Baltimore RAVENS (12-4)
Strengths: Ravens always have sound defense, but injury to Terrell Suggs and free agent losses could shift emphasis to offense. Now in fifth season, Joe Flacco has become poised and polished quarterback. Ray Rice is sound out of backfield as both runner and receiver, and second-year Torrey Smith is significant deep threat.
Weaknesses: The pass rush, which must rebound from loss of Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding and Suggs. Ray Lewis, now in 17th season, remains solid in middle. But Courtney Upshaw has been slow to develop on outside, and Paul Kruger has one career start in three NFL seasons.
Expectations: Reaching playoffs for fifth consecutive year under coach John Harbaugh is initial goal, but getting to Super Bowl for first time since 2000 is ultimate objective for team that came tantalizingly close last season before losing to New England 23-20 in the AFC title game.
Pittsburgh STEELERS (12-4)
Strengths: As always, defense. Steelers finished No. 1 in yards allowed in 2011 for fourth time in last nine seasons. They’ll miss leadership of James Farrior and Aaron Smith in locker room but feel they have plenty of talent in reserve. Veteran Larry Foote steps into Farrior’s spot at linebacker and defensive line is considerably younger and quicker with third-year nose tackle Steve McLendon and second-year end Cam Heyward getting more playing time.
Weaknesses: Offensive line, again. Tried to address biggest weakness in offseason by drafting David DeCastro, and adding Mike Adams in second round. Adams has struggled to adjust to speed of NFL and DeCastro out indefinitely after injuring right knee in preseason.
Expectations: Team lives by motto “the standard is the standard” and even with younger players on defense taking on larger roles, standard remains winning Super Bowl. Offense will need time to get used to complex attack but return of restricted free agent Mike Wallace – who signed less than two weeks before start of regular season – gives Pittsburgh deep pool of targets at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s disposal.
Cincinnati BENGALS (9-7)
Strengths: Rookie combo of QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green should be even better second time around. Defense full of young players beginning to emerge. Fans starting to take notice again after abandoning long-suffering team, which hasn’t won playoff game since 1990.
Weaknesses: No proven receiver to complement Green and stop defensive coverages from tilting his way. Both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and backup Bernard Scott got hurt during preseason, preventing team from figuring out running back rotation. As a result, offense will be trying to develop identity as it goes along.
Expectations: Murky. Bengals made surprising playoff appearance last season in part because of favorable schedule. This season will provide better measure of where they stand. Cincinnati trying to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for only second time in 44-year club history.
Cleveland BROWNS (4-12)
Strengths: Browns scored only 218 points last season, K Phil Dawson had 92 of them. The 14-year veteran has been club’s most consistent performer during 13 turbulent seasons. The 37-year-old converted 24 of 29 field goals last season, making seven kicks from beyond 50 yards to tie NFL record. Perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas anchors young offensive line that has major potential and needs to open holes for RB Trent Richardson.
Weaknesses: Experience. Assuming both QB Brandon Weeden and Richardson, who missed most of training camp following knee surgery, start opener, Browns will be just fourth team in past 44 years to open with a rookie QB and RB in starting lineup. With LB Scott Fujita expected to miss three games with suspension for Saints’ bounty scandal and Chris Gocong out for season with injury, Browns will count on several rookie LBs to have impact.
Expectations: Browns have lost at least 10 games in eight of past nine years, and new owner Jimmy Haslam III’s first season may be another long, tough one. Playing in AFC North won’t help and neither will rugged schedule, which includes four games against NFC East. If team doesn’t make major improvement, coach Pat Shurmur may not be back for third year.
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