Fourth of an eight-part series
Overview: The Ravens operated and played like a team capable of winning a Super Bowl. They strengthened their roster in the offseason, with owner Steve Bisciotti signing off on the trade for WR Anquan Boldin as well as the signing of high-priced backup QB Marc Bulger. When the season began, the Ravens proved to be one of the AFC's top clubs. However, the campaign ended in disappointing fashion, with the Steelers overcoming a 14-point deficit to defeat the Ravens in the divisional playoff round. In the aftermath, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron kept his job, but QB coach Jim Zorn was fired.
Team MVP: Opponents knew OLB Terrell Suggs was the Ravens' best pass rusher off the edge, and they still could not stop him from wreaking havoc in the second half of the season. Including the playoffs, Suggs had 12.5 sacks in his final 11 games. He has never been better than he was this season. Honorable mentions go to DT Haloti Ngata, MLB Ray Lewis and RB Ray Rice, all indispensible Ravens in their own right. But Suggs' season was best of all.
Biggest surprise: There was nothing in PK Billy Cundiff's past to suggest he would become one of the NFL's more accurate kickers and its touchback leader in 2010, but he did just that. Cundiff connected on 26-of-29 field goals and all 39 extra-point attempts, and his 40 touchbacks tied an NFL record in seasons in which kickoffs originated from the 30-yard line. After the season, the Ravens rewarded Cundiff with a five-year contract.
Biggest disappointment: Simply put, the Ravens' offense was supposed to be better than this. The Ravens finished 22nd in total yards and had the fifth-worst yards per carry in the NFL. The offense never came up shorter than it did in the divisional playoff round, when it gained just 126 yards on 53 plays and committed three second-half turnovers. The Ravens' inability to muster much of a passing game was especially jarring, and the team once again enters the offseason with major concerns about how it will fare when defenses shut down the run and force QB Joe Flacco and his receivers to beat them.
Offseason outlook: The big questions are whether the Ravens can again be contenders in the AFC and whether the offense can step up and start carrying more of the load. The latter point is no small concern with the defense stout but not the shutdown unit of years past.
Overview: The Bengals' defense of their 2009 AFC North title was a dud. Cincinnati started 2-1 and then proceeded to lose 10 in a row. After the season, head coach Marvin Lewis agreed to a new contract, and the vast majority of the coaching staff was expected to return for 2011 as of this writing. However, the team has a new offensive coordinator, with Jay Gruden replacing Bob Bratkowski. The Bengals also must deal with QB Carson Palmer's unexpected January trade demand, and it's unclear whether WR Chad Ochocinco will be back for the 2011 season.
Team MVP: OLT Andrew Whitworth had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. According to STATS, Whitworth allowed just 2.5 sacks this season — no small feat with the Bengals employing a pass-first attack this past year. Moreover, the Bengals averaged 4.85 yards per carry running off left tackle in 2010. In a lost season for the Bengals, Whitworth was a standout.
Biggest surprise: Rookie DE Carlos Dunlap finished the 2010 season strongly, recording all of his 9.5 sacks in the final eight games. At the least, Dunlap proved he could contribute as a situational pass rusher. Now, the Bengals want him to develop his all-around game. Cincy was pleased with Dunlap's improved practice habits as the 2010 season progressed. Honorable mention: WR Jerome Simpson, who showed little for most of his first three seasons but finished 2010 with a flourish.
Biggest disappointment: On paper, the Bengals had the makings of an above-average offense. In actuality, the attack sputtered. The passing game suffered from a lack of consistency. Palmer threw 20 interceptions, though there was plenty of sentiment that his wide receivers let him down more than a few times. The running game was de-emphasized — and it was the NFL's worst on a yards-per-carry basis. Gruden will be charged with employing a more balanced attack.
Offseason outlook: Gone is much of the optimism that surrounded the team last offseason, when the focus was building on a division title. Only one team finished with fewer wins than the Bengals did in 2010, and few teams leaguewide face as much uncertainty in the offseason until there is a clear resolution of Palmer's status. Owner Mike Brown has said the club will not trade Palmer, but the quarterback's stance is clear — he wants out. Will Palmer soften his stance? If not, what happens next?
Overview: The Browns started the 2010 season slowly, dropping 5-of-6 games. Then, they found their best form, upsetting the Saints and Patriots and giving the Jets all they could handle in a bitter OT loss. Thereafter, though, their progress began to stall. After the Browns dropped their final four games of the season, team president Mike Holmgren fired head coach Eric Mangini and eventually hired Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to replace him. Shurmur will be charged with improving an offense that simply did not pass well enough for Holmgren's liking.
Team MVP: RB Peyton Hillis began the season as a part-time player but quickly became the focal point of the ground game. Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 TDs on 270 carries and added 61 catches for 477 yards and a pair of scores. The 6-1, 240-pound Hillis was stout and athletic and fit the Browns' offensive scheme to a "T." His skill set would also seem to fit the West Coast-style offense Shurmur will employ.
Biggest surprise: This was supposed to be a redshirt year for QB Colt McCoy. He struggled early in the preseason, and he seemed destined to be the No. 3 quarterback. But injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace opened the door for McCoy, and he responded by seizing the starting job. McCoy is an accurate short and intermediate passer with the ability to buy time with his feet. He's the favorite to be the Browns' starter in 2011.
Biggest disappointment: The Browns' poor finish highlighted how far they have to go to compete in the AFC North. Their final three losses were to division-rivals Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, with each defeat progressively worse. With Mangini's job on the line, the Browns simply came up short, underscoring the team's weaknesses, with a lack of scoring punch and a defense that just couldn't get quite enough stops being the biggest concerns.
Offseason outlook: The hiring of Shurmur signals major changes for the Browns' offense. With the wide receivers likely to be bigger parts of the offense in Shurmur's scheme, adding talent at wideout figures to be a priority. The Browns are also undergoing some significant change on defense, with new coordinator Dick Jauron expected to employ a 4-3 scheme. With Cleveland having employed the 3-4 the previous six seasons, the Browns face the challenge of tailoring their talent to a new system.
Overview: A season that began with some of the lowest expectations that had been placed on a Steelers team in some time ended with Pittsburgh reaching its eighth Super Bowl in franchise history, which it lost to Green Bay 31-25. The Steelers overcame QB Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension at the start of the season with outstanding defense and a robust running game and hit their stride late in the year, tipping the Ravens in the divisional round and holding off the Jets to capture the AFC title. With three Super Bowl appearances in six years, the Steelers are in the midst of the second-most successful stretch in franchise history.
Team MVP: When SS Troy Polamalu is at full strength, he may be the premier defensive playmaker in the game, a force near the line of scrimmage and in coverage, too. Polamalu helped the Steelers get off to a 2-0 start with a key interception in both Weeks One and Two, made the biggest play of the regular season when he forced QB Joe Flacco to fumble in the Week 13 win at Baltimore and sparked Pittsburgh's comeback win vs. Cincinnati in Week 14 with an interception return for a touchdown.
Biggest surprise: Rookie C Maurkice Pouncey was expected to be good, but Pro Bowl-caliber as a rookie? That was a major boost for a Steelers line that lost ORT Willie Colon and OLT Max Starks to injuries. Pouncey already ranks among the AFC's better centers and has an exceptionally bright future. He looks to be the latest in a long line of very good first-round picks made by director of football operations Kevin Colbert.
Biggest disappointment: There weren't many disappointments for the Steelers this season, but they did struggle against the pass in losses to the Saints, Patriots and Packers. Also, the offensive line's pass protection was lacking at times. The offense is very much dependent on Roethlisberger's mobility, toughness and arm strength, and he is too often forced to create under duress.
Offseason outlook: There is little reason to believe the Steelers can't again be contenders in 2011. Keeping star LOLB LaMarr Woodley, whose contract expires, should be a priority. So should bolstering the offensive line, with more options needed at tackle. Adding more youth to the defensive line is also a must. However, the Steelers have meshed youth and experience well and could be positioned to succeed for several more seasons.
Tuesday: NFC East team reports