the only two teams at the top of their division to be back-to-back in our overall rankings as well. I'm sure Baltimore and Pittsburgh fans won't mind in the least being grouped together, right? I've heard they kind of like each other or something to that effect. For the Bengals fans wondering where you are in this conversation, numberFire's not as rosy about your hopes. But hey, look at it this way, you're still not the Browns quite yet.

AFC North Predictions

1. Baltimore Ravens
Overall Rank: #4
Projected Record: 10.4-5.6
Playoff Odds: 60.0%
Super Bowl Odds: 7.4%

According to numberFire's rankings, there is a grand total of one team who is in the Top 10 for both offense and defense. But it's not the Lions' trio of Stafford, Suh, and the Detroit Police Department, nor is it the Falcons' almost Top 10 offense (#12) to pair with their barely Top 10 defense (#10). Nope, my purple-and-black-clad friends, it's the boys from Baltimore. The Ravens have the third-ranked defense overall in our NFL rankings, but perhaps even more surprisingly, register with the ninth-ranked offense as well. Ray Rice is the only fantasy option of note, but the main key is consistency. Joe Flacco might not be the best QB in the league as he tried to claim, but his +56.42 Net Expected Points (NEP) over the average NFL QB indicates that he was helping Baltimore improve their scoring chances. That mark was the second best among AFC North starting quarterbacks, although Baltimore fans may not want to know who he was behind.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Overall Rank: #5
Projected Record: 10.9-5.1
Playoff Odds: 49.2%
Super Bowl Odds: 4.9%

Yup, it was this guy. Ben Roethlisberger's +0.20 NEP per play average finished tied for 8th with Stafford and Eli Manning in the entire NFL. Much of this was due to his receiving corps, highlighted by Antonio Brown's breakout 1108 yard campaign. But for once with the Steelers, the offense isn't the problem - that unit currently projects to be sixth overall in the league. The problem seems to be that maybe Head & Shoulders has made that defense a little bit too soft. Long a staple of spectacular defense, the Steelers only rank #12 overall on our defensive list, behind such defensive stalwarts as... the Miami Dolphins (#8), Seattle Seahawks (#9), and Kansas City Chiefs (#11). Well, that was unexpected. Their main problem is simply age - over half of the Week One starters will likely be north of 30 years old. That's not a good sign for long-term wear-and-tear, especially with a schedule that has them facing @ Baltimore, vs. San Diego, @ Dallas, and vs. Cincinnati in four consecutive weeks near the end of the season. However, don't be too angry at the schedule: since Baltimore has the second-hardest schedule in the NFL, the Steelers have a better projected record, even with worse playoff and Super Bowl odds.

3. Cincinnati Bengals
Overall Rank: #15
Projected Record: 8.2-7.8
Playoff Odds: 34.1%
Super Bowl Odds: 2.0%

It's year two of the Christmas Colors Combo, with the Red Rocket and Mr. Green leading the way in Cincinnati. The main offensive difference will be having the Law Firm in the backfield rather than Cedric Benson this year. Benson did have over 1000 yards and at least six rushing TDs each of the past three seasons for the Bengals, but even his lightest workload (273 carries) was over 40 rushes more than BJGE has had in his most busy year (229 carries - 2010), leading to concerns about wear and tear. The Bengals' two units are smack dab in the middle of the NFL - the offense comes in at #17 while the defense ranks at #14. Until one of those units proves it can be in the top ten, I wouldn't expect to see much pressure on the Steelers or Ravens, both of whom have both units ranked ahead of Cincy's. As Keith Goldner says, there's some strong teams at the top of the AFC, so playoffs may be tough to come by. But I do expect them to be right in that mix with the Chargers and Jets fighting for that last spot. At least the jailbird days of the Bengals seem to be over.

4. Cleveland Browns
Overall Rank: #26
Projected Record: 4.7-11.3
Playoff Odds: 16.0%
Super Bowl Odds: 0.5%

The Browns haven't had much to smile about in recent years - only one playoff appearance (2002) since being reestablished as a franchise a dozen years ago will do that to you. But it's all about the youth movement now for the Browns - they could have as many as four rookie starters on offense this year, highlighted by Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. But I wouldn't bust out the Playoff Dawg Masks quite yet. As I noted yesterday, rookie backs generally have a tough time their rookie year. Quarterbacks are usually even worse - Cam Newton was the exception rather than the rule, remember. And as the Sports Illustrated article about Browns rookies mentions, only three previous teams have started a season with both a rookie QB and RB in the starting lineup. With an offense ranked #20 and a defense ranked #25, even giving them the random variability 0.5% Super Bowl odds (fourth-lowest among all teams) might be giving them too much credit.