Our preview of the 2009 NFL season continues with the AFC North. Teams are ranked by projected finish.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Their offensive line is nearly as protective as Travis Henry’s condoms, but that won’t slow the Steel Town juggernaut down any.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is used to making quick, short passes under pressure and he can expect more of the same in ’09. Per usual, wideout Hines Ward will benefit most from this arrangement.
Joining Big Ben in the Steelers’ backfield is the two-headed tailback monster of Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. Both backs were injured in 2008, and are looking to rebound on disappointing seasons from a year ago.
If the line can hold at all, this offense has a chance to make noise.
Not that it matters all that much with a defense as strong as Pittsburgh’s. Opponents can expect a heavy dose of the Steel Curtain’s hard-nosed attack, and that should be enough to lead the black-and-gold to the top of the division once again.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
This is a big IF, but IF Carson Palmer can stay healthy then the Bengals should be able to overtake Baltimore as the No. 2 team in the division in 2009.
The Cincinnati quarterback has been injured in each of the past two seasons and his time away has severely hurt the organization. Expect that to change as Palmer returns to strength and benefits from a new weapon in the form of veteran receiver Laveranues Coles.
Alongside Coles is a man who, when he isn’t kicking field goals, is known as one of the better wideouts in football. That would be Chad aka Esteban Ochocinco. The enigmatic receiver may have lost a step in recent years, but along with Palmer’s return, Johnson should regain his form as well.
Tailback Cedric Benson will be asked to carry a bigger load than he’s ever had to in his NFL career, but the former Chicago Bear should be up to the task after finishing strong in 2008.
There’s no doubt that the Bengals’ D is a little shaky, but in a division of less-than-potent offenses it shouldn’t matter a whole lot.
Add in wildcards in the form of WR Chris Henry and DT Tank Johnson, and Cincinnati becomes one of the most intriguing teams of 2009. Will that translate into wins? We’ll have to wait and see.
3. Baltimore Ravens
What’s the difference between second place and third in a division like the AFC North?
For one, it’s age.
The Ravens are older now and 2009 will finally be the year that wisdom melds into senility.
The defense is solid, as usual, but the team’s best defenders — Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, for two — aren’t getting any younger. Expect the aches and pains of middle age to creep up on the Crows over the course of this season.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team has been relying on smoke and mirrors — in the forms of Derrick “Smoke” Mason, and Mark “Mirrors” Clayton — in the receiving corps for a number of years now. The retired-then-unretired Mason is at the end of his line and Clayton would be a third or fourth receiver in a decent passing game. It’s quite possible that second-year quarterback Joe Flacco might actually regress with wideouts that have added milliseconds to their 40 times in the past 365 days.
That said, the Ravens should finally have some answers in the running game thanks in large part to Ray Rice and LeRon McClain.
McClain, who paced the club with 11 rushing TDs in 2008, returns to his natural fullback position after a year in the tailback role.
Rice, a second-year player out of Rutgers, should assume reps as the No. 1 tailback, sending Willis McGahee down the pecking order a rung. McGahee should still be in line for goal-line carries, assuming he can remain in good health.
Though many see Baltimore as the second-best team in the AFC North, we envision a scenario in which Father Time drops the Blackbirds to No.3 in the division. Sorry, Ravens fans.
4. Cleveland Browns
Brown is the color of poo, which is exactly what the Cleveland Browns most resemble in the AFC North.
Not that there isn’t any talent in Cleveland.
Receiver Braylon Edwards has the ability to be one of the best pass-catchers in the league. When he isn’t dropping passes, that is. In 2008, Edwards was plagued by a bad case of butterfingers and he’ll do his best to recover in ’09.
Even if Edwards gets sticky hands this season, there’s no guaranteeing that anyone will be able to give him the ball. The Browns are currently stuck deciding between quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, a never-ending dispute that will seemingly result in the lesser of two evils being named starter. Both have had their chances to claim the job in recent years, and neither has exactly wowed onlookers by seizing the opportunity.
In the backfield, Jamal Lewis is a bull that happens to be on his last legs. His backups include scatback Jerome Harrison and rookie James Davis, both of whom should see duty on a semi-regular basis.
The rest of the starters are a patchwork crew and the prognosis in Cleveland isn’t good for the time being. Give this club a few more years before contention in the North becomes a reality.