10 Burning Questions: AFC North

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Joe Flacco

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY 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.

Sam Spiegelman is a native New Yorker covering sports in New Orleans. He likes Game of Thrones way too much. Tweet him @samspiegs.
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