The NFC East and the AFC East may have the glamour reps and the big markets, but no division in the NFL last season featured three winning teams except the rough-and-tumble AFC North. The Bengals, Ravens and Steelers all finished above .500, and the hottest club of all at the close of 2009 were those last-place Cleveland Browns, who took a hope-inspiring four-game winning streak into the offseason.
It was no fluke. Things have been that competitive within the division for a while now. The AFC North was one of only two divisions in the just-passed NFL decade to feature a pair of Super Bowl winners (along with the NFC South), and no other team in the conference has boasted either a pair of playoff teams or at least two 10-win teams in four of the past five seasons. With the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens all winning at least one North crown in the past four years, there's not another division in the AFC that can match its record of balance.
And indications are we're in for more of the same in 2010, with both Baltimore and Cincinnati making significant upgrades to their passing games, Cleveland showing signs of life in its new
Throwing to Rice out of the backfield in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker is almost unfair, and his blend of speed, power and vision makes him one of the preeminent weapons in the NFL. He'll move the chains all day long for Baltimore, and with one of the league's best offensive lines and two-time Pro Bowl fullback
As hard as it is to believe for a team that's famous for its fearsome defense, Baltimore finished last in the AFC North in sacks with just 32 last year. Veteran defensive lineman
Suggs missed three games with injuries last season and wasn't thought to be in peak condition at all times. Baltimore needs a big bounce-back year from him in the sack department, and even all the more so because of the fractured skull suffered before camp by second-round outside linebacker
Given its depth issues and injury concerns in the secondary, Baltimore can't afford to have Washington, its top remaining cornerback, struggle all year with the aftereffects of his ACL tear last November. The early results have been promising, as Washington returned to the lineup in time for the Ravens' second preseason game and seems to be moving around pretty well on his repaired left leg. That's vital because with cornerback
The Ravens traded this week for fourth-year Seattle cornerback
Baltimore is my pick to win the AFC and face Green Bay in Dallas, sorry, Arlington, in the Super Bowl, so there's no doubt in my mind
No other team in the division can match Cincinnati's starting tandem at cornerback, and the pairing of former first-round picks
Hall and Joseph combined for 12 of Cincinnati's 19 interceptions last season (six each), and Bengals defensive coordinator
There's nothing tricky about identifying Cincinnati's glaring weakness. If you saw the Bengals' 24-14 first-round loss to the Jets in the playoffs, you saw a Cincy passing game that couldn't threaten New York downfield whatsoever. Bengals quarterback
At least the Bengals got aggressive in their attempts to fix the problem this offseason -- even overly aggressive in the case of the failed
Now it's on Palmer's shoulders to get
In a strictly self-inflicted wound, seven-year Bengal
Nugent, the ex-Jets draft pick and Ohio State standout, has battled a groin problem this preseason and hasn't had as many field goal opportunities as Rayner. But he's done well on kickoffs and last week against Buffalo made a 54-yard field goal that helped his cause. The battle is expected to go right down to Cincinnati's preseason finale at Indianapolis on Thursday night, although it's possible the Bengals could still opt for someone off the waiver wire, like the loser of the
There will be no slipping up on opponents this year in Cincinnati. The Bengals were the surprise story in 2009, but because of it, now they have the dreaded first-place schedule to deal with. Not to mention a heightened bar of expectation. Cincy's defense needs to be stout once again, because the Bengals face a host of great quarterbacks in
Despite their non-playoff season, the 2009 Steelers were No. 3 against the run and fifth-ranked in overall defense. And that was without All-Pro safety
Opponents start their offensive game plans trying to avoid Harrison and Woodley as much as possible, but that's difficult because in the Steelers' 3-4, the outside linebackers usually find the ball. Especially when it's in the quarterbacks hands. Woodley had a team-best 13½ sacks last season, and Harrison was second with 10. They've been the league's leading sack duo among linebackers for two years running, with Harrison totaling 26 in that span and Woodley 25. They're the best, and it's not even close for second.
A season is never decided by something as peripheral as kickoff coverage, right? Wrong. In 2009, the Steelers gave up a league-worst four kickoff return touchdowns -- all in a span of five games -- and two of those lapses led directly to losses against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It doesn't take a math major to realize the 9-7 Steelers would have made the playoffs if they had prevented just one of those touchdown returns.
There were 18 kickoff return touchdowns last year in the NFL's regular season, and Pittsburgh allowed more than 22 percent of them. No other team gave up more than two. Not surprisingly, the Steelers this offseason hired a new special teams coach in
With Roethlisberger suspended for at least the first month of the season, September is kind of about survival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers can't make their season in Weeks 1-4, but they can certainly break it with an 0-4 or 1-3 start. And that's why Leftwich or Dixon will be pivotal. Whoever is given the temporary starting quarterback job by head coach
Neither quarterback has inspired a lot of confidence this preseason, but the Steelers are a .500 team in the games that Roethlisberger has missed since he assumed the No. 1 job in early 2004, and that's all they need out of Leftwich or Dixon to keep the 2010 season viable into mid-October.
The Steelers can easily rebound this season if
It probably takes all of one finger to count the positions on the Cleveland depth chart that inspire true envy around the league: That would be offensive line. After years of floundering around in free agency and in the draft, wasting dollars and picks, the Browns have built a pretty good wall up front on offense, which is led by All-Pro left tackle
But the Browns also have a talented young center in
Anybody who says the NFL is a passing league these days clearly did not watch the Browns play last season. In one remarkable 10-game stretch of 2009, Cleveland scored seven points or fewer seven times, somehow winning one of those. The futility in the Browns passing game was staggering at times. But enough about
Delhomme has looked sharp this preseason, but it's hard to forget he did throw 18 interceptions in his 11 games in Carolina last season, and that's one more than Quinn and Anderson combined for all year. Mere competency will go a long way in Cleveland, and if Delhomme can afford to rely upon the Browns strong running game and not put his defense into a hole, progress will inevitably be made through the air.
After a rookie season in which he was expected to make some decent impact but wound up all but invisible (seven catches for 106 yards) and struggling to stay active for games, Cleveland's first 2009 second-rounder is back on the radar screen and vying for a much larger role this time around. He has six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown this preseason, and is coming off a strong showing in offseason workouts that was lauded often and loudly by Browns coaches.
Robiskie is said to have had the lights go on in terms of executing NFL routes and finding ways to get open, and he's playing a much more physical receiving role this summer than he did as a rookie. The Browns certainly need him to get on the field and to contribute opposite starter and fellow second-year receiver
Compared to the chaos that reigned in Cleveland last season during year one of the