This is the sixth in an eight-part series previewing all 32 NFL teams ahead of training camp, which begins this month.
The AFC North had the most possible teams qualify for the playoffs last year.
The AFC North also played a collection of teams that makes the University of Miami’s nonconference schedule look menacing.
Once the playoffs arrived, we learned the truth: the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens were good but not great. None made it to the conference championship round. And only one — the Ravens — survived Wild Card Weekend … and that’s because they played the Steelers in the first round.
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This year should be different. Instead of the lowly NFC and AFC South, their nondivision opponents include teams from the AFC and NFC West. Last year, none of the four AFC North teams had a strength of schedule that ranked in the top 20.
This year, the Steelers have the league’s toughest schedule, the Bengals rank second, the Browns ninth and the Ravens 11th.
▪ 2014 record: 10-6 (third in AFC North).
▪ Coach: John Harbaugh (eighth season).
▪ Training camp report date: Rookies reported July 22, veterans report Wednesday (Under Armour Performance Center; Owings Mills, Maryland).
▪ Major additions: CB Kyle Arrington, S Kendrick Lewis, WR Breshad Perriman.
▪ Key losses: DT Haloti Ngata, DE Pernell McPhee, WR Torrey Smith.
▪ Outlook: In Baltimore, the mantra is “In Ozzie We Trust.” And for good reason. Now in his 20th season running the Ravens’ personnel department, Ozzie Newsome has built two Super Bowl champions and eight other playoff qualifiers. The Ravens were one defensive stop from the AFC title game last season. And yet, even the truest believer might have a crisis of faith this offseason. All those years of winning made for a tight salary cap situation, causing the Ravens to jettison marquee players like Haloti Ngata and Torrey Smith. More than ever, quarterback Joe Flacco will have to carry the load this fall.
▪ 2014 record: 10-5-1 (second in AFC North).
▪ Coach: Marvin Lewis (13th season).
▪ Training camp report date: Rookies report Monday, veterans on Thursday (Paul Brown Stadium; Cincinnati).
▪ Major additions: DE Michael Johnson, LB A.J. Hawk, DT Pat Sims.
▪ Key losses: TE Jermaine Gresham, OT Marshall Newhouse, CB Terence Newman.
▪ Outlook: Cincinnati might make some great chili, but it’s not exactly a destination city for top free agents. That’s just fine with the Bengals, who have instead thrived by drafting, developing and then re-signing their own. That was the case again this offseason, with guard Clint Boling and linebacker Rey Maualuga re-upping with the team. But there might be limitations to that strategy. Marvin Lewis is winless in six career playoff games, and there’s widespread fan dissatisfaction with Andy Dalton, who was booed at a recent celebrity softball game. Dalton is 0-4 in the postseason with a passer rating of 57.8.
▪ 2014 record: 7-9 (fourth in AFC North).
▪ Coach: Mike Pettine (second season).
▪ Training camp report date: Rookies reported on July 22, veterans report Thursday (Cleveland Browns Training Complex; Berea, Ohio).
▪ Major additions: WR Brian Hartline, QB Josh McCown, DT Randy Starks.
▪ Key losses: TE Jordan Cameron, QB Brian Hoyer, DE Jabaal Sheard.
▪ Outlook: What’s the best way to snap a 12-year playoff drought? Bring in two of the most disgruntled members of a Dolphins team that underachieved last year, of course! Brian Hartline and Randy Starks were cap casualties in Miami but get a fresh start in Cleveland. The Browns actually won seven of their first 11 games last year before losing their last five. The averaged just 11.4 points in those final five weeks, a big reason Brian Hoyer is out and Josh McCown is in. As for Johnny Manziel, he’s well on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of Browns draft busts.
▪ 2014 record: 11-5 (first in AFC North).
▪ Coach: Mike Tomlin (ninth season).
▪ Training camp report date: Reported July 25 (Saint Vincent College; Latrobe, Pennsylvania).
▪ Major additions: LB Bud Dupree, RB DeAngelo Williams.
▪ Key losses: LB Jason Worilds, S Troy Polamalu, CB Brice McCain.
▪ Outlook: An era ended in April with the retirement of Troy Polamalu, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better for Steelers fans. Their core is old. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned 33 this offseason. Linebacker James Harrison is 37. Safety Will Allen is going into his 12th season. Tight end Heath Miller will be in his 11th. The Steelers, smartly, have tried to fill in the gaps young and cheap, particularly on defense. Six of their eight draft picks this year were on that side of the ball. Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree could become the next great Steelers linebacker tandem.