2010 NFL Preview – AFC North

Posted: August 26, 2010 by The Cheap Seat Fan in NFL
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The AFC North can be summarized in one word: physical. Of all the eight sections of the NFL, no division plays a tougher and more physical brand of football. Making it out of this division is brutal affair and each team has more than enough tests under their belt by the time the season ends over to bring it to any team they face. Last season, the defending Super Bowl champs stumbled for a while and got overtook and end up in 3rd place by the end of the year. It’s real in the field over this way.

The fortunes of many of the division’s clubs are swaying in opposite directions from what they have been as recently as last year. The Steelers’ consistency on defense faltered last year and many teams attacked at this opportunity. This year the defense is back intact, but their new-found passing game will be sidelined early due to Roger Goodell’s sanctions on their star quarterback. In Cincinnati, their defense stepped way up, but the passing game declined tremendously. With a new star receiver and media personality in town (to join the incumbent one), moving the ball downfield should not be a problem any longer. In Baltimore, after years of leaning on historically tough defense, they have completed the rebuilding of their offense by offering a sanctuary of sorts for two receivers that needed restarts, of varying kinds. Even in Cleveland there were changes of sorts, but not the type that you necessarily want to have happen, but more on that later.

All in all, this will be one the toughest division to win in all of football, where an inch is a mile and one misstep or low point could have any of its combatants looking at 2011 much earlier than needed.

Baltimore Ravens (9-7 in 2009; Wild Card berth)

Offense: R. Rice-RB, J. Flacco-QB, A. Boldin-WR, D.Mason-WR (B)

Defense: R. Lewis-LB, E. Reed-FS, T. Suggs-LB, H. Ngata-NT (A)

The Good: The offense picked up new wings, finally. After years of having a questionable group of wide receivers they got aggressive this offseason and picked up the disgruntled Anquan Boldin from Arizona and gave Donte Stallworth a new, post suspension home. Along with the ageless Derrick Mason, this gives big armed QB Joe Flacco two very capable targets to play long ball with and puts a new spark in an offense that has long played good enough to let the defense win games for them. Add this to the Ray Rice led rushing attack that finished 5th overall in 2009, and there’s a potential potent offense in Baltimore.

With an expanded receiving corps to work with, Flacco's coming of age may be completed this year.

The Bad: While Ray Lewis the undisputed heart, soul and leader of the defense, Ed Reed is without a doubt its biggest impact player at this point. The biggest problem is Reed has been injured since the end of last season and his time-table for his return is a complete unknown, with him and the team on two different pages. Without the threat of Reed lurking seemingly everywhere at once at the safety spot, more quarterback will feel comfortable picking on them down the field.

X-Factor-Michael Oher: With the Ravens having more invested in the passing game, Oher job description expands as well. He has rotated between right and left tackle in his first two seasons, but now his sole job with be protecting Flacco’s blindside (pardon the old pun) as he will be expanding his game and the look of the Ravens in the process. He has proven to be an athletic and explosive run blocker, but making the jump towards making an equally big impact in the pass game is essential at this point.

2010 Projection: @ NYJ (L), @ Cin (L), Cle (W), @ Pit (W), Den (W), @ NE (L), Buf (W), Mia (L), @ Atl (W), @ Car (W), TB (W), Pit (L), @ Hou (W), NO (W), @ Cle (W), Cin (W)

Summary: The Ravens will be taking on a new look of sorts in different areas this year, some good some bad. With or without Reed, Lewis will have the defense ready to play and play well, but in the end having him available will play a huge role in how far the Ravens can play, regardless of offensive improvements. With the competition in the North, sooner is much better than later. RECORD: 11-5

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6 in 2009; Division Champs)

Offense: C. Palmer-QB, C. OchoCinco-WR, C. Benson-RB, T. Owens-WR (B+)

Defense: R. Maualuga-LB, L. Hall-CB, J. Joseph-CB, K. Rivers-LB (A-)

The Good: The offense finished 26th in league in passing last year, it’s going to be virtually impossible to repeat that in ’09. To raise that stat, Cincy drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham and went free agent shopping for Antonio Bryant. Oh, and they landed an oddly long last guy named Terrell Owens to pair up with Chad OchoCinco and give Carson Palmer an option to move the ball down field everywhere he looks. This in addition to a defense that finished 6th against the pass and 7th against the run and it’s easy to see why trips to Paul Brown Stadium won’t be much fun.

With a greatly expanded arsenal of weapons at his disposal, a return to Pro Bowl form may be unavoidable for Palmer.

The Bad: They have put together a solid overall team, but somehow still haven’t found what is needed at safety. Many of their deficiencies at the position are masked by their play at cornerback, but you can’t hide those issues forever. Roy Williams is much better attacking the ball and takes bad positions often, and that leaves open a chance for the big play a few times a game. Smarter quarterbacks are going to attack that whenever they get a chance.

X-Factor-Carlos Dunlap: Halfway through the season last year, he was being hailed as a potential top 10 pick, but after a DUI arrest, his talent was looked at secondary. Cincinnati didn’t pass on the opportunity to get perhaps the best pass rusher in the nation, and landed a guy that will be a starter much sooner than later with the 54th pick. If he plays up to his talent, there will be not greater steal in the 2010 Draft.

2010 Projection: @ NE (W), Bal (W), @ Car (W), @ Cle (W), TB (W), @ Atl (W), Mia (W), Pit (W), @ Ind (L), Buf (W), @ NYJ (L), NO (L), @ Pit (L), Cle (W), SD (W), @ Bal (L)

Summary: A mix of an already solid core with fearless drafting and aggressive free agent maneuvering makes the Bengals a team nobody wants to play. If their chemistry can withstand all of the mixture of personalities on the roster (and there is no shortage of them), this team is built to win. They have tough second half of the season, but a deep run in the playoffs is more than possible. RECORD: 11-5

Cleveland Browns (5-11 in 2009)

Offense: J. Thomas-T, J. Cribbs-KR/WR, J. Harrison-RB, J. Delhomme-QB (D)

Defense: D. Jackson-LB, S. Rogers-NT, S. Brown-CB, E. Wright-CB, J. Haden-CB (C+)

The Good: They moved out a lot of their faulty pieces and made some necessary changes. After years of wavering back and forth between the equally unproductive duo of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, they moved both out this offseason. They brought in Sheldon Brown and drafted Joe Haden and safety TJ Ward to boost a pass defense that needed a radical influx of talent, which they did.

The dismal Cleveland offense is looking for any spark it can find, including starting special teams star Joshua Cribbs at WR.

The Bad: Despite moving out some bad pieces from last year, they didn’t bring in much to replace many of their problems. They moved out Quinn and Anderson, but replaced them with Jake Delhomme, who lost a grip on the Panthers job last year after barely becoming serviceable. He is expected to somehow boost the league’s worst passing game, yet he still has an almost identical receiving group. The majority of the defensive front is still intact, which finished 28th versus the run last season, so it should not be counted on to keep games competitive at all.

X-Factor-James Harrison: After becoming the full-time last season in week 15, he instantly became the ENTIRE Browns offense, accumulating 561 yards on the ground. While he won’t keep that pace up over a full season, he can provide a big play threat that is desperately needed. If Montario Hardesty can get healthy to spell him, he has All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas to run behind and can be an invaluable option to provide some sort of consistency to this offense.

2010 Prediction: @ TB (W), KC (W), @ Bal (L), Cin (L), Atl (L), @ Pit (L), @ NO (L), NE (L), NYJ (L), @ Jax (W), Car (L), @ Mia (L), @ Buf (L), @ Cin (L), Bal (L), Pit (W)

Summary: There’s just not a lot to get excited about here, unless you’re playing them that is. They are just an unremarkable team that doesn’t have much to get excited about. A 4-0 end to 2009 is all that “saved” them from finishing among the league’s absolute worst, a trend they more than likely will stay to course of for the entire year this time around. RECORD: 3-13

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: B. Roethlisberger-QB, R. Mendenhall-RB, H. Ward-WR, H. Miller-TE (B+)

Defense: T. Polamalu-SS, J. Harrison-LB, L. Woodley-LB (A)

The Good: The defense should by all accounts be much back to its usual level of weekly consistency this season. With Troy Polamalu out of the mix for much of the season last year, teams attacked the Steelers downfield much more and found unusual success in doing so. Polamalu’s return should stop that from being as viable of an option. Everything else about this defensive unit is close to intact from their Championship makeup of 2008.

Until the offense is back at full strength, much of the load will be on RB Rashard Mendenhall's shoulders.

The Bad: Ben Rotheslisberger’s decision making. Not on the field, because he won’t get to use that for at least the first month of the season due to his bad off-field decisions. In his time away Byron Leftwich is the shot caller in Pitt, and we’ve seen how that has worked out everywhere else. Instability until Roethlisberger’s return could plague the early success of the team, regardless of a defensive revival or not.

X-Factor-Mike Wallace: In his rookie year he provided a huge downfield threat, leading the league in yards per catch with 19.4. He will move into the starting lineup with Santonio Holmes’ departure and will be counted on to produce more than just going deep. Learning to run better routes may be an early struggle, but no doubt finding ways to capitalize on his speed will benefit the Steelers more than hurt them. Getting Roethlisberger, and his eye to go deep, back on the field will bring out the best in Wallace.

2010 Prediction: Atl (W), @ Ten (L), @ TB (W), Bal (L), Cle (W), @ Mia (L), @ NO (W), @ Cin (L), NE (L), Oak (W), @ Buf (W), @ Bal (W), Cin (W), Car (L), @ Cle (L)

Summary: How they finish up will depend greatly on how they start minus the leader of their offense. They played as a team with one half for most of ’09 and they struggled to find consistency. With Big Ben’s return date uncertain (it could be 4 to 6 games in) they have to come together regardless, but in a division with such tough competition each game could end up making the difference. Pittsburgh better hope to not show up too late to the race, or they may be left behind. RECORD: 9-7

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Comments
  1. wesdan328 says:

    i see the steelers going 8-8 with even a chance to lose one more

  2. […] far too many steps forward here, and I look my greatest loss of the year here, having the Bengals rep the AFC in the Super Bowl in my NFL prediction […]

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