COACH: Mike Tomlin, 11th season (103-57, .644)
LAST SEASON: 11-5, 1st place
PLAYOFFS: beat Miami, 30-12, in wild card; beat Kansas City, 18-16, in division playoff; lost to New England, 36-17, in AFC Championship.
OUTLOOK: Ben Roethlisberger flirted with the idea of retirement in the offseason, but ultimately decided to return for at least one more year. Steelers fans breathed a massive sigh of relief, because Roethlisberger remains the single most important player on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Pittsburgh lost to eventual Super Bowl champion New England in last year’s playoffs, prompting Tomlin to go with a more aggressive man-to-man pass defense rather than get picked apart by Tom Brady, who easily found the yawning gaps in the Steelers’ zones. It’s one big reason the Steelers swooped in immediately to sign Joe Haden after the former Browns cornerback was released. Defense aside, the team’s fate will continue to revolve around the offense, particularly Roethlisberger, All Pro WR Antonio Bryant and Pro Bowl RB Le’Veon Bell, who missed the preseason in a contract dispute.
COACH: Marvin Lewis, 15th season (118-103-3, .533)
LAST SEASON: 6-9-1, 3rd place
OUTLOOK: The Bengals finished out of the money in last year’s playoff race, snapping a streak of five straight postseason appearances. The beginning of a continued decline, or just an aberration? The Bengals like to think it was a one-time thing and that a bounce-back season is in order. Andy Dalton, one of the league’s most efficient, if not spectacular quarterbacks, leads an offense that now includes controversial rookie RB Joe Mixon, who missed a year at Oklahoma while serving a suspension for domestic violence. Mixon looked terrific in the preseason. The defense remains a cut above, but will have to deal with a three-game suspension of MLB Vontaze Burfict for yet another in a series of dirty hits.
COACH: John Harbaugh, 10th season (85-59, .590)
LAST SEASON: 8-8, 2nd place
OUTLOOK: Joe Flacco missed the preseason with a back injury, and the Ravens are cautiously optimistic about his availability for the regular season. Should Flacco not be able to make it the whole way, the Ravens are in trouble. Backup Ryan Mallett is simply not a starting-caliber quarterback. The defense remains solid, and Terrell Suggs continues to be one of the league’s best pass rushers. But depth is an issue, and this no longer is a fearsome defense.
COACH: Hue Jackson, 2nd season (1-15, .063)
LAST SEASON: 1-15, 4th place
OUTLOOK: Hue Jackson said last season was the toughest experience of his professional life, and with good reason. The Browns never had a chance because of quarterback injuries and the youngest roster in the NFL. But out of that misery comes hope, because the Browns wound up with No. 1 pick Myles Garrett, the dominant pass rusher from Texas A & M, and second-round QB Deshone Kizer, the former Notre Dame passer who won the starting job in the preseason. Another part of this year’s draft harvest: Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers, who will play safety for the Browns. It won’t be an immediate turnaround, but at least the Browns have hope.