Five things to know and my 2012 all-division team:
Division MVP: A.J. Green, Bengals. If there was any doubt about who was the most valuable player in the AFC North, it was settled with eight seconds left in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh in Week 16. After an interception, Green caught a 21-yard pass to set up the winning field goal. Whenever the upstart Bengals needed a big play this season, Green consistently delivered even though he was always the focus of opposing defenses. With no veteran wide receiver playing opposite him, Green still has caught 95 passes (24 more than anyone else in the division) and produced 1,324 yards receiving (403 more than anyone else in the division). The Bengals are 4-1 when Green has more than 100 yards receiving -- including Sunday, when they clinched a playoff berth.
Honorable mention: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was the clear MVP for the first 10 weeks of the season, during which he threw for 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. But he struggled in the past three games since returning from a rib and shoulder injury, throwing for six touchdowns and four interceptions (including two late in games that led to losses). Ravens running back Ray Rice had the play of the season in the division when he converted a fourth down-and-29 in San Diego. Rice, though, needs to gain 82 yards rushing to avoid his lowest total since becoming Baltimore's featured back in 2008. You can argue that the second-best player in the division is Green's teammate, defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Biggest disappointment: The Steelers went from being Super Bowl contenders to being the only team from last season's AFC playoff field to miss the postseason. Pittsburgh couldn't win close games, going 3-5 in games decided by three points or fewer. The Steelers also couldn't beat the teams they were supposed to beat. Pittsburgh lost to Oakland (4-11), Tennessee (5-10), Cleveland (5-10) and San Diego (6-9).
The drama started this offseason with wide receiver Mike Wallace's holdout and continued with the arrest of rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu (who allegedly led police on a drunken chase through Pittsburgh) and suspension of running back Rashard Mendenhall (who decided not to show up for a game after being made inactive). In the end, the Steelers couldn't overcome a bad habit of turning the ball over (21 turnovers in the past six games) and the late-season struggles of Roethlisberger.
Free-agency focus: When it comes to high-profile free agents, it's tough to beat the Ravens, who enter this offseason with their quarterback and future Hall of Fame safety not under contract. Baltimore is expected to put the franchise tag on Joe Flacco if it can't re-sign him before February, but it's a tougher decision with Ed Reed. The Ravens could be hesitant to invest a big contract in an aging player (he will be 35 next season) who has injury issues. For the Steelers, there are six starters who will be free agents: Wallace, nose tackle Casey Hampton, cornerback Keenan Lewis, inside linebacker Larry Foote, guard Ramon Foster and offensive tackle Max Starks. Mendenhall is also a free agent. The cap-strapped Steelers will face decisions with linebacker James Harrison ($6.57 salary in 2013) and guard Willie Colon ($5.5 million).
The Bengals' free agents include a former first-round pick on offense (right tackle Andre Smith) and seven starters on defense (defensive ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers, linebackers Rey Maualuga, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard and cornerback Terence Newman). But that number on defense doesn't sound as daunting when you consider that defensive end Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Vontaze Burfict played a lot this season and that cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will be expected to step into a starting role next season. The Browns' biggest free-agency concern is on special teams -- two Pro Bowl players -- kicker Phil Dawson and returner Josh Cribbs -- are free agents. Cleveland could have trouble re-signing Dawson, and it has a younger and cheaper option at returner in rookie Travis Benjamin. The upheaval in Cleveland will probably come in the front office and not in the locker room.
Draft priority: After putting together successful drafts in consecutive seasons, the Browns will probably be drafting in the top 10 again (they're No. 7 right now) but they'll be doing it with a new decision-maker in chief executive officer Joe Banner. Cleveland could use upgrades at guard and wide receiver, but the more pressing needs are an impact pass-rusher, another young cornerback (Sheldon Brown is a free agent) and a safety. The Steelers and Ravens should think strongly about addressing aging positions such as safety (Troy Polamalu and Reed) and linebacker (Harrison and Ray Lewis). The Bengals can use more speed at running back, a long-term solution at strong safety (where Chris Crocker currently starts) and depth at linebacker.
Quarterback questions: For the first time since 2009, this division might not have major turnover at the quarterback position. However, each passer faces scrutiny. What has happened to Roethlisberger late in games? Will Flacco ever reach a level of consistency? Can Andy Dalton reduce his turnovers? Is Brandon Weeden really the quarterback of the future? The answers won't come until 2013.
The biggest mistake for AFC North quarterbacks was giving points to the other teams. These quarterbacks combined to have nine interceptions returned for touchdowns: Dalton (four), Roethlisberger (two), Flacco (two) and Weeden (one). Still, all four quarterbacks passed for more than 3,000 yards this season and all but Weeden threw for more than 20 touchdowns.
All-AFC NORTH TEAM
Although Green was a slam-dunk selection, some might question the Ravens' Anquan Boldin at the other receiver spot. But Boldin was surprisingly explosive (he had the most catches for more than 20 yards in the division) and he didn't drop as many passes as Torrey Smith, Wallace and Josh Gordon. The toughest decision was at guard, where the AFC North has two of the best right guards (the Ravens' Marshal Yanda and the Bengals' Kevin Zeitler) in the league. Because I had to pick a left guard, the Bengals' Clint Boling won by default.
On defense, the Steelers' Lawrence Timmons was chosen over the Browns' D'Qwell Jackson because he made more game-changing plays. There were two close calls at safety. The Ravens' Bernard Pollard narrowly beat out the Browns' T.J. Ward because it's hard to ignore Pollard's 98 tackles (tied for third-most among NFL defensive backs). At free safety. the Steelers' Ryan Clark was more physical than the Ravens' Reed and played better in pass coverage. Reed allowed three touchdowns, and quarterbacks had only a 48.1 passer rating against Clark.
On special teams, Dawson, Justin Tucker and Shaun Suisham all had Pro Bowl-type seasons. They combined for 11 field goals longer than 50 yards and just six misses. But Dawson, who had one miss and six field goals over 50 yards, earned the nod.