NFC North was anything but normal last year. It's up for grabs in 2010. Once again Pittsburgh begins with a big question mark. This time it surrounds problem plagued QB Ben Roethlisberger and how Pittsburgh will survive his suspension. Was Cincinnati's '09 success for real? Can they repeat as North champs? Baltimore beefed up in a big way and now has the tools to become a major NFL force. Cleveland's Eric Mangini wasn't as effective as team owners would have liked in '09. He could be the first coach firing of 2010.
1) Baltimore Ravens Not many roster spots are safe. If Coach Harbaugh plays his cards correctly then training camp will be very spirited as players fight to make Baltimore's opening day roster. Roster weaknesses have been addressed. Ravens offense has an air of intrigue with a sound running game and, for the first time in a long while, gifted game breaking wide receivers. Coupled with one of NFL's stingiest defenses means Baltimore will be tough to beat. I don't see them losing often as they run away with the North. 9-7 will jump to no less than 11-5. Baltimore Ravens are ready.
2) Cincinnati Bengals Taking advantage of others misfortunes led to Cincinnati winning their first division title since 1990. Six games were won by 7 points or less. Bengals fans shouldn't expect more of the same in '10. Management made a monumental mistake with their first draft pick taking a TE. Rebounded nicely in 2nd (Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida) and 3rd rounds (Jordan Shipley, WR, Texas). Offense didn't click last year but it was clutch when games were on the line. A handful of WR's will battle for a job in preseason. Benson carried the load last year and Bengals hope there's plenty left in his tank. Defense ranked in top 10 of most major categories. Expectations will be high. Reality is closer to 8-8 or 7-9. Bengals had more luck than skill in '09.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers Roethlisberger's antics earned him a 6 week NFL suspension. Champions suck it up when leaders fall. Pittsburgh's defense will have to set up great field position for a weak offense. Offensive coordinators must devise a plan to score with limited talent. Steelers do not have an answer at QB. All offensive lineman need to put up career years creating lanes for a weak running game under attack from opposing defenses keying on the run. Questions have already surfaced questioning coach Tomlin's commitment to keeping this squad under control. False questions for a head coach one season removed from winning the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, 2010 can easily turn ugly early and often.
4) Cleveland Browns Browns fans suffered through a miserable display in '09. Cleveland was 1-11 after 12 games before giving fans a reason for optimism in 2010 by winning their final 4. False hope considering combined records for 3 of those teams were 16-32. Mangini is not the right coach for a rebuilding team even though he has a vote of confidence from front office officials. Another dismal beginning will be Mangini's last stint as NFL head coach. This team completely blew their draft. Huge question marks at nearly every position beginning with opening day QB, RB, WR. Browns should enjoy their current 0-0 record. At least they're tied for 1st.