We continue our preseason power rankings by division with a look at the AFC North. This may be one of the most interesting divisions in the NFL with the former AFC champions, the always tough Ravens, and the emerging Cleveland Browns. Let's work our way through the division and break down some statistics and schedules to see where everyone should end up this year.
4. Cincinnati Bengals - After what happened during the off season, this should be a surprise to no one. The franchise has been corrupt from the front office for years, and the stubborn owner Mike Brown went against everything that was good for the franchise and the fans of Cincinnati and let Carson Palmer retire. In a year where there is potentially going to be 10 or more different starting quarterbacks than who finished with their respective teams last year, Brown had a golden goose in Palmer. Instead of trading the QB and stockpiling some draft picks or getting quality players to fill in holes, they let Palmer ride off into the sunset with their money and retire from the game, leaving the Bengals to start from scratch. Now the franchise must move forward with rookie QB Andy Dalton under center. Dalton is not going to be the answer to all of the
problems the Bengals have. They had no intentions of bringing T.O. back who led the team in receiving last season. They also traded Ocho Cinco to the Patriots, and drafted rookie receiver A.J. Green. They did bring back running back Cedric Benson, who may have one more good year in him of toting the ball 25 times a game, then they will have to go a different direction. The Bengals are young and inexperienced at every major position. Not to mention they let their best DB go in free agency to Houston. Sorry Cincinnati fans, but the Bungles are back and look like they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. After breaking down their schedule, I have them going 4-12 this year. This may mean the young team will be looking for a new coach in February or March.
3. Cleveland Browns - The gap between 2nd and 3rd place in this division is going to be closer than people think. Second year GM Mike Holmgrem has brought in some great coaches and the Browns have added key players that other teams past on. Colt McCoy has looked outstanding in preseason action so far, and looks very calm in the pocket for a second year quarterback. Browns fans are expecting great things out of him and they feel like they've finally found a QB that can be the franchise guy. They are also returing the Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis, who took the league by storm last year with his power running style and ability to leap over defenders with a single bound. He reminds Browns fans of a faster, more athletic Kevin Mack. If he can avoid the "Madden Curse", they should count on another 1000 plus yards and 13 TD's out of the bruising back. The Browns should also have a healthy Monterio Hardesty this year, and acquired Brandon Jackson from the Packers to add a change of pace back for the new west coast offense. Former Stanford TE Evan Moore has looked good thus far in the preseason, and they expect big things from rookie receiver Greg Little. On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron will have this unit playing well. They replaced big Sean Rogers with Phil Taylor, and they have a solid core of defensive backs in Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, and Sheldon Brown. Boasting one of the best young offensive lines in the league, the Browns are optimistic going into the 2011 season. I have the Browns finishing 9-7 this year, one year away from a playoff birth.
2. Baltimore Ravens - Over the years, the Ravens have always boasted one of the best defenses in the National Football League. But that's the problem that I have with them going into this season. "Over the years!" The heart and soul of this defense is Ray Lewis, who is 37 years old and 16 seasons into his career. Ed Reed, may be the best safety we've seen in years, in 32 years old. As good as these guys are, they can't play forever. I believe this year we will see this defense decline from what they've done in the past, and their offense is going to have to keep them in some games. That's where Ray Rice comes in. I'm excited about what Ray Rice can do this year, because he will be running behind Vonte Leach, the man that cleared holes for Arian Foster last season. I expect to see big numbers out of Rice this year, especially with McGahee no longer in the mix. Joe Flacco has failed to repeat what he did in his rookie season. It seems as if every year Baltimore fans are saying "this is the year that Joe Flacco breaks on to the scene", but it hasn't happened yet. He's been surrounded by an aging cast of wide receivers. Anquan Boldin joined the team last season and had some good moments, but didn't produce the way they had hoped he would. Let's be honest, he had a lot of single coverage in Arizona with Fitz on the other side. I love Derrick Mason from Michigan State, but he is no Larry Fitzgerald. Boldin will continue to see double coverage this season, but not as much with Lee Evans joining the wide receiver crew. Evans will be able to spread the field and let Boldin work more underneath where he is at his best. If this offense can consistently get over 24 points a game, they should be ok. If not, it may be a long season. Bottom line, Ravens will finish 10-6 this year and will sneak into the playoffs by winning the tie breaker over the Colts.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers - If you look at the age of the Steelers defense across the board, they are actually older than the Baltimore Ravens. But if you watched what they were able to do against the Philadelphia Eagles this week in the first half, you wouldn't know it. These guys still fly around to the ball faster than any team in the league. They have most of their starters on both sides of the ball coming back from their Super Bowl run last season. Troy Polamalu is healthy going into the season, and James Harrison appears that he will not retire because of his issues with the commissioner. Hopefully the NFL does something about his comments though, because this guy needs to be suspended for at least the first four games of the season. On offense, the weak spot of this team is the offensive line, but the way that Roethlisberger is able to improvise, this really hasn't hurt them too much. They've added Jericho Cotchery to the receiver mix, who will add another threat to go over the middle with Hines Ward, and they still have speedster Mike Wallace to spread the field. The Steelers have one of the best front offices in the NFL and prove that every year by adding players that fit their scheme. This team is never in a rebuilding stage. They are always reloading and coming out just as good, or better than the previous year. There's a reason they have more championships than any other franchise. Considering this as well as a weaker schedule for 2011, I have them finishing 12-4 and making the playoffs with a first round bye.