Each of the contributors is going to be previewing one division and the remaining divisions will be assigned to several guest writers. We're going to try to do one or two a week until the start of the season. Here's the first one.
I’m picking the Ravens to go 11-5, but make no mistake; this is a better team than the one that went 13-3 last year. They added Willis McGahee who will add much more diversity to their offense attack than they’ve had in the past. Not only is he more of a cut back runner with big play potential but he will also improve their passing game. With better hands than Jamal Lewis they will be able to run more screens and flares. Also, unlike Lewis, McGahee is comfortable in single back sets, meaning they will be able to use three WRs more often and spread the field. McNair just needs to stay healthy for the entire season again.
On defense the Ravens should still be pretty dominating. I mean they do have God’s Linebacker on their team. The only real question mark is how they will replace DE/LB Adalius Thomas who cashed in with the Patriots. More than likely they will turn to former backup Jarret Johnson, with Antwan Barnes and Dan Cody also seeing some time on third down.
The Ravens do have a pretty tough schedule, at one point playing at San Diego, then coming home to play New England and Indianapolis. But I expect them to match up well against division foes, going 5-1 and taking the division.
I’m very excited about the start of the Mike Tomlin era. I loved Cowher, but he just didn’t seem motivated last year. I think Tomlin will bring a breath of fresh air while retaining a no-nonsense attitude. Here’s what he said when he was asked why he was wearing long sleeves in the ninety degree heat at training camp: “Its part of the mental warfare. I don’t want guys coming up to me telling me how hot it is because they know I don’t care. I hope it gets hotter.” Not quite the same as Mangini playing Mozart during practice.
The only significant loss the Steelers suffered was Joey Porter, who, in my opinion had become very one dimensional. They’ll look to replace him with draft picks Lawrence Timmons and Lamar Woodley. Timmons didn’t get off to a great start in training camp and word is he’s already slipped on the depth chart, but Woodley has been very impressive. They didn’t really do much to improve their secondary which was sometimes prone to big plays, but Polamalu should be completely healthy so that should help.
While the Steelers don’t have any significant new personnel on offense they do have a new offensive coordinator, former wide receivers coach Bruce Arians. Hopefully he will not only involve the receivers more (especially Santonio Holmes, who seems poised for a breakout year), but get the ball to TE Heath Miller who has some of the best hands in the league and was woefully underutilized last season. The question that everyone is asking is whether Roethlisberger’s struggles last year were the result of his off the field misfortunes or just evidence that he is nothing more than a good game manager who is not capable of throwing more than 25 passes a game effectively. Only time will answer that one.
I have them going 9-7 and 3-3 in the division.
Most people expect the Browns to be terrible. I disagree for several reasons. Regardless of who starts at QB (hint: not Brady) they will be much improved because of the upgrade in the offensive line. First-round pick Joe Thomas is signed and hardly missed any time in training camp. They signed the best available offensive lineman Eric Steinbach (from Iowa) and also should have LeCharles Bentley, who was the best available lineman from last year’s free agent class, returning. These three very large men should also help new running back Jamal Lewis . He may not be the same RB who rushed for 2,000 yards in ’03 but he’s definitely an upgrade over Reuben Droughns. His coke business might suffer in Cleveland though.
I know they haven’t really improved that much on defense but I think the D will gain confidence simply because they won’t be forced to stay on the field for 45 minutes a game.
I’m predicting that Browns go 9-7. Wait, before you ask me if I’m smoking crack (someone already did), look at their schedule. They play the Raiders, Dolphins, Texans, Bills, Cardinals and 49ers. If they can win one division game and surprise say, the Jets and Seahawks, that would put them right there. Ok, so maybe 8-8 is more likely, but it’s more fun to put them ahead of the Bengals. Anyway, they still go 1-5 in the division (their lone with coming in Week 1 against Pittsburgh).
I don’t understand why everyone is assuming the Bengals are a lock to finish second in the division this year. Yes their offense is good. It was good last year too and it didn’t get them into the playoffs. They also lost some key players. Chris Henry is suspended for half the season and with all that time on his hands a marijuana or gun charge seems pretty likely. He may be suspended longer, who knows? Eric Steinbach and Kelley Washington are also gone and they only have basically one tight end.
The bottom line is that without a serviceable defense it doesn’t matter how good the offense is. The Colts already proved that. They did add Leon Hall at CB but they are really going to miss Odell Thurman and David Pollack. I’ve watched Chinedum Ndukwe at Notre Dame; he’s not that good. Leon Hall on the other hand is a pretty good pick and should add to the already solid secondary.The Bengals will finish 8-8 this year and 3-3 in the division.