A rundown of the AFC North, with analysis of each team, stats on key players, and record predictions.
Western PA (and everywhere else it seems) loves the Steelers, and last year that large fan base was rewarded with its second Super Bowl victory in four years. Dick LeBeau directed the most dominant defense in football behind Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. The defense led the NFL in points per game by allowing just 13.9. They also only allowed 237 total yards per game and were the top passing defense. They really slacked, though, and were only the second ranked rush defense and only had the second most sacks (over 3 a game).
The actual weak point of the team last year was the offensive line, as Ben Roethlisberger suffered almost as many black and blues as the defense gave out, getting sacked 46 times (the team gave out 51). The whole line is being brought back, and another year together will possibly shore up those leaks. Amazingly, Pittsburgh did not get raided like many Super Bowl team victors do in the off season and return almost their whole team. My only fear for the Steeler diehards is complacency or a Roethlisberger injury. After winning the Super Bowl in 2005, the 2006 team slid back to 8-8. Something to keep in mind, but I think Coach Tomlin and this defense will keep this team a contender unless there are major injuries along the way.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger – 3,301 passing yards, 17 TDs, 15 INTs, 80.1 QB Rating
RB: Willie Parker – 210 rushes, 791 yards, 5 TDs, 5 missed games due to injury
WR: Santonio Holmes – 55 Receptions, 821 yards, 5 TDs, one huge Super Bowl winning catch
WR: Hines Ward – 81 Receptions, 1043 yards, 7 TDs.
Projected Record: 11-5
The Ravens Defense did not make for a fun Sunday afternoon for opponents, either. Baltimore had the second ranked pass defense and third ranked rush defense while giving up the third least points and second least yards. However, this defense lost their coordinator (Rex Ryan, now the NY Jets head coach), a key linebacker in Bart Scott, and a starting (and underrated in my opinion) safety in Jim Leonhard. It should be a very good defense again as they will have elite talent throughout, however those three losses could prove hard to replace and may mean a step back. If the defense does step back, will head coach Jim Harbaugh allow second year quarterback Joe Flacco to take over more? Unlike Pittsburgh, the Baltimore offensive line is a strength as they had the fourth most potent ground game last year and will probably be asked to carry the load again.
QB: Joe Flacco – 2,071 passing yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, 80.3 QB Rating
WR: Derrick Mason – 80 Receptions, 1,037 yards, 5 TDs
SFTY: Ed Reed – 9 INTs, 2 TDs, 1 Forced Fumble, 16 Pass Deflections
Projected Finish: 11-5
The 2008 season got off to a rough start as the Bengals dropped their first eight games. They rallied to finish the season on a three game winning streak and actually had a winning record in the second half. However, there are more questions than answers as the Bengals prepare to begin 2009. This may not have been the best time to have HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras follow the Bengals around, but I don’t think Head Coach Marvin Lewis had much of a choice. He is probably doing anything to save his job. Injuries surely played a part last year as star quarterback Carson Palmer only played in four games. However, he is already nursing injuries in this year’s training camp. The team finished with the worst statistical offense in the NFL, averaging only 12.8 points a game. The defense did improve and will need to take another step forward this year to compete with the Steelers and Ravens and become a winning club again.
QB: Carson Palmer 731 passing yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs, 69 QB Rating, missed 12 games
RB: Cedric Benson 214 attempts, 747 rush yards, 2 TDs, 10 games started
WR: Chad Ocho Cinco 53 receptions, 540 receiving yards, 4 TDs
Projected Finish 5-11
After suffering through their five losing season in six years, the members of the Dawg Pound have a new coach in Eric Mangini to rally behind. Mangini’s “genius” label wore off quickly, and it appears that there will be no quick turn around in Cleveland this time, either. The Browns had the second worst offense in the league last year, and the major change will be if Brady Quinn wins the quarterback job in training camp this year. That is looking likely, but success will prove to be a challenge as they need to score more than the 14.5 points they averaged last year. The defense will remain in the 3-4 formation but sorely needs more playmakers. Hopefully, the fans will be patient as the talent is upgraded throughout the roster. The most exciting part of this team is watching special teams great Joshua Cribbs. Whether returning or covering kicks, he is among the best in the NFL.
WR: Braylon Edwards 55 receptions, 873 receiving yards, 3 TDs
RB: Jamal Lewis 279 attempts, 1002 rushing yards, 4 TDs
Projected Finish 4-12
Ben Loux is father of two and husband of one (it works well that way). He makes his home in the Rochester, NY, area.