Sorry, my browser keeps crashing, I will try to make this quick. Tried writing this wednesday, and had 2000 words on three teams, and it crashed. Not good, so shorter version.
In this division, there is a top and a bottom. The Steelers and Ravens will finish in the top half and the Browns and Bengals will finish in the bottom half.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers -The two most important players they lost are Nate Washington, WR (Titans) and Bryant McFadden, CB, (Cardinals). Washington was their third WR, so they will probably move Limas Sweed into the third spot behind Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward. Sweed could have a breakout year.
Bryant McFadden had some impact last year, but they should be able to fill in the hole his departure created easily. With Dick Lebeau still calling the plays and rookie defensive tackle Evander Hood, pick #32 in the draft, providing depth on the defensive line, the Steelers defense will still prove to be formidable. The nucleus is still there, with James Harrision, Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton. Hampton, as the nose tackle in their 3-4 formation, will be the key as all nose tackles are.
What could be interesting to watch are the RB spots. They have Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore. Parker was injured for a good chunk of the season last year, and Mendenhall was on IR, forcing Moore to step up. He did quite well as the starter, including a game against the Bengals where he rushed for 120 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, and one receiving touchdown. Perhaps he will be given a larger role this year.
Unless Ben Roethlisberger's accusations of rape pose a distraction, the Steelers shouldn't miss a beat and will finish first in the division. These accusations are pretty crazy, and even I, a Ravens fan, don't believe them.
Team Record: 14-2 What an easy schedule. It isn't hard to imagine them going undefeated.
Close Game: I could put down the series against the Ravens, but I won't take the easy way out. The Green Bay Packers will be better than they were last year, and their offense won't be easy to stop. Green Bay wins.
2. Baltimore Ravens - (Bias Alert) Jon Harbaugh returns to coach a second year, and he will be blessed if he is as successful as he was his first season, where he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship game, only to lose to the hated Steelers. This year will be a year in a bit of transition with lots of new faces.
Key departures include Rex Ryan, the whiz defensive coordinatorwho left to be head coach of the Jets, Bart Scott a starting LB who followed Ryan, James Leonhard a CB who also left for the Jets, Chris McAlister, a CB who was cut and remains a free agent. Their starting center, Jason Brown, also left via free agency. Lorenzo Neal, a FB and another key to the Raven's offense, joined the Raiders.
And of course, Matt Stover, their former field goal kicker and one of only two remaining original Ravens, was cut. He deserves his own paragraph, even if he started to lose some of his range.
The Ravens signed:
Matt Birk, former center for the Vikings.
Chris Carr, CB and return man formerly of the Titans
Dominique Foxworth, CB formerly of the Falcons.
L.J. Smith, a TE from the Eagles
Kelley Washington, WR from the Patriots
Greg Mattison was promoted from LBs coach to defensive coordinator.
One key player the Ravens did manage to bring back is Terrell Suggs, a LB/DE hybrid who is quite talented. With Suggs, Jarret Johnson and Ray Lewis returning, someone has to step up and replace Bart Scott. Tavares Gooden, drafted in 2008, is expected to fill Scott's shoes at inside LB.
On offense, the Ravens look weak. They will be relying on Derrick Mason's bum shoulder once again, as they failed to get a good free agent WR. They did add Kelley Washington, formerly of the Patriots, but he will be nothing more than a third WR. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton will retain the two top spots.
The running game is one that also looks to rely on old bodies; Willis McGahee will move to second string and Ray Rice will become the primary back. Rice looks a lot like Reggie Bush-lite. He likes to catch the football in open space and find his way downfield. Not a down the middle runner too much. Leron McClain, much to my own despise, has moved back to fullback to replace renowned blocking FB Lorenzo Neal. Ray Rice needs to have a good season for the Ravens to do well, and McGahee has to try and stay healthy. This is only Joe Flacco's second season, and we don't want him passing the ball 30+ times a game.
At TE, Todd Heap and L.J. Smith will share blocking and catching duties. Heap was quite inconsistent last year, because he was asked to block a lot more. He came up with some big catches, but he also made some bad drops too. The offensive line will be fine, especially with Michael Oher being brought in via the draft.
Team Record: 12-4.
Close Game: Week 4 visiting the Patriots. The last time these two teams met, the Ravens were trying to beat an undefeated Patriots team led by Tom Brady. They came close, but lost. The Ravens will want to avenge this loss, but won't be able to. The Patriots win.
3. Cincinnati Bengals - Could this be Marvin Lewis' last go round? It could be. Ever since the Bengals' 11-5 finish in the 2005 season, things have steadily gotten worse for the Bengals.
Marvin Lewis was known for his defensive mind while a coordinator in Baltimore, but has never had much success with the defense here. This year, things could change. Their LB corps will be greatly bolstered by Rey Maualuga, drafted in the second round. With Keith Rivers also at LB, they should prove to be formidable. One man who should have a breakout season for the Bengals is Leon Hall, a first round pick CB from Michigan in 2007. After starting all 16 games last season and recording 3 INTs, he should be getting in the flow of things by now.
On offense, Carson Palmer must return to his previous success. Last year, he played in only 4 games due to a torn ligament in his elbow. Palmer did not have surgery, which could come back to detriment the success of him and his team. With Cedric Benson as the primary running back, the Bengals will have to rely on a passing offense to win games. Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles are the two primary recievers. Coles replaces T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left for the Seattle Seahawks via free agency.
Unfortunately, Benson is their best option at RB. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry last year with the Bengals.
In order for this team to have any shot at the playoffs this year, Palmer must pass for over 25 TDs and the defense has to step it up. Benson may run for over 1000 yards, but I doubt he will do it at more than 4 yards a carry. The defense has to step it up and improve on their dismal showing these last few years; otherwise, Marvin Lewis' job will be in jeopardy.
Team Record: 4-12. They have the hardest schedule in this division.
Close Game: Broncos in week 1. The Bengals find a way to stop the Broncos running game and Orton throws a pair of INTs.
4. Cleveland Browns - Mangenius is their new head coach. He could be successful in the future, I don't know. What I do know is that the Browns have Jamal Lewis. Although Jamal Lewis turns 30 in 10 days, he is the closest thing to an offense they have. He may receive some help in the backfield with James Davis, drafted out of Clemson this year. Lewis rushed for 1002 yards last season, when their QB situation blew up. The superstar of 2007, Derek Anderson, decided to return to his inconsistent ways and passed for 9 TDs in 10 games. Brady Quinn may be asked to start the season, but it probably won't make a difference. Both are about even in stats.
If I were Mangini, I would start Quinn. Their offensive line is nice and young, led by Joe Thomas in his second year and Alex Mack, a center, drafted this year. Both are very talented and will anchor the line.
Who is there to pass to? Braylon Edwards led the league in dropped passes last year, he must return to form. Brian Robiskie was picked in the second round and will play well immediately. Expect at least 40 catches for him. Joshua Cribbs will play WR/RB/KR. He will score quite a few TDs. Donte Stallworth will not be back this year, thanks to his off the field issues.
On defense, the Browns hope to improve in their 3-4 defensive formation. Shaun Rogers must stay healthy. As their nose tackle, he must take up blockers and try to get to the QB. He made his first pro bowl last year, and hopes to return.
This team is in a major rebuilding mode. They have a young, talented offensive line, which is an excellent place to start.
Team Record: 3-13
Close Game: Week 2 at Denver. This will be a competition to see who is the worst. Cleveland will not be able to stop Knowshon Moreno, and the Broncos win.