AFC North Division: Tough Road for the Cleveland Browns in 2009

Steve TaterCorrespondent IMay 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 28:  Jamal Lewis #31 of the Cleveland Browns tries to get around the tackle of Orpheus Roye #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during a fourth quarter run at Heinz Field December 28, 2008 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 31-0. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

From year to year, predicting records for an NFL team is like predicting the seven day weather forecast in northeast Ohio. It simply cannot be done with any certainty.

Free agency, the draft, coaching changes, health of the team, age, and the schedule are just some of the factors that can change a team’s fortunes.

The Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons can go from also-rans to playoff teams in a blink of an eye.

And as people in Cleveland know all too well, the Browns can go from cellar-dwellers to playoff contenders and back again just as fast.

How quickly fans forget that in 2008, the Cleveland Browns were coming off of a 10-6 season and many believed that they were building something special.

The Browns became such media darlings that they were scheduled for national television audiences nearly every other week. Unfortunately, prime-time slots on the tube do not equate to wins in a season.

The local and national pundits, along with the head honchos at ABC, ESPN and NBC, did not take into account the Browns’ weak 2007 schedule that helped earn them those ten wins.

But for those predicting another miserable 4-12 season from the Browns in 2009, they might want to take a closer look at the upcoming schedule.

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In 2009, the Browns play eight non-conference games against teams who had .500 records or below in 2008: Denver (8-8), Buffalo (7-9), Green Bay (6-10), Detroit (0-16), San Diego (8-8), Kansas City (2-14), Oakland (5-11), and Jacksonville (5-11).

Cleveland plays only two non-conference games against teams coming off successful 2008 campaigns: Minnesota (10-6) and Chicago (9-7).

It would not be a stretch to expect four to six wins out of that non-conference schedule.

For the Browns to prove that they are closer to the team that won 10 games in 2007, than to the team that quit on their season in 2008, they will have to win some games in the rugged AFC North Division.

The team went 1-5 in the division in 2008. Look for that number to improve to two or three wins en route to a 7-9 record.

Below is an overview of the division that will help determine the Browns’ fate in 2009.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2008 Record: 12-4

Key Additions: WR Shawn McDonald, DT Evander Hood (rookie), OG Kraig Urbik (rookie), CB Keenan Lewis (rookie).

Key Losses: LB Larry Foote, WR Nate Washington, OT Marvel Smith, CB Bryant McFadden.

The defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers’ offseason was uneventful as usual. The team typically does not spend big money on free agent acquisitions and prefers to develop players from within the organization.

Their defense was dominant in 2008 and should remain the same in 2009.

They must contend with the loss of starters Larry Foote at linebacker and Bryant McFadden at cornerback.

Their hope is that they can plug Lawrence Timmons in at linebacker and not skip a beat. The loss of McFadden is more problematic. The teams’ defense overshadowed a lot of short-comings on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers were ranked 23rd in the league in offense.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always seemed to make a play when it mattered, but the offense’s numbers were far from spectacular.

Roethlisberger’s touchdown to interception ratio was only 17:15. And break-downs on the offensive line led to an alarming 49 sacks and a 27th ranked rushing game in 2008.

The team did little to address the poor play of that offensive line in the offseason.

Age and injury concerns are also factors for this Steelers team.

WR Hines Ward, C Justin Hartwig, NT Casey Hampton, NT Chris Hoke, DE Aaron Smith, DE Brett Keisel, LB James Farrior, and CB Deshea Townsend are all on the wrong side of age 30. Free safety Ryan Clark turns 30 just games into the season.

Roethlisberger’s body has taken a brutal pounding in his six years in the league, while running back Willie Parker missed parts of five games with knee and shoulder injuries.

One also has to wonder how long All Pro safety Troy Polamalu can continue to treat his body as if it were a smash up derby car.

2009 Prediction: 10-6. Repeating in the NFL is never any easy task. The Steelers are a tough bunch, but I see them taking a small step backwards.

Baltimore Ravens

2008 Record: 11-5

Key Additions:  CB Dominque Foxworth, OT Michael Oher (rookie), DE/OLB Paul Kruger (rookie), KR/PR Chris Carr, C Matt Birk

Key Losses: LB Bart Scott, CB Chris McAlister, FB Lorenzo Neal, S Jim Leonhard, C Jason Brown

The Ravens had a difficult decision to make regarding their stellar linebacker trio of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott. All three were free agents after 2008.

General Manager Ozzie Newsome decided to place the franchise tag on Terrell Suggs, costing the team $10.2 million against the salary cap. Then the team let Bart Scott leave for the Jets and re-signed Lewis to a multi-year deal.

In the short term, that was pretty much the best the Ravens could hope for. But losing the up-and-coming Scott could hurt in the future.

The team is banking on Lewis, the heart-and-soul of the Ravens team, remaining a force despite some signs that he is slowing down after 14 seasons in the league.

Defense still will be the calling card of the team even after the loss of Scott.

Suggs will continue to terrorize quarterbacks and safety Ed Reed is establishing himself as one of the greatest to ever play the position.

Newly acquired cornerback Dominque Foxworth will team up with returners Fabian Washington, Samari Rolle, Dawan Landry and Reed as a formidable defensive backfield. Landry is coming back from a spinal cord injury.

The defense is aging and the team is holding its breath that nose tackle Kelly Gregg returns from season ending knee surgery a year ago. Defensive end Trevor Price was once a Pro Bowl performer, but those days are behind him.

Defensive end/nose tackle Haloti Ngata is a beast, but there is not a great deal of proven depth on the defensive line or at linebacker. Third round draft choice Paul Kruger has a terrific motor and might provide some help on passing downs.

On offense, the team may have finally found its franchise quarterback after years of searching. Joe Flacco turned into the steal of last year’s draft and led the team to the AFC championship game.

He will have to show continued development though. The Ravens protected him for a good part of the season where he posted a respectable, but not eye-popping 14:12 interception to touchdown ratio.

When it was time to take the kid gloves off in the post-season, Flacco responded with a less than spectacular three interceptions against the Steelers in the Ravens final game.

Stunting Flacco’s development is the fact that the Ravens have not addressed their need for a big-time playmaker at the skill positions.

The receiving corps of Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and TE Todd Heap is solid, but far from spectacular. Heap is injury prone, Clayton has proved to be nothing more than a possession receiver, and Mason is aging and coming off off-season surgery.

The Ravens three man running back group of Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain lacks a solid No. 1 back. Rice provided a few exciting moments as a third down back and McClain is a punishing runner, but it is an average group at best.

The offensive line is a mix of young players with potential (OG Ben Grubbs, LT Jared Gaither, OT/OG Michael Oher, C/OG Chris Chester, OG Marshal Yando) and older players with very little left in the tank (OT Willie Anderson, C Matt Birk).

How the offensive line meshes will go a long way towards how the Ravens’ season unfolds.

2009 Prediction: 9-7. A lot broke right for this team in 2008. A significantly tougher schedule and a couple of key personnel losses make the playoffs a little more tenuous proposition.

Cincinnati Bengals

2008 Record: 4-11-1

Key Additions:  S RoyWilliams, RB Brian Leonard, DT Tank Johnson, WR Laveranues Coles, OT Andre Smith (rookie), LB Rey Maualuga (rookie), DE Michael Johnson (rookie), TE Chase Coffman (rookie), C Jonathon Luigs (rookie)

Key Losses: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, OT Levi Jones, C Eric Ghiaciuc

The 2008 season was an unmitigated disaster for the Bengals. One of the few bright spots of the season was a season ending three game winning streak to close out the season.

The Bengals made a major overhaul of their roster, but it remains to be seen if that translates into improved play on the field.

At least the Bengals get franchise quarterback Carson Palmer back after playing just four games last season due to elbow problems.

However, losing wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh through free agency takes away Palmer’s most dependable target. The Bengals acquired Laveranues Coles to man the slot opposite Chad Johnson (I refuse to call him by that “other” name).

Amid a great deal of speculation, the Bengals decided to hang on to Chad Johnson.

His numbers were down significantly last year, but some of that can be attributed to the Bengals horrible running game, and playing without Palmer. Opposing defenses were loading up on Johnson and frustration set in.

The team will try a running back by committee approach with newly acquired Brian Leonard and holdover Cedric Benson.

The hope for the Bengals is that first-round draft choice Andre Smith will bolster last season’s poor line play. Even with the addition of Smith, there are a lot of holes to fill.

After years of striking out in the draft, the Bengals are counting on as many as five rookies to earn significant playing time.

While the Bengals seemed to have drafted well this past April, they are putting a lot of pressure on the rookie class to succeed. The team continues to draft players with on the field skill, but they have rolled the dice once again on some questionable characters.

The Bengals took another gamble on troubled, but talented defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Johnson can be a force if he can refrain from violating the NFL’s conduct policy.

Defensively, the Bengals are a mess. They were ranked last in the league against the rush in 2008, giving up a whopping 253.5 yards on the ground.

The teams’ pass rush was just as bad. Opposing quarterback’s do not have to worry about their dry cleaning bill when a safety leads the team in sacks with three.

The Bengals do have some quality, young defensive backs in Chinedum Ndukwe, Leon Hall, and Jonathan Joseph. It is difficult to tell just how good this group can be if the front seven cannot generate any pressure.

The linebacker corps spent too much time chasing ball carriers from behind last season. Rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga will push Dhani Jones for playing time next to Keith Rivers, Rashad Jeanty and Darryl Blackstock.

It is about time the latter three start showing some of that unrealized potential.

2009 Prediction: 4-12. The Bengals have improved themselves through the draft, but there are just too many weaknesses. Relying on so many rookies will lead to some growing pains.