NFL 2009 – AFC North preview
It was two good, two bad in the AFC North last year as the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the surprisingly intense Baltimore Ravens split the division in half.
It was a tough fought battle between Mike Tomlin's Steelers and Mike Harbaugh's Ravens and, had it not been for Pittsburgh's perfect 6-0 in divisional play, then things could have been so much different in the play-off shake up.
In Ohio though there was very little to shout about as both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns once again scrapped it out for state pride but precious little else.
How will it pan out this year?
Baltimore Ravens - 11/4
A few eyebrows were raised when the Ravens announced Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco as their first round draft choice in 2008 but, by the end of last season, nobody was in the mood for complaining. John Harbaugh used his arm sparingly allowing him to throw for just 2,971 yards but maturity beyond his years meant the Ravens offence kept ticking over.
The running game will once again be invaluable this time around but there is nothing to suggest that Maryland's version of Earth, Wind and Fire, Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice won't deliver. Derrick Mason will be Flacco's aerial target in big passing plays but most joy will come from running the ball and controlling the clock.
Of course, the Ravens real strength comes on the defensive end and, even with the loss of Bart Scott and Rex Ryan to the Jets, they will be one of the best units around again. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Samari Rolle, Terrell Suggs....need I say any more?!
Prediction: 2nd perhaps not as close to the Steelers this year though
Cincinnati Bengals - 10/1
At times last season it was painful to watch a Carson Palmer-less offence completely freeze and, had it not been for meaningless matches at the tail-end of the season, they could have had one of the worst records in the NFL. Thankfully a three match winning streak improved their record to 4-11-1 as Ryan Fitzpatrick took advantage of some sloppy defences en route to earning a contract offer from the Bills.
This year looks little better either although a fully fit Carson Palmer should at least ensure a little more flair on offence. The problem for Palmer is that instead of looking out and seeing TJ Houshmandzadeh he'll have to make do with Laveranues Coles and instead of Chad Johnson he has Chad Ochocinco (not a trade, just a change of surname). Perhaps Cedric Benson can fulfil the potential he showed in College and provide a much needed ground threat.
Defensively it isn't much better although DT Tank Johnson is fierce, if he can stay the right side of the law. After the debacle that followed the drafting of DE Andre Smith you should expect big things but a fractured foot has ruled him for several weeks and his conditioning before injury was far from exemplary.
Prediction: 4th could match last year's record - at best
Cleveland Browns - 16/1
It's a wonder how the Browns even managed to win four games last season with their makeshift offence and average defence - both of which have been hastily changed in Eric Magnini's first season in charge.
Brady Quinn looks to have far more facets to his game than competing quarterback Derek Anderson but he hardly showed it in the few starts he made last year. But whoever gets the job needs Magnini's full backing otherwise the disruption alone could render any aerial play a waste of time - as could the loss of Kellen Winslow and Donte Stallworth.
The defence wasn't too bad last season and it should be even better this year as a flood of Magnini's favourite Jets have followed him to the Cleveland Browns Stadium. No fewer than five have arrived, the most notable being former Patriot cornerback Hank Poteat. Alongside the emerging trio of Eric Wright, D'Qwell Jackson and Brodney Pool, they should be tough to break down.
Prediction: 3rd and a few games ahead of their Ohio rivals
Pittsburgh Steelers - 2/5
Everybody knows the story of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl winning story; an amazing defence, complimented with a solid running and passing game, and, of course, Santonio Holmes' incredible TD catch. They were formidable last year and they could be poised to equal that success this year.
Nothing has really changed around Heinz Field perhaps with the exception of Willie Parker returning to full fitness and giving the offence a little extra boost. Big Ben Roethlisberger should continue along steadily although another season of big sacks is sure to take its toll, while Hines Ward and Holmes are great targets.
The defence once again looks immense and the unit will be keen to end the year as the number one in points allowed, yards allowed, passing yards and running yards (they were first in all but rushing, where they were second last year). James Harrison was last season's star but it's all made possible thanks to the supporting cast of Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and others. One word, awesome.
Prediction: 1st and the AFC's number one seed beckons