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This is the first of an eight-part series that breaks down every division in the NFL before the kickoff of the 2011 season on Sept. 8.

Today we preview the AFC North.

Our next preview tomorrow will focus on the AFC East

Baltimore Ravens (12-4 last season).

Losing popular vets Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Kelly Greg doesn’t bode well for a squad that came up short again to their rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers last season in the AFC divisional round. The Ravens will ride running back Ray Rice. But the pressure falls on their defense and quarterback Joe Flacco, who may struggle, especially with his favorite targets Mason and Heap gone.

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd place.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-12 last season).

The Bengals might not win a game this year. Quarterback Carson Palmer retired since the team refused to trade him. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was shipped to the New England Patriots. Free agent defensive back Jonathan Joseph jetted to the Houston Texans. And the team’s leading rusher last year Cedric Benson will likely face suspension after being involved in an off-the-field altercation last month.

Prediction: 3-13, 4th place.

Cleveland Browns (5-11 last season).

Like other rookie head coaches, Pat Shurmur missed valuable time with his new players because of the lockout. But Shurmur takes control of a young squad that is headed in the right direction. Second-year quarterback Colt McCoy is showing progression in camp. Running back Peyton Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 TDs last season, flattens folks. Their defense, though, remains the question mark.

Prediction: 7-9, 3rd place.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4 last season).

Their schedule is brutal to start the year, with road games in Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston, and they’ve had salary cap issues. But there is no reason to think the Steelers won’t repeat as champs in the AFC North. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s game isn’t pretty, but he delivers wins (69-29 in regular season, 10-3 in playoffs.) Their swarming defense remains intact and will hover again near the top of the league.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st place.

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Finally! NFL Owners and Players Make Deal to End Lockout

Dwayne C. Nelson is an arts & entertainment and sports blogger whose content is featured on various Web sites, including Associated Content, Yahoo! Sports and News One. You can now follow him on twitter to stay abreast of his latest posts.

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