It might not be “bold” to say the Baltimore Ravens will be division champions by the end of the 2011 regular season. However, it might be a little premature, given the fact NFL players and owners are still in the midst of a nasty labor dispute that still has no end in sight.
With that said, the predictions to come will be made carefully, using players currently on rosters and players expected to be retained by certain teams once the lockout ends.
Is this the year Baltimore runs away with the division after the stellar draft it had? Will the Cleveland Browns challenge the Ravens for the division instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are the Cincinnati Bengals still bottom-feeders?
Over the next few minutes, we will make the case as to why the Ravens are division-champion material. In addition, we will predict regular-season records for the Bengals, Browns and Steelers—analyzing their schedules for 2011 and how each team stacks up to the Ravens.
Todd McGregor is a Baltimore Ravens Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow Todd on Twitter! Twitter.com/ravens023
(#9) Bengals QB Carson Palmer
It’s official everyone: The Cincinnati Bengals will not trade QB Carson Palmer. Owner Mike Brown made it clear in an interview with Jamie Dukes on the NFL Network that Palmer has the opportunity to play for the Bengals in 2011, or retire with the team.
Palmer’s dissatisfaction with the team is at an all-time high, and the drafting of QB Andy Dalton of TCU in the second round of the draft by Brown sent a signal to the veteran Palmer that the team is ready to head in a different direction.
With Dalton likely at the helm in 2011, combined with young receivers and uncertainty at the running-back position, the Bengals are a team in the midst of a vast restructuring phase in the Queen City.
All of these changes in Cincinnati will be for the better, but this is a team that will have to rely heavily on defense to get anywhere in 2011.
The Bengals might get some assistance from their relatively weak schedule, which is ranked 27th for overall toughness on NFL.com. Most of Cincinnati’s non-divisional opponents on their 2011 schedule are beatable. However, the woes from last season should carry over to a team that is much more inexperienced a year later.
Predicted record for 2011: 5-11
Cleveland Browns RB Peyton Hillis
The Cleveland Browns are another example of a team going through an extensive rebuilding phase, although they’re much further along than the Cincinnati Bengals.
Under team president Mike Holmgren and rookie NFL head coach Pat Shurmur, the Browns had one of the better drafts this time around. They found their defensive lineman of the future in Phil Taylor and possibly the best receiver in Greg Little.
The main question with the Browns is whom will they commit to at the quarterback position. QB Colt McCoy would be the logical choice, but Holmgren insists the starting job is still up for grabs.
At the NFL Spring Meeting, Holmgren stated: “We have Seneca Wallace, too, and Jake Delhomme as well right now.”
“But [McCoy] got his feet wet last year,” Holmgren said. “I didn’t necessarily want him to play that much last year, but we were injured, and so he had a chance to play.”
So is this the year McCoy starts all 16 games, stepping up to be the leader Holmgren thinks he can be? On the other hand, will Holmgren’s indecisiveness with the developing QB carousel lead him to choose a veteran over the young McCoy?
The current NFL labor dispute isn’t helping Holmgren make this tough decision, because there’s no way to evaluate where any of these quarterbacks are in their progression.
Thankfully for the Browns, they have an easy schedule in 2011 to help their cause (ranked 21st on NFL.com), much like the Bengals.
With an improved offense and a severely underrated defense, the Browns have a chance to win seven games this year—if they can make up their mind on a starting quarterback.
Predicted record for 2011: 7-9
QBs Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger
Two of the Pittsburgh Steelers first three games will be played on the road against elite teams, the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 and the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3.
QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens still have last year’s divisional playoff loss fresh in their minds, so there’s no doubt preparation in Baltimore is already underway for this much-anticipated matchup—lockout or not.
It’s hard to imagine the Ravens losing such a big, opening-day game against a hated rival, so we maintain our convictions that Baltimore will come out on top in this pivotal Week 1 clash between two of the NFL’s best teams.
Manning is expected to return in time for the preseason.
Out of all the teams in the NFL, the Steelers might be the best prepared for a long labor dispute. Pittsburgh signed most of their core veteran leaders to new contracts before the lockout clamped down on the league.
Along with the fact the Steelers will remain mostly intact from last season, their schedule for 2011, much like the Bengals and Browns, is extremely weak (ranked 28th on NFL.com). The early part of their schedule, Weeks 1-6, will ultimately define the Steelers’ season. All six opponents Pittsburgh is set to face in that stretch are expected to be playoff contenders in 2011.
In addition, three of those first six matchups will be away from Heinz Field, including the colossal matchup with the Ravens in Week 1.
If the Steelers can get through the toughest part of their schedule mostly unscathed, there’s no reason to believe this team won’t make another strong run for the Super Bowl.
Predicted record for 2011: 12-4
Losses: at Ravens, at Colts, vs. Patriots, vs. Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens finally have all the pieces in place to make a viable run at the Super Bowl in 2011, thanks in part to a highly successful draft.
GM Ozzie Newsome made it clear that the Ravens organization is serious about putting its best athletes on the field come time for the regular season, by drafting a top wide-out in Torrey Smith (the deep threat the team desperately needed) and possibly the best corner in the draft, Jimmy Smith.
Newsome finally let QB Joe Flacco have his say in the new offense that the four-year vet will command during the 2011 season, by providing Flacco the flexibility to select the receivers he liked most in this year’s draft—Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss.
Doss has the combination of size and speed, along with strong, reliable hands.
With the new arsenal of weapons at Flacco’s disposal, in addition to the reliable veterans—receivers Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin—we believe the Ravens finally have the offense to beat the team that has kept them out of the Super Bowl for the better part of their entire franchise history—the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Like the rest of Baltimore’s AFC North foes, the Ravens will benefit from an undemanding schedule in 2011. According to NFL.com, the Ravens have the 31st toughest schedule in the league, but their bye week falls on Week 5, so keeping the team healthy after the bye will be the toughest task for trainers and coaches.
If the Ravens remain healthy after their bye week, and their offensive line works as a unit—instead of an injured wreck—this is a team we believe might hold the best record in the NFL by season’s end.
Rookie OT Jah Reid should contribute right away in helping the Ravens’ running game rebound from a difficult 2010 campaign—the only part of the Ravens’ offense that never clicked last year.
RB Ray Rice, by all accounts, should have another breakout year, and rookie RB Anthony Allen could turn into a good change-of-pace player in the backfield, if he does get the playing time he deserves.
What should separate the Baltimore Ravens from the rest of the AFC North is the season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers that we are predicting—something that has only happened once in Baltimore’s franchise history (27-0 and 31-7 back in November and December of 2006).
With the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns in serious rebuilding mode, the division will be wide open in 2011 for the Ravens and Steelers to fight for until the very end of the regular season—when most divisional battles ensue.
Thankfully, for the Ravens, they will be finished worrying about the Steelers by the end of Week 10—that is, until the playoffs begin, where both teams will meet again.
All of the above—an easy schedule, an excellent draft and an offense with all of the puzzle pieces in place—should help the Ravens clinch the AFC North and earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
However, before Baltimore can look forward to that kind of success, the Ravens must take care of their worst enemy—themselves. Mistakes at the most inopportune moments have played a major role in the Ravens failing to topple the Steelers in the playoffs.
Discipline is key and the Ravens must be willing to receive it in order to fulfill their ultimate goal—a Super Bowl victory.
Predicted record for 2011: 14-2
Losses: vs. Colts, at Chargers
Finally, on this Memorial Day, we thank all members of our armed forces, both current and former. You are the true heroes of the United States. Without your sacrifices, we would not be able to enjoy the freedoms that make America the greatest country on the face of this Earth.
Freedom is not free, but with your sacrifices, you have kept America the only beacon of hope that billions of people look up to.
Thank you and may God bless you.