With training camps about to commence, I thought I would weigh in on a few issues affecting the AFC North. Without seeing so much as a preseason game, predicting winners and records seems absurd; however some of the moves (or lack thereof) made by AFC North teams does set a very interesting stage. Let's look at them by team.
The Bengals have had it rough the past few years. With both Ohio teams finishing with dismal records (4-11-1 for the Bengals), big moves and re-dedication on and off the field are expected by all. Perhaps the biggest win for the Bengals is the apparent focus and impressive summer training of Chad Ochocinco. While I do not think that the Bengals need the pressure added by his playoff promises to the Press, I do think that he is going to be sharper this year than he ever has been. Additionally, the Bengals are exuberant to have Carson Palmer healthy again. With these two presumably performing at full potential, plus the addition of Laveranues Coles, Tank Johnson, and Roy Williams; high expectations from Cedric Benson, and top draft picks Andre Smith and Ray Maualgua, the Bengals might have a shot at achieving a wildcard spot this year. However, with all the revamping done, their biggest obstacles will be creating chemistry quickly and helping Palmer un-rust even more quickly. Also, the Bengals need to work out the contracts with these talented rookies and get them on the field at camp, like, yesterday. My expectation: 9-7.
After posting a 4-12 season in 2008, the Browns look to improve on both sides of the ball in 2009. Rookie C Alex Mack is expected to make an immediate impact, protecting either Quinn or Anderson, depending on who wins Eric Mangini over in camp. Major setbacks for the Browns will include Mack's early holdout (a problem for both Ohio teams, appearantly), Stallworth's indefinate suspsension and pending legal problems, and being able to forge an effective chemistry with a team who is expected to start at least 3 of its draft picks. With so many questions still looming for the Browns, it appears Mangini will have to wait at least 1 more year before he sees a winning record. My expectation: 5-11.
The Ravens have a very solid team, and a few very wealthy defensive guys in Suggs and Lewis(deservedly, though). With all signs indicating that Flacco is getting better and more comfortable with his teammates and pro-football, Baltimore seems poised to get back to the AFC Championship. However, the recent and sudden departure of Derick Mason has been a huge setback. Unable, for cap reasons, to go for a Number One reciever (like Mason was, and may still be if he un-retires as the Ravens hope he does), and settled for Drew Bennett - a solid veteran, but definitely not a Number One reciever. Bennett adds solid depth to the position, but does not fill the void Mason leaves. Expecting more out of their backfield this year does not scare Coach Harbaugh, but it will be interesting to see how McGhee responds this season after his frightening exit in the 2008 AFC Championship game. 1st round pick Michael Oher should help keep Flacco upright, but the big question for Baltimore now is how to overcome the issues that losing Mason raises. My expectation - 11-5.
While many have argued that the Steelers have no shot at repeating this season, I should remind them that Pittsburgh will return 20 of 22 starters, including a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. That said, the big question is how will the surprise lawsuit on Big Ben's hands affect his mental status and focus? Time will tell, but there is no denying that it is a major distraction for the whole team. Outside of that, Pittsburgh is actually shaping up to look even tougher this year, with a fully-developed and freakishly athletic Lawrence Timmons filling in full-time for Larry Foote. The progress shown by Cornerback William Gay has been something Pittsburgh has been proud of since day 1, and seem eager to unleash him this year. Also, expect increasing production from guys like Limas Sweed and Rashard Mendenhall, who were injury plagued last year. My expectation - 13-3.
These are, of course, only my insights. Feel free to disagree with me, but just remember - these are only preseason observations. I understand that camps haven't even begun, and that anything can happen between now and the regular season. As Madden always says, "that's why they play the game."