NFL Division Preview: Wild AFC North to Have Different Look This Year

Cincinnati 11-5
Baltimore 9-7 *
Pittsburgh 8-8
Cleveland 5-11

*denotes 2006 Super Bowl Champion

After a wild offseason in which the Cincinnati Bengals made the front pages of more newspapers than they cared to, with charges like boating under the influence (What is that anyway?), it’s time to play football. But no matter what the media does to the Bengals, the fact remains: Cincinnati is in a class by themselves, followed by the Ravens (and this includes off-field behavior). When you think about it, it is somewhat ironic that the two teams that hate each other for obvious reasons (the Ravens were once the Cleveland Browns) are neck-and-neck. Whether or not that’s the case for falling down drunken behavior is news to me. There were other incidents reportedly (like about 20), and Bengals fans should too be ashamed of their behavior enough to report it to the new team hotline from now on. No word on whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers will go for it, but one somehow doubts it. And there is no way in hell that the Browns would ever agree to something like that. After all Cleveland is known for its “Dawg Pound” which is code for throwing things at opposing teams and getting to the point of falling down drunk before the game even starts. In the end none of it will matter as Cincinnati continues its ascent, Baltimore has a rebirth with yet more veterans who shouldn’t be playing anymore and the Steelers drop faster than anybody Bill Cowher is throwing a sideways glance at (you know the one).

CINCINNATI (12-4 last season, AFC North champions)
The one player on the team able to escape all of the madness surrounding it was quarterback Carson Palmer and even he had surgery this offseason to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. If Palmer is able to stay healthy (and all signs point to yes) the Bengals will replicate an already impressive preseason and be off to the races. Out as the backup is Jon Kitna and in his spot will be Doug Johnson. The good news is that Rudi Johnson is back as the feature running back with Jeremi Johnson the fullback. At wide receiver the Bengals have little to worry about, since Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzideh comprise one of the best corps in the league. Tight end is more of a question mark, however Palmer can make even a good player great and so it would be little surprise to anyone if a player stepped out of the shadows this season, even on offense. The offensive line features two Pro Bowlers and all starters return on offense.

Sam Adams and Justin Smith are the cornerstones to the defensive line in Cincy and combine to make a fearsome pass rush in the Bengals 4-3 formation. The D-line overall is about two-deep at every position. The linebackers are led by Brian Simmons (4 sacks, 2 interceptions in ’05) and go about three-deep at each spot. This may surprise some insiders but it is true and just speaks volumes about the Bengals and the manner in which they have been able to turn things around in such a short time, particularly through the draft, free agency and different belief systems. The defensive backfield is no different; Dexter Jackson joins Cincy from Tampa Bay to help Deltha O’Neal (10 interceptions last year) continue the Bengals recent run of success.

Shayne Graham will seek another Pro Bowl trip this year after hitting on almost 88 percent of field goals last season. And Kyle Larson is back as well, giving Cincy fans more hope that things will stay the same. But probably the biggest free agent pickup has to be Antonio Chatman, whose 4 touchdowns will help not only at wide receiver but also on punt returns.

The only obstacle to the Bengals achieving success is the Bengals themselves. If Palmer replicates form anywhere close to the stuff he showed last year, watch out. And if the Bengals come out firing on all cylinders as they have in the preseason, it’s time to take them seriously. Other than a few burps and gaffes here and there in the papers, Cincinnati has been the one team everybody should look at, in terms of somebody who is capable of making a deep run into the playoffs. A rough end to the schedule could spell some trouble, particularly homefield advantage but the Bengals should have the division wrapped up by week 13.

PREDICTION: 11-5, AFC North champions

BALTIMORE (6-10, 3rd AFC North)
The Ravens finally brought some help to quarterback Kyle Boller, an embattled but hard working player who just couldn’t get there without some tutelage. Boller will get it from Steve “Air” McNair, a player who like Boller would play the game even if he only had one arm to do it. The only catch is that while Boller is under tutelage, McNair will get most of the snaps and be asked to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. That’s not much to ask from any Ravens QB, considering it was Trent Dilfer who lifted Baltimore’s only Super Bowl trophy, only to find that years later he is not much more than a trivia question. But McNair will take it in this stage of his illustrious career. He is going down the same road as Drew Bledsoe in Dallas, a bit past his prime but still firing toward spritely receivers. And Jamal Lewis is back, meaning that yet another hard-working player on the Ravens (there will be many this season) is there to take Baltimore back to the promised land. And guess what? It just might happen, now that McNair has a proven running back in Lewis and his former running mate in Derrick Mason at wide receiver, along with young Mark Clayton. Then we haven’t even talked about Todd Heap, who while Kellen Winslow Jr. was out after a freak motorcycle accident, was the best young tight end prospect in the league. He’s still good and adds another reason as to why you must take these Ravens seriously. In fact, if the Bengals falter much, it will be this team who will win the division. Back for yet another go-round is Jonathan Ogden, the anchor of the offensive line. This just compounds the dilemma for opposing teams: Do you let them run or go to the air? Pick your poison this year.

Terrell Suggs was already more than enough for the Baltimore defensive front, but then the Ravens went out into the free agency market and grabbed Trevor Pryce from Denver, drafted Haloti Ngata from Oregon but more importantly Salt Lake City Highland High School (a local boy at that) and Ngata will work inside nicely with Kelly Gregg, a 5-year Ravens veteran. You need no introduction to Ray Lewis, the ubiquitous middle linebacker and certain Hall of Famer, other than to say you hope his hamstring injuries are a thing of the past. Adalius Thomas took over for Lewis last year and did well (9 sacks, 4 fumbles recovered) and Bart Scott nabbed 4 quarterbacks on the way. The one place, however, that needs some improvement is in the defensive backfield, where Baltimore’s normally grabby crew nabbed only 3 balls all season and suffered injuries. But all signs point to a rebirth in the Ravens’ defense, particularly with a healthy Lewis, who is among the more fiery leaders in the league. Ray-Ray will not settle for anything less than maximum effort in any situation.

Matt Stover is back, continuing a theme that is not exactly resonating among NFL quarterbacks these days. That is, job security. And kickers seem to have plenty of that lately. Punter Leo Araguz comes from Seattle where he appeared in just 4 games last year. B.J. Sams is the primary return man on both punts and kickoffs.

Once Ravens’ brass assured the return of Brian Billick, one could sense the team would be hitting the free agent market like Al Davis most offseasons. But Baltimore is beginning to seem a little like the Raiders, since they are putting a few pieces together with the goal of reaching the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl in the very short term. McNair doesn’t have many good seasons left, but when you have Ogden protecting your backside it’s a lot easier to stretch the seasons out. Lewis seems to have bounced back from knee trouble and the receiving corps is loaded and has McNair throwing to them. It’s a no-brainer that the Ravens will have more success than last season, especially if they stay healthy. But this is the kind of team that could surprise a lot of people and make it all the way to Miami in January, though they will need lots of help to get there. And when they do, they will soundly defeat the Seattle Seahawks, with McNair finally getting a reason to retire and walk proudly into the twilight. Billick will also call it a day, heading to the place he really wants to go, San Francisco, to help resurrect the 49ers.
PREDICTION: 9-7, AFC Wildcard and 2006 World Champion.

PITTSBURGH (11-5, AFC Wildcard, 2005 World Champions)
The decline of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been both a sad but vindicating thing to see. First, the tragedy that hit the organization when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered injuries in a motorcycle accident was a quick reminder of the role sports plays as opposed to life. This coming from a guy who watched his beloved Seattle Seahawks finally go to the Super Bowl, only to watch in horror as the Steelers defeated him and his hopes and dreams, 21-10. In a weird way the Steelers sudden decline has been vindicating, but now a new season is upon us and the prognosis is not good in Steeltown. First, if having possibly life-threatening injuries weren’t enough, today came the news that Big Ben will now sit out the first and perhaps other games after having an emergency appendectomy. So Charlie Batch will replace Ben in the starting lineup, and Bowling Green rookie Omar Jacobs is there, too, though sources around the league say the Steelers are shopping for another QB. At running back Willie Parker looks to reprise his role of dream-killer in much the same way he did those beloved Seahawks. Duce Staley is his backup, though it won’t be long before Staley worms his way into the lineup, only to pull up lame with an injury after running for 1,000 yards in 4 games. Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson make up a solid receiving unit and Heath Miller is a good tight end, however all of it is moot unless Big Ben is healthy. One bright spot is the Steelers offensive line, which is intact and means that even if Big Ben is not the starter, someone should be able to take the reins and at least guide them to .500.

Steeltown was hit hard by free agency, but the defense was so deep that only an insider would know how far the hurt went. For starters, Kimo vonOelhoffen is no longer in Pittsburgh but the D-line goes two-deep with players having experience at most positions. Linebacker is again a strength for Pittsburgh, led by bookends Joey Porter and Clark Haggans (19.5 sacks). James Farrior and Larry Foote will man the inside lanes and hoop to put the hurt on at Heinz. The backers go about two-deep as well. But the real impact can be felt in the defensive backfield, where Troy Polamalu waits, ready to tear someone’s head off. The Pro Bowl player is back for another season, however the defensive backfield goes about two-deep. In all the Steeler defense looks like it goes two-deep and is back and ready to raise havoc.
Yep, Jeff Reed is also back, leading one to believe kickers are more valuable than just about anyone else. With 83 percent field goal accuracy (about the norm) it’s not time for kickers to start sporting bling and asking for ridiculous salaries, but times, they are a-changin. No doubt. Punter Chris Gardocki is back for his umpteenth season, the norm for punters. When Reggie Roby played in Miami, it seemed he was there for like two decades! But man cannot go on 3 points and touchbacks alone; he must run back some balls for six and unfortunately, the return teams for Pittsburgh are not tops. However, look out for draft pick Santonio Holmes, who despite some early rookie burps (like assault charges) may be the next great Steelers receiver. He will also feature in special teams provided he can beat his rap.

This is not the same Steelers team that went to the Super Bowl, surprising everyone as they came in as a Wild Card and proceeded to knock off the top three seeds on their way to the Motor City. First off The Bus has left the building. That is, you will no longer see Jerome Bettis knock over everyone like he does in the bowling alley (he’s an avid bowler) making defensive backfields resemble 7-10 splits. And the World Champs lost some players to free agency, though there is enough to possibly propel Pittsburgh to the playoffs. It would take a great season from their running back du jour along with a new player (maybe Holmes) to step up as the No. 2 receiver. And it would take a healthy Big Ben, which may not be possible at press time. The defense does look solid, though, and that’s why this team could go either way, into the tank or above the fray. The schedule is not filled with world beaters (they have tough games with Miami in week 1, Denver in week 9 and two with Baltimore in the second half of the season) so .500 would probably be the worst they could do. And that’s what they’ll do.
PREDICTION: 8-8, 3rd AFC North

CLEVELAND (6-10, 4th AFC North)
After an average preseason in which the Browns bookended the 4-game season with 7 points in losses and had them sandwiched by 20 points in successive wins, thus going 2-2 for the duration, it is time to look at a team that has had its share of legal troubles off the field. Will it help the Browns that their two best players, receiver Braylon Edwards and running back Reuben Droughns, may be limited? In the final game of the preseason, though it was a loss, both Edwards and Droughns showed that it would be a mistake to underestimate them and their team. Though it was in the loss column, the return of the duo told the rest of the NFL that the best may be yet to come. Quarterback Charlie Frye may be weeks away from a controversy of his own, however for now he is the starter, with Ken Dorsey and Derek Anderson waiting in the wings. The intriguing player is Anderson, a 6’6″ signal caller who learned the ropes under Dennis Erickson at Oregon State. To continue the Oregon connection, look no further than Rueben Droughns, who followed up a 1,200 yard year in 2004 at Denver with another in a Browns uniform. The only if for Rueben is if he can stay out of trouble; he is currently facing charges of misdemeanor assault related to his wife. If he can, Droughns is again capable of having another 1,000-yard season on the ground. Fullback Terrelle Smith will help open holes for Droughns with his 245-pound frame. The reason, however, for joy in Dawgville is that Edwards is back and back early. Though he suffered a torn ACL in his knee last December, Braylon beat the odds and returned to the field 2 months ahead of schedule. The other piece of good news is that the Browns picked up Joe Jurevicius from Seattle to go with Dennis Northcutt. In all it makes for a pretty talented trio. When you add Kellen Winslow Jr., a promising tight end, to that equation, it equals potential with a capital P. But the jury is still out on Frye, who had more picks than scores in his rookie campaign. And a bad string of luck has probably doomed the Browns’ chances for this year in the offensive line, so much so that they had went out and picked up an emergency center after their starter went down with a season-ending knee injury, only to find out that the emergency pickup violated the league’s substance abuse policy two weeks after his signing. Otherwise they go about two-deep at other spots in the line.

Big Ted Washington is the main addition here, coming over from Oakland. Bookending him in the 3-4 formation will be Orpheus Roye (3 sacks) and Alvin McKinley (5), two longtime Browns who are yearning for a trip to the playoffs. It won’t happen for awhile, but their time will come. Arguably the biggest pickup this offseason is linebacker Willie McGinest, who rejoins coach Romeo Crennel two years after Crennel left the Patriots for the Cleveland job. Rookie D’Qwell Jackson and veteran Andra Davis fill the middle, with the 4-back alignment going two-deep across the board. Though the defensive backfield of the Browns is not spectacular, it is efficient, led by free safety Brian Russell (3 interceptions in 16 games). The key word for the Browns D is youth, though Washington and McGinest would probably make this team one game better in 2006, if it weren’t for all the problems in the O-line.

Phil Dawson is one of the best kickers in the league, in terms of field goal percentage. But he is one of a handful of kickers who is not accurate on PAT’s (90 percent) and so this just adds to the frustration for Crennel, who brought over Jeff Chandler from Washington for insurance. Punter Dave Zastudil is also good, hitting for a 43 percent average per punt. But the guy to watch for in the special teams is Dennis Northcutt, the always dangerous punt returner good for two touchdowns last year.
Cleveland has all the weapons in place at the right spots except for quarterback, offensive line and their defensive backfield. These are glaring holes that cannot be easily fixed and so the Browns will look to next year as a possible launching point. They will be active in the free agent market and Frye will be supplanted before the Browns’ bye week. Word is Anderson is the real deal and his last preseason game was impressive, throwing for 170 yards. But that doesn’t help the real issue, the Browns O-line, which has been hit by some bad luck. The D backfield is just young and inexperienced. Expect a long year if you’re a Browns fan.
PREDICTION: 5-11, 4th AFC North

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