Sunday, September 5, 2010

AFC North Preview

First Place, Cincinnati Bengals

Offensive Players:
QB Carson Palmer
RB Cedric Benson
WR Chad Ochocinco
WR Terrell Owens
TE Jermaine Grisham (R)
LT Andre Whitworth

Defensive Players:
DE Robert Gathers
DE Antwan Odom
LB Ray Maualuga
LB Dhani Jones
CB Leon Hall
CB Jonathan Joseph
SS Roy Williams

In a stacked AFC North, in which even the lowly Cleveland Browns seem to be improving, I really like the Bengals. I know Ben Roethisberger will only be out 4 games now, and the Steelers will be rock solid when he gets back, but I really like what the Bengals have done on offense and with their defensive backfield. They have one of the best receiving tandems in the league, albeit two guys well into their 30's, and have the rejuvenated workhorse Cedric Benson (300 carries, 1200 yards, 6 TD) looking to build on last years breakout. They're going to be one of the toughest teams to pass against with corners' Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall and nickelback Adam "Pacman" Jones blanketing opposing wideouts. If Carson Palmer can play the whole year like he did the first half of '09 (14 TD's/7 Ints, 1,832 yards and a 90 QB rating), and most importantly, stay healthy throughout the year, the Bengals should win 12 games. If Palmer goes down, so do their playoff hopes though as they have no experienced backup QB.

2nd Place, Pittsburgh Steelers*

Offensive Players:
QB Ben Roethlisberger (out until wk. 5)
RB Rashard Mendenhall
WR Hines Ward
WR Mike Wallace
TE Heath Miller
LT Max Starks
C Maurkice Pouncey (R)

Defensive Players:
NT Casey Hampton
LB LaMarr Woodley
LB James Farrior
LB James Harrison
CB Ike Taylor
SS Troy Polamalu

Everybody, including Sports Illustrated, likes the Steelers to win this division, but I think the loss of Roethlisberger for the first 4 games will be a bigger blow than expected. Not too mention, the Steelers lost one of his most reliable targets in Santonio Holmes this offseason. Their defense is once again rock-solid, and they have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, led by one of the nastiest O-lines in the league. If they can survive the first four weeks though (likely with Dennis Dixon doing the majority of the quarterbacking) and get to week 5 at 2-2 or 3-1, then they'll be just fine. No matter who wins this division, at least 2 teams, maybe 3 will make the playoffs, and the Steelers will most certainly be one of them.

3rd Place, Baltimore Ravens

Offensive Players:
QB Joe Flacco
RB Ray Rice
WR Anquan Boldin
WR Derrick Mayson
TE Todd Heap
LT Michael Oher

Defensive Players:
NT Kelly Gregg
DT Haloti Ngata
LB Ray Lewis
LB Terrell Suggs
FS Ed Reed
SS Dawan Landry

The Ravens improved their offense this offseason and solidified their passing game with the addition of all-pro wideout Anquan Boldin, but they failed to put their attention on their defense, which surprisingly, has become the weakness of the team. They shouldn't have any problem scoring points with their offense revolving around Flacco and Rice, two pro-bowlers who are still improving. They do, however, have one of the weakest secondarys in all the NFL, and are going to have some trouble providing a consistent pass-rush. That said, the Ravens are still a good enough team to make the playoffs and would actually be the favorites in some of the weaker divisions in the league. They just need their vets to carry that defense and hope that a few guys emerge in that young, unproven cornerback bunch.

4th Place, Cleveland Browns

QB Jake Delhomme
RB Jerome Harrison
WR Mohamed Massaquoi
LT Joe Thomas

NT Shaun Rogers
LB D'Quell Jackson
LB Scott Fujita
CB Eric Wright
CB Sheldon Brown

In a division where the top-3 teams are so closely matched, this is the one certainty in the AFC North. The Browns just don't have enough firepower to match up with most teams in the league, let alone three of the league's top-1o teams. Delhomme will be an improvement over Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson at QB, but not much, and isn't the answer for the future. I really like Jerome Harrison at running back, and Mohamed Massaquoi has shown some glimpses of greatness, but that's about all they got on offense. New GM Mike Holmgren is in just his first year with the Browns, so I expect vast improvements. The one area where they can build around is their defensive secondary, where they have one of the better CB duo's in the league.

* indicates AFC Wildcard Team
(R) indicates Rookies

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