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The AFC North is full of flawed teams

Last year, the AFC North was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The year before that, it was the Cincinnati Bengals reigning supreme. In 2012, the Baltimore Ravens were able to find the crown resting atop their collective heads. In other words, this is not the AFC East of NFC North, where you can all but pencil in the division winner at this point in the National Football League season.

Heading into the 2015 season, the AFC North is completely up for grabs once again. It is likely going to be a three-horse race, with the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers all going after the prize. While the Cleveland Browns also reside in the division, it is tough – if not impossible – to see a team led by Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel winning the North.

This division will be taken by the team that can overcome its flaws. There are no great teams in this group, but a trio of squads with ample talent yet potentially fatal problems.

So who is the favorite? According to BOVADA, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the co-favorites at +170 with Cincinnati checking in at +250. Cleveland is the upset special at +1200.

In Cincinnati, the finger of blame is always squarely pointed at quarterback Andy Dalton and rightfully so. Last year, Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns along with 17 interceptions. For the fourth time in as many seasons, Dalton led the Bengals into the playoffs. And for the fourth time in as many seasons, Cincinnati was bounced out in the AFC Wild Card game, this time by the Indianapolis Colts.

Dalton needs to become more than a mediocre game manager. Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs is also given this moniker, but he does it proud by avoiding interceptions and playing big in the postseason. Dalton has played four playoff games in his career and has never eclipsed a 67.0 rating in any of them with one touchdown and six interceptions.

Over in Baltimore, the questions are swirling around the offense. Joe Flacco has always been the complete opposite of Dalton; great in the playoffs, middling in the regular season. Flacco did enjoy his best regular season under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak last year, tossing career-highs in yardage (3,986) and touchdowns (27). However, Kubiak is gone and so is receiver Torrey Smith, who left for the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.

Baltimore is also waiting on rookie receiver Breshad Perriman to return from a mysterious knee injury, and Dennis Pitta from a hip ailment. Without them, the Ravens have an offense that is relying heavily on a 36-year-old receiver in Steve Smith and running back Justin Forsett, who was a cast-off his entire career until breaking out in 2014.

Finally, the Steelers are a team in name only. The offensive attack should be prolific, but the defense is downright horrible. Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons in Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown and Zach Miller, although Bell (2 games) and Bryant (4 games) will begin the season suspended. In addition, Pittsburgh will be without All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey for at least two months after breaking his ankle in the preseason.

The Steelers must put up around 30 points per game to have any hope. The defense is under a new coordinator in Keith Butler, who is employing a Cover 2 scheme. Thus far in preseason, the defense has been brutally torched, with the Buffalo Bills putting up 43 points on Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh has little talent on defense and the execution has been rancid. It’s up to Roethlisberger and Co. to get the job done.

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