The defending Super Bowl champion resides here. But, remember, the Steelers weren't the best team in their division last year...Cincinnati was. The Bengals have made upgrades...as has Baltimore and Cleveland. So, the road to repeat will be tough.
COACH'S STATE: Coach Marvin Lewis is the first popluar Bengals coach since the Sam Wyche days over a decade ago. He instantly has brought respectability and hope to a franchise that really needed it. He's easily the most respected member of the organization and a catch for the Bengals. He's not going anywhere.
BIGGEST ADDITION: In both size and significance....DT Sam Adams. The Bengals were a horrible run defense team last year...and adding Adams will help immensely. If nothing, he eats blockers and allows that talented array of linebackers to make plays. Also, he's been to the promised land and can lend his experience to a young defense that needs a leader.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: It could be Jon Kitna. Kitna was very familiar with the offense and could be counted on to run the team if needed. Now, he's no Carson Palmer...but who is? But Kitna is a guy who started 79 games in his career...including 46 in Cincinnati. In Palmer's rookie season of 2003....Kitna played every down at QB for the Bengals and was named Comeback Player of the Year. And good backups are hard to find in this league.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: DE Justin Smith. Ask any Bengals fan about their biggest disappointment...and it usually is Smith. He is decent...but isn't the player Cincy though he'd be. It also is a contract year for Smith...so he could go all out.
OFFENSE: The offense isstacked. If Carson Palmer can return to form [which he should], he's got a myriad of options to use. Chad Johnson is one of the best WRs in the league....with TJ Houshmandzadeh as one of the best sidekicks. They also have a workhorse back in Rudi Johnson who can move the chains and break off some big plays. They have a solid offensive line who isn't spectacular or deep, but returns all five starters for the 3rd straight year.
DEFENSE: It should be improved. The Bengals are a defense that makes big plays and gives up big plays. Creating turnovers are key. They do have some stellar guys on that side of the ball Deltha O'Neal led the NFL in interceptions. Dexter Jackson, Madeieu Williams and Tory James join him in the secondary which seems solid. The linebackers are a young deep unit....though losing Odell Thurman for four games due to a violation of the substance abuse policy does hurt. The key is that front line. If they can create pressure...they can allow the athletes behind them to do their thing.
SCHEDULE: A beast of a schedule. They get in order: Pittsburgh, New England, Tampa, Carolina, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Diego. They face great defenses [the Steelers and Ravens twice] in those teams and the Colts later in the year. Also, their run defense was bad last year....and the face several of the NFL's top rushing teams this year. They also end the season at Indy, at Denver and at home with Pittsburgh. Yikes!
OUTLOOK: Despite the schedule, Cincinnati is in a prime position to return to the playoffs. There are question marks around the team...mainly with depth, the return of Palmer from injury, and the various off field issues facing Thurman, WR Chris Henry and several of their 2006 draft picks. If Lewis can keep the focus on the field, Cincinnati could repeat as AFC North champions.
COACH'S STATE: Bill Cowher has moved from just great coach to elite coach with one doozy of a postseason run. He's the longest tenured coach which paid off for the Rooneys as he deliveredthe Steelers' first Super Bowl title in 25 years. He makes this possibly a new golden age of coaches...as he joins Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Bill Billichick, Brian Billick, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren and Jon Gruden as head current head coaches with a Super Bowl ring [not to mention guys like Romeo Crenell, Marvin Lewis, Gary Kubiak, etc who won Super Bowls as assistants].
BIGGEST ADDITION: The Steelers didn't upgrade much of anywhere...so rookie WR Santonio Holmes must turn into a key receiver as quickly as possible. With Antwaan Randle El gone, Holmes will be used to try to take up a lot of the slack.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Don't get it twisted, the Steelers will miss Jerome Bettis a ton. On the field, he was a steady as they come. When guys went down with injuries [read: Duce Staley who, ironically, will try to fill the Bus' role] the Bus stepped up his game and filled the gap. Also, he was a lethal weapon in short yardage situations and had a nose for the endzone. He will be dearly missed off the field, as his leadership and just overall respect he gave and received from his teammates helped lift the team to the Super Bowl.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Willie Parker. Parker came out of nowhere in 2004 to just get on the team and then in 2005 went on to win the starting tailback job for the Steelers. He is the featured back who moved the chains well and is good for a really big play now and again. But, with Bettis gone from picking up those short yardage situations and Staley a bit more fragile....Parker must step up his game a bit. He'll be relied on more to carry the load with Bettis gone and the receiving corps a bit hampered by the loss of Randle El.
OFFENSE: The offense was so good during the playoffs. But, it is an offense that faces some interesting changes. The main cogs are still there. Big Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and that big offensive line. But other cogs have different roles. I touched on Parker's expanded role. Staley must go from featured back into the short yardage guy. Cedrick Wilson gets a bigger look with Randle El gone. And with Randle El gone, the ability for gadget plays lessens for the Steelers, whichbecame a big part of theiroffense down the stretch. Also, the motorcycle accident that Big Ben suffered could bring some lasting effects...especially in the concussion department.
DEFENSE: The defense is stacked and loaded. It returns nearly everybody from the defense that stymied the Colts, Broncos and Seahawks in the playoffs and knocked Carson Palmer out of their opener against the Bengals. These guys are smart, physical and fast. They know where they are supposed to be and what their jobs are. They do have some depth issues, especially on the line, but still are capable of carrying games.
SCHEDULE: The Steelers essentially have the same sked as the Bengals. Except that the Steelers miss out on the Colts and Patriots and get the Jaguars and Dolphins instead. That trade off could be the difference in the Steelers winning the division. That, and the season ender in Cincinnati.
OUTLOOK: Pittsburgh can repeat. And they can miss the playoffs. It depends on how you view this team. You can view this team as the Super Bowl champions...who won 8 straight games and went into Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver before knocking of the NFC's best team to win the title. Or you can view this team as the guys who were 7-5 after losing three straight and having their confidence shattered a bit. If the Steelers get back into the playoffs, they are as legit as anyone. But, with improved teams all over the AFC, getting there will be tough. The schedule is littered with land mines and everyone will give the Steelers their top effort.
COACH'S STATE: Brian Billick may be running out of the "I won a Super Bowl" juice that's carried the him the last couple of years. The team is at the point where the guys who are left from the 2000 title team may be heading out soon and Billick's firing could come with that. They've improved their team abit...but it isn't in theclass of the Steelers or Bengals ahead of them. Progress is the key word.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Steve McNair is the first real QB the Ravens have ever had. Sure, guys like Vinny Testeverde, Elvis Grbac, Trent Dilfer and Kyle Boller are okay...they aren't in McNair's class. Even when it is a torn up McNair on the backside of his career. With McNair in tow, everything they've added to their offense in the past few years becomes better.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: DT Maake Kemoeatu left for Carolina...which costs the Ravens their best run stopper and block eater. With him gone, the linebackers may not be as good as they need to be to make this defense flourish. In a division that loves to run the football...that could be a key flaw.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The list is plenty long. I would start with Jamal Lewis...but the signing of Mike Anderson to back him up makes Lewis' effectiveness not as important. It is important that MLB Ray Lewis gets on track. Lewis turned from defensive great, to alleged murderer, to Super Bowl MVP, to leader, to lockerroom cancer. Lewis was a grump last year and into the offseason...as he made his contract a public issue. He is coming off some subpar seasons and was dinged up most of last year. Wear and tear have taken a toll on him and he's not the player he once was. Off the field, he's become a distraction and a guy his teammates just don't respect as they once did. He's got to turn all that around if he wants to bring the Ravens back to the playoff hunt.
OFFENSE: With McNair taking the snaps, the Ravens offense looks so much better. They have two darn good backs in Lewis and Anderson [so much so that the let Chester Taylor walk] and have accrued some good WRs in Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap. But there are holes everywhere else. The line still has Jonathan Ogden as the anchor, but they have very little else. They also aren't too deep at receiver.
DEFENSE: The names are big...but the games may not be. The Ravens still are a very good defense. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are former defensive MVPs who can still do some damage....and Chris McAllister, Trevor Pryce, Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs are more than adequate. But, everywhere else there are questions. B-more has no secondary depth and is thin everywhere else as well. And for a team with injury issues, that's not good. At best, they can still be a top 5 defense.
SCHEDULE: When Pittsburgh and Cincinnati comprise 1/4 of your schedule...it is already tough. Add in games against Tampa, Carolina, San Diego and Kansas City and the season looks hopeless. Not so fast. They do get the Titans and Bills in the extra games [the third place teams last year in the AFC] .
OUTLOOK: Again, the names are nice to look at....but their games are past their prime. If several of these guys have a flashback to their glory times...well, the Ravens could put a scare in people. Instead, this will be a team that will play many close games but end up losing them. With Pitt and Cincy above them....it will be hard for the Ravens to get to the playoffs.
COACH'S STATE: The New Browns have had about as poor of a start as you could ask for....but Romeo Crennel is trying to turn that around. He basically made a vanilla gameplan last year to get everyone on the same page. This year, with some old friends he added from New England, he can add onto his playbook and move the team further. Remember, this was a 6-10 team last year with a rookie QB and a team that had very few returning starters. Not a bad start.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Crennel brought in DT Ted Washington and LB Willie McGinest as veteran leaders and as guys bring skill and a knowledge of what Crennel wants from his team. But it could be C LeCharles Bentley that makes the biggest difference. As a veteran lineman...he will anchor that offensive line. Also, he will protect the young Charlie Frye, which is paramount in his development. It also could allow their best offensive player, Reuben Droughns, to shine.
BIGGESTSUBTRACTION: They didn't lose a ton...but losing Trent Dilfer could hurt a bit. He isn't a great QB and he isn't the future...but he is a solid leader and a guy that gives his all. He also is experienced and can lead a team by not making mistakes. And that may be missed since they have Frye, Ken Dorsey and Derek Anderson as their QBs.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: There are several. Obviously Frye needs to be a capable QB. But their top picks in the last two drafts, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, need to be there for him. Both guys are coming off of knee injuries and both came into the NFL heavily hyped. Winslow has played just one full game in his two year career and could be a prime target for Frye. Edwards had a nice bond with Frye before his knee injury late last year. Edwards is a speedy receiver who may have an adjustment period after having that knee surgery. Both need to step up for the offense to work.
OFFENSE: This is a very young very inexperienced offense. It is led by a 2nd year QB and two receivers who are coming off major knee operations. That makes Droughns a key player. If Droughns can have another great season, he takes the pressure off all those guys and allows them to make their plays inside the offense. The line is experienced and will hopefull give Frye the time he needs to develop.
DEFENSE: Crennel has a defensive background...and his shedding of Gerrard Warren and Courtney Brown began that transition to what he wanted. At first, it looked bad as those two guys excelled in Denver. With Washington around, it allows the Browns to go to a 3-4 exclusively...with McGinest a knowledgable LB who knows what's expected of the defense. Aside from those two guys...they have a solid defense that seems deep but doesn't really have any kind of super players.
SCHEDULE: Just like the Ravens, having the Bengals and Steelers comprised 1/4 of your schedule is tough. But they get bottom dwellers the Texans and Jets...so there could be some hope. Their road sked is tough...with just the game at Houston being the only true winnable game.
OUTLOOK: The team will still be bad in the win-loss column...but they will be improved. If the defense holds up, they will be in most games. However, if the offense flounders, which it did late last year, then it could be a long season. It is a building block year, so patience is a virtue.