4. Cleveland Browns: 3-13
Eric Mangini takes over a franchise that has talent but lacks leadership.
First and foremost, the quarterback issue needs to be addressed. Is it Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn? If I had to guess right now, I'd give the nod to Quinn, just because of how poorly Anderson played in 2008. Quinn deserves at least a shot.
The fact that we're one preseason game away from Week One and the Browns still don't know who will be behind center means that Jamal Lewis' job is going to be pretty important. The only problem with Lewis is that he'll accumulate a thousand yards in a season but he rarely finds the end-zone. Lewis is also over 30 years old now, which is often times when running backs start deteriorating.
Potentially taking carries away from Lewis in 2009 could be rookie James Davis from Clemson, a member of the 2006 All-ACC team. Davis went for 116 yards and a touchdown in the Browns' preseason game against the Lions.
The Browns' defense isn't good, and they were one of the worst teams in the NFL at stopping the run in 2008. However, Rob Ryan is the new defensive coordinator, and this guy knows his football. He was responsible for quite a few successful pass defenses in Oakland.
Cleveland is going to be one of the worst teams in the league this year, but now that the horrendous Romeo Crennel era is over, things should start looking up in the next few years.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: 8-8
How Marvin Lewis kept his job after the last two disastrous years in Cincinnati is a mystery.
The Bengals haven't been over .500 since 2005, and 2009 will be no different. Even with a healthy Carson Palmer, this team has too many off-field issues and a major lack of team chemistry.
Cincy lost T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but added Laveranues Colesan—an aging receiver who can still produce decent numbers. He could very well end up being the most productive of the Bengals' receivers due to double coverage on Chad Ochocinco.
Barring any troubles with the law, wide receiver Chris Henry has a promising career ahead of him. Word has it that Henry worked especially hard this offseason and has turned his act around. Palmer and Henry appear to be on the same page, which should be a nice change for a quarterback who's had to deal with Ochocinco's stints for nearly his whole career.
On defense, the Bengals got an absolute steal in the second round of the draft by taking linebacker Rey Maualuga out of USC. He'll play along side former USC teammate Keith Rivers. The future of the Bengals D looks menacing.
Another troubled player, running back Cedric Benson, returns to the Bengals for a second season. Along with Henry, it appears that Benson has his priorities straight and will be the starting running back.
The Bengals could be one of those teams that no one expects to do well and ends up winning 10 games. They have the talent, but as I mentioned, team chemistry may do them in.
2. Baltimore Ravens: 10-6
Joe Flacco was the man in '08, the defense rocked, and the Ravens were a game away from the Super Bowl.
Let's start with the defense. Second in the total defense, with a secondary that'll really bug a quarterback. They're defensive line finished third in the league in defending the run as well. If you have to pick the best unit in football (offense or defense), this Baltimore D is right up there.
The Ravens' secondary is stacked with Ed Reed, Fabian Washington, and newly acquired cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Then looking at the d-line, names like Ray Lewis, and Haloti Ngata.
Lines coach Greg Mattison was promoted to defensive coordinator with the departure of Rex Ryan. Mattison knows this defense because he's been a part of this coaching staff, but has big shoes to fill. You have to think that Ryan was at least partially responsible for the success of Baltimore's defense.
Flacco threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his rookies season, and he's known for his rocket of an arm. It will be interesting to see if last year's Rookie of The Year can pick up where he left off.
Baltimore's offense finished 18th last season and didn't do a much this off-season to change that. Expect the Ravens to depend on their defense to win games, but look to Flacco for leadership.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4
The Ravens are good, but the Steelers are just flat out better.
Super Bowl XL left a bitter taste in my mouth as a Seahawks fan, but after Pittsburgh's second Super Bowl win in four years, it's clear that this Steelers team is on the cusp of a dynasty.
Ben Roethlisberger is clutch, and no one can debate that. The Steelers offense features two running backs in Rashard Mendenhall and an experienced Willie Parker. This tandem worked well last season, and I don't see them having a problem splitting carries in '09.
As for Big Ben's receivers, Hines Ward is still one of the better wide-outs in the game, and I believe that Santonio Holmes is well on his way to being in that same elite group. Heath Miller is also one of the league's best tight ends.
While Pittsburgh has a great quarterback in Roethlisberger and a good offense, there's no doubt that the defense is statistically the better unit. If it weren't for James Harrison and this beefy D, the Lombardi trophy could be in Phoenix right now.
The linebacker duo of James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons is just flat out terrifying. And with strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor, this defense is no slouch.
Mike Tomlin has gone from an unknown assistant to a world champion in a two-year period. This gives me a feeling that the Steelers are going to be contenders in the AFC for years to come, and they may not be done collecting hardware.