by Robert Ferringo - 08/01/2005
The AFC North is about as good as it gets for a football fan in 2005. There's bone-crunching runners, widow-making defenses, loud-mouthed playmakers and rivalries that are filled with as much bloodlust as any in the game. I think that the AFC North will be without a doubt one of the most competitive divisions in football this year. I believe that any one of three teams out of the South has a legitimate shot to be playing on Sunday, Jan. 22 in the AFC Championship Game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers absolutely dominated both the division and the conference last season, posting a 15-1 record in the regular season and reeling off 16-straight wins before a season-ending loss to New England. The New England Patriots mauled the Steelers, putting up 41 points on the NFL's top defense. But Pittsburgh is rough and ready again this year - poised to inflict pain and destruction on any team that gets in its way back to the title game. They return 19 starters, including all 11 on a defense that should be in the top five again this season.
Baltimore's Jamal Lewis is fresh out of jail and ready to avoid defenders like he avoids parole officers. As long as the Ravens have Ray Lewis on defense, you know that unit will be thugged out and ready to roll. Done in by an atrocious offense, the Baltimore Ravens suffered through a 2-4 stretch run last year that doomed them to watching the postseason. But now with Jamal back healthy and focused, Todd Heap returning from nagging injuries, and the offseason pickup of quiet superstar Derrick Mason, Baltimore should have the weapons to make some noise in January.
The hype surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals prior to 2004 was one season premature. They finished a respectable 8-8 and were in the playoff hunt until the final few weeks. When was the last time you could say about the Bengals? It's been 14 years and counting since they made a postseason appearance, but that drought could be coming to an end. They possess one of the NFL's most explosive young offenses, and if the Marvin Lewis-led defense can make some strides this team could get some revenge for year's worth of humiliation.
And then there's the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are the bastard stepchild of this division, and won't compete with any of the big boys this year. But they were able to lure Romeo Crennel away from New England, where he was the defensive coordinator and mastermind behind unit that led Tom Brady and the Pats to three titles. Crennel's first season as a head coach will be dedicated to laying the foundation and implementing his system. But don't be surprised if an upset by the Browns has a key impact on the division race.
Doc's 2005 AFC North PreviewPITTSBURGH STEELERS
2004 Record: 16-2 (9-1 home, 7-1 away)
2004 Rankings: 16th offense (28 pass, 2 run); 1st defense (4 pass, 1 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 10-7-1 (6-4 home, 4-3-1 road); 10-8 vs. over (6-4 h, 4-4 r)
2005 Odds: 15-1 to win Super Bowl, 8-1 to win AFC, 7-5 to win AFC North, 9.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 12th (.508 opponents 2004 win %)
Returning starters: 19 (8 offense, 11 defense)
Key acquisitions: Cedrick Wilson, WR (from S.F.); Heath Miller, TE (draft);
Key departures: Plaxico Burress, WR (to NYG); Kendrell Bell, LB (to K.C.); Chad Scott, CB (to N.E.); Jay Riemersma, TE; Oliver Ross (to Arizona)
Key stat: Pittsburgh led the NFL in time of possession, averaging 34 minutes a game.
Offense: Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Wilson and Miller give Ben Roethlisberger a bevy of weapons to work with. Three Pro Bowlers are back on an offensive line that just wrecked people last year, and 2002 first-round pick, guard Kendall Simmons is back from injury. They scored over 20 points in 10 of 16 regular season games last year, and nine of the 15 wins were by more than a touchdown. I see them equaling both of those numbers again this year.
Defense: The bottom line is they return the 11 starters from the league's No. 1 defense. Bell and Scott have moved on, but they were both hurt last year anyway. This crew is tough, nasty, and they make plays. They may not be No.1 again this year, but they'll be in the top 5, and that means back to the playoffs.
X-factor: Duce Staley. Staley needs to stay healthy and rush for at least 900 yards for them to make it to the Super Bowl. Jerome Bettis showed why he's a Hall-of-Famer with his performance last year, filling in for the injured Staley, but I don't know if you can expect another season like that from the Bus.
Outlook: Still big, still bad, still nasty. They run the ball, and they stop the run, so they'll win in the double-digits again this year. The health and development of their offense - namely Big Ben, Randle El, Staley, and Miller - will determine if this team is a Super Bowl contender. I really like the over on their win total.
2004 Record: 9-7 (6-2 home, 3-5 road)
2004 Rankings: 31st offense (31 pass, 9 run); 6th defense (10 pass, 8 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 9-7 (5-3 home, 4-4 road); 8-8 vs. over (7-1 h, 1-7 r)
2005 Odds: 13-1 to win Super Bowl, 15-2 to win AFC, 1-1 to win AFC North, 10 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 6th (.531 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 16th (8 offense, 8 defense)
Key acquisitions: Derrick Mason, WR (from Tenn.); Samari Rolle, CB (from Tenn.); Tommy Polley, LB (from STL)
Key departures: Bennie Anderson, G (to Buffalo); Casey Rabach, C (to Wash.); Kevin Johnson, WR (to Detroit); Travis Taylor, WR (to Minn.); Peter Boulware, LB; Marques Douglas, DE (to S.F.); Corey Fuller, CB; Ed Hartwell, LB (to Atlanta); Gary Baxter, CB (to Cleveland)
Key stat: The Ravens offense averaged only 16 first downs per game. That was the third lowest in the league.
Offense: The time is now for Kyle Boller. Jamal Lewis is out of jail just in time to anchor the running game, Todd Heap will be back and healthy by Week 1, and in Mason there is a legit No. 1 receiving option. How their offensive line holds up will influence how many points these guys put up.
Defense: While most teams are switching to a 3-4 this season, the Ravens are rolling primarily with the 4-3. That means Terrell Suggs and his 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons will be lining up at end. With three Pro Bowlers, the Ravens have the best secondary in the AFC, and one of the best in the NFL. However, two of the three starting linebackers are gone from last year.
X-factor: Jim Fassel. Head coach Brian Billick brought in Fassel to kick-start the offense. I think Billick tried to be too careful and conservative with Boller last year, so it will be interesting to see if/how Fassel opens the playbook up for the young QB.
Outlook: Tough to tell. I think the offense will be better than 31st, but I really don't see the defense being as game-controlling as it's been the last four years. I think they may have lost too much to be better than they were last year, but judging by their Super Bowl odds Las Vegas disagrees with me.
2004 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2004 Rankings: 18th offense (17 pass, 17 run); 19th defense (13 pass, 26 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (3-4-1 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. over (2-6 h, 7-1 r)
2005 Odds: 45-1 to win Super Bowl, 20-1 to win AFC, 17-5 to win AFC North, 8 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 11th (.523 opp win %)
Returning starters: 21 (11 offense, 10 defense)
Key acquisitions: Bryan Robinson, DT (from Miami); David Pollack, DE (draft); Odell Thurman, LB (draft)
Key departures: Tony Williams, DT (to Jax); Kevin Hardy, LB
Key stat: The Bengals were 10th in points per game (23.4) in 2004, and were only held below 17 points twice.
Offense: The Bengals are one of only three teams that return all five starters on the offensive line. That stability is crucial, and will allow the youthful skill players to get even better this year. They have outstanding depth at running back and receiver, and with Rudi and Chad Johnson leading the way I expect a lot of games of 24+ points.
Defense: They brought 10 of 11 guys back from a very average defense. They're still too small up front, averaging only about 275 on the D-line. If they're still getting pushed around they can't stop the run. If they can't stop the run, they can't go to the playoffs.
X-factor: Rookies. They need Pollack and Thurman, college teammates at Georgia, to come in and contribute immediately. They'll make some rookie mistakes, but they need to make some plays. Also, I'm calling it right now - Chris Henry, rookie wideout from West Virginia, will have a real nice career in this league.
Outlook: This is a squad that's getting a lot of buzz as a sleeper team. Be wary, they're still the Bungles underneath. I love it that they return so many starters. I think they'll have a top 10 offense, but the defense needs to improve before I'm putting to much money on this team. They'll be around 9-7 and in the hunt.
2004 Record: 4-12 (3-5 home, 1-7 road)
2004 Rankings: 28th offense (25 pass, 23 run); 15th defense (5 pass, 32 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 6-10 (4-4 home, 2-6 road); 7-9 vs. over (3-5 h, 4-4 r)
2005 Odds: 125-1 to win Super Bowl, 60-1 to win AFC, 16-1 to win AFC North, 4.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 8th (.527 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Key acquisitions: Trent Dilfer, QB (from Seattle); Reuben Droughns, RB (from Denver); Joe Andruzzi, G (from N.E.); Gary Baxter, CB (from Balt.); L.J. Shelton, OT (from Arizona); Braylon Edwards, WR (draft); Brian Russell, S (from Minn.)
Key departures: Kellen Winslow, TE (injury); Courtney Brown, DE (to Denver); Ebenezer Ekuban, DE (to Denver); Mike Myers, DT (to Denver); Gerard Warren, DT (to Denver); Jeff Garcia, QB (to Detroit); Barry Gardner, LB (to NYJ); Robert Griffith, S (to Arizona); Kelly Holcomb, QB (to Buffalo); Warrick Holdman, LB (to Wash.); Anthony Henry, CB (to Dallas); Ross Verba, T
Key stat: The Browns gave up 141 rushing first downs. The next highest number in the league was 123.
Offense: The one bright spot on this team is the backfield. They traded half of their defensive line for Reuben Droughns, who will compete with Lee Suggs and William Green for carries. Unfortunately, I see this team being behind most of the time, so I don't know how much they'll get to grind it out. They lost six games by more than two touchdowns last year, and two others by 11 and 10 points.
Defense: Don't be deceived by their No. 5 pass defense. They were so awful against the run (giving up 144 yards per game) that they faced the third lowest number of pass attempts. You know that new head coach Romeo Crennel will make it his personal goal to shore up this aspect of the Browns' game. He's switching to the 3-4 that was played in New England, but unfortunately for him he has about one-tenth the talent.
X-factor: Trent Dilfer. Dilfer decided that maybe he wasn't ready to call it a career and settle into his backup role in Seattle. We'll have to see what type of leadership the new QB will have for a team that figures to be terrible. However, don't be surprised if they steal a game or two at home.
Outlook: Just look at what they lost, and look at what they gained. Now, it may be a good thing to lose so many guys off a terrible team, but in the Browns' situation it's a step backwards this year to take a step forward next year. I know I'll be betting against them pretty much every week.