Wednesday, September 2, 2009

AFC North Preview

It was typical Chad Ochocinco, straight and to the point.
"We will be good," the Cincinnati Bengals receiver said earlier this summer. "It's not a guarantee or anything like that, but we will be good. You watch."

I'm watching. I also think he's right. They have Carson Palmer back and they have a defense that finished 12th in the league last season.
Yeah, but they're the Bengals, you say? This group is better than what we've come to expect from the Bengals.
But there are two big hurdles that could make any improvement a moot point: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals will be better in 2009, but they also have the unfortunate task of playing in the same AFC North division with the two teams who played in the AFC Championship Game last season. One of those, the Steelers, went on to win the Super Bowl. If Cincinnati is to be a playoff team, they'll likely have to move past one of those two.
Good luck.
"It's not an easy division, that's for sure," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "If you win this division, you've had a good season."
How can you pick against the Steelers? They return 19 of the 22 starters who started in their Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals last February.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in his prime and should be even better. The defense will be as ferocious as ever. But there are issues. The offensive line might have been the worst Super Bowl-winning line of all time, and four of the five starters are back. They have to play better.
The running game, long a Steelers staple, wasn't the same last season when it finished ranked 22nd. Then there are the Super extras, like a potential hangover and the fact you are the targeted every Sunday.
That gives the other teams in the division hope.
The Ravens, long known for their running game and brutish defense, might be moving more toward a passing offense with second-year quarterback Joe Flacco. He led the Ravens to the playoffs as a rookie starter last season and has made huge strides this preseason.
Flacco has been allowed more freedom in the passing game this summer, and he has responded in a big way. He looked like he was playing in a 7-on-7 drill last week against Carolina, carving the Panthers' secondary to shreds.
What I think will be key for the Ravens is whether they allow that style to continue in the regular season. They should. Flacco can make all the throws and he has a real feel for the offense.
There is some age on defense that is also a concern, but they should be fine for another year. One thing about the Steelers and Ravens: The front offices for those two teams are as good as any. They know how to replace departed players.
Cleveland is the clear bottom team in the division. New coach Eric Mangini will have a tough task in getting this team to win six games. But you can bet the Browns will be tough and physical.
It's the other team in Ohio that intrigues me. It has all summer long. That's if Palmer can stay on the field. He missed time during the preseason, but he's expected for the regular season opener.
The Bengals will score points. They should also be better on defense. So circle Week 3 on the calendar for a Sunday that will give us a real idea if they are truly going to be different in 2009.
That's the day the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Paul Brown Stadium. If they can win that one, who knows?
It's just too bad the Bengals aren't in the AFC West. Then Ochocinco's proclamation and my belief wouldn't seem so far out there.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Significant additions: DT Ziggy Hood, KR Stefan Logan and WR Shaun McDonald.
Significant losses: ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden and WR Nate Washington.
Biggest offseason move: They didn't make any big moves. Did they need to? This is a team that returns 19 of 22 starters from the Super Bowl.
Will reach the playoffs if ... Roethlisberger stays healthy and they don't fall victim to the Super hangover.
Rookie to watch: Logan. He will help upgrade a punt-return unit that was next-to-last in the league last season.
Overview: This is essentially the same team that won the Super Bowl last season. There are only three new starters at corner (William Gay), inside linebacker (Lawrence Timmons) and right guard (Trai Essex). The Steelers will be in the playoffs deep into January. The offensive line didn't play well last season and needs to play better if they are to have a chance to get back to their style. With Roethlisberger capable of making big plays in the passing game, look for even better numbers. Remember, his numbers were down some during the regular season. The defense is what will key this team again. Doesn't it always?

Baltimore Ravens
Significant additions: C Matt Birk, CB Domonique Foxworth, CB Chris Carr, T Michael Oher and OLB Paul Kruger.
Significant losses: C Jason Brown, CB Chris McAlister, S Jim Leonhard and LB Bart Scott.
Biggest offseason move: Seeing Brown leave via free agency to sign with the St. Louis Rams and signing Birk to replace him.
Will reach the playoffs if ... They allow Flacco to be more of a passer. It's time to set him free. They did in the preseason, but it has to carry over.
Rookie to watch: Oher. He's already a starter at right tackle and will provide a physical presence in the run game.
Overview: I really like what I've seen from Flacco this summer. He has developed into a player who really sees the field. He carved up Carolina last Saturday. He doesn't have great weapons outside, but they're good enough. Ray Rice is set for a big year running the football. The defense, even with the loss of coordinator Rex Ryan, will be nasty again. There is too much talent for a real fall down the rankings. This team will be a battle every week no matter who the opponent. If Flacco continues to grow, they could get past Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati Bengals
Significant additions: WR Laveranues Coles, T Andre Smith, LB Rey Maualuga and TE Chase Coffman.

Significant losses: TE Reggie Kelly (injury), T Stacy Andrews and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Biggest offseason move: Getting Palmer healthy. They are a different team with him in there.
Will reach the playoffs if ... If the offensive line can come together and keep Palmer on the field.
Rookie to watch: Coffman. With Kelly and Ben Utecht out for the season, Coffman has to be a factor in the passing game. He isn't a good blocker, however.
Overview: When you get back a quarterback of the caliber of Palmer, there's only one way to go. And that's up. How far depends on the line. If they can come together, this team will score a lot of points. What many don't realize is how good this defense can be. It was 12th last year and has one of the best young corner tandems in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. This is a unit that could be a lot better under underrated coordinator Mike Zimmer. If Baltimore or the Steelers struggle some, Cincinnati could slip into the playoff mix.

Cleveland Browns
Significant additions: S Abram Elam, G Floyd Womack, T John St. Clair, C Alex Mack, DE Kenyon Coleman, WR Brian Robiskie and WR Mohamed Massaquoi.
Significant losses: LB Andra Davis, S Sean Jones and TE Kellen Winslow.
Biggest offseason move: Firing Romeo Crennel and bringing in Mangini to take over. He brings a rigid style that can alienate players.
Will reach the playoffs if ... Palmer, Roethlisberger and Flacco all go down. Even then, it would be in doubt. But the Browns will be feisty.
Rookie to watch: Mack. He's already penciled in as the starter at center and will play a major role in how well the Browns can run it.
Overview: Mangini will do things his way. The question is whether that's a good thing. Some wonder why the Browns hired him, and that is a legitimate question after the Jets fired him. The quarterback situation is still in flux, although I think Brady Quinn will be the starter. He should be, anyway. The Browns will play a physical brand of football, which is the Mangini way, but do they have enough talent? I don't think so. They are the cellar team in this tough division and must wait a year before they can even think playoffs.

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