BengalszoneBilly Posted April 4, 2004 Report Share Posted April 4, 2004 By Mark CurnutteThe Cincinnati EnquirerPALM BEACH, Fla. - AFC North coaches consider Baltimore and Cincinnati the class of the division heading into the 2004 season. No April fooling. "They're defending champions and have pretty much everyone coming back," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of the Ravens during the league's annual meeting here. "Cincinnati's much improved from a year ago, and I think Cleveland's going to rebound. And I think we will be very competitive." Cowher, the division's coaching dean at 12 years, made special mention of the Bengals - coached by Marvin Lewis, the linebackers coach on his first Steelers staff. "He's given them a new outlook on things," Cowher said of Lewis. "Their whole approach to things is different. It showed in how they played. They played very important games late in the season for the first time in a long time. I think he did a great job in turning around the whole mentality there." The Ravens won the division at 10-6. The Bengals were 8-8 and were not eliminated from playoff contention until losing their last game of the season. The Steelers slumped to 6-10 and the Browns, a year after making the playoffs as a wild-card team, finished 5-11. All four teams could have different quarterbacks than the ones who finished the season. Carson Palmer will take over for Jon Kitna with the Bengals. Jeff Garcia will be the Browns' starter, and former No. 1 overall draft pick Tim Couch is likely to be traded or released. In Pittsburgh, Charlie Batch might challenge Tommy Maddox, and the Steelers are considering N.C. State's Philip Rivers if he drops to No. 11 in the draft. Kyle Boller, returning from a leg injury, has been reinstated as the Ravens' starter ahead of Anthony Wright. The constant in the AFC North is the desire to run first with big backs like Jamal Lewis, Jerome Bettis and Rudi Johnson. Lewis has the distinction of having worked in all four AFC North cities. He was hired as defensive coordinator in Cleveland just weeks before the franchise completed its move to Baltimore to become the Ravens. "Baltimore is the division champ; I think they have to be the favorite," Lewis said. "Cleveland has tried to spark its team offensively with the people they've added. Pittsburgh, adding (running back) Duce Staley, gives them another weapon (with) getting Jerome back. They're a team that's very prideful and they'll come back energized." Lewis won Super Bowl XXXV in Baltimore as Brian Billick's defensive coordinator. "Everybody is going to be better," Billick said. "We are in a division that was in transition last year, Marvin taking over in Cincinnati, Cleveland adjusting itself to the cap, Pittsburgh is re-identifying itself a little bit. "Marvin's program is about to take the next step, and I can't imagine them not doing very good. Butch (Davis) is putting his footprint on (the Browns) organization and now has it to a place where he's more comfortable. So it's going to be a very competitive division." Davis is 21-27 heading into his fourth season in Cleveland. Asked how the division shapes up this year, he said, "I don't have any idea." Carmen Policy, the Browns' president and CEO, said Baltimore is the division favorite. Lewis is building his team to compete against division rivals. "It's important to me to add people who can compete in our division," Lewis said. "For example, in our division, you have to have people at safety who can cover (mobile Ravens tight end) Todd Heap." Then there was the brief time wide receiver Terrell Owens appeared to be a Raven. "When there was the rumor of T.O. being in our division, my focus was on people who could line up and play against him," Lewis said. The Bengals were 3-3 against the division in 2003, up from 0-6 the previous season. The Bengals had problems running against division opponents. They averaged 87.3 yards a game on the ground against the AFC North and 146.3 in their 10 non-division games last season. The acquisition of right guard Bobbie Williams should help, Lewis said, along with the return of center Rich Braham. "Putting (Williams) in the mix with Victor (Leyva) and Scott Kooistra and to have our guys feel they can compete and physically run the football ... something we couldn't do last year against those clubs," Lewis said. "If you can't do that in your own division, how good are you?" Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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