1. Baltimore RAVENS
2011 RECORD: 12–4
The defending AFC North champions have averaged 11 wins per year over the past four seasons but one big question remains: Can QB Joe Flacco blossom into a franchise player? Flacco didn't play poorly last season (3,610 yards, 20 TDs) — he just wasn't the star player that the Ravens needed him to be. To take the next step, the strong-armed Flacco must make big plays downfield to complement RB Ray Rice (1,364 yards, second in the NFL). Baltimore's defense gave up just 288.9 yards per game last season, third-fewest in the NFL. But LB Terrell Suggs (AFC-leading 14 sacks), the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, may miss the season with a right Achilles tendon injury. At least 37-year-old LB Ray Lewis (95 tackles) and 34-year-old S Ed Reed (52 tackles, three interceptions) still have some gas left in the tank.
BOTTOM LINE: For Baltimore to make a deep postseason run, Flacco must step up his game.
[Photo Gallery: Hardest Working Players in the NFL]
2. Pittsburgh STEELERS
2011 RECORD: 12–4
By the Steelers' standards, 2011 was a down year. Pittsburgh lost twice to rival Baltimore and was upset by Denver in the playoffs. The biggest issue was a battered offensive line, so Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks on G David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams. QB Ben Roethlisberger (4,077 passing yards) and WR Antonio Brown (1,108 yards) will carry the offense. The defense is still dominant. LBs LaMarr Woodley (nine sacks), James Harrison (nine sacks), and S Troy Polamalu (91 tackles) are game changers.
BOTTOM LINE: If the offensive line can protect Roethlisberger, the Steelers could overtake the Ravens.
3. Cincinnati BENGALS
2011 RECORD: 9–7
The Bengals' first two draft picks in 2011 turned into gems that could anchor the franchise for the next decade. WR A.J. Green (1,057 yards, seven TDs) and QB Andy Dalton (3,398 yards, 20 TDs) are looking to build on fantastic rookie seasons. RB Cedric Benson will be replaced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis (11 TDs, second in the AFC). The Bengals' defense has a lot of bite. Led by S Reggie Nelson, it ranked in the top 10 in fewest points (20.2) and yards (316.2) allowed.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bengals are too inexperienced to challenge the Ravens and Steelers for the division crown, but they have a good shot at making the playoffs again.
[Photo Gallery: Gutsiest Offseason NFL Decisions]
4. Cleveland BROWNS
2011 RECORD: 4–12
Cleveland is hoping its rookies can follow the success of the Bengals' young guys from a season ago. Rookie RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden will try to turn around an offense that was awful last year (13.6 points per game). Weeden will push Colt McCoy (2,733 passing yards) for the starting QB job, while Richardson will take over for Peyton Hillis in the backfield. The defense is in good shape, especially the secondary. Led by CBs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, the D gave up just 184.9 passing yards per game, second in the NFL.
BOTTOM LINE: If the rookies can jump-start the offense, Cleveland could win seven games.