Seven-step drop

With every AFC North team looking ahead to next season, here are seven notes and observations within the division:

  • One of the most baffling stories in the division this year was the inconsistency of the Baltimore Ravens. After Sept. 27, the team never won more than two games in a row. That trend held true to form in the playoffs. The Ravens looked dominant in a 33-14 wild-card win over the New England Patriots, then ineffective during last weekend's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, 20-3. That kind of roller-coaster production was the story of Baltimore's season, and it's hard to put a finger on the issue. When I asked some players about it Saturday night, they were just as confused.

"I don't know," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We got to play consistent across the board. We got games where the offense plays really good and games where the defense [plays well]. We had a couple of complete games. But we got to find a way when the offense struggles, we got to make a play and help them out. They got to do the same for us, and there are times this year when we haven't done that."

    Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

    Baltimore needs to surround quarterback Joe Flacco with more weapons next season.

  • In my opinion, Baltimore's offseason should be about making sure quarterback Joe Flacco has enough weapons to take the next step in his third year. If you look around the NFL, teams made sure to assist their young starting quarterbacks. The Atlanta Falcons acquired future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez last offseason for quarterback Matt Ryan. The New York Jets made an in-season trade with the Cleveland Browns to acquire No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards for rookie Mark Sanchez. The Ravens haven't done anything close to that for Flacco since he entered the league two years ago. This year could be tough with all the free agency rules during an uncapped year. But April's draft isn't a bad place to start.

  • Officials got the call right on Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis' second-quarter hit on Colts receiver Austin Collie. By rule, there was helmet-to-helmet contact and the officials had to throw the flag. However, I didn't view the play as dirty. Collie was on his way to a touchdown, and Lewis did his best to separate the player from the football. A big hit was the only way to do that, but the helmet contact rightfully earned the penalty.

  • The Cincinnati Bengals need help with pass protection, which is why it's crucial for last year's No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith to have a good offseason. Smith has the potential to be Cincinnati's best pass protector at right tackle. But this was a red-shirt season. Smith missed all of training camp in a contract dispute and much of the regular season with a broken bone in his foot. The Bengals are not guaranteeing Smith a starting role in 2010. But it would be in their best interest that he develops and wins the job.

  • The New York Jets currently have some kind of power over kickers. During their run through the playoffs, kickers are 0 of 5 on field-goal attempts. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham missed two kicks and Nate Kaeding of the San Diego Chargers missed three. Both kickers were reliable during the regular season.

  • Steelers president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the team needs to improve on developing young players. Recently, Pittsburgh's top draft picks waited a year or two before cracking the starting lineup. Recent examples are tailback Rashard Mendenhall and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, who waited three years to become a full-time starter. This comment could be spurred, in part, by the instant success of rookie receiver Mike Wallace. Ownership probably sees Wallace, a third-round pick, and wonders why more rookies and young players on the roster haven't made immediate contributions.

  • Mike Holmgren's influence in Cleveland is already being felt with the acquisition of new general manager Tom Heckert. Last year, Heckert, who worked with the Philadelphia Eagles, was a candidate for the same job in Cleveland but withdrew his name after meeting several times with Browns owner Randy Lerner. Heckert didn't feel the situation was better than the one he had in Philadelphia. This year Holmgren comes aboard and closes the deal quickly with Heckert. It's that type of respect and credibility Holmgren brings which the Browns need to convince top players and executives to come to Cleveland.