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In our ongoing effort to cover the entire NFL we pick up our coverage with the focus on the AFC North. This is perhaps the most confusing division in the league. Confusing because teams go from worst to first in seemingly no time, and the fall from the top just as quick.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Always consistent, always in the mix, always there. It seems like every year these guys are ready to make a play and be a contender. This year is absolutely no different. They have all the same weapons back again. Big Ben, Hines Ward, Willie Parker and company are locked, loaded and ready to bring it. A big addition during the off-season was drafting Rashard Mendenhall as a running back. While he won’t be a superstar this season, he will be able to provide Willie Parker a break, which will keep his legs fresh especially coming down the end stretch of the season. A big key for the Steelers will be the health of their defense. Mainly the health of Troy Polamalu is the big concern. Last season Troy was in and out of the lineup with injuries, and it hurt the overall continuity of the defense. Much like Bob Sanders in Indy, Polamalu is a key part to the Steelers defense. His ability to be at the line of scrimmage at the snap and then drop back into coverage and not miss a beat cannot be emphasized enough. If he can stay healthy and remain on the field then the Steelers will once again find themselves in the mix.
Cincinnati Bengals: This has to be one of the most difficult choices I’ve had to make so far. There are plenty of underlying issues with this team that could easily tear it apart well before they ever take the field. Obviously I am talking about Chad Johnson who is currently at camp but not participating because of his bum ankle. The relationship between Palmer and Johnson has to be considered strained at best and the same could be said with Johnson’s relationship with Coach Marvin Lewis. What the Bengals do have going for them is T.J. Houshmandzada who has become one of the best receivers in the league and his numbers will continue to be up there next season. The problem with the Bengals offense is in their backfield. The two headed monster of Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry has failed to produce at the exponential rate that makes them a true threat.
Oh yeah… they still can’t stop anyone on defense either. So expect to see another 56-48 shoot out with the Browns.
Cleveland Browns: A lot of people have the Browns as the breakout team of 08. I see them playing more like the 49’ers did in 07 in the wake of a great 06 season. Bottom line is there will be a let down. The Browns will play a tougher schedule this season (the NFC East), and the rest of the league knows what to expect. Derek Anderson had a phenomenal year last season and established himself as the starting QB. However, he will have to continue to play at an exceptional rate if he wants to keep the job. Brady Quinn is still lurking in the shadows and you can bet that as soon as Anderson begins to flounder, that the fans will be chanting Quinn’s name. The Browns added Donte’ Stallworth at wide out, but he has largely been an underachieving player even in New England last season. It will be interesting to see if getting the paycheck will inspire him to play at the top of his game or will he continue to be lackluster. The Browns defense has undergone little change over the summer, and so they will continue to struggle there. Last year was a great story and this was a fun team to watch, but it’s just asking too much to have them repeat.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are in a rebuilding process so one cannot expect much from them in the upcoming season. A New head coach, probably a new starting QB (by week 5, I’m guessing) and some new faces on the O-Line. Not a good combination for one of the traditionally worse offenses in football. Add to that the Ravens defense is an aging group. They have added a couple young players over the past couple seasons, but unfortunately their talent level is not to the level that the Ravens are used to. If the Ravens want to avoid the disaster they experienced last season they will need their defense to play closer to their 01 level than 07. Also getting Flacco up to speed as quickly as possible will be in the team’s best interest.