August 07, 2006
NFL Preview: AFC North
Baltimore: Lots of people like the Ravens to make a big jump this year. Jason Whitlock on ESPN.com even picked them to win Super Bowl XLI. But people said the Ravens would be a playoff team last year, and they suffered a terrible 6-10 season. They have upgraded greatly at quarterback from Kyle Boller to Steve McNair, but I don't think that upgrade will put them into the playoffs. McNair is old (33), but his body is even older - he's taken so many hits and been running for his life the past few seasons that he's extremely beat up. He also has a large history of injuries, so what happens to the Ravens bandwagon if McNair goes down in Week 3? Back to the Kyle Boller era. I wouldn't want to take that chance. Jamal Lewis used to be a great running back, but he was terrible last year. Will he become a great player again? I don't know. And the defense is still good, but they won't be reminding anyone of the '00 Ravens defense anytime soon. Ed Reed is arguably the best defensive player in the league, but Ray Lewis is not the player he once was, and their secondary lacks depth. Expect them to be a little better, but not playoff-bound, especially in a good division. If they're .500 at the end of the year, it will have been a good season.
Cincinatti: Much has been made of the Bengals' off-the-field problems this year - they've had numerous run-ins with the law, especially on the defensive side. People are calling them the Portland Trail Blazers of the NFL (more creative people like Bill Simmons have came up with new names, i.e. the "Cinmates"). But that kind of thing doesn't usually affect a player's performance on the field, unless it's really serious. The more pressing problem for the Bengals is Carson Palmer's knee. Palmer led the Bengals to an 11-5 season last year, and threw for more touchdowns than anyone in the league last year. If Palmer is healthy, this is arguably the best offense in the league - Rudi Johnson is a very good running back, Chad Johnson is a top-ten wide reciever, and the offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. But if Palmer's knee isn't healthy, it will be either Doug Johnson or Anthony Wright throwing the ball. And the defense was among the worst in the league last year. I think only one team from this division will make the playoffs - this is a balanced division, and they have to play the NFC South (which is possibly the best division in football) in interconference play. The Bengals have a very tough schedule, but I think Palmer will be healthy enough to lead this team back into the playoffs. They won't be as good as last year, though - 9-7, 10-6 maybe.
Cleveland: The Browns took a major step up last year, going from a 3-13 season in 2004 to a 6-10 record last year. What will happen in year 2 of the Romeo Crennel era? Either the Browns continue to improve, or their progress will be stunted and they'll have another 6-10 season. And since this is the 21st century, I'm not going to bet against any past or current Patriots coaches. Last year was the first time a lot of their players ever played in a 3-4 defense; this year their defense is a year more experienced and they brought in former Patriots Ted Washington and Willie McGinest to help. Their o-line should be better this year as well, and Charlie Frye is in his second year as the Browns' quarterback. The Browns' season will ride on Frye, but I think he will handle the pressure. I predict an 8-8 season for the Browns.
Pittsburgh: Every year there is one team that had a great year the previous year, and then falls off the map the next year. I'm sure you're all familiar with the curse of the Super Bowl loser, but I think the Steelers will have some trouble this year as well. The Steelers snuck in the playoffs last year as the sixth seed (albeit with an 11-5 record), and they're losing Jerome Bettis. Losing the Bus probably won't cause them too much grief on the field, but Bettis was a leader in the locker room and will be sorely missed. I don't think Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident should affect him too much, but I also don't think he was that great before the accident. He had everything going for him last year, and this year their karma and momentum will be gone. Willie Parker was a pleasant surprise last year at running back, but this year all the pressure will be on him. Hines Ward is still around, but Roethlisberger lost his #2 target Antwaan Randle El. The Steelers were a little lucky last year in their run to the Super Bowl, and the NFL is such a different league year-to-year that I expect Pittsburgh to take a major step back. I don't really have a reason for it, but I say the Steelers will have a 9-7 season and miss the playoffs. And if they repeat as Super Bowl champions, you know who to thank.