This is part 3 of 8 in a series that doesn’t look like it’s going to be finished by Sunday. If that ends up being the case, I’ll go ahead and finish it, and I’ll just have to be a week late. You can also check out my previews for the AFC West and AFC South. This is an interesting division because it consists of two great teams and two, well, to put it nicely, not-so-great teams. The two great teams being the Super Bowl Champion Steelers, and the team that they barely beat in the AFC Championship game, the Baltimore Ravens. The other two teams are the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns.
Last year the division was decided by about a millimeter, if that. The Steelers beat the Ravens to win the division when Santonio Holmes caught a touchdown pass with his body in the end zone, but the ball not in the end zo… well, did it cross the plane, maybe some part of it might have by the slightest part been over the plane. Maybe? It was pretty controversial and ended up having a pretty significant impact on the rest of the season.
The Baltimore Ravens will be out for revenge this year. This is the second year with head coach John Harbaugh and second year for starting quarterback and last year’s rookie sensation, Joe Flacco. With a year of experience under each of their belts this should help a lot, especially with improving upon last year’s 28th ranked passing offense and the fact that Flacco threw four picks in the AFC Championship game. The defense has a new coordinator in Greg Mattison, but with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs still there this shouldn’t be an issue. The Ravens lost a few players, the most important of which is linebacker Bart Scott, who went to the Jets. Fullback, Lorenzo Neal went to the Raiders, and both cornerback Chris McAlister and kicker Matt Stover were released. They mad up for their losses though by bringing in center Matt Birk from the Vikings, who will be starting this year and they also drafted offensive tackle Michael Oher in the first round from Ole Miss, he will be starting at right tackle and in the second round they drafted linebacker, Paul Kruger out of Utah, who is backing up Terrell Suggs at the right outside linebacker position. The Ravens have a very real shot at dethroning the Steelers and winning the division, but I don’t have the guts to predict it. My prediction: 12-4
The Cincinnati Bengals are going to struggle this year again. They appeared to be making steps in the right direction on the defensive side of the ball unfortunately the offense ranked last in the league in terms of offense which led them right into a 4-11-1 season. Oddly enough three of those four wins came in the last three games of the season, something that makes no sense to me. You’re already out of the playoffs. That’s the wrong time to put together a three game winning streak unless you’re wanting a lower draft pick. Carson Palmer was out for the large majority of the season with an elbow injury, but I don’t necessarily see him being able to return and single-handedly turn things around especially when you consider the fact that three of the teams starting offensive linemen from last year and their number two receiver were all lost in free agency. Those players being receiver, TJ Houshmanzadeh, who went to the Seahawks, offensive tackles Levi Jones and Stacy Andrews and center Eric Ghiaciuc. They tried to cushion the blow to the offensive line by drafting Andre Smith out of Alabama in the first round but he held out for a better contract and then broke his foot two days after reporting to camp. Not good. They helped on the receiver from though by signing Laveranues Coles from the Jets, who will be lining up on the other side from Chad Ochocinco. They also drafted freak tight end Chase Coffman in the third round from Mizzou, but he is only listed as third on their depth chart right now. They got strong safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Williams from the Cowboys, both will be starters. In the second round they drafted Rey Maualuga out of USC who is currently a backup at outside linebacker and in the third round defensive end Michael Johnson out of Georgia Tech, now the backup right end. It’ll be interesting to see how they do this year, but I wouldn’t have high hopes. My prediction: 6-10.
The Cleveland Browns don’t even know who their starting quarterback is. Head coach Romeo Crennel was fired one day after the season ended, after going 24-40 in four seasons. He will be replaced by Eric Mangini, who was fired by the Jets. Not sure if it’s much of an improvement. Mangini will try to help the team improve it’s run defense that ranked 28th in the league last year. He brought six defensive players from the Jets with him to Cleveland in hopes that they will help his cause. His biggest concern is who he will start at quarterback. Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson? The team’s official website’s depth chart doesn’t even have anyone listed at quarterback… and they play in less than 48 hours. Not a good sign. Also they had one of their top receivers suspended for the entire 2009 season after a drunk driving incident that ended in a pedestrian being killed. They also lost tight end Kellen Winslow, defensive tackle Shaun Smith, linebacker Andra Davis, among others. They did bring in a TON of new players however including four receivers, four defensive backs, four offensive linemen, three linebackers and a tight end. Many of those players are now starters: inside linebacker Eric Barton, strong safety Abram Elam, tight end Robert Royal, right tackle John St. Clair, right guard Floyd Womack, defensive end Kenyon Coleman, and right outside linebacker David Bowens. Others of note are number three cornerback Hank Poteat, number three wide receiver Mike Furrey, the fourth and fifth receivers are a pair of rookies taken in the second round of the draft, Brian Robiskie from Ohio State and Mohamed Massaquoi from Georgia. In the first round they drafted center Alex Mack from Cal, who will likely win over the starting spot by the end of this year, and another second round pick being inside linebacker David Veikune from Hawaii. There is a lot of change here, which makes it hard to predict with much confidence, but I think I’m being generous… My prediction: 6-10.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champions. Their defense is phenomenal and really the only weakness on the team in the offensive line, which according to Ben Roethlisberger is actually his fault. The last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl they stumbled to an 8-8 record the following year. Mike Tomlin wasn’t the head coach then and hopes he can do differently and avoid a poor season as the defending champs. He is the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl at the age of 37 and isn’t worried about what happened in the past. That’s easy after your Super Bowl winning squad only lost two starters in cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Larry Foote. The defense ranked first in pass defense and second in run defense last year so they can afford to take a couple small hit like that and not worry too much. The biggest loss other than the two starters mentioned was Nate Washington, a wide receiver who was signed by the Titans. They tried to make up for their losses though by bringing in the likes of receiver Shaun McDonald from the Lions, and drafting receiver Mike Wallace from Ole Miss in the third round and they also have second round pick from the 2008 draft, receiver Limas Sweed and Super Bowl hero receiver Santonio Holmes as well as Big Ben’s favorite target Hines Ward so they won’t miss Nate Washington too much. They also drafted two other players in the third round, offensive lineman Kraig Urbik from Wisconsin, who is listed as the backup right guard and cornerback Keenan Lewis from Oregon State, who is listed as third string. In the first round they drafted Evander “Ziggy” hood from Mizzou, but he was injured in the offseason. The only other player of note they got was cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, who was with the Colts and in all honesty I’m glad he’s gone. I wonder how long it will take the Steelers to realize he’s more of a hindrance than a help. Oh well, this team is still stacked on defense and primed for a repeat. My prediction: 14-2.
Division Standings Prediction:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns
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