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AFC North Breakdown

As we continue to grow ever closer to the start of the NFL season, anticipation of the upcoming fall grows as well.  In the second part of this 8 part series, we’ll take a look at the AFC North and try to whet your appetite with a little football appetizer.Baltimore Ravens

Key Additions:
Steve McNair, QB; Trevor Pryce, DE; Mike Anderson, RB; Justin Bannan, DT; Corey Ivy, DB; Gary Stills, LB; Tim Johnson, LB; Leo Araquz. P; Haloti Ngata (Draft), DT

Key Losses:
Will Demps, DB; Peter Boulware, LB; Chester Taylor, RB; Maake Kemoeatu, DT; Anthony Weaver, DE; Orlando Brown, OT; Dave Zastudil, P; Darnell Dinkins, TE; Anthony Wright, QB; Randy Hymes, WR; Chad Williams, DB; Deion Sanders, DB

Strengths:
As usual, the Ravens biggest strength is their defense.  The front seven looks better than ever with the additions of Pryce, Bannan and the rookie, Ngata.  Pryce should have the biggest impact as he is an established star already with four career Pro Bowl appearances.  The loss of Will Demps certainly hurts the secondary, but they have enough solid veterans back there to fill the void.  Another strength in Baltimore is at running back.  If Jamal Lewis can get back into pre-jail form, he and Mike Anderson will form an excellent duo in the backfield.  Musa Smith is also a promising young back waiting for an opportunity.

Weaknesses:
Don’t believe the hype; quarterback is still a weakness for the Ravens.  Steve McNair is 33 years old.  He was a running quarterback and has taken some terrible beatings over the course of his career.  He’s already talked of retirement and has shown that he’s begun to break down.  One good hit and we could be talking about the Kyle Boller project all over again.  Sure, the offense looks good on paper when you see the names: McNair, Mason, Heap, and Clayton.  However, when you look deeper, you find an incredibly weak line (contrary to popular belief, Jonathan Ogden can’t guard an entire blitz by himself), and a group of inconsistent guys.  McNair and Mason are old (Mason is 32), Heap has a history of bad injuries, and Clayton, while he may have upside, is coming off a less-than-stellar rookie season.  That doesn’t sound like a playoff offense to me.

Prediction:
7-9, third in AFC North
While many experts like Baltimore to miraculously reach the playoffs with a McNair resurgence of biblical proportions, it just won’t happen.  He’s too old and beaten to not have problems, especially with the weakness of that o-line.  It’s too bad, because they have a lot of pieces in place for a winning team, but have too many glaring holes.  They need to fix those holes quickly, as their window for success is closing fast.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Key Additions:
Dexter Jackson, DB; Sam Adams, DT; Antonio Chatman, WR; Anthony Wright, QB; Jonathan Joseph (Draft), DB

Key Losses:
Jon Kitna, QB; Matt Schobel, TE; Kevin Walter, WR; Nate Webster, LB

Strengths:
The Bengals offense looks to be just as potent, if not more so, as last season.  Another year of maturation will help this fairly young offense.  Carson Palmer suffered that nasty injury in the playoffs last year.  It looks like he’ll be ready for the season opener, but if he isn’t, Anthony Wright should do fine as a short-term replacement.  Chad Johnson and T-House will be one of the best receiving duos in the league this year and Rudi Johnson has potential to be a top five back.  The addition of Antonio Chatman will help the receiving corps and draw attention away from the fact that Cincy mainly uses their tight ends for blocking.  The defense is also much improved with the additions of Jackson in the secondary and Adams on the line.  

Weaknesses:
Cincinnati could’ve done a little more work in the off season to improve their o-line, but they did fine last year so there’s no reason to believe they won’t succeed in ’06.  The defense looks solid, but may have some depth problems.  They have stars at every level of the defense (Adams on the line, Thurman at LB, O’Neal and Jackson in the secondary), but there isn’t a whole lot after that and that could leave some openings for offenses like Indy and Kansas City to expose.

Prediction:
10-6, second in AFC North (wild card)
Although Cincinnati looks like a solid team, they are stuck with the second toughest schedule in the NFL, including two games against the defending champs.  However, they should still be strong enough to take the last playoff spot in the AFC and maybe even make a little playoff run.

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Cleveland Browns

Key Additions:
Willie McGinest, LB; LeCharles Bentley, C; Joe Jurevicious, WR; Ted Washington, DT; Kevin Shaffer, OT; Darnell Dinkins, TE; Dave Zastudil, P; Bob Hallen, C; Kamerion Wimbley (Draft), DE; D’Qwell Jackson (Draft), LB

Key Losses:
Kenard Lang, DE/LB; L.J. Shelton, OT; Antonio Bryant, WR; Chris Crocker, DB; Ben Taylor, LB; Ray Mickens, RB; Michael Lehan, DB

Strengths:
The Browns don’t look like a great team this year, but they certainly have a few areas where they can excel and build on in the future.  First of all, they bolstered their offensive line in the off season and that part of the team actually looks pretty good.  New additions LeCharles Bentley and Kevin Schaffer are Crennel-type guys and should play well.  Newly added McGinest and Jackson alongside Andra Davis will help the linebacker core.  Washington and Wimbley will also contribute to making this a formidable front seven.

Weaknesses:
Despite a solid line, the Cleveland offense is abysmal.  They probably have the worst quarterback situation in the league.  The three signal callers on their roster right now are Charlie Frye, Ken Dorsey and Derek Anderson; hardly an “Ultimate Depth Chart”.  The rest of the skill positions may not look terrible on paper with names like Reuben Droughns, Braylon Edwards, and Kellen Winslow, but there are way too many question marks there for the Dawg Pound to get excited just yet.  The secondary also looks very weak, as there isn’t a single guy on there that the casual fan would recognize.  Unfortunately, Romeo Crennel and his staff didn’t do much in the off season to help the problem either.

Prediction:
6-10, last in AFC North
While the Browns made their roster begin to look more and more like the Patriots farm system (McGinest, Washington, Joe Andruzzi), they didn’t do enough to bring success back to Cleveland.  Cleveland’s first order of business needs to be to take care of the QB mess, be it developing Charlie Frye or getting somebody else who can get it done.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Additions:
Rodney Bailey, DE; Ryan Clark, DB; Santonio Holmes (Draft), WR

Key Losses:
Antwaan Randle El, WR; Chris Hope, DB; Kimo von Oelhoffen, DE; Jerome Bettis, RB

Strengths:
Obviously, Big Ben is always a strength, despite the fact that he rides motorcycles with neither a helmet nor a license.  He’s a cool customer and now a proven winner.  The o-line and TE situation are great and shouldn’t be a problem.  Heath Miller may just become Roethlisberger’s favorite target (alright, maybe second favorite behind Hines Ward).  The entire defense is another huge strength.  Contrary to the many beliefs that Jerome Bettis won the Super Bowl by himself, it was actually the defense that paved the way for the Championship.  The line looks solid as Bailey should be able to fill the void left by Carson Palmer’s hit man, Kimo von Oelhoffen.  Bailey is actually a good player, but has been stuck in the shadows of better players his entire career.  Look for a breakout year from him and, you heard it here first, a Pro Bowl appearance.  The loss of Chris Hope may hurt the secondary, but they have enough big-time players and should be fine.  Of course, Pittsburgh also has the best linebackers in the league to help out as well.

Weaknesses:
It will be interesting to see how this team fares without two guys on offense who were instrumental to their Super Bowl run, Bettis and Randle El.  The running attack took a big hit and they will now have to rely heavily on Willie Parker and hope Duce Staley can stay healthy to be the second option Pittsburgh is used to getting from Bettis.  Hines Ward is left alone at wideout, without any other stars around him.  People wondered how the team would do after the loss of Plaxico Burress last season and it worked out alright.  However, Randle El brought the deception factor and while they’ll try to replace him with rookie Santonio Holmes, it definitely won’t be the same.

Prediction:
11-5, first in AFC North
Though Cowher will have to deal with a couple pretty big losses, this is still pretty much the same Steelers team as last year.  While, I wouldn’t start planning the second parade just yet, the Steelers have what it takes to make another deep playoff run.

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Final Standings

Pittsburgh 11-5
Cincinnati 10-6
Baltimore 7-9
Cleveland 6-10

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Stay tuned for the upcoming AFC South preview…

(Note: This article was originally written for The Bet Doctor.)

2 replies on “AFC North Breakdown”

Believe it… I’ll call it now..and you’ll all see come season’s end…the Steelers are good, but the Ravens will be back. That D will be the backbone of their division title, and with a a little more at QB, a back-up RB to make sure Jamal is half-way decent, this Ravens squad will take it. They won’t go too far in the playoffs, but they’ll win the division.

The Steel Curtain Ravens? Division champs? That doesn’t even sound right. Nothing against Ray Lewis but the Steelers have the best D in the division, in the league actually. Who was it that dominated the Bengals high flying game and stumped Peyton Manning and the Colts so called high powered offense and picked off Jake plummer twice when it had not happened in over 300 passes and shut down the leagues MVP on the leagus highest stage and did it all on the road? Nobody is going to stop Pittsburgh in this division and probably not even in the league.

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