Wednesday, September 8, 2010

AFC North season preview

Baltimore Ravens
Ray Rice
QB Joe Flacco is entering his third season as the signal caller and a ton will be expected from him...he helped the Ravens get into the play-offs in his first two seasons, and this season they add stud WR Anquan Boldin...recently the Ravens benefited from the Seattle Seahawks releasing WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh as they were able to swoop in and add yet another impressive piece to this already impressive puzzle...the emergence of RB Ray Rice for me is the biggest reason for Super Bowl optimism in Baltimore...2,000+ yards from scrimmage in 2009...5.3 yards per carry...combine Flacco/Rice/Boldin/ Houshmandzadeh with TD/short yard specialist Willis McGahee, plus veterans like Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Donte' Stallworth, Mark Clayton and we see a lot of talent on the offense...all that plus a balanced, versatile Offensive Line

The D took a step back in 2009 as far as dropping the QB...that is really the only area in need of improvement...Top 5 vs the pass in '09...Top 5 vs the run in '09...Top 5 in fewest points allowed in '09...Top 5 in INT's in '09...only 32 sacks though, which will need to improve...this unit was dealt a blow in Camp as they lost 1st round stud-in-the-making LB Sergio Kindle to a head injury (skull fracture)...Kindle's return is unknown, but he has told us that he feels very confident that he will be back within the month...2nd round pick DT Terrence Cody is also going to add to this D...the man to watch for the first 6 games at least is Safety Tom Zbikowski...he will replace the amazing Ed Reed for at least the first 6 weeks due to Reed's off-season hip surgery and the required recovery time for that

This team was just 3-5 on the road in 2009, but should be well built to win on the road in 2010

Prediction...11-5...especially if they get at least 1 win in their opening 2 games which are TOUGH games...at Jets then at Cincy...pretty tough schedule but this team has talent and leadership...I like Cincy as a dark horse to win the AFC, but Baltimore is certainly a heavy favorite to play in Super Bowl XLV

Cincinnati Bengals
I like this team as a dark horse to be a Super Bowl contender...one key player will be Cedric Benson...his TD total of 6 from last season will have to improve...QB Carson Palmer will have new Chad Ochocinco, plus new toys in WR's Terrell Owens, Matt Jones, plus rookies Jordan Shipley(WR), and TE Jermaine Gresham (Gresham used Training Camp to earn a starting job) to distribute the ball to...the Antonio Bryant era in Cincy was short lived...signed prior to Training Camp for $28 million over 4 years, but was cut during Training Camp...

The Top 10 rushing attack from 2009 was led by reclamation project Cedric Benson, and it is he who will be asked to carry the mail for this team again in 2010...he set team records in 2009 which helped other reclamation projects like Terrell Owens, Matt Jones, and Pacman Jones get the Bengals to give them another chance to play in the NFL

It is easy to be impressed with the work done by Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer...Top 5 overall D in 2009...#6 vs the pass...# 7 vs the run...#6 fewest points allowed...the one area that will need to improve in 2010 is the sack total...middle of the pack with just 34 sacks last season...I think this team could be very significant in the AFC, but for that to happen the pass rush will need to improve...rookie Carlos Dunlap earned a starting spot in Camp and he will try to get sacks to help right away

Prediction...10-6...6 of their 8 road games this year are @ New England...@ Hotlanta...@ INDY...@ Jets...@ Pitt (when Roethlisberger is back)...@ Baltimore...that is 6 TOUGH road games...if they can get 3 wins from these 6 games then I like a 10 win season...I think things could bounce in the favour of this team and perhaps have them representing the AFC in the Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers
We knew that Big Ben Roethlisberger was going to have his 6 game suspension reduced to 4 as we knew he would be on great behaviour to get it reduced...too bad for Miami fans as the 6th game is vs the Dolphins, but Ben will be the signal caller after week 4...that is the good news...the bad news is that Pitt is in a very tough Division and are starring a 1-3 start right in the face...Pitt starts with a home game vs Atlanta...then at Tennessee and at Tampa Bay...then return home for a week 4 date with Baltimore..there are people who think I am under-valuing what QB Dennis Dixon will be able to accomplish during the first 4 weeks, but I see 1-3 start coming - with 2-2 as best case scenario...either way when Big Ben does return to action it is likely that he will be on a 3rd place team

yes, this is Troy Polamalu's real hair!
The D was a Top 5 unit in 2009, including #3 vs the rush and #2 in sacks, but were beat in the 4th quarter so often last season that it cost them a play-off spot despite the fact that they were the defending champs (endured a 5 game losing streak from weeks 10 through 14 with every loss by 7 points or less)...now we know that the amazing Troy Polamalu's return to health is the key for this unit, but the rest of the squad will look to step up and re-establish itself as the strength of this team...

Prediction...I want to go with 8-8, but getting Polamalu back should elevate them above .500 so I will say 9-7

Cleveland Browns
Mike Holmgren
The franchise is now run by Mike Holmgren...he has a TON of work to do...the team did win their last 4 games last season, but all 5 of their W's in 2009 came vs non-playoff teams...no NFL offense was worse than the Browns in '09, and the only defense that was worse was Detroit's...the running game was actually a Top 10 unit, but will have to rely on Jerome Harrison to carry the load as Jamal Lewis is gone, and promising rookie Montario Hardesty mashed his ACL in Camp and will miss all of 2010...that leaves 2nd year man James Davis, along with 3rd year man Peyton Hillis to pick up the slack...the passing game was dead last in the NFL in '09...Both QB's (Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn) are gone...veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace are in...rookie Colt McCoy is in the mix as well...the QB's were so bad in '09 that no WR was able to develop any consistency or good play...Delhomme will be using his veteran savvy to help develop very young talent like Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie - 41 career catches between them yet they enter 2010 as the starting WR's...we know that the Browns had zero success with trying Josh Cribbs at WR, but he has so much talent that I bet we see another shot for him to show that he can play at this level...

On D free-agent and trades brought in guys like LB Chris Gocung, CB Sheldon Brown, and LB Scott Fujita - all of whom earned starting jobs in Camp...rookie Joe Haden will start the season as a Nickelback, and he did struggle somewhat in pre-season, but he was drafted to be the guy to cover Anquan Boldin, Ochocinco, and Mike Wallace (all the top WR's from the other 3 teams in the AFC North) for years to come...a look at the #'s from 2009 show us that the only way this D could possibly go is up

PREDICTION...Jake Delhomme's career is over...the clock is ticking on Head Coach Eric Mangini...the Dawg Pound will suffer through another horrible season...4-12

check out the other Division previews too... craig.ballard@hotmail.com