|Sorry Browns fans. Even when you win, you lose. Good ride Peyton Hillis...time to die.|
Continuing with our 2011 NFL Preview, let's be careful to avoid all pubic bathrooms as we preview the AFC North. In case you missed them, here are the other division's I've previewed.
...or, as it's more commonly known, Steelers vs. Ravens. Aside from a random and extremely rare Bengals surge in 2005 and 2009 (how in the world did that happen?), one of these two teams has won the title every year since 2002. Aside from a miraculous reverse Madden jinx that allows Peyton Hillis to run for 2000 yards AND sack the QB 30 times, it's safe to say this year will be more of the same.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 13-3
Biggest Addition/Loss: Who cares? The Steelers, like the Colts and Patriots, have been a rotating door over the past few decades. They draft a player, develop him, get a few good years out of him, and let him walk in free agency. Of course, this only works when you draft as well as these teams do. Think of all the good linebackers the Steelers have drafted/jettisoned in the past. Earl Holmes, Levon Kirkland, Kendrell Bell, Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, Chad Brown...the list is endless! Safe to say that if Pittsburgh is letting them hit free agency, then they probably don't have much left. Knowing that, it's almost irrelevant to talk about a Steelers offseason. They have their core in place, and they keep the right guys off the market. Nothing to see here.
Best Loss: T Flozell Adams - Adams is a fat piece of false start crap! I have never seen a dumber football player in all my life! Seriously, it didn't seem like a Cowboy game unless Adams committed at least one false start!
Biggest Question: Can Ben Roethlisberger keep his...well, you know. OK, fine. I'll do a serious one. Can Troy Polamalu stay healthy? I hate to boil it down to such a simple statement, but Polamalu is the Steelers defense. In 2009, Polamalu missed 11 games and the defense surrendered an average of 20.3 points per game. Last year, with Polamalu back on the field and in top form, the defense surrendered an average of 14.5 points per game. That's almost a touchdown difference!!! Now, Polamalu isn't solely responsible for a TD a game, but he might not actually be that far off. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, Polamalu is now 30 years old, and his reckless style of playing will likely shorten his effective career. Significantly. If they can coax another All-Pro year or two out of him, then there's really no other major question marks. I suppose you can call the offensive line a question mark, but does it really matter who's up front with Big Ben running around in the backfield for 15 seconds per play?
Note: People, stop with the "can they avoid distractions" talk! The idea that teams are distracted by stuff like Harrison's comments or Mendenhaal's tweets is stupid. I'm sure Mendenhaal will miss many holes because he can't get over being dropped by Champion. What a joke. This is a professional football team! It's the Steelers! They weren't bothered by rapist Big Ben so why would that change now?
Summary: 13 wins might seem high, but their schedule sets up nicely for them. Bengals and Browns games are easy wins and you know they'll beat Baltimore at least once. If that weren't enough, they get the pleasure of playing the NFC West! The only thing that will prevent them from winning 12+ games is injury.
2. Baltimore Ravens: 11-5
Fake Biggest Addition: S Bernard Pollard - Maybe he can take out Roethlisberger's knee?
Real Biggest Addition: FB Vonta Leach - For a supposed 'running team,' the Baltimore Ravens weren't very effective at running the ball. Ray Rice racked up over 1200 yards, but his Y/A fell to just 4.0. Even worse, the Ravens, as a team, averaged only 3.8 Y/A. Replacing Le'Ron McClain with Leach should help get those numbers back up. As you may remember, Leach was the lead blocker for the Texans last year...you know, the team that saw Arian Foster come out of nowhere to lead the league in rushing. Like I said in the AFC South preview, that's not all on Leach, but he definitely had something to do with it. Whatever that something was, the Ravens are going to need him to bring it on over to Baltimore to improve an offense that ranked just 22nd in the NFL. If he can help create just a few more holes per game, it could go a long ways towards getting this running game back on track. And when the Ravens can run...
Biggest Loss: Too many veterans cut! I can't pick! - Almost as soon as the new CBA was done, the Ravens gave us a sobering reminder of what the salary cap can be like. After being part of this super productive core for years, guys like Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, and Kelly Gregg were unceremoniously kicked to the curb in the name of cap space. Mason and Heap stand out as potentially tough losses for a team obsessed with ball control. I made a lot of jokes about their 'check down offense' last season, but those two were vital safety valves for One Read Joe Flacco. Maybe Flacco will be better, maybe Ed Dickson or Dennis Pitta will step up at TE...I just don't think they adequately replaced two solid veteran pass catchers like Mason and Heap. Could come back to haunt them.
Biggest Question: Does Joe Flacco have another level? He's got to be better at going through his progressions. I know Ray Rice is a great receiver out of the backfield, but it's hard to get the offense going when Flacco panics and throws a 3 yard pass. Yes, his numbers were fantastic by the end of the year, but he's definitely got some work to do. If he can push the ball downfield a bit more, especially to Anquan Boldin, the entire offense could look totally different.
Summary: As always, there's plenty of issues with the Ravens. They have a severe lack of depth at receiver, and they have a lot of age on both sides of the ball. Somehow, this team always makes it work. I won't bet against them until they give me a reason to. Ray Lewis would kill me if I did...literally.
3. Cleveland Browns: 6-10
Biggest Addition: Draft picks from the Julio Jones trade - In fairness, landing John Greco was a great move for the Browns. They needed help on the right side of their line, and Greco is more than capable of holding his own. Still, it's extremely troubling that they did nothing about the complete lack of talent at the WR position. Sure, they drafted Greg Little in the 2nd round, but he's likely a ways off from contributing at the NFL level. Overall, the team still has major problems and they likely aren't going to improve on their modest win total from last year. With the additional picks, maybe they can go ahead and draft someone who can actually catch the ball?
Biggest Loss: RB Peyton Hillis - Madden Curse. He's as good as dead. I thought about making this my Biggest Question, but it's not much of a question, is it? He's definitely going to get hurt. I've got money on Week 7...anyone else in?
Biggest Question: Can they take advantage of their early schedule. They had a nice early schedule last year too. After a full offseason with Colt McCoy, maybe they are better equipped to get it going sooner rather than later. In their first 8 games, Cleveland will face Cincy at home, Miami at home, Tennesse at home, Oakland on the road, Seattle at home, and San Francisco on the road. That's 6 VERY winnable games. After that, the schedule is still pretty reasonable. Houston on the road, St. Louis at home, Jacksonville at home, and Cincinnati on the road are also winnable. The Browns aren't going to win all 10 of these games, but if they can pull 6 or 7 out, they might actually have a chance at a .500 record! For the Browns, that's almost like winning the Super Bowl!
Summary: In reality, the entire season rests on Colt McCoy. In saying that, I'm not even talking about winning or losing. For years, the Browns have searched and searched for an answer at QB. Other than an aberrant Derek Anderson season, they've been extremely unsuccessful in that search. McCoy is their most recent attempt. He showed a lot of promise last year, and he has the intangible qualities that seperate him from guys like Anderson. I, personally, love him to death, but the jury is definitely out. Unfortunately, he might not actually be getting a fair shot given the receiving options he has...which is to say, none. Don't get me wrong, the win-loss record is important, but it's even more important that Colt takes the next step and puts a stranglehold on this job.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: 4-12
Biggest Addition: Another year of age that puts Mike Brown closer to death - I'm not trying to sound like a terrible person, but this franchise is going nowhere until idiot Mike Brown is gone. Since he's too stupid and stubborn to cede control to someone who knows what the heck they're doing, that will have to wait until he's dead. Bengals fans are counting down. Can you blame them?
Biggest Loss: QB Carson Palmer - He's not been the same Carson Palmer since the injuries, but he still gives them a fighting chance. He looked much better in the last 3 games of the season, which gave some hope that perhaps he wasn't washed up. Personally, I think having TO and Ochocinco out there running whatever route they felt like was a big reason Palmer struggled. Regardless, we'll probably never know. As I've said before, there's plenty of blame to go around, but the real loser is the team. Palmer was capable of giving them some measure of respectability, but that's all gone. With rookie WR A.J. Green on board with young up and comers like Jordan Shipley and Jerome Simpson, this could have been an explosive offense. Now, they're stuck with Bruce Gradkowski or Andy Dalton. That's a tough blow for a team that really shouldn't be this bad.
Biggest Question: Does Carson break? I won't spend much time on this since I just talked about it, but nothing can be more important than the Carson Palmer issue. The team is hoping he'll break and come back. If he does, the whole season will be different...but it doesn't seem like he iwll.
Summary: I've always liked the Bengals, and it sucks that this is happening to them. If Palmer does indeed stay away, then they need to commit to Andy Dalton as soon as possible. Fact is, they're going to lose a lot of games. They need to know if Dalton is their guy or if they should direct their gaze towards Andrew Luck. Since I think Dalton sucks, I'd probably start evaluating Luck...if they had a scouting department that is. I guess it's time to turn on ABC, Mike Brown!