I think the AFC North is the best division in football. Three of the four teams are legitimate contenders for the division title, and all four teams are talented. (Yes, even the Browns). From top to bottom, this division is the most competitive.
There are also a good amount of contrasting styles in this division. Cincinnati is the home to a high-flying offense and a number of felons. Baltimore has a tough defense……..and a felon at linebacker. Pittsburgh got rid of Joey Porter, so they are short on felons. But they do have a new coach and should be much improved after a very disappointing 2006. And Cleveland, while horrible last year, had a terrific draft and are a young team on the rise.
–Pittsburgh Steelers: In 2006, the Steelers were the defending champion and had a terrible season. Ben Roethlisberger had a serious motorcycle accident in the off-season, and never seemed right during the year. Willie Parker had a fantastic season running the ball, but the defense fell apart and tough losses to Oakland and Cincinnati pretty much ended the Steeler hopes for a repeat.
2007 holds new hope for the black and gold. New head coach Mike Tomlin is not messing around, as reports are that he is running the team ragged during training camp. I think this will work to the team’s advatage. I believe the Steelers are hungry after a subpar title defense and will take advantage of a easier schedule. Willie Parker should have another solid year, and the Steeler passing game and defense will improve enough so that Pittsburgh will return to the playoffs. 11-5.
–Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer. Chad Johnson. Rudi Johnson. TJ Houshamazilli (“championship”). There is little doubt that the Bengals have the firepower to beat any team. But the defense is terrible. Its too bad Odell Thurman has had his issues, because I think he’s a really talented linebacker who could make a serious difference on this unit. The offense is good enough to carry this team to 10 wins, and the Bengals will be a scary wild card playoff team. 10-6.
–Baltimore Ravens: After last year’s heartbreaking playoff loss to the Colts, the Ravens added running back Willis McGahee to enhance a putrid offense. But the problem this year for Baltimore will be the same problem they’ve been dealing with since moving from Cleveland: the quarteback position.
I respect Steve McNair a lot. I think he’s a gutty player, and his perfromance in the Super Bowl against the Rams in January 2000 was one of the most amazing I’ve seen. But he’s played his heart out for 12 years, and it is finally catching up with him. Defenses will begin to put 8 men in the box to shut down Willis, and this means trouble for a pass offense that was mediocre at best last year even though they were helped with more crazy breaks and deflected passes for touchdowns than any team in recent memory.
Still, the defense is really fun to watch. But the loss of Adalius Thomas will be big, and the Ravens offense will struggle. 8-8.
–Cleveland Browns: Joe Thomas and Brady Quinn will rescue this team, and the city of Cleveland, from football mediocrity. Just not this year.
I love Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. The Browns defense was bad last year, but it showed signs of life at time last year and could be a much improved unit in 2007. But Jamal Lewis, the Browns’ big free agent acquisition, can’t be counted on to carry the load for an entire season. Quinn will be starting by week 6, and by November the Browns will be out of the playoff hunt. But look for this team to begin to make a move in 2008. 6-10.