NFL Season Preview: AFC/NFC North

The two best overall divisions in 2011 should continue that trend in 2012.

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

Last season, the AFC and NFC north were looking to each have three teams make it into the post season. Howeer, injuries late in the year derailed those hopes for the NFC.  Don't be surprised if the two best conferences in the NFL try and do the same this year.  Both divisions have three outstanding teams with one team wallowing in the basement of the NFL, time will tell if these two divisions remain the most powerful in the NFL.  

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens – Baltimore was so close to making it to the Super Bowl last year and have a great chance to take the next step in search for the franchise's second Lombardi Trophy.  The no huddle offense they showed in the pre-season seemed to work very well for Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith looks like he might be just about ready to become the #1 receiver, and as always the offense begins and ends with running back Ray Rice.  The defense should be good again, but losing defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs won't help their pass rush.  I only put the Ravens at #2 in the conference because their schedule might be the toughest in the league.
Projection: 12-4, 2nd in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals – The whole season rides on the shoulders of 2nd year quarterback Andy Dalton.  Dalton could have another outstanding year, especially with the addition of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but the sophomore slump has claimed victims better than Dalton in the past.  One of the more interesting developments this season will be seeing who emerges as the true #2 opion at receiver opposite of AJ Green, though that #2 option could come in the form of TE Jermaine Gresham.  Cincinnati's defense has been sneaky good the past few years and should be yet again this year.
Projection: 10-6, 3rd in AFC North

Cleveland Browns – Youth dominates the skill positions for the Browns, kind of.  Cleveland will be relying heavily on rookie running back Trent Richardson and 28 year old rookie QB Brandon Weeden, that doesn't bode well for this team this season especially with a lack of targets for Weeden, though there is potential for future greatness.  
Projection: 2-14, 4th in AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh thought they were solidifying their offensive line this off-season, drafting guard David Decastro and Tackle Mike Adams in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, but Adams has been slow to pick up the offense and Decastro will miss most of the season with a knee injury.  That leaves Ben Roethlisberger to once again play behind a makeshift line, and this season without running back Rashard Mendenhall for at least half of the season.  But I never doubt the Steelers and never doubt Roethlisberger's ability to overcome adversity.  The defense remains largely untouched except for a new #2 cornerback and a reshuffled defensive line.  A favorable schedule favors the Steelers this season as well.
Projection: 13-3, 1st in AFC North

NFC North
Chicago Bears – The Bears were on the fast track to the playoffs last year before injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte derailed their season.  I expect Chicago to be back on track this season, especially with a new balanced attack offense and the acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall and the surprise emergence of Alshon Jeffery this pre-season.  The offensive line has struggled during the pre-season so expect more quick passes by Cutler, or added use of extra tight ends to help protect him.  
Projection: 12-4, 3rd in NFC North 

Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford finally showed us what he can do when he stays healthy for an entire season, and Calvin Johnson showed what he can do when Stafford is full time as well.  Other than Johnson, Stafford will have a glut of talented receivers to throw to including Titus Young, Ryan Broyles, and Brandon Pettigrew.  The one spot the Lions have struggled has been at running back.  Jahvid Best will begin the season on the injured list, Kevin Smith is serviceable but injury prone, and Mikel Leshoure is coming off an injury and will be suspended the first two games of the season.  On defense, the Lions are nasty.  Their defensive line has the potential to be the best in the league, but DT Nick Fairley needs to stop committing dumb penalties.  The linebackers are average at best and the secondary lacks depth, but the starters are good enough to make plays.
Projection: 13-3, 2nd in NFC North

Green Bay Packers – The Packers had one of the worst defenses in the league last year.  They had no pass rush and the secondary gave up big yards, though they did wrack up tons of turnovers.  The Pack is hoping that rookies Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy will shore up their front seven, easing some of the pressure off the secondary.  On offense, Aaron Rodgers should once again look like the best quarterback in the league.  All of Rodgers' receiving options will be back this year, including emerging playmaker Randall Cobb.  The running back corps is weak and injury prone, as evident by multiple practices being cut short due to injuries at the running back position.  Luckily, with an offense as potent as Green Bay's, the running back's importance is minimized.
Projection: 14-2, 1st in NFC North

Minnesota Vikings – Minnesota might begin the season without Adrian Peterson and it remains to be seen how much of a factor he is after having major reconstructive knee surgery.  Luckily, the Vikings have a tough bruising backup runner in Toby Gerhardt.  2nd year quarterback Christian Ponder will need the running game to play well and his offensive line to play better than it did last year if he wants to avoid a sophomore slump.  Ponder also needs a viable 2nd receiving option behind his favorite target Percy Harvin.  The Vikings defense is pretty weak outside of all-pro defensive end Jared Allen.
Projection: 4-12, 4th in NFC North

J. Lance Moose is a contributor and lead football writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JLanceMoose, and subscribe on Facebook

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