AFC NORTH PREVIEW: NFL's toughest division has big changes, challenges ahead
CINCINNATI — Anytime there's a debate about the NFL's toughest division, teams in the AFC North are quick to point out the playoff appearances.
Yep. Nobody can top them.
The AFC North has sent more teams to the playoffs than any other division in the last seven years — 15 in all. Last season, the Steelers won the division at 11-5, and Cincinnati (10-5-1) and Baltimore (10-6) got wild cards.
And that's pretty much the norm.
During the last seven years, the North has sent at least two teams to the playoffs six times. It got three teams into the postseason in 2011 and again last season. For overall excellence, it's tough to argue with those figures.
"You see the difference when we play other teams in other divisions," Bengals receiver Marvin Jones said. "It's definitely not as hard as our division and the games we play. When you play outside our division, you see how much easier it is to have some success."
There are some notable changes this time around, especially in Pittsburgh, where defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and safety Troy Polamalu are gone, and Michael Vick is in town as a backup quarterback.
AROUND THE DIVISION
Another three-peat?: The division got three teams into the playoffs last season in part because of the scheduling rotation. It played the NFC South, which was one of the worst divisions in NFL history; no team had a winning record. It also got to play the AFC South with Jacksonville (3-13) and Tennessee (2-14).
The North went 12-3-1 against the NFC South and 10-6 against the AFC South. This year, it plays the West divisions, meaning it will be tougher to get enough wins to qualify as a wild card.
Ravens reload: Baltimore was the only AFC North team to win a playoff game last season, beating the Steelers before blowing a 14-point lead and losing to eventual Super Bowl champion New England. The Ravens set franchise records for points and yards last season. Receiver Steve Smith, playing his final season, is Joe Flacco's top target with Torrey Smith gone to San Francisco. There's no Ray Rice controversy hanging over the team this year.
"Overall, I think we've got a lot to build off of and a lot to feel good about," Flacco said.
Curtains for the Steelers' defense: LeBeau, Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and end Brett Keisel are gone from a defense that slipped last season. The offense finished No. 2 in the league and should be one of its best again, even with center Maurkice Pouncey sidelined by a broken ankle. Vick was brought in as Ben Roethlisberger's backup after Bruce Gradkowski suffered a hand injury. Receiver Antonio Brown is an All-Pro.
But in Pittsburgh, it always comes down to defense, and this one has a lot to prove.
After the defense struggled during a preseason loss to Buffalo, coach Mike Tomlin said: "We continue to be slow starters and that's disturbing. Some of those guys, quite frankly, look like the walking dead."
Get back to the Bengals at playoff time: No other team has its reputation tied to one game as much as Cincinnati. The Bengals have reached the playoffs each of the last four seasons and lost the opening game each time. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. They've invested a lot of money in keeping the team intact during that four-year run, but many contracts are up after this season, making it one of those crossroads moments.
"It's been four years in a row and I think if it doesn't happen this year, then it's probably never going to happen," running back Jeremy Hill said. "Getting to the playoffs every year, that's cool and all, but we want to get to the next level. I think it's now or never."
Annual question — who is the Cleveland QB?: The Browns' failed quest for a long-term quarterback turned to Johnny Manziel last year, and he struggled as a rookie and went into a rehab program. A sore elbow limited him during training camp, leaving his status uncertain. Josh McCown is the starter, but he's a short-term fix. Cleveland has gone 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 4-12, 5-11, 4-12 and 7-9 the last seven seasons with more change than success. Owner Jimmy Haslam has had three head coaches and general managers since taking over the team in 2012, but he now says it's time to stay the course for a while.
"We're not going to blow things up, OK?" Haslam said during training camp. "I think we are on the right track and not blow things up."
Projected order of finish: Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns.