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2009 Division Winners: Pittsburgh Steelers

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2009 Division Winners: Pittsburgh Steelers

No one in this division seems primed for a deep playoff run, but lets start at the bottom.

 

The Bengals

Bengals fans have to wonder if Carson Palmer will ever return to his 2005 dominance, or if Chad Ochocinco will spend more time this year actually catching touchdowns or just continue working on his latest endzone performance, should he ever get back there.

The running game is still injury plagued at best, the receiving corps underwent a massive overhaul in the wrong direction, the offensive line did not receive the necessary attention, and the defense is just lacking. Nothing major though, just overall lacking at pash rushing, run stuffing, coverage, containment, and oh yeah, tackling.

Even if the defense figures out a few things, then somehow Carson and Chad develop the rapport they had in 2005, they are now missing T.J. Houshmandzadeh, which begs the question: Is there another receiver on the team that can really handle facing a lot of double coverage?

When you have Chad on one side and T.J. on the other, you either face the nickel corner or the number two safety, rarely more. Now, whoever steps in will be facing the number two corner, and perhaps the number two safety on top of that.

Look for the Bengals to struggle early, and even if all of the offensive playmakers stay healthy, I do not forsee much luck trying to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice a year. And even if you survive that, you have Indy, Tennessee, and New England to beat out. Good luck.

 

The Browns

This team is in such turmoil, with such a ridiculous QB race, they might as well invite Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde to join in.

Lets face it, this team may not beat their win total from last year. Nevermind the 10-win season two seasons ago, that may as well have been two decades ago. This past season the passing game never seemed to materialize, and as if that wasn’t frustrating enough, Kellen Winslow ran himself out of town.

Add to that the fact trade rumors surfaced for much of the spring that Brady Quinn and Braylon Edwards were to be traded. Now that the draft is over and free agency is mostly dead, the Browns have their team set.

The only question remains, who might start, and why did they bother to stay?

Eric Mangini, the man who put the keys to the offense in Mr. Greybeard Brett Favre’s arthritic hands while coaching the Jets, has to decide who is better for the current regime?

Derek Anderson, who in all accounts is very similar in playing style to Favre, or Brady Quinn, the hometown favorite and accurate passer who looked promising in all of 2 starts last season.

Were it my choice I would say there really is no decision here. You know Anderson is not a long term solution, as even when Edwards and Winslow were healthy for a whole season and both broke 1,000 yards the Browns still struggled to win 10 games.

Quinn came from a similar system in college, and was coached by a former co-worker of Mangini’s, Charlie Weis. In a system devoid of consistent playmakers, an accurate and smart QB is not just a want, it is downright necessary.

Go with Quinn, and hope Edwards returns to the form he showed in 2006. Either way just try to get to .500, anything after that is just dominance compared to last season.

 

The Ravens

Now that the cellar dwelling half of this division is done, let's start looking at the top half.

The Ravens lost one of the top defensive coordinators in the league when Rex Ryan was hired to coach the Jets, and now Derrick Mason, their “pacifier” for Joe Flacco, has announced his retirement. To make matters worse, just two days after agreeing to join the team, Drew Bennett has announced he will stay retired.

What are the odds an aging defense under a new coordinator and an offense that never really took off that is now depleted can challenge the Colts, Chargers, or even the Patriots for AFC supremacy? It doesn’t look good.

Joe Flacco may be Big Ben year two, but we may never get to see what he can really do.

He used a lot of the same keys to success Ben Roethlisberger took advantage of in his rookie season. The main difference in year two? Big Ben had a steady running game, Joe doesn’t. Big Ben had the likes of Hines Ward and Antwan Randle El. Joe has such “proven, big name talent” as Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton.

Joe’s lack of positive decision making was exposed in the AFC championship game, just like Big Ben in 2004. Big Ben had Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, and Duece Staley to lean on when he wasn’t passing in 2005, Joe will have Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain.

Todd Heap is inconsistent at best when healthy, and other than the two key departures (Derrick Mason and Bart Scott), this team is basically the same as it was in 2008, which could lead to disappointing results now that the Patriots and Chargers are back to their 2007 form.

 

The Steelers

After reading the above, you must be on the same page as I am. This division obviously belongs to the Steelers, even though they never seem to show the utter dominance we all know they are capable of.

The running game is effective no matter who is in the backfield, although this season should be better than last as both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall are healthy.

The offensive line has had a whole season to get used to the loss of Alan Fenaca, but are not without their flaws. Ben Roethlisberger suffered large amounts of hits and sacks last year, and the offense did not seem to get going until the midway point of the season.

That is all fine as long as you have one of the most stingy defenses in recent memory, which the Steelers have. This year might be different however. In the two years the Steelers have won the Super Bowl this decade, both titles have come in strange years.2005 was marked by horrible play on the NFC side (case and point, Chicago and Seattle were the dominant teams that year), and defending champ New England seemed vulnerable in the playoffs for the first time since the 90’s (they did lose to a Denver team led by Jake Plummer, how often would that happen to Brady and Billicheck?).

Carson Palmer and Co. beat the Steelers during the regular season, only to watch in horror as Palmer suffered a knee injury during the first series of the divisional playoffs (as he was being hurt, Palmer still managed to throw a deep sideline pass to Chris Henry that went for six). Jon Kitna stepped in, and he is no substitute for Palmer. Kitna isn’t really a substitute for any starter I can think of, but no coach worth his salt is going to have zero backups, even in this economy.

Then look at 2008. The Patriots are again vulnerable, as Brady is injured and Matt Cassell is unable to lead the team to the playoffs. The Steelers play in a division consisting of the Browns, Bengals, and a talented Ravens defense with no offense. That calculates to six guaranteed wins last year.

Round out about four more and you are in the playoffs. Lets face it, the AFC was weaker last year and we all know it. You can argue Peyton Manning never returned to his previous form, thanks in large part to a dismal offensive line and broken running game.

Then Tom Brady goes down in week one, and then the Titans and Ravens prove to be shells of teams hiding behind killer defenses. That doesn’t leave much to plow through once the playoffs roll around. Add to that the Chargers never seemed to get on track, and you really only have one team to beat, and that is whoever shows up in the Super Bowl.

Lets talk about that Super Bowl. The Steelers faced one of the top offensive teams in the league, and were put on the ropes. Kurt Warner and more specifically Larry Fitzgerald tore apart the Steelers vaunted defensive schemes, and nearly won the game.

This from a team that struggled to score in the last few weeks of the regular season. One could argue the whole league was a shell of its 2007 self, and I think that argument is correct. The Giants lost Plaxico Burress.  Football fans who do not like Eli Manning like to poke fun at the fact that he struggled without his “security blanket”. But what QB would be fine if his number one playmaker leaves?

Is Peyton very as effective when he is missing Marvin Harrison?

I would say no, and the last couple seasons where Marvin was clearly struggling took Peyton back a notch. Look for his numbers to dwindle a bit this year now that Marvin is out of the picture for good.

Tom Brady went from above average game manager to QB of the decade the minute he got Randy Moss. A true playmaking wideout can make or break a QB. I think the whole league as a whole was a disaster last year, the matchup in the super bowl is proof enough. I will save the rest of this argument for another day.

The fact is, the Steelers are an above average team that knows how to take advantage of an opportunity.

Look for them to take an early exit from the playoffs this year, especially if they get matched up with San Diego again. Phillip Rivers will be looking for blood, as will Shawn Merriman.

Either way the Steelers still win the AFC North, more for lack of competition than because I think they are truly that good.

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