Baltimore Ravens: No coach has ever been quoted as saying his team "lost pretty," so you'll have to forgive the Baltimore Ravens if they enjoy winning ugly. Defense as always was the name of the game for Baltimore in 2006. The Ravens led the league in total defense, they were second against the run and sixth against the pass, allowed the least amount of points (201), recorded the most interceptions (28), were second in the league in sacks (60) and were tops in turnover differential at plus 17. That stat of turnover differential is usually a key indicator when one looks at who is in the upper echelon of the league.
Baltimore, whose only home loss last season came at the hands of the Carolina Panthers (23-21) have the most home wins of any NFL team since 2000 with 42. The Ravens secondary as detailed above was topped by the six interceptions of Chris McAlister who also had two of them returned for TD's, safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry each had five picks of their own last season.
Final Verdict: QB Steve McNair and newly acquired RB Willis McGahee will have to step up big time if this team wants to step up into the elite class of the AFC from playoff contender to Super Bowl contender. If Baltimore get anything more from their offense than a field goal fest, they could find themselves deep in the AFC playoffs. Final Predicted Record: (12-4).
Cincinnati Bengals: No the Bengals haven't ditched the orange and black for strictly orange jumpsuits...yet. In the calendar year of 2006 the Bengals had nine, count ‘em nine players arrested. The Bengals though still found themselves on the presuppose of the playoffs at 8-5 before dropping their final three games to the Colts, Broncos and rival Steelers respectively finishing up at 8-8.
If one put the Bengals offensive with the Ravens defense, nobody would beat that team, nobody. Carson Palmer last season bouncing back from injury put up phenomenal numbers. Palmer had passer rating of 93.9 while throwing for 4,035 yards and 28 TD's. Chad Johnson a recipient of seven of those TD passes became the first receiver since the AFL-NFL merger to lead a conference in receiving yards in four consecutive seasons. Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh compiled 87 and 90 catches respectively with both gaining over 1,000 yards receiving.
Final Verdict: The Bengals need to show more consistency in crunch time on both sides of the ball. In six of their eight losses the Bengals lost by eight points or less. With Baltimore still steady and Pittsburgh sure to bounce back, Cincinnati will have to learn to be more mature and disciplined down the stretch. Final Predicted Record: (11-5)* Wild Card.
Pittsburgh Steelers: For the first time in 15 years, "The Jaw" is no longer the law in the Steel City. Fortunately for the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger's jaw checks out just fine. At least the Steelers going into this season have peace of mind, especially when they give the ball to RB Willie Parker. When Parker runs for over 100 yards Pittsburgh is 12-1.
Pittsburgh has the best balance of any team in the division on both sides of the ball, which should be fairly obvious considering they won the title just two years ago. Last season Pittsburgh ranked in the top ten in both total offense (7th) and defense (9th). However the Steelers secondary will have to do a much better job of clamping down on 3rd down. The Steelers will also have to work to correct their turnover differential which was minus eight last season.
The Steelers also boast a blossoming and very underrated receiving corps with Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller as targets for Roethlisberger. The fact that the Steelers are healthy and ready to go from the start is important, especially given their first four games are against Cleveland, Buffalo, San Francisco and Arizona. That amplified by the fact that since 2000 the Steelers are a league best 27-7 in December and January should only make them more of a prohibitive favorite.
Final Verdict: Coach Mike Tomlin just may be in the best position of any recent coach in the modern NFL to succeed a legend like Bill Cowher since George Siefert replaced Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers. Unless there is that much of a conflict of personalities with the coach and team, this squad shouldn't miss a beat. Some guys are just winners and "Big Ben" is 29-11, as the Steelers work on ring for the other hand. Final Predicted Record: (10-6).
Cleveland Browns: Cleveland is a city that is football mad, passionate about their Browns. However they've been so dreadful that the Cavs and Tribe and essentially socked them down to third billing. The last time the Browns won a playoff game was back in 1994 with Bill Belichick and Vinny Testaverde against the Patriots. Of course now Belichick and Testaverde are both with the Patriots, leaving Browns fans hoping QB Brady Quinn out of Notre Dame turns into Bernie Kosar.
First rounder from 2006 LB Kamerion Wimbley had and outstanding rookie campaign out of Florida State University, recording a team high and rookie record for sacks with eleven. Cleveland though was a disaster up front against the run, ranking 29th overall. Though the Browns boast a few nice weapons on offense in Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius, their offense was anemic, finishing 31st in total offense.
Final Verdict: The Browns who allowed 54 sacks last season which was 3rd worst in the NFL will hope that with OT Joe Thomas and OG Eric Steinbach anchoring the offensive line that they can actually get the ball out to those weapons. The Browns have nowhere to go but up, but they may find themselves going up a down escalator in this division for awhile. Final Predicted Record: (4-12).