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AFC North: Things to consider

08/29/2012 01:47 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT
The sixth of an eight-part series on the league's divisions, to perhaps help you decide which teams and players to back in the upcoming season.

The AFC North teams this season have a schedule that will see them battle with the denizens of the AFC South and NFC East.

For what it's worth, here are how the teams rank in terms of strength of schedule: Browns (tied for third most difficult), Ravens (tied for fourth), Steelers and Bengals (tied for 14th).

Statistics below refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted.End of season trend includes playoff games. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.

Baltimore Ravens

- Average wins, past 5 years: 9.8

- 2011 record: 12-4

- Record in close games: 4-3

- Avg. loss margin: 10.75 points

- Avg. win margin: 12.9 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 11

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 11

- End of season trend: 4-2

Good vibes: Ray Rice a dynamo, racked up 2,068 yards along with 15 TD's … Much-maligned Joe Flacco had team in top 10 of third down efficiency and in terms of interception rate …Only club with playoff berth each of last four seasons … WR Torrey Smith had strong rookie season …Their tight ends accounted for 94 catches …Still contain defensive stars like Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs … Coach John Harbaugh has to be considered one of the best in the business, maybe the best without a ring … Strong group of cornerbacks.

Caution signs: Loss of LB Terrell Suggs to Achilles injury for several games is huge … Not a lot of depth at offensive skill positions if Flacco, Rice or Smith have any major injury issues … Have to replace defensive regulars Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, who went to other teams … Lewis still reads play excellently, but body often a step away … Flacco has a way of making some easy throws more difficult … Cam Cameron can make some strange calls and is not exactly a trailblazer … Schedule minuses: Extra games are vs. NE, @HOU, play consecutive road games vs. PIT, SD in November, and play Manning brothers on consecutive weeks in December.

Who knows: Baltimore didn't make a lot of additions externally and are making the assumption that the incredibly durable Flacco and Rice will hold to that standard.

Cincinnati Bengals

- Average wins, past 5 years: 6.8

- 2011 record: 9-7

- Record in close games: 5-5

- Avg. loss margin: 8.3 points

- Avg. win margin: 8.8 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 11

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8

- End of season trend: 2-4

Good vibes: QB Andy Dalton and WR AJ Green had undeniable chemistry in first NFL season for both … TE Jermaine Gresham with 108 catches in first two seasons … Ball control ace BenJarvus Green-Ellis looks like he can handle more than was given with Patriots … OC Jay Gruden will get head coaching interest with another season like 2011 … Strong and fairly young defensive front seven … While they only rank middle of the pack in schedule strength, the slate plays out pretty nicely; they should be quite disappointed if they're not above .500 after first seven games … As well, their extra games are winnable, against Jacksonville and Miami.

Caution signs: Already dealing with two serious injuries to interior offensive line, both of which might be season-ending, while impressive LB Ray Maualuga is dinged … Haven't marked consecutive playoff berths in 30 years … Eye-popping 0-8 vs. fellow playoff teams last season … Questions in the secondary.

Who knows: Not unlike Detroit in NFC North, conceivable this team could take another step forward and win the division, but just as easy to imagine they could fall back to six or seven wins. We're not re-writing the football book here: The path they take will depend on the continued progress of young players, and a significant slowdown in current injury rate.

Cleveland Browns

- Average wins, past 5 years: 5.6

- 2011 record: 4-12

- Record in close games: 3-6

- Avg. loss margin: 4 points

- Avg. win margin: 8.75 points—

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 2

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 11

- End of season trend: 9-1

Good vibes: Can't do much worse than a hilariously bad two games over 20 points and can't do worse at all in yards-per play (They ranked 32nd) … Hope springs with rookies Brandon Weeden at QB (28 years old) and RB Trent Richardson … Considering the popgun offence, WR Greg Little had good rookie season … Joe Thomas considered by those in the know as one of the few best offensive linemen in the game … Dick Jauron got a lot out of the defence — they only gave up more than 25 points twice, and never more than 31 … Joshua Cribbs still dangerous in returns … Play six of first 10 at home … Could have done worse than extra games vs. Buffalo and Indy.

Caution signs: Putting an awful lot of expectations on rookies Wheeden and Richardson … Offensive problems so much deeper than switching QB from Colt McCoy … In large part because their three division mates all made playoffs, they face the fourth toughest schedule in NFL … Specifically: Consecutive road games @BAL, @NYG early in season, and @DEN, @PIT to end campaign.

Who knows: Just about everything. With new ownership, all from president Mike Holmgren on down on the hot seat unless measurable improvements made.

Pittsburgh Steelers

- Average wins, past 5 years: 11

- 2011 record: 12-4

- Record in close games: 4-2

- Avg. loss margin: 13.75 points

- Avg. win margin: 12.75 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 9

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 14

- End of season trend: 6-2

Good vibes: Roethlisberger a singular QB and will go all-out to win … Steelers and WR Mike Wallace have made up … With Wallace, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, passing attack is sound … No team in the NFL limited opponents to under 20 points more often …Terrific safety combo, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark … Ferocious LB James Harrison apparently will be ready for first or second week … Mike Tomlin, head coach who commands respect and maximum intensity and rarely makes a gaffe.

Caution signs: And again it will be said: The defence has a number of 30-somethings … Relatedly, the likes of Harrison and Casey Hampton trying to get back to form after injuries … Touted rookie offensive lineman David DeCastro out several weeks and maybe all season … Re: Wallace, the history of NFL holdout players production-wise not great … Whether from better line play or Ben's instincts, need to lower the sack total … With Rashard Mendenhall nursing knee injury, uncertain if Ike Redman can deliver consistently on the ground.

Who knows: Roethlisberger was disappointed that longtime OC Bruce Arians was fired, his relationship and chemistry with new man Todd Haley will be key in determining Pittsburgh's path, as will relative health of defensive players.

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