Home to some of the most deep-seated intra-divisional hatred in the NFL, the AFC North is also one of the deepest at the moment. The Steelers and Ravens have long been on everyone’s radar, but last year the Bengals came out of nowhere for a 6-0 mark and a division title. The Browns also beat the Steelers IN Pittsburgh, so it may be time to start packing up your dual giraffes and llamas and heading for the Arc. Just in case, though, here’s what to expect (other than an epochal deluge) in 2010, with our Editor-In-Chief and lifelong Browns fan Ryan Burns giving us his observations on his squad’s division foes with the View From Dawg Pound West.
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Great Expectations. The Baltimore Ravens are among the most frequently-mentioned Super Bowl contenders in the NFL, and the hype is reasonable. They’re loaded. Ray Rice is one of the best young backs in the league, Joe Flacco is coming into his own and Ozzie Newsome went out and got Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmanzadeh to dilute the attention defenses can pay to any one weapon. This is a team that should have something to say about who gets a trip to Dallas in February.
Holding down the fort. The biggest question is the defensive secondary, where stud defender Ed Reed will miss the first six games with a neck injury. They’re not deep, and any additional losses could be a problem. In a strong division and deep conference, a slow start is a big problem. We suspect they’ll figure it out.
The man, the myth, the legend. But here’s the thing- they’ve still got Ray Lewis, and he still has the rare ability to raise the level of play of everyone around him. We keep hearing that the Ravens’ defense is getting old, and maybe if you focus on the “age” line under Ed and Ray’s profile, they’re right. But if you focus on the play on the field? They were the number three defense in the NFL. In their day, they would’ve been number 1. What a bunch of has-been’s, eh?
THE VIEW FROM DAWG POUND WEST: These guys are scary. I do think the absence of Ed Reed is a loss they can’t entirely cover, but other than that…yikes. I’m fully convinced by both Flacco and Rice. Haloti Ngata should be a Brown, but he’s tormenting them instead. Ray Lewis is one of the top three players at any position of his generation, and he’s still doing it at a Hall of Fame level at MY age, which I assure you is a feat. I will be surprised if they don’t take the division.
2. CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Great Cincinnati Chemistry Experiment. Obvious storyline alert: The Bengals’ roster is long on talent and infamy. After sweeping through the division as 2009 AFC North Champions, the Bengals have no doubt taken note that everyone and their mother is picking the Baltimore Ravens to win the division (and in many cases, the Super Bowl) in 2010. This team can pound the rock and play defense with anybody, and while many seem concerned about T.O. and OchoCinco’s ability to co-exist, we’re not among them. They’re two vets who have been productive for their entire careers, they’ll get it done here. The Bengals also added two rookies to watch in tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Both should become trusted security blankets for Carson Palmer, whose quiver is now thoroughly stocked with deadly arrows. Speaking of which…
What more do you need? They swept through the division only to be unceremoniously dumped on their collective keester at home by Rex’s Jets. The story has always been that there wasn’t enough around him to succeed consistently. No longer can that case be made with any seriousness. It’s a tough road to hoe in the North, but Palmer should have everything he needs on offense, and an outstanding defense to get him the ball back. Time to make a run at it.
Batman & Robin, Shrek & Donkey, Ace & Gary. Take your pick of complimentary or derisive nicknames, but either way, you know you’re watching. And that’s their thing.
THE VIEW FROM DAWG POUND WEST: These guys are better than most are giving them credit for. Great run game, a gaggle of receiving weapons, and a strong defense lead by one of the top corner duos in the league in Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Strangely, my biggest question is Carson Palmer. He has never seemed the same to me since Kemo rolled him up. I think the additions to the Ravens just make them a shade stronger.
Stability test in Pittsburgh. The going assumption in league circles seems to be that the Steelers’ struggles in the second half of 2009 were a fluke brought about be a rash of injuries (most notably to the “Safety Savant,” Troy Polamalu). I think the problem runs deeper, and 2010 could be a test to an organization that has been a model of stability for decades. With the return of Polamalu and underrated big man Aaron Smith, the defense should be up to its normal havoc. The concern lies on the other side of the ball. Big Ben is an elite quarterback and has proven he can lead his team to a championship, but how his team reacts to him after yet another offseason fiasco remains to be seen (particularly if the electric Dennis Dixon plays well in his absence).
O-Line, Product of Switzerland. More to the point, the man took 50 sacks last year, and the Steelers were unable to ground it out the way they usually do, and lost a bunch of games as a result. First rounder Maurkice Pouncey is a nice addition to the interior, but the loss of Willie Colon and the attempted reclamation of Flozell Adams do not inspire confidence that things will improve. Mike Wallace is solid, but is he replacing former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes? We doubt it. Look, they’re a better than .500 team. But how much better we think is subject to the eye of the beholder.
THE VIEW FROM DAWG POUND WEST: I damn near picked the Steelers to finish last in the division, and only their strong defense with the return of Smith and Polamalu (and my lack of genuine faith in the Browns) kept me from doing so. It’s not rivalry hate, I assure you. I respect their program immensely. But I think they will struggle to adhere to it with an offensive line that, in my view, is among the league’s weakest, while playing in a division where that particular insufficiency is a deadly one. I think Ben’s absence hurts them, especially if Dennis Dixon, whom I think is fantastic and a defininte NFL starter, plays well. I don’t think Mike Wallace is Santonio Holmes, and I think Hines Ward has to be feeling the miles. In short, I just don’t think it’s their year.
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS
What do you get when you cross a Walrus with a Manguin? They’re about to find out in Cleveland, where oft-maligned owner Randy Lerner brought in Mike Holmgren to run the Big Show. Most assumed Mangini would be an instant casualty, but Holmgren kept him on after the Browns closed 2009 with a four-game winning streak. Most also assumed that Holmgren’s presence meant an overhaul of the offense to the “West Coast” system (whatever that means anymore). So far, though, it looks like Mangini gets to do “coach stuff” his way. The biggest change Holmgren made was to bring in Tom Heckert as the new GM, rightfully relieving Mangini of personnel and administrative duties.
Filling non-existent shoes. The second biggest was to rid the team of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, bringing in veteran castoff Jake Delhomme and one of his pet projects from Seattle, Seneca Wallace, to keep the seat warm for third-round pick Colt McCoy (or a quarterback to be drafted later). They finished 8th in rushing and sacks last year. It’s a good bet you’ll see Mangini trying to play to those strengths again. They probably finish last again in a strong division, but CLE is no longer a circle W.
THE VIEW FROM DAWG POUND WEST: I see a team on the rise. I really do. But then, I’ve seen that before far more frequently than the Browns have delivered on it. Can’t help it- sometimes I see the world through brown-and-orange-colored lenses. My arguments? They ran the ball and sacked the quarterback more effectively than all but 7 teams in the NFL last year. Mangini’s teams play tough football, and he’s developed winning rosters in limited time. Jake Delhomme, however mediocre he may be, is infinitely better than what I have often referred to as the Great Cleveland Quarterback Crapocopia of 2009. I expect Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis to be featured a bit like Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott back in the day. I’m most curious, however, to see what Rob Ryan does with a group that showed promise at the end of 2009 after the addition, most notably, of waiver steal Matt Roth. The new additions in the secondary should improve the pass rush, and TJ Ward will make the middle no-man’s land. They’re not there yet, but things are looking up.