AFC North Forecast: Sunshine in Cleveland

Jeffrey SantonAnalyst IJune 26, 2008

For the first time since the Cleveland Browns' re-birth into the NFL in 1999, it's conceivable to claim the Cleveland Browns as the favorite to take the AFC North.

The Browns narrowly missed the playoffs, going 10-6, tying for the best record in the AFC North. But Cleveland's nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers, held the tiebreaker in head-to-head competition, beating Cleveland in both of their divisional showdowns.

This year, one of Cleveland's top priorities will be defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, beating Baltimore and Cincinnati are games Cleveland will have to take as well, but Pittsburgh is definitely in the center of the dartboard for '08.

Baltimore and Cincinnati could both prove to be sleepers in the division. The Ravens' Achilles last year was the quarterback position. Baltimore hopes it addressed this need by drafting Joe Flacco, a 6'6" rookie out of Delaware, with their first-round pick.

Troy Smith will get a chance this year to show that he is a viable option to lead Baltimore as well. Smith has a history of winning, as many of us in northeast Ohio know from watching him notch win after win with the Ohio State Buckeyes. Boller may also get consideration at QB, but more then likely will be the odd-man out when the season begins.

Baltimore is returning 20 of 22 starters. One huge starter, both literally and figuratively, who won't be back though is retired Pro-Bowl tackle, Jonathan Ogden. Over the years, Baltimore quarterbacks could count on Ogden to have their back, blocking the QB's blind side on pass plays. Ogden has retired, and Baltimore will have to try and become an AFC North contender without him.

Cincinnati will attempt to compete for this division, and they have an outside chance of doing so. With all the talent the Bengals possess at the skill positions, their lack of defense, and their weakness at offensive line could keep the skill guys from playoff contention again in '08. 

A lot of people still think of the 2005 Bengals when considering what type of Bengals team we will see. Those 2005 Bengals are still the only team to have a winning season since 1991.

This offseason, Chad Johnson has demanded most of the attention, coming into '08 with a contract dispute. I personally don't believe money is the major factor behind Chad's antics. He wants to win so badly, and he is watching the Bengals digress from their 2005 playoff appearance. Unfortunately for Chad, I feel they will continue to do so, and they won't be a major contender for the division in '08.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have a hard time mirroring Steelers teams of the past decade. With the loss of Alan Faneca, Pittsburgh no longer has a Pro-Bowl caliber offensive lineman. Yes, Pittsburgh made some moves this offseason, increasing their firepower by obtaining Limas Sweed out of Texas and Mendenhall from Illinois. They expect Mendenhall to be a one-two combo with Willie Parker. But Pittsburgh football is pounding the ball down your throat, and allowing the pass to be there when needed.

Pittsburgh has legitimate concern on their hands. Even with all the talent at the skill positions, their season will be as successful as their offensive line is. Pittsburgh's best returning offensive lineman, LT Marvel Smith is coming off of back problems.

Sure, Ben's got a big ol' smile on his face tossing the football with his brand new contract, but if they have trouble establishing the run, he may be on his on back too often, and Pittsburgh could have a tough time taking this division.

That being said, Pittsburgh is going to be the toughest team in this division for the Browns. Browns fans know all to well of the tough schedule they have.

But wait!

As tough as Cleveland's schedule is this year, Pittsburgh's is even rougher. They play all the same teams, with the exception of two.

The games?

Cleveland plays Denver and Buffalo.

Pittsburgh has to play San Diego and New England.

Advantage Browns.

The Cleveland Browns have question marks as well in '08, and they're all on the defensive side. The obvious one being at cornerback. Right now, on the depth chart, both starting cornerbacks are second-year guys: Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald. Both played exceptionally well last year, but this year, they are in for a big challenge. Teams are aware of Cleveland's weakness in the secondary, and they will not be shy trying to exploit it. These kids better be ready.

The Browns also struggled to stop the run in '07. Phil Savage brought in two quality defensive lineman in Corey Williams from Green Bay and Shaun Rogers from Detroit. But as good as that looks on paper, it will be interesting to see on the field.

Rumors about Shaun Rogers are spreading around the NFL. Some are saying that he is tipping the scales at 400lbs. Plus, Rod Marinelli, who coached Rogers in Detroit, is said to be one of the best line-coaches in football. If he couldn't get Rogers to perform well, what makes the Cleveland Browns so confident they will get 16 solid games from him?

In the NFL, there are no certainties. Baltimore or Cincinnati could explode this year and win this division. Highly unlikely, but possible. The Steelers and Cleveland Browns are clearly the AFC North front-runners.

I think Cleveland will prevail though. The Steelers' offensive line will make the Steelers get away from Pittsburgh football in to many of their games this year, causing them to come up short to the Cleveland Browns, who pre-training camp, I am predicting to win the division.


Final standings

Cleveland 10-6

Pittsburgh 9-7

Cincinnati 7-9

Baltimore 6-10


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