By Lenny Del Genio The AFC North was certainly case of the haves and have not?s in 2008 as there was an astounding seven-game gap between second and third place in the division standings. Alas, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens squaring off in January with AFC Championship hanging in the balance, while both Cincinnati and Cleveland found themselves drafting in the top five of last April?s Draft.
We anticipate the pecking order remaining the same this season (that?s Pittsburgh, then Baltimore, then Cincinnati, then Cleveland), but the gap should shorten between the teams as there is nowhere to go but up for the Ohio contingent and we haven?t seen a Conference Title Game rematch in either the AFC or NFC since 1995 (Cowboys and 49ers), meaning that either the Ravens or Steelers are destined to take a tumble (we?ll give you one guess).
Here is our breakdown of the 2009 AFC North.
Pittsburgh Steelers ? What a model of consistency this franchise has been! Two years ago, we talked about what a tremendous situation Mike Tomlin was walking into here as he was inheriting a club that former coach Bill Cowher had led to the playoffs in 10 of 15 seasons. Unlike in Cower?s final season, Tomlin had a healthy Ben Roethlisberger for his debut season of 2008 and led the team to a division title. He repeated in the AFC North last year, and then the team got hot at the right time (and was lucky to avoid Tennessee in the playoffs) and Tomlin became the youngest HC to ever win the Super Bowl. We certainly thought the Steelers were an interesting case study as Super Bowl Champs as really at no point during the 2008 NFL season were they considered the league?s best team. There were major questions about the offensive line heading into the season, but that obviously did not matter, nor did facing what was the league?s most difficult schedule (face 4th easiest TY). Note that only seven teams in NFL history have ever repeated as Super Bowl champs, so they do have that working against them. Do not discount this pending Ben Roethlisberger litigation (sexual assault) as a potential distraction. The team did address line issues on both sides of the ball in this past draft and the excellent 2008 class (Mendenhall, Sweed, B. Davis) should all be key contributors this year after not seeing much time in ?08. Only two starters were lost from last year. They are rightly the heavy favorites to win the division, as the Steel Curtain is 12-1 SU/9-4 ATS under Tomlin in AFC North play. Beware of this team as a small favorite, however, as they are 0-6 vs. the number when favored by less than four points.
Baltimore Ravens ? The Ravens, like the Dolphins in the East, are a team that we simply cannot see repeating its performance of a year ago. Despite riding a rookie QB and having a 1st year HC, Baltimore made an improbable run to the AFC Title Game, only to lose to the Steelers for a third time. Only three other teams beat the Ravens all season and they were: Tennessee, Indianapolis and the Giants, all of whom posted double digit victory totals. What?s remarkable about QB Joe Flacco?s rookie performance is that he lacked and still lacks any real playmakers at his disposal. He made up for that deficiency by throwing only five interceptions over his final 11 contests. It appears that Flacco is poised become the first franchise QB Baltimore has had in its 13 seasons, although note that they have followed up their previous two playoff appearances with seasons of six wins or fewer. Defense has carried this team for nearly a decade and although the services of locker room leader Ray Lewis were retained, the superior player Bart Scott was lost via free agency to the Jets. Note that DC Rex Ryan followed him to the Big Apple to become the head coach. 19 of 22 starters return and one key addition is C Matt Birk, a veteran that will guide an offensive line whose other starters have an average age of 23.5. We don?t need to tell bettors that the Ravens improved from 3-13 ATS in 2007 to 14-5 ATS last season. They will certainly be favored in more contests this year and we expect this year?s pointspread record to fall somewhere in between those figures. We also expect them to fall back to the pack and be just a fringe playoff contender.
Cincinnati Bengals ? All eyes will be on QB Carson Palmer this season in the Queen City, as the signal caller returns from an elbow injury that sidelined him in 2008 and sunk his team?s fortunes with it. After taking the AFC North in 2005 (was club?s 1st playoff appearance since 1991), this was supposed to be an up and coming franchise. That simply has not happened as the Bungals have won just 19 games over the last three years. How has Marvin Lewis retained his job? Not sure, but if there is another losing season in Cincinnati, he will almost assuredly be gone. Hopes are high internally as the team did finish 4-3-1 SU following a 0-8 start last year. Much of the team?s success will be tied to Palmer, who needs Chad Ochocinco to bounce back from his worst campaign since his rookie year. Rumor has it that Chris Henry has looked very good in camp, and the team needs him to play well and fill the void left by the departed TJ Houshmandzedah. Laveranues (two very hard names to spell in a row!) Coles was also brought in for insurance. In the backfield, RB Cedric Benson was resigned, and that?s supposed to be considered a positive. Despite being considered a defensive guru when he was brought on, Marvin Lewis has failed to build a quality defense during his seven year tenure. This unit had just 17 sacks last year and has not had a Pro Bowler since the playoff season of ?05. The Bengals will be improved, but are not a playoff team.
Cleveland Browns ? And to think this was considered the sexy up and coming pick to win the division last summer. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in Cleveland in 2008 as HC Romeo Crennel is now gone and Eric Mangini must settle on a QB (Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson) before a potential controversy rips the team apart. Quinn is more likely to win the starting job due to his perceived superior intelligence and ability to lead the offense, but there are major questions about arm strength. Whoever gets the nod has to do better than scoring zero offensive touchdowns in six games, which is exactly what the Brownies did to end last season. Needless to say you won?t find Cleveland featured on five primetime TV games in 2009. Four of the last five seasons have seen the Browns win six games or less. Braylon Edwards comes off a horrible season as he led the league in dropped passes. He is in a contract year, so look for his production to increase. TE Kellen Winslow is gone, but that may not be a bad thing. Really, things can?t possibly be as bad as they were last year though. Mangini is the first head coach the Browns have hired with previous experience since 1971. RB could be a major issue as Jamal Lewis hits the age of 30 and saw his production drop off by 300 yards last year. Because Mangini is a fellow Belichick disciple, the defense will stick with the 3-4 scheme implemented under Crennel. This unit is not half bad, considering the offense gave them no touchdowns in the final six games and they lost only three of those games by more than two touchdowns. Still, this is a team destined for last place. Projected Order of Finish
1. Pittsburgh 12-4
2. Baltimore 9-7
3. Cincinnati 8-8
4. Cleveland 6-10