Linebacker Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens were a game away from the Super Bowl last season. The Steelers and Bengals made the playoffs as well. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)



Defense continues to be the calling card for the Ravens. They finished third overall last season in total defense and second only to the San Francisco 49ers in run defense, allowing fewer than 93 yards per game.

Linebacker Ray Lewis is 37 but has gone to six consecutive Pro Bowls. Safety Ed Reed, meantime, will be 34 on Sept. 11 but is coming off playing an entire season for the first time since 2008.

The defense won’t have to do it all if quarterback Joe Flacco responds favorably to having more responsibility. Second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith has game-changing speed, and running back Ray Rice is as effective taking handoffs or catching out of the backfield.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama, Rd. 2



Wide receiver Mike Wallace’s prolonged holdout was a distraction during training camp, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has other options in the passing game, including Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

Roethlisberger said in camp he is nursing a rotator cuff injury, so that bears watching during the regular season.

He also sprained his left ankle early in camp. It’s the same ankle that bothered Roethlisberger last season.

Despite any issues with the offense, the Steelers almost always can count on defense to keep them competitive. Pittsburgh finished first in total defense and No. 1 against the pass last season.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Sean Spence, LB, Miami, Rd. 3



Quarterback Andy Dalton developed quickly as a rookie with an assist from rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, who had 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns.

A new addition to the offense is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He takes over for Cedric Benson after spending four seasons with the New England Patriots in a running back-by-committee rotation.

The Bengals ranked seventh in total defense on the way to a 9-7 record that earned them the final playoff spot in the AFC. The team still has a ways to go though before challenging for a division title.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama, Rd. 1



Just when the franchise was hopeful after drafting running back Trent Richardson at No. 3 overall, the former Alabama standout had surgery on his left knee in the preseason.

Coach Pat Shurmur has indicated Richardson will be ready for the season opener, and the Browns need all the help they can get offensively. Only the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams scored fewer points than Cleveland (13.6) last season.

Another rookie the Browns are counting on is 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden. The 22nd overall pick was named the starter over Colt McCoy, who was selected in the third round in 2010.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama, Rd. 1

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