AFC North: How Will It Shape Up?
Welcome to Week Two of my predictions. First on the table, the AFC North.
Pittsburgh returns Ben Roethlisberger, who had a breakout performance last year statistically, and if he can at least repeat what he did in '07, might have to be thrown in as one of the top three or four passers in the league. I'm not sure he can do it though. I would predict he gets somewhere between 22-26 TD's, not the 30 we saw last year. Willie Parker had a strong year rushing and his TD numbers should rebound.
This team's bread and butter is still on defense. Troy Polamalu is back to lead a fast group. Questions have arisen at nose tackle, where Pro Bowler Casey Hampton reported to camp so overweight that he was put on the PUP list with the reason being "conditioning". Ridiculous. Not only is that embarrasing for him, it couldn't have made coach Mike Tomlin happy. The D still should be good, but it has been the same personnel for so long that a breath of fresh air seems like it would be a welcome addition, maybe coming in the form on second year LB Lawrence Timmons. The schedule is brutal for this team, with games against New England, Dallas, San Diego and Indianapolis among others.
Baltimore will struggle this year. First off, they need to settle the QB battle. Three guys have been competing for this job for weeks, and if you can believe the reports, rookie Joe Flacco seems to have fallen out of the race and now it is down to Troy Smith and Kyle Boller. I can't imagine them giving Boller another chance. The guy has proved he isn't the answer. Smith could be Steve McNair lite, however. They will probably give him the reins to start the season. Willis McGahee is injured right now, and his return time is questionable, so the receiving core of Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason will have to step up in the meantime.
They still return defensive stars with LB's Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs and S Ed Reed and CB Chris McAlister. If a fire can be lit under these guys, they could carry the team to a few wins they otherwise wouldn't get.
Cincinnati is an enigma. They have tons of talent, and tons more personality. Carson Palmer had a slight down year, but that might have been because of the lackluster performance of his supporting cast. You can't blame TJ Houshmandzadeh, he had a fantastic year and should have another one. If Chad Johnson can calm down and either Rudi Johnson or Kenny Watson hunkers down at RB, this team might have an explosive offense once again.
The defense needs work. If you sit down and think about it, you can't find a true leader. Dhani Jones? John Thornton? Leon Hall? Someone needs to step up here.
Cleveland could break out in a huge way. If the offense continues to progress and Braylon Edwards' foot is OK, there's no reason they can't take this division. They will scare defenses if they are 100%. They also have a nice contingency plan at QB if Anderson turns out to be a one year wonder, which I don't think will be the case. Jamal Lewis should have another strong season, and Joe Thomas looks like the next 20- straight-years-going-to-a-Pro-Bowl-lineman.
But this teams demise could be on defense. Remember that 55-45 Cincinnati game last year? They need to stay away from those games this year, or it will hurt them significantly. I'm sure their focus in the offseason has been to fill leaky spots here and make the whole unit serviceable at least.
So how will things finish?
As always, I look forward to hearing about my writing and invite you to read my previous predictions.
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