The Steelers opponents in 2008 combined to win 133 games, good enough for Pittsburgh to end up playing the seventh toughest schedule. This obviously was no hurdle for them as they were consistently strong all year, never losing back-to-back games, ended the regular season at 12-4, and marched their way to a come-from-behind Super Bowl victory.
The Steel Curtain defence Pittsburgh is famous for, was again the team’s strong point, ranking second vs the run, first vs the pass and second in sacks, while also allowing the fewest points against with only 223. The offence was never flashy, posting middling results both on the ground and in the air, however they were always able to do just enough to get the job done. Their biggest concern was the fact that Big Ben continued to see some of the most grass of any QB in the league, as the Steelers allowed the fourth most sacks in the league.
The top teams in the league, much less the Super Bowl champions, often see a tougher schedule the following season. However the schedule makers were very kind and rewarded Pittsburgh with only the league’s 29th toughest schedule. Their schedule looks to set up nicely as well with them only leaving the East or Central time zone once for a game in Denver, not having to play any teams off a bye week and having their bye week at a decent time in Week Eight, nearly in the middle of the year.
With Santonio Homes looking like he is emerging as a future star, and Rashard Mendenhall returning from injury to join Willie Parker in the backfield, it would look as if Pittsburgh has some parts in order to improve on offense in 2009. Roethlisberger will always keep the team in any game but his protection will have to tighten up if he is to have a long career. The problem I see is that outside of a few rookies, nothing was done to upgrade this offensive line in the offseason, and the WR corps lost serviceable Nate Washington to free agency.
Pittsburgh’s defence should remain elite, especially with the softer schedule they are set up to face. Their linebackers are arguably the best in the league, CB Bryant McFadden departed in free agency as well, and every starter on the defensive line will be in their 30s this year.
The Steelers will play some of last year’s worst teams in the Bengals, Browns, Packers, Lions, Raiders and Chiefs. They also only play four teams (Titans, Vikings, Ravens and Dolphins) who made it to double digit victories last year. With a win total at 10.5 there would look to be more than enough spots for the Steelers to get to or go over that number. When I looked down their schedule I found their number to be set very accurately. Obviously some of these teams that struggled last year will improve and it’s unlikely the Bengals and Browns will combine for only eight wins again.
Prediction: Over 10.5 wins. But this is only a very slight lean to the over and only because of their very soft schedule. If Pittsburgh does make it to 11 wins, I think it will come down to the very end of the year and could very easily stay under the number with a couple of upset losses. Precede with caution.
The Ravens got off to a mediocre start last season, opening up 2-0 and then dropping their next three straight games. However they then proceeded to win nine of their final 11 games, behind a surprisingly effective offense and stout D. They entered the playoffs as a Wildcard team really only by name, and proved they belonged as they steamrolled past Miami and outlasted the Titans in the Divisional round. The one team the Ravens struggled with most all season had been the Steelers, losing both their regular season games to them, and that trend continued in the AFC Championship game. With four turnovers and being worn out from their game with the Titans, Pittsburgh proved to be too much for the Ravens for a third time that year.
The Ravens mirrored the Steelers in many ways last year, mostly in defensive numbers, ranking third vs. the rush and second vs. the pass. They were one of the best teams running the ball with the combination of Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain ranking fourth in the league. While Joe Flacco was extremely effective moving the chains as a rookie, the Ravens still ranked 28th in passing and their inability to throw in the playoffs was a big part of their undoing. Overall the Ravens actually had the best combination of offence and defence in the league as they tied with Tennessee in Net Points with +141.
What I wrote about Pittsburgh’s strength of schedules both last year and this, can be almost repeated for the Ravens. While their opponents had the eighth most wins last year, (one spot behind Pittsburgh’s) the Ravens have also been rewarded in 2009, by getting the fifth easiest schedule.
This offseason Baltimore did very little to improve on their areas of weakness from 2008. TE L.J Smith was signed, but he likely won’t be a major difference maker. The Ravens actually didn’t even draft a WR and that decision may come back to haunt them down the road. The cupboard is not exactly overflowing with a dearth of pass catching threats, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams often struggle and Derrick Mason isn’t getting any younger at 35. Obviously this was after the draft, but Mason’s brief retirement almost put Baltimore in serious trouble before he changed his mind. As Flacco’s top target, it’s key to have him back in the line up, but you have to wonder if his focus is beginning to wane at all.
Their talent at RB should continue to excel, however the offensive line will be going through changes. At C Matt Birk will replace Jason Brown and rookie Michael Oher will most likely replace the retired Willie Anderson at RT. Some injury concerns are already beginning to pile up though on the offense as Mason and Clayton are nursing injuries, as well as OT Marshall Yanda, and T Adam Terry is already out for the year with a knee injury.
The Ravens defence still has more than enough parts to remain elite, and being able to resign Ray Lewis was the Raven’s biggest offseason move. However key performers like LB Bart Scott, CB Chris McAllister and S Jim Leonard were not retained.
From a records standpoint, Baltimore’s schedule does shape up nicely. A closer look though does reveal some troubling areas. Firstly they will make an early cross country trip, as they start the year off at home, then go to San Diego in Week Two and then return back to the east at home in Week Three. Then from Weeks Eight to 10 they play three games against teams coming off a bye, followed by a game Week 11 vs. Indy and Week 12 vs. Pittsburgh. In Week 13 they will then travel to Green Bay who will have had a few extra days of rest after having played on Thursday the week before.
When I first began handicapping the Ravens, I was envisioning them taking another step forward from last year and having a chance to go deep into the playoffs again. Opponents will have had a full offseason to game plan for Joe Flacco though this year, and with the limited amount of pass catching options, teams should be well prepared for a healthy does of Rice, McGahee and McClain. With the losses their roster has suffered and the few injuries which are already popping up I feel the Ravens will be hard pressed to be as successful as they were in 2008.
Prediction: Under 8.5
Last season the Bengals weren’t able to catch any breaks. Carson Palmer was limited in the four games he played in due to an elbow injury and was eventually shut down for the year. Already playing at a major disadvantage without their star signal caller, it didn’t help matters that Cincinnati caught many opponents who were in the midst of having productive years. Cincy’s ’08 opponents racked up the third most wins in the league with 141 and a .552 winning percentage. To make matters worse, Ochocinco had one of his worst seasons and star-in-the-making Keith Rivers was lost for most of the year with a broken jaw.
A long story short, the Bengals struggled immensely, scoring the fewest points in the league with 204, and posting the worst point differential in the AFC at -160. They were especially bad on the road as they tied with Kansas City and St. Louis for the second worst road records at 1-7, ranking only better than the 0-8 Lions.
There is really very little positive on to comment about the Bengal’s ’08 year, as they ranked near the bottom of the league in most major statistical categories. With their poor offensive output, it’s no surprise they ranked 29th in rushing and 30th in passing offense. Their play in trenches also left much to be desired, as they were 30th in sacks allowed and 31st in producing their own. Overall Cincy got off to an 0-8 start, before finishing respectably by their standards on a 4-3-1 run to finish 4-11-1. A closer look at these wins though will show that none of them came against a team with a winning record, and the four teams that they beat only combined for 19 wins on the year between themselves.
There is obviously not many places to go for the 2009 edition of the Bengals besides up. With Carson Palmer back in the line up, Ochocinco apparently rejuvenated and only facing the league’s 22nd toughest schedule, the pieces would seem to be in place for an improvement.
If Palmer remains healthy this offense should revert back to its high flying ways. Even with the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the combination of Ochocinco, Chris Henry, FA Laveranues Coles and RB Cedric Benson should provide enough firepower on offense. But Palmer is already nursing an ankle injury this preseason, and while minor, there is next to nothing behind him on the depth chart should he miss any time at all.
This is a team I find myself rooting for after their many years of ineptitude and their gradual improvement over the last few years. Unfortunately I don’t know if getting Palmer back behind center is going to be enough to vault this team up the standings. There are still many holes throughout the line up in my opinion and far too many young players being forced into starting roles. In fact the offensive line could possibly have two rookie starters in Andre Smith and Jonathon Luigs.
The bottom line is that Cincinnati didn’t even come close to competing against either of Pittsburgh or Baltimore last year and those two teams are still solid and will still make up four of the Bengals games this year. While Cincy’s schedule isn’t lined up to be the toughest, I believe some of their opponents like Green Bay, Houston, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, San Diego, KC and the Jets all will be better teams this year or at least have a strong potential for improvement. If the Bengals avoid any injuries to key players, Ochocinco and Coles produce at a high level and the defence takes a step forward this team may have the potential for 7-8 wins, but I feel there are too many “ifs” here to make a strong case for the over.
Prediction: Under 6.5 wins
2008 was supposed to be a year in which the Browns proved that there 10 wins in 2007 were no fluke, and that they were here to stay as a force to be reckoned with in the AFC. Instead all they did was make 2007 look more like an anomaly, amongst their recent history of disappointing seasons. The four wins they recorded fell much more in line with the four, six and four wins they posted from 2004-2006.
Though Cleveland did finish with a better record than three other teams in the league, they quite possibly had one of the worst second halves of a season the NFL has ever seen. The Browns struggled right from the onset of the season starting 0-3, but were 3-4 after Week Eight and 4-6 after Week Eleven. Week Twelve turned out to be the start of a truly awful 0-6 stretch to end the season, as the Browns scored only 31 points during that time, didn’t score an offensive touchdown in over 24 quarters and were shutout in their final two games.
With these kinds of results and both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn injured, its no surprise that Cleveland ranked poorly in many major statistical categories. With both QBs healthy and ready to compete for the starting role this year, improvement on the team’s 26th rushing and 31st passing attacks should be doable. The Browns got run over on defence last year ranking 28th vs. run, but were a respectable 14th against the pass. With emerging talents at CB in Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald and the addition of SS Abram Elam, the secondary could again be a strength in Cleveland this year.
Some of the Brown’s misfortunes last season could be attributed to the fact that they ended up playing the league’s toughest schedule, playing opponents with a .573 winning percentage. In fact they only played three teams, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Jacksonville all year who had a below .500 record.
This year the schedule hopes to be softer on the Browns coming in as only the 25th toughest. It won’t all be easy because major changes were made to the organization this offseason. The Brown’s entire leadership structure has changed with a new GM, Coach, Offensive and Defensive Coordinators. Ex-Jet Eric Mangini takes over the coaching reigns for his third try at leading a team, and he will have to do without the services of Kellen Winslow Jr. who was dealt to Tampa. Rookie WRs Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi will look to replace Donte Stallworth as adequate targets opposite Braylon Edwards, with Stallworth being suspended indefinitely for his manslaughter DUI charges. The offensive line struggled to open up running lanes in 2008, but was decent defending the pass ranking ninth. This unit also is undergoing mass changes, with the potential of having to break in three new starters in rookie C Alex Mack, and FA pickups G Floyd Womack and T John St. Clair.
As touched on earlier, the Browns have only won four games in three of their past five seasons and now oddsmakers are expecting them to reach seven this year? In my opinion there are just too many changes, too little talent, and too few soft spots in their schedule for this to occur.
Prediction: Under 7 wins
Best Bet to Win Division: Baltimore Ravens at +300. Sure the Steelers are a decent bet as well, but I’m looking for a quality team at a decent price in this section. At -225, if you have the bankroll to back the Steelers and tie up your money for four to five months then more power to you, however the Ravens would look to offer the better value here.
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