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10 burning questions: AFC North



BY SAM SPIEGELMAN
XN Sports

An AFC North team has won the Super Bowl twice in the past six years, yet a different team has captured the division title four of the past five seasons.

Both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers look to build off of disappointing .500 campaigns, and the Cleveland Manziels - ehh, the Cleveland Browns - look to surprise behind their third coach in as many years.

Here are the top 10 burning questions for the AFC North in 2014:

1. Should Cincinnati be considered the favorite to win the division?

It wasn't so much that Cincinnati lost many players in the offseason, but did lose both its coordinators. Jay Gruden is now with the Redskins and Mike Zimmer is coaching the Vikings. You cannot underrate the job either one of those guys did, not to mention the fact that Pittsburgh and Baltimore are not going to be content being .500 teams.

2. Can Joe Flacco bounce back under Gary Kubiak?

All indications out of Baltimore are that Flacco is thriving in Kubiak's offense, one that is expected to revive the running game which was a non-factor a season ago. Flacco got paid after winning the Super Bowl; it's time he earned his money.

3. When will Johnny Manziel take over as the Browns' starter?

Depending on how far along Manziel is at the start of the season, would an 0-3 start force Mike Pettine to play his rookie quarterback? What about when the Browns are 2-7 after Week 10? By that time, the Browns have a home game against Houston, a perfect first game before the team reaches the easy part of their schedule.

4. Can the Steelers' D round back into shape?

Linebackers are the heart of the Steelers defense, and what a young, talented collection of players they have manning the middle in 2014, including rookie Ryan Shazier. The team upgraded its secondary with Mike Mitchell, and found depth along the D-line with Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers.

5. Will Andy Dalton take a step forward in Hue Jackson's offense?

Jackson engineered the Raiders offense to its best offensive season in a decade. Now he has A.J. Green and Gio Bernard to work with. Somehow, someway, I believe if anyone can help Dalton take a step forward, it's Jackson.

6. What will be Ray Rice's role, assuming he is suspended?

Rice will likely earn a suspension, and I worry that backup Bernard Pierce has younger legs and is more hungry for a starting opportunity. If Pierce does indeed impress, it could spell the end of the Rice era.

7. How good can the Browns defense be?

The Browns have five former first-round picks on this year's defense, plus a defensive-minded head coach calling the shots. Pettine is a Rex Ryan disciple with quality players - the Browns should be legit.

8. Which wide receiver will step up to replace Emmanuel Sanders?

Markus Wheaton, Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant are in competition to be the No. 2 wide receiver, with Antonio Brown on the opposite side and Lance Moore in the slot. Wheaton received a lot of hype after the 2013 draft, and may be ready to contribute at this point.

9. Will Geno Atkins return to form following his injury?

Arguably the best defensive tackle in the league, Atkins' absence from the Bengals was felt in a major way in 2013. Interestingly enough, Atkins' medical status is still up in the air right now. Reports suggest he should participate in training camp, but is not a lock for Week 1. If history dictates anything, it'll be not to rush Atkins back.

10. Which defense will finish as the best in this division?

From top to bottom, I can see all four AFC North defenses finishing in the top half of the league. I lean toward the Ravens, though, because they're so stout in each level. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better nose tackle than Haloti Ngata; CJ Mosley should make an immediate impact in both run and pass defense; and Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith are one of the NFL's best cornerback tandems. I'd bet on this unit to be top five.

RELATED LINKS

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For more sports coverage, please visit XNSports.com

Join the discussion

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onionson July 08 2014 at 1:43 PM

How quickly will Manziel become the starter? Who cares, I'm already sick and tired of that stupid Aggie. We give A&M much ribbing but they are a fine institution. This boy does much to discredit them.

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Jay July 09 2014 at 12:25 AM

I have the feeling that this guy is going to go from being Johnny Football to Johnny Jackass in about one NFL game.

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major.lackland July 09 2014 at 12:13 AM

With a face like that, we're just glad he has teeth.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
run4est79fxe July 08 2014 at 3:17 PM

THAT'S ONE UGLY BOY. I GUESS HE WILL BE THE NEXT ONE TO HOLLER CONCUSSION.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
saultydog42 run4est79fxe July 08 2014 at 11:33 PM

The way he acts, he already has one

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Jeanne July 09 2014 at 1:39 AM

Sad thing about Manziel.... not only is he a stupid punk, he's ugly. I guess you can't have everything.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
CPoho July 09 2014 at 1:59 AM

Never have been able to stand this arragant, obnoxious, rich little punk kid. He's already proven an embarrassment to the team with his antics and already causing the team leaders to try to get him to cool it. He thinks his money can buy his way out of anything. Partying with some bad boys, including Bieber. What in the world do the two have in common other than bad behavior and money? I guess next his name will be in lights as Johnny Football, the singing/dancing quarterback. Can just hear the sighs of relief from other teams - - "thank God he's not our problem".

Flag Reply +1 rate up
honorabram July 09 2014 at 2:11 AM

ROFLMAO, you guys are asking how soon Johnny Football will start? With all his party mindset, hell's bells, how soon will this little never take a snap pass an NFL UA??? Put that in Johnny Football's crack pipe or Hookah or bong and smoke it over, huh?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
geeszabs July 09 2014 at 4:27 AM

THIS IS ONE SORRY EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING...............I CANT WAIT TILL THE JOURNEY MEN OF THE DEFENSIVE LINES BURY HIS PUNK ASS AND THEY CARRY HIM OFF THE FIELD.........THEN HE CAN TALK INTO HIS MONEY PHONE TO MAKE A RESERVATION AT THE HOSPITAL.......I REALLY DISLIKE THIS KID ALREADY...........

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Van July 08 2014 at 4:13 PM

Odds are Manziel will be another Tim Tebow. Two or three years and gone.

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1 reply
ga7smi Van July 09 2014 at 1:31 AM

hopefully

Flag Reply 0 rate up
nicytomydia34 July 08 2014 at 3:32 PM

I hope never

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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