2006 NFL Preview: AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of Super Bowl XL earlier this calendar year, lead what may be the NFL’s strongest division in 2006. Bill Cowher’s team looks poised to repeat, but the Cincinnati Bengals hope to exact some revenge for last year’s playoff loss and injury to starting quarterback Carson Palmer. Baltimore has finally improved its offense with the addition of a superstar quarterback while the Cleveland Browns, under second year head coach Romeo Crennel, hope defense gets it done in the ‘Dawg Pound.’

Baltimore Ravens
2005 Record: 6-10
Head Coach: Brian Billick
Key Additions: QB Steve McNair, RB Mike Anderson, DE Trevor Pryce
Key Subtractions: DB Will Demps, OT Orlando Brown, RB Chester Taylor

Offense: The Ravens made a major offseason splash by consummating a trade for quarterback Steve McNair, who instantly becomes the best signal caller in the Ravens’ brief history in Baltimore. With the revolving door of mediocrity under center now gone, the Ravens could finally present an offensive team on par with the talents of their defense. McNair should help the production of starting wide receivers Derrick Mason, off a 1,000-yard season, and Mark Clayton. Premier tight end Todd Heap will be a go-to target for McNair. The running game will rely on Jamal Lewis, who finally received his contract extension in the offseason despite a dismal 2005 campaign with less than 1,000 yards rushing. As an insurance policy, the team inked Broncos rusher Mike Anderson to help shoulder the load if Lewis continues to decline.

Defense: A perennial force on defense, Baltimore should continue its stingy ways in 2006. The front four will see Terrell Suggs and newcomer Trevor Pryce rush from the ends with Kelly Gregg and rookie Haloti Ngata from Oregon stuffing the run up the middle. The great Ray Lewis will call out signals at middle linebacker. Weakside linebacker and team sacks leader Adalius Thomas returns to the linebacking unit as well. The secondary took a hit with loss of Will Demps to the New York Giants. Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle will handle the cornerback duties with All-Pro Ed Reed at strong safety.

Projection: With an offense to finally match its defense, the Ravens could be in contention for a playoff spot in 2006. Barring massive injuries, an improvement on last year’s 6-10 record should be a lock. In a division with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, it will be rough sledding at times, but eight wins is a strong possibility with an outside chance at the playoffs if the Steelers or Bengals falter.

Cincinnati Bengals
2005 Record: 11-5
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis
Key Additions: DT Sam Adams, S Dexter Jackson
Key Subtractions: QB Jon Kitna, LB Nate Webster

Offense: The success, or lack thereof, of the Bengals’ offense in 2006 will rest on Carson Palmer’s armâÂ?¦.and knee. Coming off a severe knee injury on the opening drive of the Bengals’ playoff loss to Pittsburgh last season, Palmer’s rehab has been moving along, but there still remain question marks about his opening day availability. The team opted not to re-sign adequate backup Jon Kitna, leaving Palmer’s health as the key to the team’s fortunes. If Palmer can stay healthy, expect another prolific season from the Cincinnati offense. Wide receiver Chad Johnson, despite his antics and his trash-talking, is one the game’s best and should replicate or better his numbers from a season ago – over 1400 yards and 9 TD’s. On the opposite side of the formation, T.J. Houshmandzadeh has ascended to one of the league’s best No. 2 wide receivers. The 6’5″ Chris Henry has developed into a solid third receiver and should make some big plays on the field, if he can stay out of trouble with the law off the field. With Palmer picking apart defense through the air, Rudi Johnson should continue to find holes in the running game and another 12 trips to the endzone is not out of the question.

Defense: Marvin Lewis made his name in the league as defensive coordinator of the impenetrable Baltimore Ravens. However, the Bengals’ 2005 defense was certainly nothing to write to home about. In an effort to improve, the team signed DT Sam Adams to plug up the leaky run defense. The linebacker corps has playmakers with Brian Simmons in the middle and second year starters Odell Thurman and David Pollack on the outside. Thurman, however, has been suspended for the first four games of the season. Despite 10 interceptions from Deltha O’Neal, the pass defense ranked near the bottom of the league. O’Neal and Tory James will start as the cover corners. The team drafted cornerback Jonathan Joseph out of South Carolina to help. Former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson signed on as strong safety to give the secondary some solid veteran leadership.

Projection: If Palmer can return to his form of last season and the players stay out of prison, expect more of the same from the Bengals in 2006. 10 or 11 wins and another playoff berth are very reachable. The defense can’t be any worse than last year, but to go deep into the playoffs, the unit must step up. The Bengals can win shootouts in the regular season against mediocre teams, but won’t find the goings as easy against the cream of the crop in January.

Cleveland Browns
2005 Record: 4-12
Head Coach: Romeo Crennel
Key Additions: LB Willie McGinest, DT Ted Washington, WR Joe Jurevicius
Key Subtractions: DE Kenard Lang, WR Antonio Bryant

Offense: 2006 likely won’t be Cleveland’s year, but it could be a major turning point for the organization if its young nucleus develops. Head coach Romeo Crennel has opted to build for the future by handing the starting quarterback job to Charlie Frye in only his second pro season. Frye started a handful of games at the end of last season and led the Browns to half of its season wins. Demonstrating their faith in Frye, the team traded veteran backup Trent Dilfer to San Francisco, leaving only Ken Dorsey as a backup with any pro experience should Frye falter or become injured. Frye will need all of the help he can get and much will depend on the health of his two main weapons. Tight end Kellen Winslow is still recovering from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident that cost him the entire 2005 season. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the third overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, tore up his knee early in his rookie season. Getting both back on the field will be key for the Browns to at least be competitive. The team inked veteran wide receiver Joe Jurevicius to hold down the fort until Edwards can return, possibly in October. In the backfield, Reuben Droughns posted respectable yardage numbers, despite only 2 TD’s, and will need to find the endzone more often in 2006.

Defense: Defensive-minded head coach Romeo Crennel went back to the well in the offseason to make a big splash for his team. Crennel signed linebacker Willie McGinest from the Patriots to anchor his defense. With Andra Davis in the middle off a breakthrough season, the Browns should be solid at linebacker. The teamed signed the monstrous Ted Washington to stuff the run at nose tackle. Orpheus Roye will rush from one defensive end position while first round draft pick Kamerion Wimbley of Florida State will shift between defensive end and outside linebacker in a tweener role. The secondary might need some help with Leigh Bodden, Gary Baxter, and Daylon McClutcheon battling for spots at corner and Brian Russell, with a team-high three interceptions last season, starting at free safety.

Projection: The record won’t be pretty at the end of the season, but if the team can get Edwards and Winslow back on the field and develop Frye as a legitimate starter, the pieces will be in place for long-term success. Under Crennel, the defense should be better, especially with McGinest providing a veteran backbone to the unit. The Browns might win a 5th game in ’06, but anything more would be a surprise.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2005 Record: 11-5
Head Coach: Bill Cowher
Key Additions: S Ryan Clark
Key Subtractions: WR Antwaan Randle El, DT, Kimo von Oelhoffen, S Chris Hope, RB Jerome Bettis

Offense: The Steelers suffered the scare of the offseason when franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained multiple injuries in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Riding without a helmet, Roethlisberger luckily suffered no major injuries and has already returned to the field in the pre-season. The offense lost some punch when wide receiver/quarterback Antwaan Randle El left town for the Redskins. The team drafted Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes to potentially replace Randle El’s explosiveness. Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward remains as the No.1 receiver with Cedric Wilson and Quincy Morgan as fellow targets. Tight end Heath Miller continues to improve and should soon move into the upper echelon at his position. The shifty Willie Parker hopes to build upon his solid 1,200-yeard season with Duce Staley spelling him. The loss of Jerome Bettis to retirement will likely change the team’s mentality in short yardage and goal line situation.

Defense: The Steelers’ solid defense took some hits in the offseason, none bigger than free safety Chris Hope’s departure. The team signed Ryan Clark to attempt to replace Hope, but it will be no easy task. Troy Polamalu and his flowing mane are still in town at strong safety while Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor man the cornerback spots. Outside of the loss of Kim von Oelhoffen to the Jets, the front seven remains mostly intact with Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton on the D-line and Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, and James Farrior at the linebacker spots.

Projections: If Roethlisberger can stay healthy and shake off any ill effects, physical or mental, from the motorcycle accident, the Steelers will be among the favorites for the Super Bowl once again. The team has enough to hold of Cincinnati and win the division. 12-4 or, at worst, 11-5 and another trip to playoffs appear to be where the team is headed in the 2006.

Projected 2006 AFC North Standings
Pittsburgh Steelers: 11-5
Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6
Baltimore Ravens: 8-8
Cleveland Browns: 4-12

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