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“AFC North Preview”

How will the arrival of Anquan Boldin in Baltimore and another number 81 in Cincinnati affect the AFC North this year?

Welcome to perhaps the most brutal conference in the NFL.  Or at least the most physical.  These teams are generally tough both on and off the field.  Most off-seasons, you hear a lot of press about what these players are doing with their spare time and normally it is not good news.  You ever hear the saying, “No news is good news?”  Well the AFC North does not believe in that saying.  This is a division with great rivalries, great players, and great fans.  Many say Pittsburgh, or “Shitsburgh” as many Cincinnatians like to say, possesses the best fan base in American sports.  All I have to say is, there is no love lost in the rivalries of this very unpredictable and talented division.

AFC North: Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Steelers (alphabetical order)

Cleveland Browns (4th place):  It seems like the Browns have been inhabiting the cellar for some time now.  In actuality, they have resided in this position every year but 2 since the year 2002.  So there is quite a familiarity with always looking up at their rivals in the standings.  And this year will be no different for a town where things continue to get worse.  The Indians have been god awful the past few years.  Their “King” and savior Lebron James, just jumped ship and added insult to the wounds by having a 1 hour special to make the “Decision,”  and the Browns continue to struggle.  Also lets not forget that winters in Cleveland are awful.  But this team truly does not have much to bring to the table.  They had the worst offense in the League last year for a reason.  They had a passing attack that reminded me of watching a high school team (averaging 129 yards per game).  This year they will have a new QB in Jake Delhomme, who can hopefully rekindle the fire a little bit.  Also their rushing attack will rely squarely on the shoulders of Jerome Harrison and the rookie out of Tennessee, Montario Hardesty.  Now Harrison is not terrible, nor was Cleveland’s rushing attack last year.  But this was partly because they ran the ball so much.  Also on the offensive side of the ball, much will be expected of Mohamed Massaquoi and Joshua Cribbs.  Massaquoi had a few big games last year, and has the talent to be a big play receiver.  But does this really sound like an offense that will be able to score against the likes of the Ravens, Bengals, or Steelers?  On the defensive side of the ball, the Browns are nearly just a bad.  This unit will depend heavily on a hopefully healthy Shaun Rogers, a hopefully healthy D’Qwell Jackson, and the always fun to watch Eric Wright in the secondary.  With the arrival of TO in Cincy and Boldin in Baltimore, Wright along with his buddies in the Cleveland secondary may actually need some Pepto Bismal.  Lastly, realize the best play the Browns have is on their special teams.  No team in the League possesses a threat like Joshua Cribbs in the return game.  This may be the Brown’s only hope to steal some games in the brutal AFC North.  As many in Cincinnati say, “If it is Brown flush it down.”  Well the Browns sadly are going to be down, and are in for another long season.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3rd place):  Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the best run franchises in professional sports will go a second consecutive year without tasting the postseason.  It is not that the Steelers are even so bad, it’s that the Bengals and Ravens will be very tough this year.  When talking about Steeler football, defense always comes to mind right away.  And this team does have a rough a tough defensive unit.  They are one of the top run stopping teams in the League, but do struggle with defending against the aerial attack at times.  James Farrior and James Harrison continue to get better with age it seems like.  Troy Polamalu, when healthy is one of the League’s best.  And Ryan Clark is becoming more and more well-known around the League for his bone shattering hits.  But the flash of the secondary cannot hide its inability at times to defend against the pass.  Big hits only can get you so far in this League.  Guys like Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, and all the recently drafted rookies in the secondary could make or break this team down the stretch.  Can Pittsburgh prevent the big play?  Offensively this team has a major issue before the season even starts.  Big Ben Roethlisberger, their quarterback and leader, will miss at least the first 4 games, and possibly more.  This will hurt.  It would not have been as big of a blow in the past, since the Steelers were always a smash mouth running team.  But they have turned into a pass first offense along with most of the NFL.  Can Dennis Dixon make sure the Steelers do not dig themselves another early season whole this year?  Because believe me, the Ravens and Bengals will be too tough to allow Pittsburgh to dig out of a massive early year deficit.  Is Rashard Mendenhall ready to carry the load as the featured back?  How many more solid years does Hines Ward have left?  The loss of their top receiver Santonio Holmes hurts, and it will be interesting to see if young guns Mike Wallace and Limas Sweed are ready to step up.  Pittsburgh will be a good team this year and win probably 6 to 8 games, but they will not be good enough to make the playoffs.  There are just too many question marks on both sides of the ball.

Baltimore Ravens (2nd place):  The bad boys out of Baltimore will make the playoffs for a 3rd consecutive year.  And though they would prefer to win the division, they will still be a tough out as a Wild Card.  This team has had a fantastic off-season and finally look to have the tools of a top-notch offensive squad.  So the Ravens will finally have a very tough offense to compliment their always tough defense.  Defensively, it is the same story it has been for the better part of a decade.  They stop the run better than anybody, rarely ever giving up 100 rushing yards in a game.  Ray Lewis, the future Hall of Famer, and possibly the best linebacker of all time continues to perform even at the ripe age of 35.  They also feature a very strong safety tandem in Dawan Landry and Ed Reed.  Plus Terrell Suggs, along with Ray Lewis may be the best linebacking duo in the League (even though Ray is 35).  But the corners have been a question the past couple of years, and may be the only minor flaw on this otherwise awesome team.  Can Domonique Foxworth, Fabian Washington, and David Carr defend the likes of the Bengal’s outstanding trio of big play receivers?  These matchups will probably determine who wins the AFC North.  So strap in for some excitement there.  There is also the Ravens now revamped offensive side of the ball.  Joe Flacco, looks to be a quarterback that will continue to win in this League for some time.  And now he has some great weapons to throw to in Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and Donte Stallworth.  He also still has the former ASU standout, Todd Heap to throw too.  Also the Ravens possess one of the best rushing attacks in the entire League.  Between the up and coming Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and big boy Le’ron McClain, defenses beware.  These guys are no fun to deal with.  And with the look of a team that should really be able to throw the ball downfield, teams will not simply be able to just key on the vaunted Raven’s rushing attack.  Look out for the Ravens in 2010, as they look to go deep into the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals (1st place):  Who Dey Nation has been celebrating for the past couple of days.  The TO Show has arrived in Cincinnati to add to an already solid receiving corps.  This team, which was one of the League’s best in running the ball last year should now be able to throw deep with authority.  They have 3 big play receivers in Owens, Ochocinco, and Bryant.  Not to mention the surehanded Andre Caldwell to act as a possession guy, and Jermaine Gresham at tight end.  Also they have one of the League’s best running backs in Cedric Benson.  Carson Palmer has a heck of a team to work with offensively.  Be ready to witness the Carson Palmer of 2005 all over again. Redemption will be so sweet for the former USC standout.  The Bengals on the defensive side of the ball last year, behind the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, became one of the League’s elite.  Do not expect that to change this season as guys continue to get healthy.  The Bengals were extremely efficient at stopping both the run and the pass.  The cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph is now known around the football stratosphere as one of the League’s elite.  Really for the Bengals, there are two question marks.  First of all is Carson ready to start playing like an elite quarterback again(which I think he is)?  And secondly, can the Bengals get healthy at safety and defend against a team like the Ravens, who have so many weapons?  With the Bengals, as with any team around the League, the big challenge is to stay healthy.  But this is by far the deepest and most talented team Marvin Lewis has ever had in Cincinnati.  Look for this team to have a big time year and play deep into the postseason.

So there you have.  The AFC North will be brutal as usual and will be represented in the playoffs by both the Bengals and Ravens like last year.  The only real question in this division is can the opposing secondaries handle the deep threats of the Bengals and Ravens?  We will begin to find out come September.

Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.

-TheSportsKraze

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“NFC South Preview”

Can Matt Ryan lead the Falcons past the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints?

 The NFC South had a banner year last season producing their first Super Bowl Champion since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took it home behind a stellar game by Dexter Jackson in the 2002-2003 season.  Jon Gruden was at the top of the coaching realm at that time.  Now he is one of the best analysts that ESPN has to offer.  But how about those Saints?  What a heartfelt story and exciting team to watch.  It was a very well deserved victory for the team and the entire city of New Orleans. 

NFC South:  Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Saints 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4th place):  Things have not been the greatest in Tampa Bay for the past couple of years.  This franchise has not made the playoffs since 2007, and that does not appear to be changing this year.  They have both an abysmal offense and defense these days, that really struggles at defending the pass.  First of all the problem for this team starts at quarterback.  The 22-year-old, Josh Freeman, has a world of potential, but no business starting in the NFL yet.  This is not a League that young guys can typically make an instant impact in such as the NBA.  The running back combo of this team in Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward is mediocre at best.  It is hard to run a ball on a team that will have such an anemic passing game.  Which leads me to how much the loss of Antonio Bryant will hurt.  The Bucs were towards the bottom of the League in the passing game last year, think what it will be like this year with Kellen Winslow as your only real receiving threat (he is a Tight End).  On the defensive side of the ball, things get even worse.  The only names you will recognize are guys like Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib.  You recognize Ronde, because he once was great, and Aqib because of his run ins with the law.  Plus Ronde looks to be all but retired, and may actually be retired before the season starts.  So there you have it, not much hope for Tampa Bay in 2010. 

Carolina Panthers (3rd place):  Next you have a Carolina Panther’s team that is coming off of a very disappointing 3rd place finish.  Well expect the same this year.  The one thing this team has going for them is a very strong defense.  Jon Beason is rapidly becoming one of the best linebackers in the League.  He is another great NFL linebacker out of none other than the U (Miami University).  Chris Gamble is a gamer in the secondary and can come up with some big time plays.  But the loss of Julius Peppers will sting.  Regardless if the guy was overpaid, he still contributed big time and really was a guy that offensive lines keyed in on freeing up others on the Panther’s defense to run rampant.  Can the Panther’s secondary still do well without a Julius Pepper’s attack coming at opposing QB’s?  We will find out.  Offensively, there is a brand new look with the sad departure of Jake Delhomme.  It will be interesting to see how Matt Moore does with the pressure of being the starter and having a guy like Jimmy Clausen breathing down his throat.  At least there is a great 2 headed monster at running back in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  Oh yeah, they also have a guy named Steve Smith to throw to.  But the loss of Muhsin Muhammad will hurt and somebody will have to step up as the number 2 receiver.  All in all, this Panther’s team has a lot of question marks.  But expect the rushing attack to be solid and do not be surprised to see this team win between 6 and 8 games. 

Atlanta Falcons (2nd place):  Atlanta will boast a solid offensive attack again this year led by their fearless quarterback Matt Ryan.  Ryan is getting close to entering his prime and continues to develop into a very strong NFL quarterback.  This team has targets for him to throw to such as Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and the future hall of famer, Tony Gonzalez.  But make no mistake, this is still one of the NFL’s few run first teams.  Between having a healthy Michael Turner, Jason Snelling, and the explosive Jerious Norwood, opponents should fear the rushing attack of Atlanta.  Also word on the street is that Michael Turner has had a fantastic off-season and has a big time year forthcoming.  On the other side of the ball, you may not have heard of many of these guys if you are not from Atlanta, but they are tough.  Led by linebacker Curtis Lofton and safety Erik Coleman, this defense is very solid.  They work very well as a collaborative unit and this year should be no different.  The only question is can this team improve in stopping the pass?  If they are able to improve as a secondary unit, they could challenge the pass happy Saints for the divisional crown.  Expect this team to come up just short of a Wild Card spot, but to have a very solid season. 

New Orleans Saints (1st place):  I know it has been a trap in recent history to pick the defending Super Bowl Champs to make any noise the next season.  I know the past couple of years the defending champs have faltered in even making it back to the playoffs, but this team looks too good not to at least make the postseason.  They are led by possibly the game’s best quarterback in Drew Brees.  They have an outstanding receiving corps in Colston, Henderson, Meachem, and Shockey.  Also they have probably the best receiving running back in the League in Reggie Bush.  This team can hurt you in so many ways offensively.  And with the way Drew Brees spreads the ball around, it does not really matter who you put around him or what defenses you throw at him.  Brees will put up points.  Also this team has the best run/pass balance in the League.  They are old-fashioned, and though they appear pass happy at times, they are able to do this due to an established rushing attack.  Though the loss of Mike Bell will hurt, expect Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush to carry the load just fine and really compliment each other well.  Then on the defensive side of the ball, can Darren Sharper repeat his amazing performance of a year ago?  Or at least half of the performance?  For a Super Bowl Champion, the Saints did not have a great defense.  They really lived and died on the bend and not break motto.  But who cares.  If you are putting up points the way this team does, all the defense has to do is hold opponents under 30 (sometimes 35).  Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper, and Roman Harper just have to ensure that this defense does not totally collapse.  Due to the amazing scoring ability of the offense, they predominantly have to defend against the pass as teams try to catch up.  Is the defense up to the challenge? 

So the NFC South looks to be very good as usual.  I see the Saints repeating as champions and the Falcons having a great season, but just missing a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.  The Saints will break the recent streak of defending Super Bowl Champions not making the playoffs. 

Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze. 

-TheSportsKraze

“Palmer Show”

Carson Palmer is getting the unique opportunity this year to rejoin the NFL's Elite Quarterbacks with the addition of Terrell Owens. Count on number 9 to make the most of this opportunity.

 Terrell Owens will be a Cincinnati Bengal this upcoming season!  As a Cincinnati fan, you have got to love it.  There is an air of confidence flowing through Cincinnati as the boys head to Georgetown for training camp, and rightfully so.  We just brought in a future Hall of Fame receiver to compliment another possible future Hall of Famer in Chad Ochocinco.  I talked in my post on Saturday entitled, “TO Fo Sho” how the Bengals had nothing to lose in going for the superstar wide receiver.  Boy am I happy now that we actually have him.  

 So most sports talk of the last 24 hours has revolved around discussions of the lethal tandem Chad and Terrell will be.  There has been talks of how the best buddies call themselves Batman and Robin.  How they think next years’ games should be put on Pay Per View because people should have to pay to watch a combo like this.  There have been comparisons to what the Miami Heat recently did in the NBA in uniting the 3 superstars.  Well these 2 should make a lethal combo.  And this officially makes this without a doubt, the deepest and most talented team of the Marvin Lewis era.  Honestly, this team was already probably the best Marvin Lewis had ever had in Cincy even before the TO signing.   

But the real story in my eyes.  Get ready for the Carson Palmer show.  Can this once can’t miss prospect regain his status among the elite quarterbacks in this League?  Can he prove to himself, his teammates, and the city, that he is capable of playing at an All Pro level again?  For those of you who are loyal followers of the Bengals have to somewhat remember what the Carson Palmer of 05 looked like.  This guy was on his way to being one of the top few quarterbacks in the League.  Since a horrible knee injury in a playoff game versus the Steelers that year, it has been pretty much all down hill.  Well now Cincinnati and Carson Palmer get a second chance.   

The former USC Trojan standout is healthy.  He is determined.  And he has an outstanding supporting cast.  I also love how Chad Ochocinco has been taking all the credit for getting TO to come to Cincy.  Chad has been saying how this was all a preview of his great General Managing abilities.  But the truth of the matter is Palmer was also key in getting Owens to come.  Yes Chad did a great job on selling his good buddy, but Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis took the opinion of Palmer much more seriously than Chad’s in that there was no bias.  Carson just wants to win ball games and said that Terrell could help take this team to the next level.   

Well not only can Terrell help take this team to the next level, he can help take Carson to the next level. He can help take Carson Palmer to that elite quarterback status level.  For those of you who do not remember, Carson had an over 100 passing rating during the Bengals 2005 AFC North Division Championship year.  Since then, his numbers have went down a little bit each year until this past season, where he made a little progress.  But still most people continue to criticize Carson and give him no credit for the success of the Bengals.  The Bengals had become an old school smash mouth football team.  They lived and died on their rushing attack and defense last year.  And that is fine.   

Get ready for a return to the glamour and glitz of 2005.  Sure this team will still utilize the rushing attack and a strong defense, but they will also be able to play a high-octane aerial style of offense as well.  This team compared to the 2005 version of the Bengals is much more mature and experienced than that team.  They also will not be surprising anybody.  People should be ready to watch the Bengals put up a top 5 finish in overall offense this season.  The Bengals will have that rare mix in today’s League of being able to both run and pass the ball effectively. With Palmer at quarterback, Benson at running back, Chad, Terrell, and Antonio at receivers, and a rookie with a world of potential in Jermaine Gresham at tight end, be forewarned.  This team will excite.  Grab your popcorn.   

So please do not make this all about Terrell Owens and Chad.  Sure Carson is fine with all the media attention being placed squarely on Ochocinco and TO.  They have both always been media hounds.  Palmer will let his right arm do the talking.   

The real storyline of this year in my eyes should be about the return of the Carson Palmer Show.  This is his big second chance to join the NFL’s Elite Quarterbacks.  Not too many guys get blessed with a second chance like this.   

Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.   

-TheSportsKraze