10 burning questions: AFC North
CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 05: Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates a first half touchdown during AFC Wild Card playoff game against the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium on January 5, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Chargers defeated the Bengals 27-10. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 3: Darqueze Dennard #21 of the Cincinnati Bengals in action during an organized team activity (OTA) workout at Paul Brown Stadium on June 3, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 3: AJ McCarron #5 of the Cincinnati Bengals in action during an organized team activity (OTA) workout at Paul Brown Stadium on June 3, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 3: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass during an organized team activity (OTA) workout at Paul Brown Stadium on June 3, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 05: Quarterback Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals passes against the San Diego Chargers during a Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 5, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) catches a pass during an NFL football organized team activity, Monday, June 16, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill runs the ball during an NFL football organized team activity, Monday, June 16, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco throws a pass during an NFL football organized team activity, Thursday, May 29, 2014, at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco throws a pass during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco throws during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Cleveland Browns rookie Johnny Manziel greets fans as he leaves the 2014 NFL Rookie Symposium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Saturday, June 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel throws a pass during an NFL football Play 60 youth event at the Cleveland Browns practice facility Friday, June 27, 2014, in Berea, Ohio. The AFC rookies took part in the NFL's annual Rookie Symposium. (AP Photo/Aaron Josefczyk)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel passes during a mandatory minicamp practice at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
JUNE 10, 2014 - BEREA, OH: Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during a mandatory minicamp practice at the Cleveland Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio on June 10, 2014. (Photo by: Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08: Ryan Shazier of the Ohio State Buckeyes poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was picked #15 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce (30) runs during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce is wrapped up by Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, right, during the first half of a NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush (21) is stopped by Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, middle and defensive end Michael Johnson, right, in the first quarter of an NFL football game against Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, left, fights off a block by defensive end Wallace Gilberry during practice at the NFL football team's training camp, Monday, July 29, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2012, file photo, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) is pursued by Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins during the second half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati. Atkins gets a lot of attention every time an opponent watches film trying to figure out how to contain the Bengals defensive tackle. His first selection as a Pro Bowl starter shows what they think of him. (AP Photo/Michael Keating, File)
BY SAM SPIEGELMAN
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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