AFC North

Fifth in an eight-part series as Times NFL writer Sam Farmer analyzes the league by division. Today, the AFC North:

Story lines

1 Will this be a breakthrough season for the Browns? A prominent billboard in Cleveland reads, “There’s Always This Year,” and that’s the mood surrounding a franchise coming off a 10-6 season, with a strong-armed young quarterback and five prime-time games. Never mind that Cleveland beat only one team last season that finished with a winning record.

2 If Pittsburgh is going to remain top dog in the division, it’ll have to do it the hard way. The Steelers have the league’s toughest schedule, facing teams with a combined .598 winning percentage last season. There are road games against New England, Washington, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Jacksonville; and home games against Dallas, Indianapolis, the New York Giants, San Diego and -- mercifully? -- Houston.


3 In Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis is on his third defensive coordinator. Can Mike Zimmer draw up the right schemes to start putting heat on opposing quarterbacks, who were sacked a league-low 22 times last season? A lot of that depends on the reliability of cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. The Bengals expect a lot from the two first-round picks.

How they’ll finish

1. Pittsburgh: Don’t underestimate the importance of safety Troy Polamalu getting -- and staying -- healthy.

2. Cleveland: As long as Derek Anderson doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump, Browns are on the rise.


3. Cincinnati: There was enough blame to go around for Carson Palmer’s career-high 20 interceptions last season. Bengals need help at receiver.

4. Baltimore: With serious questions at quarterback and on the offensive line, new Coach John Harbaugh will earn his keep.