NFL Predictions for 2010 Season: Who's the AFC North's Top Team?
Terrell Owens just made things a lot more interesting in the AFC North.
His addition to the Cincinnati Bengals bolsters the team's argument as the top team in the division. Most experts believed that Cincinnati would fall back after last season's division title.
To narrow down the favorites in the division, the Cleveland Browns must be eliminated. Mike Holmgren may have the team heading in the right direction, but they are easily the worst team in the North this year.
Pittsburgh is dangerous, but the team doesn't return Ben Roethlisberger until either Week Five or Seven, depending on how long his suspension runs. Without Big Ben, the Steelers have a good chance to fall behind early in the divisional race.
That leaves Baltimore and Cincinnati as the favorites as training camp begins. Both have stalwart defenses, and both added a receiver to shore up their passing offense.
But when it comes down to it, who is the favorite?
Case for Baltimore
After dropping two games to the Bengals last season, the Ravens are out to prove they are the top dogs in the North.
They have good reason to believe that, too. While Cincinnati floundered late last year, Baltimore played at their highest level before being knocked out by Indianapolis in the second round of the playoffs.
Anquan Boldin was brought in to give Joe Flacco another weapon. The offense will be multidimensional after Ray Rice broke out last season.
So is it Baltimore's division to lose? Here are three reasons why they can emerge as champions.
Bolstered Passing Offense
Baltimore has never been known for its ability to pass the ball.
Things could change this year, however.
Joe Flacco has steadily progressed into a very solid NFL quarterback. The tall, strong-armed QB has gotten more comfortable in the pocket and more accurate each year.
Anquan Boldin gives the receiving corps a much-needed face-lift. He has sure hands and isn't afraid to make tough catches over the middle. Derrick Mason has been steady, but Boldin brings more to the table.
If Donte' Stallworth is a semblance of his old self, and if Mark Clayton becomes consistent, Flacco will throw a lot more than in previous years.
Combine this with one of the league's top offensive lines and elusive running back Ray Rice, and you have an unexpectedly potent offense in Baltimore. Plus, Rice is a threat in the passing game, where he had 78 receptions last season.
Always Stout Defense
Defense has been the theme in Baltimore since their 2001 Super Bowl victory, and this year is no different.
Ray Lewis may be going on his 15th year in the league, but he is still one of the most dangerous and intimidating linebackers in the NFL.
On top of that, Terrell Suggs has vowed to never let a disappointing year like last season (only 4.5 sacks) happen again. If he's back to form, he and Jarret Johnson form a scary tandem at outside linebacker.
Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg make the line solid, leaving defensive back as the only question mark. If Ed Reed and Fabian Washington are healthy, the Baltimore defense is arguably the best in the league.
Strong Finish in 2009-10
Unlike the Bengals, the Ravens played their best football late last season, giving them momentum coming into this year.
New England never loses in Foxborough during January, but the Ravens proved that wrong with a total dismantling of the Patriots on their home field. Ray Rice and the offense crushed New England on their way to a 33-14 win.
After falling to the Colts 20-3 in the next round, there was reason for hope for the following year. A young Ravens team finally was hitting its stride when the season ended.
Expect the New England win to resonate in training camp as the team prepares. The Ravens have the tools to get back to the AFC Championship like in 2008, and possibly farther.
Case for Cincinnati
Cincinnati can't be happy about the talk about the team not being the favorite after winning the division in 2009-10.
The Bengals showed their ability to win the tough games in the AFC North, sweeping both Baltimore and Pittsburgh to claim the division crown.
But the team's weaknesses showed late. Carson Palmer and the passing offense were ineffective as Cedric Benson wore down at the end of the year. The offensive problems led to late-season losses and a drubbing at the hands of the New York Jets in the playoffs.
The Bengals made it a priority to make the offense better in the offseason and added Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant, and Jermaine Gresham to the squad. The team already has a strong defense and running game to go with the bolstered WR corps.
So are the Bengals the favorites? Here's why they should be.
Carson Palmer's Resurgence
Carson Palmer used to be one of the top drop-back passers in the entire league.
But while the Bengals clicked everywhere else last season, Palmer never found his groove.
I must say, as a Bengals fan, I used to have faith in Palmer to complete every pass he threw. Last season, I never had that feeling.
Whether it was his elbow he injured in 2008 or the lack of threats at receiver, Palmer never looked fully comfortable last season.
His struggles led to the Bengals changing their philosophy to a smash-mouth run offense. While it worked, Cedric Benson was noticeably worn out by the end of the year.
With some new, improved targets to throw to (more on this later), Palmer should have a revival in 2010. He's too much of a competitor to not let 2009 eat at him, so expect him to attack 2010 with fervor.
Palmer has fallen from the ranks as a top AFC quarterback. This year is his chance to change that.
More Weapons for Palmer
When Darrelle Revis shut down Chad Ochocinco in the first round of the playoffs, the Bengals' passing offense couldn't function.
After that game, the Bengals' front office knew it was a priority to bring Palmer some support.
They started with Antonio Bryant, an athletic playmaker who has had chemistry issues on other teams. Next, they brought in Jermaine Gresham through the draft.
Now, Terrell Owens has been added after Bryant looked uncomfortable on his surgically repaired knee.
If the passing offense can work to perfection (which is a big if), it can be one of the most potent in the league. Bryant and Owens both take pressure off Ochocinco and give Palmer the receivers he lacked last season.
Plus, Gresham gives Cincinnati a receiving threat at tight end they've never had.
If Benson has recovered from the nagging hip injuries he had, the running game will move the chains like last year. If that happens, defenses will have a hard time planning how to stop Cincinnati.
With so many egos at receiver, however, it will be interesting to see how it works out.
Mike Zimmer's Defense
The Bengals breathed a sigh of relief when Mike Zimmer returned to Cincinnati after being considered a candidate for the Washington Redskins.
Their defensive coordinator was arguably the team's biggest reason for success in 2009. Zimmer led an aggressive, staunch group that looked as tough as those of AFC North counterparts Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
He leans on arguably the top cornerback duo in the league in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Both came on strong last season and give Cincinnati a feared pass defense.
The linebacking corps excels in run defense. Dhani Jones continues to play at a top level despite his age, and Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga are two of the top young linebackers in the league.
The team lacks a definitive pass rush, but the return of Antwan Odom helps tremendously. The end had eight sacks before his season ended in Week Six.
With that said, expect more of the same from Zimmer's defense this year. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore coming for revenge against Cincinnati, the Bengals will need it.
Favorite? The Ravens
As of right now, the two teams appear almost equal in terms of winning the division.
However, when it comes down to it, Baltimore appears to be the favorite.
Expect the Ravens to be hungry after faltering in the division last season. The steady progression of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, along with Anquan Boldin's addition, significantly improves the offense.
Cincinnati has to prove last season wasn't a flash in the pan. They looked significantly different late in the year, and it's unknown whether Cedric Benson can go through the same rigors he went through last season.
On top of that, the Terrell Owens experiment could fail greatly if things don't go well in Cincinnati.
The Ravens look too strong at the moment. But after finishing first last season, don't expect the Bengals to just hand the division to the Ravens. Expect rough, beat-'em-up games whenever these two see each other next season.