Ox Posted August 9, 2008 Report Share Posted August 9, 2008 The AFC’s “Black and Blue” Division: Previewing the AFC NorthBy Amar Panchmatia | August 8th, 2008Unless you’ve never experienced it first hand, then you know what I’m talking about when I say that there’s nothing quite like football in the Midwest in the fall.College football stadiums become a state’s third-largest city on Saturdays. NFL teams are the center of their own religions. And the colder it gets as the season keeps moving forward, the better each and every game becomes.The game of football doesn’t get any purer than the AFC North, where the game’s rich history, most storied rivalries, and fiercest competition is seen during every day of the year - and magnified after kickoff in early September.You know about the Browns and the Steelers. There’s obviously bad blood between the Browns and Ravens because of the history between the two franchises there. The Steelers and Ravens formed the NFL’s most bitter rivalry by making every meeting a blood bath in the early part of the decade. The Browns and Bengals are intrastate rivals that go way back. And the Bengals and Steelers now have their own history to point to after their playoff meeting in the 2005 season.After a tumultuous 2007 season that saw a lot of new changes brought into the division, 2008 promises to be even more intense. There’s the rise of the Browns, the fall of the Ravens, the soap opera in Cincinnati, and the division’s most recent Super Bowl champion in Pittsburgh. Is there a set script for 2008, or will we be in for even more surprises starting next month?Here’s how the North might shake down for the upcoming season. Teams are listed in the order that they finished last season.Pittsburgh Steelers2007 Result: 10-6, first place, lost to Jacksonville in AFC Wild Card roundKey Additions: RB Rashard Mendenhall (first round pick, Illinois), WR Limas Sweed (second round pick, Texas)Key Losses: OG Alan Faneca (free agency, New York Jets), DB Al Rossum (released, San Francisco), FB Dan Kreider (free agency, St. Louis), LB Clark Haggans (free agency, Arizona)Best-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: The Steelers were able to build a solid foundation under first-year head coach Mike Tomlin in 2007, going 10-6 and winning what was a competitive division. Despite Jacksonville’s historic dominance of them, the Steelers almost got past the Jaguars and into the second round, and Pittsburgh - especially quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - showed in their ‘05 Super Bowl run that once they get a little momentum in the postseason, it’s extremely hard to stop them. Even though they have what is, by far, the league’s toughest schedule for ‘08, the Steelers are capable of doing anything if they reach the postseason - even winning three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl like they did under Roethlisberger in ‘05.Worst-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: You have to feel for the Steelers - their schedule for this season is beyond brutal. Other than having an “X” on their back from each team in the division, the Steelers play the first-place teams from each division in the AFC from last year. That means a return trip to Foxborough, where the Patriots have always had their number, and hosting a San Diego Chargers team that is dripping with Pro Bowlers at almost every position. Combine that with playing the NFC East and the AFC South, and the Steelers will absolutely have to bring their best game every single week just to ensure at least a .500 season - something that never happens no matter which NFL team you talk about.Prediction: 8-8, miss playoffs. This has a lot more to do with their brutal schedule than the talent in Pittsburgh. Winning more than eight games in a schedule that includes New England, San Diego, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, the Giants, and Philadelphia - as well as each division team twice - is asking way too much.Cleveland Browns2007 Result: 10-6, second place, missed playoffs due to tiebreaker with TennesseeKey Additions: DT Shaun Rogers (trade, Detroit), DE Corey Williams (trade, Green Bay), WR Donte Stallworth (free agency, New England)Key Losses: CB Leigh Bodden (trade, Detroit)Best-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: You never thought you’d see the day: The Cleveland Browns have an explosive offense. Quarterback Derek Anderson was unbeatable at home, going 7-0 in games that he started at the Dawg Pound and putting up a Pro Bowl season. Although the Browns and Steelers have identical schedules, the x-factor will be their two games against the AFC East and West - Pittsburgh hosts San Diego and goes to New England while the Browns host Denver and travel to Buffalo. That’s a huge difference, and after a season where they got shut out of the postseason despite a 10-6 record, Cleveland might be able to ride that past the Steelers and to the AFC North title.Worst-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: Nothing kills a team like a quarterback controversy (just ask the ‘03 Browns about Tim Couch vs. Kelly Holcomb), and while Anderson just received a new contract, is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and has the full support of the organization as the starting quarterback, he’ll always be looking over his shoulder because of Brady Quinn. One bad game will have the fans calling for his head, and the pressure to improve on last year’s jaw-dropping numbers will be immense. If he fails - and the team is forced to go with a young and inexperienced Quinn in the middle of a very tough schedule - then the Browns will have no shot at matching last season’s success.Prediction: 10-6, AFC North title. The Browns have more talent on both sides of the ball than any other team in the division, and a dominant offensive line - maybe the best in all of football - will help Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis replicate their 2007 success. That - and the slightly easier schedule than Pittsburgh’s - will be enough to get Cleveland over the hump in ‘08.Cincinnati Bengals2007 Result: 7-9, third place, missed playoffsKey Additions: LB Keith Rivers (first round pick, USC), WR Jerome Simpson (second round pick, Coastal Carolina), DE Antwan Odom (free agency, Tennessee)Key Losses: S Madieu Williams (free agency, Minnesota), DE Justin Smith (free agency, San Francisco), LB Landon Johnson (free agency, Carolina), LB/DE David Pollack (paralysis injury, retired), WR Chris Henry (legal problems, released), LB Odell Thurman (violation of league substance abuse policy)Best-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: Despite their off-field issues and disappointing 2007 season, the Bengals still possess a star-studded and explosive offense with quarterback Carson Palmer and receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. With the Steelers facing a tough season and the Browns a little green between the ears, Cincinnati can try to out-gun the Browns and surprise the AFC North. They definitely have the weapons to keep up with Cleveland’s offense, and experience is on their side as well since this group has won a division title before three years ago.Worst-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: The Bengals have replaced the Ravens as the league’s biggest outlaws, and the number of legal issues facing this team has overshadowed on-field expectations. On top of that, the defense - even under defensive mastermind Marvin Lewis - is still subpar and not equipped to handle the better offenses in the league. The Bengals may have the offensive weapons to trump the Steelers and Browns, but can their own defense stop Cleveland’s offensive fireworks on the other side of the ball? As of now, the answer is no, and that could spell a long, frustrating season in Cincinnati.Prediction: 6-10, miss playoffs. You know what they say about talent: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” Cincinnati has Pro Bowl talent at a lot of key positions, but they’ve had that same talent the last several years. It hasn’t won them anything.Baltimore Ravens2007 Result: 5-11, last place, missed playoffsKey Additions: Head coach John Harbaugh (DB coach, Philadelphia), QB Joe Flacco (first round pick, Delaware), RB Ray Rice (second round pick, Rutgers)Key Losses: OL Jonathan Ogden (retirement), QB Steve McNair (retirement), C Mike Flynn (released)Best-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: The Ravens have history of sneaking up on the league and being competitive when nobody expects them to. They did it in 2002 after a salary cap purge decimated the core from their 2000 Super Bowl run, and that’s the only way they can do it in 2008. Just as they’ve done before, the Ravens would have to ride their defense - which still includes stars like Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs.Worst-Case Scenario for 2008 Season: The parade of Pro Bowlers this team enjoyed in the early part of this decade are either retired, in other uniforms, or on the downside of their careers. Ray Lewis is no longer the most feared defender in football, Jamal Lewis isn’t running for 2,000 yards, Jonathan Ogden isn’t manning the blind side for his quarterback, and Peter Boulware isn’t racking up sacks anymore. On top of that, the Ravens have never had stability at the most important position in football: The quarterback position. Banking on Flacco to bring that stability is reminiscent of when Kyle Boller was supposed to do the same, and we all know how that turned out.Prediction: 4-12, miss playoffs. With a new coaching staff and young team, the Ravens are going to have to start off by taking their lumps early and often, but a high first-round pick in ‘09 could be turned into gold by GM Ozzie Newsome.http://mvn.com/outsider/2008/08/08/the-afc...-the-afc-north/ Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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