As we get set for an exciting and drama-soaked 2009-10 season, lets explore the teams of the AFC North and where they stand after one of the more active and closely followed offseasons in recent memory.
The Browns have an uphill battle, and while their schedule is easier this year by comparison to last year, their struggles have just begun. The primary issue that everyone is focused on is the QB battle.
Coach Eric Mangini has yet to name his starting QB, leaving many fans and sportswriters scratching their heads. Mangini is all about competitive advantages, and perhaps sees leaving an aura of mystery around his starting QB as an advantage (Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn have very different styles of play, making it harder for teams to prepare to face the Browns from a defensive standpoint).
The flipside to this is that he leaves his personell in limbo. Both QB's have been pushing each other this offseason, which should lead to better play from both guys; however, with the hesitance to name a starter, Mangini could be creating tension in the locker room as the QBs answer tireless questions about their competition.
Also, the WRs, TEs and O-linemen cannot get into a rhythm until they know who is going to be under center. With different styles of play comes different timing, scrambling tendencies, poise in the pocket, etc.
The point is that while Mangini obviously has a reason for dragging this thing out, it will most likely hinder his team and cause disillusionment from his staff as the Browns have another bleak outlook this year. Prediction—3 or 4 wins if Anderson starts, 4 or 5 with Quinn under center.
The Bengals seem very optimistic this year, and many are calling them the sleeper team to watch. This could very well be the case, as star WR Chad Ochocinco appears to be in great shape and focused on football all the way—not to mention the return of QB Carson Palmer.
The problems that this fantasy sleeper faces, though, are plentiful and have already begun to emerge during the preseason; Problem 1—Can the O-line keep Palmer upright and healthy?
Well, obviously not as he went out of the preseason in his first appearance with an ankle injury. He is reported to be fine, and apparently wanted to play in the preseason finale, thankfully for him and Bengals fans everywhere, he sat out.
A key component to the O-line as it struggles to improve was first-round draft pick Andre Smith (6th overall).
This leads to Problem 2—With their top draft choice already out with a fractured foot and battling weight problems (so big a concern, in fact, that there is a weight clause in his contract), the Bengals do not seem to have done enough to open their offense up.
If Smith doesn't heal quickly, Palmer probably will not make it through the season. His aggressiveness and youth are big factors that the Bengals love—however having missed so much time already (all of training camp, plus all preseason games due to his contract holdout), will he be able to impact the game at all this year? My instincts tell me that it is possible, but highly unlikely.
Neither backup QB really flashed anything special this preseason (JT O'Sullivan showed that he can move the ball, but was anything but consistent; Carson Palmer's little brother Jordan Palmer looked OK, but seemed too uncomfortable under center to impact the game should his number be called).
Prediction—With a healthy Palmer, 8-9 wins. If (and at this point it seems like I probably should say "when") Palmer goes down, 4-5 wins.
This team really shined this offseason. They looked great in camp, and finished 4-0 in the preseason (irrelevant, I know). Most of the team is the same as last year, and Terrell Suggs preseason debut gave Ravens fans even more to cheer about as he returned from offseason surgery.
Joe Flacco, who had a storybook rookie year, looks to have improved and is poised to show the league that his success last year was not a fluke. As part of Flacco's maturation process, the Ravens have had him working on distributing the ball across the field to different receivers. All of his preseason games have shown that he is comfortable with that—completing passes to six or more different receivers each game.
Meanwhile, behind Flacco, the backfield continues to show that this team will move the ball whether on the ground or through the air. Losses to the defense were pretty mild, although the absence of Bart Scot will be felt. His replacement, Tavares Gooden, looks ready to step up however.
The biggest weakness here, just as last year, will be the WR corps. Outside of Mason, there is not a lot of proven depth. I doubt Mason has another 1,000-yard season left in the tank and the rest of the receivers will have to step it up if Baltimore is going to achieve their goal of dethrowning Pittsburgh. Prediction—11-5.
The defending Super Bowl champions return 19 of their 22 starters, which is a telling sign that they are not ready to have a 2006 relapse. QB Ben Roethlisberger has had a tough summer between his legal woes and Max Starks' achilles' injury during practice). Fortunately for Steeler Nation, none of this seems to be affecting Big Ben, as he had a strong showing in preseason Week Three.
The NFL's top defense last season looks as dominant as ever, as William Gay and Lawrence Timmons appear more than ready to fill in as full time starters for the departed Bryant McFadden (Arizona) and Larry Foote (Detroit).
The biggest problem with the Steelers last year was their O-line. Not much has changed there, and now Darnell Stapleton is on injured reserve. The Steelers lack a great depth at the O-line, however despite the woes and 47 sacks of last year, still won the Super Bowl.
They will plug up holes with waiver claims, and Trai Essex seems to be holding his own filling in for Stapleton.
The run game looks to get a boost this year, despite the O-line, as Willie Parker returns healthy, along with 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. While Mendenhall has not produced consistently during the preseason, remember that he will be splitting snaps with Parker, and once again, preseasons are just practices against people who aren't on your team.
Perhaps the biggest boost to the Steelers will come in an often overlooked category—Special Teams. Not since Antwaan Randle El has the Steelers Special Teams been potent.
Since Randle El departed, their Special Teams play has been among the worst in the league. Enter free-agent Stefan Logan (former CFL player). Undersized in every way by NFL standards, Logan has turned heads and cemented a spot on the final 53 man roster with amazing play during the preseason, including an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason finale.
All in all, the Steelers seem ready to show that the Patriots aren't the only team that can win back to back Super Bowls. Prediction—12-4
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