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.