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Fearless Rick's 2009 NFL Preview - AFC NORTH

Rick Gagliano | 8/9/2009

AFC NORTH - Predicted order of finish and (predicted record)

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3): In 2008, the Steelers not only took on the toughest schedule in the history of the NFL, the team excelled, posting a 12-4 record, plowing through San Diego and Baltimore en route to their thrilling 27-23 Super Bowl victory over the Cardinals.

The Steelers are blessed with the best defense in the league, the toughest quarterback - Ben Roethlisberger - and a coach that has his fingers on the pulse of this team, seemingly without interfering with the delicate player balance, Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh is likely to not only win their division again, but quite possibly make a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2009.

The challenges this season will be different as New England and Indianapolis are likely to vie for the best conference record, but the Steelers may actually have an inside track on that, as neither the Colts nor the Patriots are on their schedule. Pittsburgh picks up the relatively weak NFC North and the horrible AFC West, plus Tennessee and Miami (weeks 1 and 17, respectively) for opponents outside the division.

Keeping players focused throughout the regular season will be a primary concern, as the Steelers may find themselves with a sizable edge in the division by the time they get to their bye in week 8. Unless Baltimore returns with motivation to win the division, there just isn't going to be much competition at the top from the likes of Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh should be improved in the running game with 2nd-year pro Rashard Mendenhall returning from a season lost to injury. A dependable running back will only make the Steelers even tougher to beat and they should cruise to one of the best records ever recorded in the history of the league. There were few changes made to the Super Bowl winning roster and the players obtained in the draft will be fortunate to see even limited duty on special teams, as the Steelers are deep at every position except wide receiver, though Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are likely the most underrated tandem in the league.

Baltimore Ravens (11-5): The Ravens chased the Steelers over the course of 16 regular season games in 2008, and came within one game of taking the division. Their 13-9 loss to the Steelers in week 15, coupled with their 23-20 OT defeat at Pittsburgh, destined them for runner-up position in the division and a wild card spot at 11-5.

After winning road games at Miami and Tennessee, it was again a game in Pittsburgh that was the Ravens' undoing, losing the AFC Conference championship to the Steelers by a 23-14 score.

2009 looks a lot like 2008. Though QB Joe Flacco will no longer be a rookie, he'll still have to find a way to beat the Steelers if the Ravens wish to capture the division flag. Another rookie in 2008, Ray Rice, should receive more carries in 2009 for the offense which should improve on its surprisingly strong finish at 11th in the league for points per game, at 24.1. The rushing attack was Baltimore's main strength in 2008 (ranked 4th at 148.5 ypg). Look for it again to be a bastion of support in 2009.

Like the Steelers, the Ravens depend on one of the league's best defenses to hold opponents down and give the offense more chances. Baltimore's D was every bit as good as Pittsburgh's last year and maybe even better in the secondary, which led the league in interceptions with 26. New players need to learn the system quickly in the Ravens' secondary, as safety Jim Leonhard and corner Chris McAlister have departed. Dewan Landry is likely to take over the safety position, while the Ravens got Domonique Foxworth from Atlanta to fill in at one of the corners, so there may not be any drop off in talent there.

The Ravens will once again challenge for the division title and fall just short unless injuries derail the Steelers. They look like a playoff-calber team for years to come.

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Cincinnati Bengals (8-8): The Bengals went 4-11-1 in 2008 and should be a little better in 2009 with Carson Palmer playing a full season. Laveranues Coles joins Chad Ochocinco (yes, he legally changed his name to that) at wideouts, so Palmer will have experienced, quality players on the fringes. Ben Utecht returns at tight end, but he caught only 16 passes last season, so expect rookie Chase Coffman (3rd round, Missouri) to challenge at that position.

As good as the passing attack will be (Palmer has the potential to be a tp 5 QB), the running game will still be a sore spot. Cedric Benson never has panned out, but he's the starter, with Brian Leonard spelling him.

On defense, the Bengals held their own last season, allowing an average of 22.8 points per outing, and with expected improvement on offense, they will win more games in 2009, though they remain quite a distance from Baltimore and Pittsburgh in this division.

Like the everyone in this division, their records should benefit from playing the AFC West and NFC North in games outside the division, and some relatively easy dates can boost a team's confidence. A .500 finish - maybe even better - is in store for the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns (6-10): It seems like the Browns have been rebuilding for the last ten years, and, actually, they have, as burnouts, especially at the QB position (remember Tim Couch?) keep progress elusive alongside Lake Erie. This year should be a better one for the Browns, as Brady Quinn should have the quarterbacking duties all to himself now that Eric Mangini has taken over as head coach, replacing the overrated Romeo Crennel.

Quinn figures to be healthy to begin the season and hopefully the Browns line can keep him that way. If he's as good as he looked in his brief four-game appearance in 2008, he should prove to be the right fit in Cleveland. He had a potential all-pro in Braylon Edwards at one receiver position, and Kellen Winslow Jr. at tight end and, but both of those players are gone, being replaced with the likes of David Patten and Joshua Cribss at the wideouts, with rookies Mohammed Massaquoi (Georgia) and Brian Robiske (Ohio St.) both being drafted in the second round.

Top pick, center Alex Mack (Cal), should help shore up the o-line, but little was added to a defense which ranked about in the middle of the league in 2008. One assumes that the Browns' new plan is to revamp the offense in 2009 and work on improving the defense in 2010. Maybe, by then, this team could challenge for the playoffs, but not this year.

Copyright 2009, 2010, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.


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