Two-Horse Race in AFC North for 2009
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Truer words were never spoken when it comes to forecasting the AFC North.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were the class of the division, taking their rivalry all the way to the AFC Championship game.
In 2009, the process may repeat itself.
The Super Bowl champion Steelers, along with the Ravens, are the class of the AFC North, and will battle for division supremacy once again.
Pittsburgh is in perfect position to defend its crown. The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from their Super Bowl XLIII run.
Pittsburgh returns all 11 starters on offense, led by QB Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben had a solid 2009 with 3,301 yards passing and 17 TDs. Oft injured RB Willie Parker looks to bounce back and stay healthy. If he can, look for Parker and Mewelde Moore to form a solid ground game.
Hines Ward, the best blocking wide receiver in the NFL, is back after posting another 80-catch, 1,000-yard season in 2008. Santonio Holmes is an emerging talent who had his breakout game in the Super Bowl. Nate Washington left for Tennessee, but head coach Mike Tomlin has Limas Sweed and free agent Shaun McDonald to pick up the slack.
Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth form a nice one-two combo at TE.
If there is a weakness on the Steelers it's at offensive line (and also backup quarterback). The entire o-line is back, but this unit surrendered 57 sacks (counting playoffs) last year and needs to improve.
Defense is the strength of the champs and this year should be no different with nine of 11 starters returning from the number one unit in the NFL.
ILB Larry Foote (Detroit) and CB Bryant McFadden (Arizona) left in free agency, but their departures shouldn't cause any problems. Foote was released because Lawrence Timmons was set to replace him anyway. McFadden's spot will be taken by either Deshea Townsend, Fernando Bryant or William Gay.
Any team that can line up NT Casey Hampton, OLB James Harrison, OLB Lamar Woodley and SS Troy Polamalu will be a favorite in most games. This defense is the main reason the Pittsburgh Steelers will claim another AFC North title in 2009.
Baltimore was competitive all year long against Pittsburgh despite dropping all three meetings (the scores were 23-20, 13-9, and 23-14 in the AFC title game).
The Ravens have a great young quarterback in Joe Flacco (2,971 yards, 14 TDS) and a dynamite 1-2 punch at running back with Willis McGahee (671 yards, 7 TDs) and FB Le'Ron McClain (902 yards, 10 TDs).
Wideouts Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are a decent set of receivers. Todd Heap is a first-rate tight end who can't stay healthy, which is why GM Ozzie Newsome went out and signed L.J. Smith in free agency.
The offensive line suffered a blow when center Jason Brown signed with St. Louis, but veteran Matt Birk has been brought in to take Brown's spot. The line was strengthened in the draft when tackle Michael Oher was selected in the first round.
Like the Steelers, defense is the strength of the Ravens, but age and free agency may be taking its toll.
ILB Bart Scott, SS Jim Leonhard, CB Corey Ivey and CB Chris McAlister are gone. Scott and Leonard followed Rex Ryan to the Jets, and Ivey landed in Cleveland. McAlister has yet to find a home.
All-everything ILB Ray Lewis is on the downside of his career, as well as DE Trevor Pryce.
The good news is Lewis, even at the end of his career, is still better than most linebackers. FS Ed Reed (9 int.), OLB Terrell Suggs (8 sacks), and NT Haloti Ngata are legit pro-bowl players every season.
The return of DE/NT Kelly Gregg and SS Dawan Landry from injury, and the signing of up-and-coming CB Dominique Foxworth in free agency, will give Baltimore another solid defense in 2009.
In the end, the Steelers just have too many horses on defense for the Ravens to overcome. Baltimore's success relies on its ground game to set up the pass. Against Pittsburgh, the Raven rushing attack is non-existent.
The games will be fun, intense, hard-hitting and low-scoring affairs, but in the end, the Steelers come out on top.
Tomlin and Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh are guys who preach toughness, discipline and intensity. As long as they're in charge, this rivalry will continue to give us entertaining football to watch.
Cincinnati gets Carson Palmer back and the front office rewarded his return by letting T.J. Houshmandzadeh leave. With a suspect defense and a running game depending on Cedric Benson, consider the Bengals lucky to even hold on to third in the division.
Cleveland has a new coach in Eric Mangini, fired after the Brett Favre debacle in New York, and already the players are starting to grumble about his coaching methods. Mangini reportedly fined his players in mini-camp for making mental mistakes.
With Kellen Winslow gone, a quarterback controversy brewing between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, not much of a defense and Braylon Edwards wanting out in the worst way, the Browns will have trouble winning even five games this season.
Here are my predictions for the AFC North in 2008
1. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
2. Baltimore Ravens 9-7
3. Cincinnati Bengals 5-11
4. Cleveland Browns 4-12
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