Lets continue predicting the divisions and continue on with the AFC North home of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, but how does this division break out in '09, the recent retirement of Derek Mason made this a closer race for a playoffs spot.
Schedule Specifics: AFC North plays: AFC West and NFC North
1) Pittsburgh Steelers: A lot to like, the best defense in the NFL, they might have best unit offense or defense in the league, a primetime talent at QB, an improving receiving core, a healthy running back core with a lot of talent between Parker and Mendenhall and did I mention a very favorable schedule. There are some concerns: the offense line is good to mediocre and showed definite flaws against teams that use overload blitzes (Ravens & Eagles), the improved health of RB’s might help the running game but it still must improve, and Ben Roethlisberger has taken a few concussions already and his brave aggressive style of play exposes him to even more injuries. In general the schedule is almost perfectly setup, the offense will continue to evolve and Big Ben should put numbers similar to his ’07 stats, and the defense might be even better with Lawrence Timmons taking over at ILB. Win prediction: 12-15 wins
2) Baltimore Ravens: Left a lot positive memories in ’08 are associated with them, a dominant defense, a power running game, a talented young QB with tremendous potential. If this team had stayed together a return to the conference title game was a reasonable goal for ’09, but with a new season not all of the parts that made the conference finalist are back. Gone are Bart Scott and ascending center Jason Brown, and the recent and sudden retirement of WR Derek Mason add to that departure of brilliant DC Rex Ryan and that’s quite a bit of minus checkmarks. The defense will still be good as the great talent and leadership Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will not let there be major slippage but a defensive ranking closer to 10th than 2nd is a reasonable downgrade. Offensively an upswing was expected but this is still a passing league and Flacco’s stats were hardly dominant even with Derek Mason, a young game managing QB with young WR’s doesn’t exactly scream out dominant offense, the running game will carry this team and expect a breakout season from RB Ray Rice. The schedule has 5 games with the elite division contenders: Steelers (2), Chargers, Colts and Patriots, add some good teams in NFC north and an ascending Bengals team and the schedule is tough. Win Prediction: 8-10 wins.
3) Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals in ’08 were a tale of two halves; in the first half same old Bengals they were just terrible, in the second half even without star QB Carson Palmer they closed 4-3-1. What’s to like you ask: an improving defense that finished 12th in the league, led by star corners Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, a suddenly motivated and for the first time productive RB Cedric Benson add a healthy Carson Palmer and WR core with Chris Henry, Laverneus Coles and a motivated Chad Johnson (will not call him by his ridiculous name; by the way 85 is ochenta y cinco for the Spanish impaired Chad). But the offensive line was bad and even with rookie OLT Andre Smith mediocrity is best expectation for that key unit, even though the defense is improving the pass rush is very poor (17 sacks in ’08). If you told me you had an improving defense that already finished 12th, a good RB and a 4000 yard QB, I would tell you that team should go to the playoffs, but OLine weakness and bad pass rush and these are the Bengals so I will temper expectations and say the playoffs will come in ’10. Win Prediction: 6-9 wins.
4) Cleveland Browns: Not to sound arrogant but the Browns were my pick to be the most disappointing team in ’08, they rode a soft schedule a career year from inconsistent QB Derek Anderson and had true star years from Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, but if you looked beyond those stars there was too many bad players around them and a very strong schedule just put them through the ringer in ‘08. Gone is Kellen Winslow and Edwards will almost be surely gone by the start of ’10 season. So its back to rebuilding there are some high points the OLine can be very good and QB Brady Quinn showed excellent accuracy at times and a serious work ethic. But the skill position talent is poor and the defense had 17 sacks and beyond Shaun Rogers the talent level is below par. Win Prediction: 2-4 wins.
Playoff Teams: Steelers (13-3 2nd seed AFC) & Ravens (9-7 6th seed AFC)