Division Up for Grabs; Ravens Edge Steelers, Bengals
Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Baltimore had the No. 1 defense in 2006, and all but one starter returns. All the questions are on the offensive side. The Ravens have an inexperienced offensive line, and Steve McNair is no spring chicken.
For some reason, Baltimore wants to be a passing team. They have weapons in Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, but McNair is inconsistent, doesn't have a quick release, and he needs a solid line. Is running back Willis McGahee really an upgrade over Jamal Lewis, especially with that weak line?
Defense wins championships, but a team needs balance to get there. Baltimore should nab a wild card should Pittsburgh or Cincinnati steal the division.
Visit SB Nation's Baltimore Ravens blog, Baltimore Beatdown.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
While I hate to simply things so much, it comes down to how the team transitions from Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin and whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has learned anything in the last 6 months -- like how to wear a helmet off the field as well as on, and why you're not supposed to throw the ball to the guy wearing the other color, and why it's a good idea to huck the ball out of bounds instead of running around like a goofy chicken until you're hauled down in the backfield.
The retirement of long-time center Jeff Hartings may be a short-term detriment, as Roethlisberger has enough to worry about already. The loss of Jerry Porter isn't as big a deal as some people think. This team has the tools to be a playoff contender, and I think they're better off without Cowher, who seemed to lose his touch after the Super Bowl win.
The Steelers have a pretty light schedule out of the gate, and they'll have to capitalize on that to set up the rest of the season.
Visit SB Nation's Pittsburgh Steelers blog, Behind the Steel Curtain.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
I can think of only one reason why a team with so much talent on paper plays 8-8 football. OK, two. Injuries, which can be pretty key when one of them is to one of the league's best quarterbacks. The other is discipline, and this team hasn't had it. And that can be attributed to one guy: the coach.
Marvin Lewis had better figure out how to lead and get his egotistical players to listen, or it's going to be another disappointing season in Cincy. The Bengals have a tough early schedule with Baltimore, Seattle and New England in the first four weeks. A Week 5 bye makes for a long stretch without a break until the end of the season. A slow start could spell disaster for a team that likes to play the blame game.
If Lewis got through to his players and found a few guys to be true leaders, they certainly have the weapons to be a legit playoff contender. If.
Visit SB Nation's Cincinnati Bengals blog, the Cincy Jungle.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
Cleveland is 1-11 in the last 3 years within the division. Three of their first four games are intra-division. That doesn't sound good. The good news is that all three of those games are at home. And that the other game is against the Raiders .. but it's in Oakland. Steal one or two of those home games and beat Oakland, and at least the season won't be an embarrassment.
But I don't see how the Browns can avoid it. A new quarterback (Charlie Frye), a new running back (Jamal Lewis), three new offensive lineman, including a highly touted rookie (Joe Thomas) but a rookie nonetheless. I don't know if you want to sacrifice Brady Quinn until you're sure the offensive line is working together as a unit, and Quinn hasn't looked all that great in practice, despite a good preseason game performance.
Cleveland's defense has been nothing to get pumped and jacked over, and they could be missing several starters early in the season. This could be Romeo Crennel's last season. Crennel might prove to be another great coordinator, mediocre head coach.
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Who will win the AFC North?
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