NFL Divisional Preview AFC North The AFC North was represented quite well last season, as both participants in the AFC Championship Game were residents of this division. The Pittsburgh Steelers outlasted the Baltimore Ravens in that game, and went on to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl Championship. The champs haven’t changed much this off-season, with just about every main ingredient back for the chance to repeat. The Baltimore Ravens on the other hand lost some personnel, but were able keep their bigger names. Cleveland welcomes in a new coach, Eric Mangini, but still must find an answer to the question as to who will be lining up behind center. Lastly, the Cincinnati Bengals welcome back (hopefully) a healthy Carson Palmer, who must prove how effective the once prolific offense can be without T.J. Houshmandzadeh. So what will 2009 have in store for the occupants of the AFC North? Pittsburgh Steelers: 14-2 (Projected Record) After facing the toughest schedule in the league, issues on the offensive line, injuries to the quarterback, and inconsistencies in the running game, the Pittsburgh Steelers still came away from 2008 with the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl Championship. So why should 2009 be any different? All but one starter from last year’s team returns, and the schedule is nowhere near as imposing as it was last season. The offensive line should be better off this season, returning all 5 starters from unit that had 4 players in new positions a year ago. The injuries that plagued the running corps last season, should be mediated with a healthy Willie Parker, and the return of last year’s first round pick Rashad Mendenhall. But the main reasons as to why the Steelers will once again be the class of not only the division but the conference are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and that nasty defense. Big Ben is healthy coming into 2009, and the magic he worked in crunch time last season was legendary. There is no reason to think that the Steelers will take a step backwards with him behind center. The defen
se was one for the ages, leading the league in total defense, pass defense, and points allowed. They were also second in rush defense and sacks. Expect the Steelers to ear their third consecutive division crown, and contend for another Super Bowl Championship in 2009. Baltimore Ravens: 9-7 (Projected Record) Baltimore made wholesale changes in 2008, bringing in new Head Coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and a rookie quarterback by the name of Joe Flacco. The culmination of these changes was a revelation, as Baltimore took those ingredients, added it to their vaunted defense, and rode them all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Flacco performed beyond his years, showing a poise that the franchise hasn’t had at the position in years. More will be expected from the young passer, as Baltimore’s chances of returning to the postseason will hinge on his arm. Harbaugh was able to convince receiver Derrick Mason to return for another season, and added former Eagle tight end L.J. Smith to bolster the passing game. With that said, the running game will be the focus of the offense once again, which was a huge reason why the team led the league in time of possession. Ironically though, one of the more interesting dilemmas is on defense, where Rex Ryan is no longer on the sideline calling the shots. Ryan took the job in New York, and departed with linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard, and defensive end Marquis Douglas. The Ravens did however re-sign both Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, so even if they take steps backward on this side of the ball, it will be baby steps. With that said, the fortunes of the Ravens will once again be placed on Flacco, for if he takes the steps forward in his development, so will Baltimore. Cleveland Browns: 6-10 (Projected Record) After going 10-6 in 2007, big things were expected from the Cleveland Browns in 2008. Unfortunately, 2008 was an unmitigated disaster for the Browns, as they fell to 4-12, and back to the cellar of the AFC North. Gone is Head Coach20Romeo C
rennel, Kellen Winslow, and Willie McGinest, and in comes Eric Mangini, who management hopes will be able to spark the Browns back to playoff contention. A lot of personnel has changed with the addition of Mangini, but the “Mangenius” (as he was called briefly in New York) still must find a way to get more production from an underachieving defense, and find a solution to the question of who is their starting quarterback, Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn. Anderson struggled mightily last season, before losing his job to Quinn, who showed flashes of promise before ultimately suffering a season-ending thumb injury. Then there was receiver Braylon Edwards, who had 16 touchdowns in 2007, but led the league in drops last year with 16. Without Winslow attacking the middle of the defense, defenses will concentrate more on taking Edwards away in the passing game. Defensively, Mangini must manufacture a consistent pass-rush, for the browns were ranked 30th in the league in that department with just 17. Keep in mind that their were two players in the league that had more than that individually. Mangini has a lot of work to do, and 2009 should prove whether or not he should adopt another nickname. Cincinnati Bengals: 6-10 (Projected Record) After a dismal 4-11-1 2008 campaign, the Cincinnati Bengals are now classified as a team in transition. Former Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer returns from20an elbow injury that forced him to miss the majority of last season, as the team hopes that he will be able to return to the form that made one of the most promising young passers in the game. Reliable target T.J. Houshmandzedah left for greener pastures in Seattle, and was replaced by former New York Jet Laveranues Coles. Head Coach Marvin Lewis hopes that the presence of both Palmer and Coles will be able to energize receiver Chad Ocho Cinco, who is coming off the least productive season of his career. However, even if the Bengals get their once-vaunted passing game back on track, the biggest problem for them is once again their d
efense, which has been statically one of the league’s worst since Lewis took the job in 2003. Cincinnati finished 21st in the league is rush defense last year, and 30th in sacks. Lewis drafted former USC standout linebacker Rey Maualuga, and added former Cowboys Tank Johnson and Roy Williams in hopes of being able to strengthen the middle of that unit. Many believed Lewis was on the hot seat a year ago, but due to the injury to Palmer, he was given a pass. No such pass will be granted in 2009 if he can’t get the Bengals back into the playoff picture. NFL Divisional Preview NFC North The NFC has been one of the weaker divisions in the NFC for a while now, but 2009 looks to be different. The Minnesota Vikings are the20 defending champions of the division, but after failing to pry Brett Favre out of retirement, they will go back to what they did last year; plugging in quarterbacks, while pounding the ball, and playing great defense. It was enough to win the division last year, so there’s no reason to think it won’t be this year. Wait, but they will have competition though, as both the Packers and the Bears have made improvements which should put them into playoff contention. Green bay is relying on a revamped defense, while Chicago is putting all their eggs in the basket of Jay Cutler, who they are absolutely GIDDY about. The Lions however, are trying to rebound from the league’s first-ever 0-16 season, and have a bunch of new faces to break in, which include a rookie quarterback and a new Head Coach. So with the bottom three teams in the division getting better, and Minnesota holding steadfast, what will 2009 have in store for the North? Minnesota Vikings: 10-6 (Projected Record) The Brett Favre specter came back to haunt the NFC North this off season, in the form of the Minnesota Vikings, who ultimately couldn’t lure the future Hall-of-Famer out of retirement. So who will be throwing passes for the Vikings in 2009? Brad Childress brought in Sage Rosenfels from the Texans, to compete with Tavaris Jackson for the
starting job. Sounds like déjà vu all over again for the Vikings, who bounced back and forth between Jackson and Gus Frerotte last season. But here’s another question; does it really matter? Despite the issues behind center, Minnesota still won 10 games and the division crown. Well whoever is throwing passes this season will have the luxury of arguably the best rushing attack in the league behind them . Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing last year, and proved to possess the ability to change a game at any given moment. He’s that special. Coupled with the solid Chester Taylor, and what is one of the best offensive lines in football, the Vikings have the kind of offense which really doesn’t need stellar quarterback play. That’s not to say that there aren’t weapons there though, as Bernard Berrian is a dangerous deep threat, and the drafting of receiver Percy Harvin will give Childress a player in the Reggie Bush mold. Defensively, they are great because of that defensive line, which is the best in the league. They ranked 1st in run defense, and 4th in sacks last year causing all kinds of havoc at the line of scrimmage. Things haven’t changed much at all for the Vikings, and as long as they remain strong in the trenches it’s hard to believe that they will be worse for wear. Green Bay Packers: 10-6 (Projected Record) 2008 was all about how the Green Bay Packers were going to replace legendary20quarterback Brett Favre. Well, Aaron Rodgers came in and played solid football. So if there wasn’t much of a drop off on offense, how did a 13-3 team, go 6-10? The answer is defense. Green bay ranked 20th in total defense, 22nd in points allowed, and was particularly weak against the rush where they were ranked 26th in the league. In an attempt to improve this unit, Head Coach Mike McCarthy brought in Dom Capers to implement his aggressive 3-4 defense. The Packers do have the personnel for such a change, but it may take some time to adjust to the nuances of such a scheme. The drafting of massive nose tackle B.J. Raji w
as imperative, but it will be interesting to see how defensive end Aaron Kampman makes the transition to outside linebacker, because that’s where the results are going to need to come from. The Packers were 25th in the league in sacks, and with as much man coverage as they play, a strong pass rush is crucial to the overall effectiveness of this unit. Aside form scheme change on defense, there was barely any changeover in Green Bay, so expect the Packers to not be nearly as bad as they were in 2008, but not quite as good as they were in 2007. Chicago Bears: 9-7 (Projected Record) Since losing the Super Bowl in 2006, the Chicago Bears have been simply average going 16-16 over the last two seasons. 2009 looks to be different for the bears, as they firmly believe they now have what has virtually eluded them since the 80’s...a quarterback. In what can only be described as a steal, the Bears were able to pry Jay Cutler away from the Broncos. Cutler brings an entirely new dimension to the offense, and could possibly make the Bears a dark hoarse contender in the NFC. Chicago ranked 26th in the league in total offense, and Cutler should be a breath of fresh air for that unit. However, we won’t be shy to point out that the Bears receiving corps doesn’t boast the talent that Denver does, so it will be interesting to see how things will play out. Ironically, Chicago must improve their defense which really tailed off in 2008, ranking only 21st in the league in total defense, and were particularly vulnerable against the pass where they were ranked 30th. There wasn’t much changeover on this unit, so it’s on Urlacher, Briggs, Harris and company to get things back in order in Chicago. Look for the Bears to be better in 2009, but unless their defense can get healthy again, it won’t be substantially better. Detroit Lions: 2-14 (Projected Record) Winless. That is what the Detroit Lions were in 2008, as they became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. So changes are in order right? Rod Marinelli is gone, and in place as the H
ead Coach is Jim Schwartz, who gave this team a complete makeover, starting with drafting quarterback Mathew Stafford with the number one overall pick. Schwartz’s expertise though is on defense, and he has one helluva job in front of him in Detroit, where the Lions finished dead last in the league last year in total defense, rush defense, points allowed, interceptions, and turnover differential. The additions of linebackers Julian Peterson and Larry Foote, cornerback Philip Buchanon, and tackle Grady Jackson should help, but drastic improvement is unlikely in 2009. Offensively Daunte Caulpepper will start the season, but the former Pro Bowl quarterback will likely take a backseat to Stafford as soon as the rookie thrower is ready to play. There is some talent on offense. Calvin Johnson is one of the most gifted receivers in the league, and Kevin Smith and Rudi Johnson have the potential to be a quality tandem at running back. The additions of Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry to the receiving corps should help as well. However, the offensive line is still a work in progress, and is the main reason Schwartz won’t be marching Stafford out there in Week One. Still, it’s unrealistic for anyone to believe that Detroit will put together the kind of turnaround that the Dolphins had last year, but it’s also unlikely that this group will go winless once again in 2009.