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2010 NFL Preview – AFC North

The AFC North is a war of attrition. Who will be left standing on Sunday, January 2? Is it possible the offenses will decide the division?

While I consider the Pittsburgh Steelers one of my least favorite teams in all of sports, the AFC North holds a special place in my heart. For starters, there’s no other division in football where ALL four teams play outdoors in cold, inclement environments. That alone is enough to win my admiration. Additionally, the hitting and ferocity in the division is more violent than any other in the NFL with the possible exception of the NFC East. I grew up an NFC East homer, so violence and cold weather (not you, Dallas) is what football is all about, and the AFC North does both exceptionally well.

I’ve waffled back and forth on this division since July. After two months, I still haven’t settled on a champion. Because my brother had his picks in 24 hours ago, I’ve been forced to move forward without 100% confidence in my picks. Maybe that’s a good thing.

1. Baltimore Ravens
This was the pick I didn’t want to make. The Ravens are getting way too much love from fans, the media, and my brother. While all that attention is well deserved, it makes me nervous. Although, when you break it down to meat and potatoes, the Ravens are the right pick. Joe Flacco has another year of experience under his belt, they’ve added a premiere wide receiver in Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice is a playmaker, and their defense is annually one of the best in football. My only concern is the secondary. Ed Reed is banged up and close to retirement. The season-ending injury to cornerback Domonique Foxworth put an even bigger dent in an already vulnerable unit. At some point, Ray Lewis’ play will begin to decline. Is 2010 the beginning of the end for Ray? For a defense that has carried the franchise for the last decade, there are a lot of question marks, especially in pass defense. As the Eagles demonstrated last year, stopping the run doesn’t accomplish much if you can’t get off the field on 3rd and long. Yep, I already don’t like this pick. I better stop now before I completely talk myself out of it.

DWC’s Take: Ravens – Normally, I wouldn’t be so high on the Ravens. Sure, their defense is consistently one of the best in the league. They also have enough playmakers to make the Bachelor Pad creators jealous (what an awful show by the way). [Editor’s Note: 4thanddone.com strenuously objects. Yes strenuously-a la Demi Moore in a “Few Good Men.”] In past years, they could always run the ball, but were seriously lacking in the passing attack. They would make the playoffs, but the lack of a passing attack was too much to overcome. Well I think this may be the year that changes. Enter Anquan Boldin. He’s not necessarily a playmaker, but he is the top-notch possession receiver they’ve been longing for. Throw in the emergence of Ray Rice in the backfield, and this team is ready to be a major player on offense. Joe Flacco is entering his third year and I’m a firm believer that Flacco is a capable quarterback. I also like John Harbaugh on the sidelines. He’s fun, but he means business too. I think this division will be a thriller with the new offensively powered Ravens taking the cake.

2. Cincinnati Bengals
I was oh so very close to giving the Bengals the nod as division champs. I refrained for two reasons. 1. Carson Palmer has become nothing more than an average NFL quarterback. If he were in Philly, he’d have been run out of town by now. His inconsistent play makes the offense a liability. 2. As the 2009 division champions, the Bengals must travel to Indy to battle the Colts and welcome the Chargers to Cincinnati in late December. Their division rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, square off against the Titans and Raiders, and Texans and Broncos, respectively. In a tightly contested race like the AFC North, those two games could very easily swing the division. On the other hand, the Bengals have a fantastic defense and in my opinion, the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. With everyone jumping on the Ravens’ bandwagon the Bengals have been mostly ignored. Coaches love to rally players around the idea that no one believes in them and Mike Zimmer, who built his defense with outcasts, will undoubtedly use this to motivate his players. If Palmer can elevate his play, the Bengals will win the division. Unfortunately, that’s a very big if, one that I’m not even remotely confident in.

DWC’s Take: Bengals – I was tempted to place the Bengals in the number one spot, but I was also tempted to drop them to number three. That’s exactly how good/bad this team could be. On defense, they are surprisingly good. Last year was no fluke. They are fast, mean, and fun to watch. They finally learned that to succeed in this division you have to have a stout defense that can stop the run and hold up against the pass. The problem with this team (or it could be the upside) is the off-the-field potential. Tank Johnson. Terrell Owens. Adam Jones. Yup, all three of them play for the Bengals. They are all promising their best behavior, and showing it thus far. However, if any of them become a distraction, it may prove too much for this team to overcome. On the other hand, if all three behave and perform, I think this team will be tough to take down.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh’s primary flaw is the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger. Regardless of their star quarterback’s absence, you can bet on the Steelers competing with the division heavyweights. Like Roethlisberger, this team won’t take no for an answer. (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.) However, it will take a mammoth effort for Pittsburgh to sneak into the AFC playoffs. Their running game appears improved, but the issues on the offensive line will make life interesting for the entire offense. Furthermore, the departure of Santonio Holmes left some holes in the receiving corps. Hines Ward is coming off his best year since 2003 but without Roethlisberger for the full season and a solid number two, Ward may struggle to duplicate his 2010 performance. The Steelers best shot at the playoffs is their defense. With Troy Polamalu healthy, the defense should return to its 2008 form, or close to it. I think Pittsburgh will emerge from Roethlisberger’s absence at 3-3. From there, it will all depend on how well the offensive line gels, Roethlisberger’s rust, and the play/health of the defense. Pittsburgh’s schedule includes seven contests against 2009 playoff teams. Of those seven games, Roethlisberger will only miss one while suspended. That’s the first of a few breaks the Steelers will need for a successful 2010 campaign.

DWC’s Take: Steelers – I am a pretty forgiving guy. People make mistakes and I understand that. However, I find it really hard to like Big Ben. I was proud to hear Goodell suspend him for six weeks for his immature and arrogant behavior. The unfortunate part is that the Steelers will have a hard time with Big Ben’s absence. He knows the offense and runs it well. However, if the running game doesn’t get back to what it was during their Superbowl years, it won’t matter who is at the helm. Ben is not Manning or Brees. He is just a quarterback taking advantage of a good system. In regards to the team, if they finish the year in the third spot, Mike Tomlin will not be happy. This makes me unhappy too. While I am a staunch Steeler hater, I am an avid Tomlin fan. If my team needed a coach, I would make a big offer to him in a heartbeat. He’s fiery, passionate, and a mean ol’ man. In football, there is nothing better to have in a coach.

4. Cleveland Browns
The good news: There’s a solid front office in place. If given time, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will build a strong defense. The orange and brown uniforms are fantastic. The team owns Cleveland again now that LeBron jumped ship. Now for the bad news; the Browns 2010 performance won’t do much to heal the wounds of LeBron’s departure.
*I would also like to state how disappointed I am that Cleveland didn’t pursue Michael Vick in the offseason. I said it last year and I’ll say it again; Vick was born to quarterback a team in the dawg pound.

DWC’s Take: Browns – Part of me is hoping Jake Delhomme runs this team to the playoffs. Sure, it was time for him to leave the Panthers, but I couldn’t help but feel sad about it all. He is one of the nicest players in the history of the game and the past two seasons have been tough. I was glad to see a team give him another shot. While his skills may be on the decline, you can’t question his leadership. People like playing with him and for him. The only problem with my wish is that the Browns are lacking in the talent area. They have some playmakers on offense in Cribbs and Harrison, but not enough to get past the three defenses they will face six times this season. The defense won’t be too bad, but there’s too much fire power and experience throughout the rest of the division for Mangini’s squad to really compete. Maybe year two will turn out better.

If you’re wondering, last season’s AFC North predictions were:
Me: PITT, CIN, BAL, CLE
DWC: PITT, BAL, CIN, CLE
Actual Results: CIN, BAL, PITT, CLE.

Thus, DWC 2, Me 0, No Winner 1

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