NFL 2011

AFC Preview

Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh needs to do a better job protecting Ben Roethlisberger this season (Getty Images)

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

After winning the 2008 Super Bowl, the Steelers finished the following season with a 9-7 record. After reaching, but losing, the Super Bowl last season, Pittsburgh will try to avoid another hangover.

A major question is how many more hits quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can endure. Pittsburgh's offensive line allowed its quarterbacks to be sacked 43 times in 2010 even as it did a superb job opening holes for running back Rashard Mendenhall, who recorded a breakout season in 2010 with career highs of 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Pittsburgh's defense — which ranked No.?1 last season in stopping the run— recorded the second-most sacks last season (56) behind the Green Bay Packers. Linebacker James Harrison helped lead that charge, recording 10 sacks and earning more than $100,000 in fines for his ferocious style of play.

2. Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens look to take advantage of the NFL's second easiest schedule en route to what they hope will be an appearance in the Super Bowl.

The Ravens still have all the tools on a defense that is, however, aging. Linebacker and team leader Ray Lewis is entering his 16th season. Veteran safety Ed Reed is still roaming the secondary and Terrell Suggs (11 sacks) still excels rushing the passer. The Ravens defense finished fifth in stopping the run last season, allowing 93.9 rushing yards per game. The secondary could improve after giving up 224.9 passing yards per game.

On offense, the Ravens brought in fullback Vonta Leach to help block for Ray Rice, who led the Ravens with 1,220 rushing yards last season, and newly signed Ricky Williams. It's time for Joe Flacco to show he can be one of the league's top quarterbacks. He passed for 3,662 yards last season, with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Ravens recently added wide receiver Lee Evans to give Flacco a deep threat.

Flacco receives his first test of the season on Sept. 11, when Baltimore hosts Pittsburgh to open the season.

3. Cleveland Browns

At this time last year, few people had heard of the NFL's other Peyton. But Hillis emerged as one of the league's top running backs and graces the cover the Madden ‘12 video game.

Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, catching 61 passes for 477 yards in a career year for the Browns. While Cleveland will build on their running back's contributions, don't expect the Browns to make much progress in this division. Now that the fourth-year running back from Arkansas has defenses' attention, his production may decrease this season even if he manages to stay healthy.

Quarterback Colt McCoy, enters his second season after throwing for 1,576 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions as a rookie. McCoy and Hillis try to improve an offense that finished second to last in points per game last season (16.9)

An easy start to the regular season schedule will help the Browns adjust back to the 4-3 defense.

4. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals could be among the league's worst teams after a turbulent offseason. Quarterback Carson Palmer did not report to camp, saying he is retiring, after the Bengals refused to meet his trade demand. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco joined the Patriots and injured wideout Terrell Owens became a free agent. The Bengals will rely on second-round draft pick Andy Dalton to quarterback the team.

The rebuilding Bengals mustered 10 points in their first two preseason games before scoring 24 against an equally challenged Carolina Panthers team. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham will be Dalton's top targets.

The defense and an easy non-divisional schedule should help buy some time as Dalton matures.

By Shemar Woods - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 30, 2011.