The New England Patriots and New York Giants were projected to emerge from the rubble in the AFRO’s NFL Eastern divisions analysis last week. This week, the spotlight will be pointed on the NFL Northern divisions. The AFC and NFC North share a lot in common: they’re both equipped with strong-armed quarterbacks, dynamic running backs and strong defenses. They also share a quartet of teams that many have slated for deep playoff runs: the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. But there can only be two favorites. The AFRO looks into it…

AFC North

On paper, this might be the most competitive division in the league. A stylish draft helped the Baltimore Ravens end April as Super Bowl favorites, and the Cincinnati Bengals’ latest addition, Terrell Owens, has the team talking title now. The Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four to six weeks, but many of the key pieces that helped land a Super Bowl trophy two seasons ago remain intact. The Cleveland Browns have been the annual doormat of the division for most of the decade but the last few weeks of the 2009 season saw them play all three division rivals close, even upsetting the Steelers last December.

But the Browns won’t be in the sentence for AFC North favorites. That line is reserved in a battle between Baltimore and the Bengals. Cincinnati swept the Ravens last season and ran to a 9-3 start before losing four of their final five games, including a home playoff loss against the New York Jets. Even with an appearance in the second round of the playoffs, many looked at Baltimore’s 9-7 season last year as a disappointment. The team had finished just one quarter shy of the Super Bowl two seasons ago but failed to play with the same kind of consistency through the regular season last year. But despite their ups and downs, Baltimore’s pair of 2008 draft picks, quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, emerged as budding superstars last year.

Both Flacco and Rice shared breakthrough seasons as the Ravens shifted from a team defined by its defense to a club now equipped with an attractive and powerful offense. The team might be forced to lean on the development of the two third-year players as injuries in Baltimore’s defensive secondary could pose as potential problems. The Bengals gave every team in the division all kinds of problems last year and will return several players from injury along with added upgrades to a receiving corps and hopefully a peace of mind.

Cincinnati was blindsided by the early season death of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s wife and the late season death of receiver Chris Henry that eventually took its emotional toll on the team. With a clean slate and talented upgrades, Cincinnati has a shot at fighting off the Ravens and Steelers to win the AFC North for a consecutive season.

NFC North

Like last season, this division hinges on two words from Minnesota Vikings legendary quarterback Brett Favre: I do. Recent reports about Favre’s health and possible retirement have the Vikings behind the eight ball. If he retires, you can just about remove Minnesota from the top of any Super Bowl favorites list. You’ll also be able to willingly scratch the Vikings off any NFC North favorite list as well. Not to say that Minnesota won’t be competitive next season, but the division will immediately look to last year’s runner ups, the Green Bay Packers, as consensus favorites.

Only two teams scored more points than the Packers last season—the Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints and the Favre-led Vikings. Green Bay will return rising superstar Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and a defense that finished second in the league before collapsing down the stretch after a string of devastating injuries.

With Favre possibly out of the way, the Chicago Bears also have a shot at challenging in the North but question marks at wide receiver, the offensive line and secondary may limit their chances. The Detroit Lions round out the divisional quartet but last year’s 2-14 finish puts them light years behind the rest of an established pack.

If Favre does indeed return, the Packers will have some stiff competition. Minnesota swept Green Bay in both meetings last season. Even without Favre, the Vikings still have arguably the league’s top running back in Adrian Peterson and a defense that led the NFL in sacks last season with 48. But if it’s no Favre, it may be a no go for Minnesota. His return is indeed possible but until he decides his future, it’s Green Bay who has the best quarterback-defensive combination in the division, which could guide them to an NFC North title.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO