Joe FlaccoBy Stephen Stone
Cold, Hard Football Facts Stone Cold Winner

No team in the AFC North faces an easy schedule this year.

They get the NFC East and NFC West in their rotation this year - two divisions that feature at least six playoff contenders.

Oh yeah, they also have to play each other. Three teams from the division made the playoffs last year, so each franchise is going to face a tough test nearly every week.

Without further ado, here are the Cold, Hard Football Facts over/under projections for the AFC North:

Cleveland Browns (Over/under 5.5)

Last year: O/U 6.5 (Under: 4-12)

The case for over
If Brandon Weeden wants to find success as a rookie quarterback, he’s in the right division.
Since 2004, five rookie quarterbacks have taken their teams to the playoffs.

Three of them - Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco - did so, and still play, in the AFC North.

Cleveland may try to win the old fashioned way - running and defense
Taking Trent Richardson with the third overall pick means that they appear committed to running the football.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Browns appear to be well equipped to stop the pass. Last season the Browns finished in the top 10 in a number of defensive categories including Bendability, Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt, Defensive Passer Rating and Defensive Real Quarterback Rating.

The case for under

How much will they really get from Trent Richardson this season?
He might look like a stud, but recent history shows that taking a running back this early doesn’t always yield the best results, especially as the league shifts its emphasis towards the passing game. In the five years from 1997 through 2001, the first running back taken in the draft rushed for 1,000 yards or more four times. In the 10 years since, only Adrian Peterson in 2007 managed to accomplish the feat.

Final analysis

All three of Cleveland’s divisional opponents made the playoffs last year. They are only the fourth franchise since the 2002 division realignment to share a division with all playoff winners, but the three previous teams fared better than one would think, combining to go 26-21-1 combined in their respective seasons. Cleveland seems to have a lot of good karma on their side. Take over 5.5.


Cincinnati Bengals (Over/Under 7.5)

Last year: O/U 5.5 (Over: 9-7)

The case for over
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are young studs
Having a strong combo at quarterback and wide receiver is crucial. Having a Pro Bowl combination is fantastic. The league is continuing to shift towards passing and Dalton and Green are one of the brightest young duos in the game.

As previously mentioned, Dalton was the third quarterback from this division to make the playoffs as a rookie. Flacco and Roethlisberger followed up on their rookie campaigns by making the second round and winning the Super Bowl, respectively.


The case for under
Consecutive playoff berths? Not this team
1981 and 1982. That was the last time the Bengals made the playoffs in back-to-back years. Since that time, in the five seasons immediately following playoff berths Cincinnati has averaged exactly six wins a year.

Final Analysis
The Bengals were one of the surprising teams of 2011, but other squads will be ready for them in 2012. A tougher schedule combined with some growing pains from Dalton and Green will keep the team from reaching .500. Take under 7.5.


Pittsburgh Steelers (Over/Under 10)

Last year: O/U 10.5 (Over: 12-4)

The case for over
Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t like losing in the AFC playoffs
This may sound shocking, but Big Ben has only lost in the AFC playoffs three times in his career (note that it doesn’t include his loss in the Super Bowl.)

When he does lose, he tends to take it out on the rest of the league the next season. His losses were in 2004 to the Patriots, 2007 to the Jaguars and 2011 to the Broncos. After his previous two defeats, he went on to win the Super Bowl.

The defense still rocks
Pittsburgh led the league in defensive real passing yards per attempt last year and finished third in bendability. The team traditionally known for hard-hitting defensive players continues to find new guys to plug into the system.

The case for under
Pittsburgh won't score enough points
Pittsburgh finished 12th in total offense last year, but the team finished 21st in total points scored and 27th in Scoreability. The team’s inability to run the ball this year may prevent them from winning enough games to get back to the promised land.

Final Analysis
Pittsburgh has been an on again/off again team for most of Roethlisberger’s career. The Steelers’ embarrassing loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos last year is fueling their fire.

The team also hasn’t gone back to back years without winning the division in number seven’s tenure with the team. Having finished second last year, the Steelers will be ready to rock. Go over 10.


Baltimore Ravens (Over/Under 10.5)

Last year: O/U 10.5 (Over: 12-4

The case for over
They were right there last year, and they’re hungry
This team was a dropped Lee Evans pass and a missed Billy Cundiff kick away from making the Super Bowl last season.

The Patriots may have won the AFC championship game, but the Ravens dominated them in many aspects, out-gaining them in yards 398 to 330 and winning the turnover battle by a mark of 3-1. The Baltimore veterans know how close they were and also understand that their window only stays open for so long.

The defense is great, again
If it feels like Ray Lewis has been manning the defense for Baltimore forever, it’s because he has been. Lewis started with the team in 1996, its first year as the Ravens. Last year, Lewis, Reed, Suggs and co. Helped the unit lead the league in a number of key statistical categories including the Defensive Hog Index, Defensive Passer Rating and Defensive Real Quarterback Rating.

The case for under
Flacco isn't elite
Last year, Baltimore finished 19th in the league in real quarterback rating. The only other playoff team to finish below that mark was Denver. In a league focused on elite passers, Flacco has never been able to establish himself as one of the game’s best.

One of his deficiencies is the inability to generate a large chunk of yards per attempt. Again, Denver was the only AFC playoff team to finish with a worse real passing yard per attempt average.

Final analysis
For what seems like the 100th straight year, the Ravens will be led by their defense while the offense tries to keep up.

In a sport in which passing has always been the difference between also rans and champions, Baltimore’s inadequacies will prevent them from taking the next step. They will be a playoff team, but will barely get there. Go under 10.5.