Doc's 2007 AFC North Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 08/28/2007
Our eighth and final 2007 NFL Divisional Preview takes us to the AFC North, the division that I not only think is the best in the entire league but also the group that I feel best epitomizes what our bloody and brutal sport is all about.
I believe that the AFC North is the best division in football because the team that I have pegged to finish No. 3 (Cincinnati) is a crew that I think could be the champion of roughly four other divisions. While I don't think they have a team that is complete enough to win the Super Bowl, I do think that they have three legitimate playoff contenders and a trio of teams that can go toe-to-toe with Everyone's Favorite, New England. The best part: all three get to make the Patriots earn it because New England is on each of their schedules. Also, keep a close eye on how they dominate the NFC West, which I would consider the anti-North because of their soft style, in their interconference games this year. Those Left Coast clubs are going to get clubbed with a sledgehammer and the true power of the AFC North will reveal itself.
The teams in the AFC North play defense like a pack of starved jackals and attack offensively like a herd of drunken rhinos. They are cannibals, eating the flesh of their own division in order to produce a worthy conference challenger come playoff time. These teams have a classic approach to the game, like surgery without anesthesia. They run the ball and stop the run, like bull rushers in a boxing ring burrowing into the chest of their opponents. It's tough. It's physical. It's intimidating and dirty. It's AFC North football. No quarter asked for. None given.
Here's Doc's 2007 NFC East Preview:
1) PITTSBURGH STEELERS
2006 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (5-3 home, 2-5-1 road); 9-6-1 vs. total (6-1-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 7th offense (9th pass, 10th rush); 9th defense (20th pass, 3rd rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win AFC, 12/5 to win AFC North, 9.0 wins O/U
Outlook: I gotta admit, I'm feeling Mike Tomlin. He seems like a badass mofo and he seems to have fired up the troops. Questions remain over whether he's pushing a veteran team too hard early in the year and whether or not that will catch up with them in December. There are also issues about what he'll be like as a game planner and a game manager. But as far as the attitude and approach that he takes onto the field, I think that Mike Tomlin knows what Steelers Football is all about.
The main reason that I give the division to the Steelers is simple: Big Ben. Roethlisberger looks outstanding in the preseason. He looks confident and comfortable and in total control of the offense. He was the shell of himself last year, but he's regained the poise and control that made him the youngest Super Bowl winner ever. There is one potential pitfall: they will lose their identity and their soul if offensive coordinator Bruce Arians acquiesces to Ben's requests to "open up the playbook". Ben wants to throw the ball. But that's not who the Steelers are and not what they're about. If Willie Parker is healthy he'll be productive behind that offensive line. That will set up the play action and make them a difficult team to stop.
The defense will certainly be able to withstand the loss of Joey Porter on the field, but in a big divisional game in December they will feel his loss in the locker room. However, this is Troy Polamalu's unit now. And as long as he's on the field the Steelers defense is always lurking. Tomlin is staying with the 3-4 defense - an incredibly wise choice - and is leaving it in the hands of able-minded Dick LaBeau. The starting 11 can stack up with anyone, and there is depth at key positions. Casey Hampton needs to stay healthy as well. And look for some solid contributions from some young guys: Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, and Anthony Smith.
2) BALTIMORE RAVENS
2006 Record: 13-4 (7-2 home, 6-2 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 10-7 (6-3 home, 4-4 road); 6-9-1 vs. total (3-4-1 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 17th offense (11th pass, 25th rush); 1st defense (6th pass, 2nd rush)
2007 Odds: 10/1 to win SB, 5/1 to win AFC, 5/4 to win AFC North, 10.0 wins O/U
Outlook: All summer I said that there's no way the Ravens make the playoffs this year. None. I know that's counter to what everyone and their sister thinks is going to happen, but I've been absolutely convinced of it. McNair would get hurt. McGahee would get hurt. The schedule is brutal. They don't have any wideouts. They don't have enough depth at linebacker. And so on and so forth.
Then I saw them practice this preseason. Then I saw them play.
The Ravens are every bit as nasty as they have been for the past six years. However, I will point out that with this same skull-cracking defense the Ravens managed to average just eight wins per season from 2002 through 2005. Then they erupted for a 13-3 regular season last year. So why won't they do it again? Why isn't Baltimore a Super Bowl contender? Well, try all of the reasons I just mentioned. But I just can't get over how tough, rugged, and violent this team is. And I love it.
I think that we're all over the "Brian Billick is a genius" thing, so we can get right to the point about this team: the Ravens need McGahee to be the 1,400-yard back he's never been and for McNair to be the 16-game starter that he was last year. And they need both to do it behind an offensive line that is declining. Tall order. And even if those things do happen there is simply not enough explosiveness in the passing game for the Ravens to make it out of a loaded conference. As far as a team to bet on, they are 42-22-4 ATS at home in the eight-year tenure of Billick. They simply devastate opponents in the Charm City.
3) CINCINNATI BENGALS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-7-1 (3-4-1 home, 5-3 road); 7-9 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 8th offense (6th pass, 26th rush); 30th defense (31st pass, 15th rush)
2007 Odds: 12/1 to win SB, 8/1 to win AFC, 3/2 to win AFC North, 9.5 wins O/U
Outlook: The Bengals have had a blatant, clear, obvious flaw during the Marvin Lewis Era - they can't play defense. At all. I mean, not even close. Cincinnati is still a soft team. And in this conference and in this division that's the one thing you absolutely cannot get away with. I had the Bengals and Jaguars pegged as my top two teams for a bounceback season. But after watching Cincinnati over the past two months…not so much.
They can run their mouths all they want about their offense. (And they will.) But if you omit a 41-point outburst at Detroit two years ago, the Bengals have averaged just 18.3 points per game over their final five games in each of the past two years. They have the skill positions covered, but they've taken some serious losses on the offensive line. Both starting tackles, Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, have missed the entire preseason due to injury. In a division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh that's one area you don't want to have to count on your backups. Also, without Chris Henry for the first eight games this attack will be missing a key cog.
The defense? What can I say - it's a wreck. They lost any chance of playoff run when Odell Thurman was denied reinstatement by the league. The holes in the secondary that two years of record turnovers masked are now glaring. They lost Sam Adams so they now have no credible nose tackle. Their linebackers average less than three years of experience - with minimal depth to speak of. Will this unit ball hawk? Sure. But will they stop the running games of their division rivals, or the rush attacks of teams like New England, Seattle, Kansas City, or St. Louis? Not a chance. And that's why they may not be playing in January.
4) CLEVELAND BROWNS
2006 Record: 4-12 (2-6 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 (3-4-1 home, 4-4 road); 6-9-1 vs. total (2-6 h, 4-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 31st offense (23rd pass, 31st rush); 27th defense (15th pass, 29th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win AFC, 25/1 to win AFC North, 6.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Poor Cleveland. They are actually better this year. They really are. I know they have averaged fewer than five wins per year over the past four years, but honestly, if they were in the NFC West they may have made the playoffs in one of those seasons. If this year is an ultimatum on the Romeo Crennel Era then you can already start the Pete Carroll Speculation.
I think that Cleveland's offense has a very good chance to be potent - next year. Jamal Lewis is a has-been. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. are not-yets. And the offensive line, though creeping towards respectability, is still a season away from really shaking itself out. The defense is even spottier. I know that Crennel had loads of success with the 3-4 in New England. But he also had talent there. The Browns simply don't have the bodies to play the type of defense that Crennel preaches. Kam Wimbley is a stud. But he's only one man.
No matter how hard I look, I don't see more than six wins on this schedule. And that's being generous. But I do think that this team can be a sneak ATS machine in the last month of the year. They are going to get maimed by Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and St. Louis in the first 11 weeks. But they close with the manageable part of the schedule: hosting Houston, at Arizona, at the Jets, hosting Buffalo, at Cincinnati, and hosting San Francisco. That's just one playoff team - and a team they beat at home last year - in their last six contests. They could be undervalued after some blowout losses, and if they get into a "Let's Do It for Romeo" mindset I could see them closing out with a 4-2 or 3-1 ATS run. Other than that it's going to be a long, cruel winter in The Forest City.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.