AFC NORTH PREDICTIONS
2006 PITTSBURGH STEELERS PREVIEW
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks like he will be ready for opening day even after his horrific motorcycle accident. The question is, will he stand up in the pocket against the pass rush or will he be a little gun shy about getting hit?
Roethlisbergers favorite receiving target is back in Hines Ward, but Antwaan Randle-El has gone to Washington and the team needs rookie Santonio Holmes to take on some of that production. Problem is, Holmes has already been arrested twice since the draft and he is looking like a major head case.
Running back Willie Parker had the bulk of the carries last year, but the team will still miss Jerome Bettis leadership and ability at the goal-line. Keep an eye on Verron Haynes who has received a lot of compliments from the coaches and could play a key role. The good news is that the offensive line should remain one of the leagues best.
The Steelers were the best team in the AFC last year in yards allowed. Their 16.1 points per Game allowed was tied for second with Denver behind Indianapolis.
The Steelers defense returns nine of its 11 starters with only defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and safety Chris Hope gone. Brett Kiesel steps in at defensive end and the team hopes that his pass rush ability offsets the loss in run support. Hope will be replaced by Ryan Clark, but the team drafted Anthony Smith in the third round to be the eventual replacement.
The core of the Steelers 3-4 defense lies with the linebacker core of Joey Porter and Clark Haggans on the outside and Larry Foote and James Farrior on the inside. With Troy Polamalu coming into the box from his strong safety position, it makes it extremely hard to run on them.
The Steelers weakness on defense used to be giving up the big pass play, but with the emergence of cornerback Ike Taylor and other young talent, that has been shored up. If the Steelers fail to meet expectations this year, chances are that it will not be because of the defense.
When Roethlisberger decided to drive his motorcycle without a helmet, he put his teams season in jeopardy. Everyone is thrilled that Big Ben was not hurt worse, but it will be a major distraction for the team as it will be brought up by the media all season long.
Pittsburgh is already dealing with the retirement of Bettis as well as rumors that Coach Bill Cowher could retire at the end of the year. Keeping focus after a Super Bowl win is hard enough with no major issues. The Steelers finished the regular season last year at 11-5 after winning their final Four Games. This year, they drop off a notch and finish with a 10-6 record.
2006 CLEVELAND BROWNS PREVIEW
Quarterback, Charlie Frye is the undisputed starter with Trent Dilfer being traded to San Francisco. Frye started five times as a rookie last year and the Browns were 2-3 in those Games. Still, this will be a learning year for him as it is for all young quarterbacks.
With Frye still wet behind the ears, expect running back Reuben Droughns to get plenty of carries. Droughns had 309 carries last year after 275 the year before in Denver.
Fryes receiving weapons are a little less concrete right now. Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius was signed as a free agent from Seattle and he is an immediate starter. Braylon Edwards has all the talent in the world as a high number one pick last year, but it looks like he could miss the first few Games recovering from knee surgery.
Tight end, Kellen Winslow Jr. is back and ready to go after missing most of his first two seasons with injuries. His presence as a deep threat down the middle is a great way to spread the field.
The offensive line suffered a huge blow last week when center LeCharles Bentley was lost for the season. Bentley was just signed as a high profile free agent, making his loss doubly painful. Now, this unit will be lucky to be average as a whole.
Cleveland was 8th in the AFC in yards allowed last year and sixth in points allowed. That is very respectable considering it was coach Romeo Crennels first year on the job and the team was installing a new defense.
The 3-4 defense requires very specific players in the system, and Cleveland got a good one when they signed veteran nose tackle Ted Washington. It remains to be seen how much Big Ted has left in the tank, but he along with linebacker Willie McGinest adds two great veteran presences.
First round pick, Kamerion Wimbley is a good bet to start at outside linebacker opposite McGinest. The secondary gets a boost with Brodney Pool in the starting line-up at safety and the return of cornerback Gary Baxter from injury.
Coach Crennel did a very solid job last year and he is the right guy to lead this team into the future. He is one of the best defensive minds in the Game, and he gets the up-most respect from his players.
The downside to this team is that they are in a very tough division, they have a lot of key injury questions, and they have a very inexperienced quarterback. The Browns will be an improved team this year, but will standstill at a 6-10 record. 2007 is when they will really start to make their mark.
2006 BALTIMORE RAVENS PREVIEW
Quarterback, Steve McNair comes over from the Titans and he brings instant respect as a former league MVP and a guy who has made it to the Super Bowl. McNairs biggest question is always his health as he hasnt played in all 16 Games since 2002.
McNair benefits from having a receiver that he is already very familiar with in Derrick Mason. Mason and McNair were a potent duo in Tennessee and they should pick up where they left off. Mark Clayton is an up and comer at the other wide receiver slot and tight end Todd Heap is one of the best in the NFL.
The running Game is also promising with the tandem of Jamal Lewis and Mike Anderson. There is no doubt that Lewis has been slipping the last couple of years, but there is nothing better than a 1,000 yard guy behind you to get motivated.
The biggest weakness on offense looks to be the offensive line. Jonathan Ogden is still a guy you want lining up at left tackle, but he is not as dominant as he once was. Overall the line is a below average group and is one of the reasons for Lewis drop-off.
The Ravens were second in the AFC in yards allowed last year and fifth in points allowed. They have as many big names as any team in the NFL with Ray Lewis at linebacker, Terrell Suggs at defensive end, Ed Reed at safety and Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle at cornerback.
Fortunately for Baltimore, they also have lesser known solid players like linebackers Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott, and defensive lineman Kelly Gregg.
Throw in veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce who signed a big deal, and first round run stuffer Haloti Ngata, and you can see why fans are excited about this defense. Now, all they have to do is keep Ray Lewis happy and healthy and it might all just come together.
Coach Brian Billick is entering his 8th season with Baltimore and in many ways this is a make or break year for him. Billick won a Super Bowl in 2000 with this team, but the goodwill from that victory has all but worn out.
The addition of McNair gives both sides of the ball a lift. It may even boost the defense more because they wont feel like they have to shutout their opponent to win. The prediction for this team is a 9-7 record, and that is only because the Schedule is so tough. Look for the Ravens to be in the playoff hunt.
2006 CinciNNATI BENGALS PREVIEW
There are three keys to the Bengals season this year, Carson Palmer, Carson Palmer, and Carson Palmer. That is a slight exaggeration, but a healthy Palmer is the difference between a Super Bowl contender and a team that doesnt make the playoffs.
All indications are that Palmer will be ready to start the season, but that is an extremely quick recovery from his gruesome knee injury last January.
The rest of the skill positions are set with Rudi Johnson running the ball and the dynamic duo of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh catching it. They even have a former first round back in Chris Perry who is another receiving weapon out of the backfield.
Cincinnati has done a great job building their offensive line over the last few years. Levi Jones is a great young tackle who just got locked up with a long term deal. Willie Anderson is the old warrior at right tackle and the entire line run-blocks and pass blocks well.
In 2005, the Cincinnati defense was 14th in the AFC in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. Part of the reason was that they relied on a lot of young talent, but Coach Marvin Lewis needs this unit to start making a jump up immediately. In fact, Lewis ability to mold a defense was why he was originally hired in the first place.
The big addition on defense is run stuffer Sam Adams as he has the ability to anchor a defensive line. David Pollack should be much improved after transitioning to linebacker as a rookie last year. One down note is that middle linebacker, Odell Thurman is suspended for the first Four Games. That really hurts the defense.
The secondary receives a boost at the safety positions as Dexter Jackson was signed as a free agent, and Madieu Williams returns from shoulder surgery. Cornerback, Johnathan Joseph was drafted in the first round to help protect against an aging Tory James.
It is very hard to judge this Bengals team right now because we just dont know if Palmer can play all 16 Games, and whether he will be 100% in the Games that he plays.
There has been so much bad press around this team between numerous players getting arrested, to Thurmans suspension, to the drafting of problem child Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft.
If this team starts losing Games early on, then the media scrutiny is going to increase and this team may struggle for a good part of the year. A 9-7 record is the most likely outcome.