AFC North preview

Quarterback Joe Flacco passed for 642 more yards and seven more touchdowns in ‘09, his second season starting, than in ‘08, turning the Ravens’ offense into a feared unit capable of carrying the team. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

1. Baltimore

Last season, the Ravens proved they could win games with their offense as much as with the vaunted defense that has long been a staple of Baltimore teams.

With one of the league’s top running backs in Ray Rice (1,339 yards, seven touchdowns in ’09) and fullback Le’Ron McClain, the Ravens enter the season with a solid ground attack. The addition of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh provides quarterback Joe Flacco with even more firepower. Boldin, acquired from the Cardinals in the offseason, has surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in five of his seven seasons and should open things up for Derrick Mason on the opposite side.

The improvements on offense complement a third-ranked defense. Despite safety Ed Reed missing the early part of the season, Baltimore remains one of the league’s top units with linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs.

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2. Cincinnati

The Bengals last season leaned on a much-improved defense and a rushing attack led by RB Cedric Benson (1,251 yards, six touchdowns) to win the division.

What the Bengals were missing, however, was a consistent passing attack, despite the presence of stars Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. The unit should be improved after the addition of WR Terrell Owens and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham, who looked effective in the preseason.

The Bengals defense should again be among the league’s top units. Adam “Pacman” Jones will bolster the secondary, along with the return of a healthy Roy Williams.

The linebacking corps, which includes talented young starters Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers, is anchored by middle linebacker Dhani Jones (113 tackles, 3.5 sacks in ’09). Defensive end Antwan Odom returns from an Achilles’ injury.

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3. Pittsburgh

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the early portion of the season, the Steelers defense will be charged with keeping Pittsburgh in contention until his return.

The unit was ranked fifth last season, led by a stingy run defense that allowed just 89.9 yards per game. Safety Troy Polamalu returns after playing in just five games last season because of a left knee injury. He will bolster the unit led by Pro Bowl linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, safety Ryan Clark and Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton.

The offense will be without wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the New York Jets. Second-year receiver Mike Wallace must emerge opposite Hines Ward to make up for the loss. Running back Rashard Mendenhall (1,108 yards, seven touchdowns in ’09) will also feature heavily. The play of an offensive line that gave up 50 sacks last season will be crucial.

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4. Cleveland

Another difficult season is likely for the Browns, though under new leadership it could be the first step of a rebuilding process that eventually might pay off.

The strength of the team no doubt rests in the offensive line, where tackle Joe Thomas anchors a talented group.

But veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme struggled mightily in Carolina last season, the leading receiver was Mohamed Massaquoi (624 yards, three touchdowns), and though Josh Cribbs is one of the league’s top special teams playmakers, his effectiveness in an expanded role on offense is unknown.

Running back Jerome Harrison flashed potential but struggled with fumbles in the preseason.

The defense ranked 31st in the league last season and though linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is back, numerous questions remain.

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