2007 Preview: AFC North

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 03, 2007



 
The AFC North just reeks of toughness ... well, except for the Bengals and their uniforms.
 
Everything else is gritty, old-school football: the Browns and Steelers were once bitter rivals battling it out in the heart of the Gridiron Breadbasket and each have storied traditions; the Ravens used to be the Browns, and are the dominant defensive franchise of the 21st century. Even the Bungles for all their historic ineptitude stand as a legacy of the great Paul Brown. They've even made made a pair of Super Bowl appearances in their battered history, second only to Pittsburgh in the division.
 
Fans of the AFC's own Black & Blue division have a great deal to look forward to this year: Baltimore should be a threat once again. Pittsburgh is still Pittsburgh. It might be unexpected but certainly not a surprise to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl again this year. The Browns have the best rookie quarterback in the league waiting to take over after a fairly impressive set of pre-season performances. And the Bengals? Well, at least they'll be entertaining in their losing efforts.
 
 
BALTIMORE RAVENS
(last year's record: 13-3; 3-1 vs. Quality Opponents; lost to Indianapolis in AFC Divisional round)
 
How they ranked in 2006
Total O
Score O
Rush O
Pass O
Total D
Score D
Rush D
Pass D
17
12
25
11
1
1
2
6
 
 
Major additions:
RB Willis McGahee (Buffalo)
  
Major subtractions:
RB Jamal Lewis (Baltimore)
G Edwin Mulitalo (Detroit) 
LB Adalius Thomas (New England)
DT Aubrayo Franklin (San Francisco)
 
Draft choices:
1 (29) Ben Grubbs, g, Auburn
3 (74) Yamon Figurs, wr, Kansas St.
3 (86) Marshal Yanda, ot, Iowa
4 (134) Antwan Barnes, lb, Florida International
4 (137) Le'Ron McLain, rb, Alabama
5 (174) Troy Smith, qb, Ohio St.
6 (207) Prescott Burgess, lb, Michigan
 
BALTIMORE SUCKS BECAUSE:
Art Modell has a Super Bowl ring. At least the Irsays can claim that they were moving a franchise in disarray when they relocated from Baltimore to Indianapolis. The Colts were in rough shape – not the case for the Browns, who were beloved and only a year removed from a playoff spot. Yet Modell was rewarded for his greed with grateful fans in Baltimore and a Super Bowl ring. Life's not fair.
 
BALTIMORE RULES BECAUSE:
Rex Ryan might be the best coordinator in football. While Buddy's son doesn't deserve all the credit for Baltimore's incredible defense last year, he's the closest thing to an institution on the unit not named Ray Lewis. This is Ryan's third year as defensive coordinator, and he's two-for-two so far – the 2005 defense was 10th in points and 4th in yards allowed despite no help from the offense. The 2006 D was No. 1 in both categories, and in just about every other possible measure of defensive excellence. Ryan was the DL coach from 1999-2004, and the Ravens have been in the top 6 in scoring defense six of his eight years in Baltimore. And remember, the 2000 unit was the best defense of the Live Ball Era and Ryan's defensive line was unmovable all season.
 
RAVEN SHIVERING ON THE COLD SEAT: 
QB Steve McNair. McNair had a solid regular season for Baltimore – just 12 INTs, a perfect number for a caretaker QB, which he is now. But his terrible two-INT game against Indy in the AFC postseason put a bullseye on his back. With the running game problems addressed in trade (Willis McGahee) and the draft, they need McNair to stay healthy and consistent all the way through to January.
 
WHAT THE FACTS TELL US:
2006 "Real Wins" (based on point differential): 12.7 (1st)
2006 Quality point differential: +4.0 PPG (6th)
2007 Fillabilty Grade: A-
2007 Quality strength of schedule: 8th most difficult
 
In 2006, Baltimore actually had the best figure in the NFL in Real Wins (12.7), but did it against an easy schedule – a luxury it won't have in 2007. The Ravens took strong steps toward fixing their only problem of a year ago (the running game), and if they can replace Adalius Thomas and stay healthy they could be even better in 2007. However, better doesn't always equate to more wins, especially with their schedule and a 34-year-old QB in Steve McNair.
 
COLD, HARD PREDICTION: 11-5, 1st in AFC North
 
 
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
(last year's record: 8-8; 2-4 vs. Quality Opponents)
 
How they ranked in 2006
Total O
Score O
Rush O
Pass O
Total D
Score D
Rush D
Pass D
7
13
10
9
9
11
3
20
 
 
Major additions:
C Sean Mahan (Tampa Bay)
DT Nick Eason (Cleveland)
 
Major subtractions:
LB Joey Porter (Miami)
 
Draft choices:
1 (15) Lawrence Timmons, lb, Florida St.
2 (46) LaMarr Woodley, lb, Michigan
3 (77) Matt Spaeth, te, Minnesota
4 (112) Daniel Sepulveda, p, Baylor
4 (132) Ryan McBean, de, Oklahoma State
5 (156) Cameron Stephenson, g, Rutgers
5 (170) William Gay, db, Louisville
7 (227) Dallas Baker, wr, Florida
 
 
PITTSBURGH SUCKS BECAUSE:
Do we even have to say it? Steely McBeam. There are plenty of bad mascots in the NFL. Jaxson DeVille comes to mind. We've seen Pat Patriot with his helmet off, and it wasn't pretty. But the Steelers, who didn't appear to need a mascot to whip the fans into a cartoonish frenzy, have reached new lows with their Bill Cowher-esque Steely McBeam, who may or may not be destined to be a one-year wonder. He's already the subject of countless campaigns and petitions to get rid of him, and he hasn't even walked the sidelines of a regular-season game yet. 
 
PITTSBURGH RULES BECAUSE:
The Steelers haven't been outright terrible since 1969. The Steelers of the 1970s were dominant for nearly a decade. But even more impressive is the standard for respectability the organization has set year in and year out for nearly four decades. They've had just seven losing seasons since 1972 and the closest they've had to a disaster came in 1988, when they went 5-11 under Chuck Noll. But even that season, there were four teams with worse records and two with identical 5-11 marks – the Steelers drafted seventh in the 1989 draft. Other than that, they've won six games or more every year since 1971. A remarkable tribute to the Rooneys.
 
STEELER SHIVERING ON THE COLD SEAT:
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Arians is no newbie – he's 54 years old, and has been a coordinator in the NFL before (Cleveland 2001-03). Of course, the Browns stint wasn't exactly a stunner – offensive ranks of 25, 19 and 29. Better is his time as Steelers WR coach from 2004-06 and Colts QB coach from 1998-2000. Regardless of all that in his past, the talk is that Pittsburgh will be more wide open ... which is great if you like exciting football, not so great if you want to win. Ben Roethlisberger was spectacular as a QB who threw 20 times per game, but we saw last year what he looked like throwing it 35 times a game. It wasn't ugly. But it wasn't the ruthless efficiency we saw in Big Ben's first two years. If Arians and new head man Mike Tomlin want to open it up, no one's stopping them. But Steeler football is practically a copryrighted brand, and changing the game is a risky maneuver.
 
WHAT THE FACTS TELL US:
2006 "Real Wins" (based on point differential): 9.1 (tied for 10th) 
2006 Quality point differential: -4.5 PPG (16th)
2007 Quality strength of schedule: 7th most difficult
 
The Steelers ended up an extremely average team last year, odd since nothing about their season was average. Ben Roethlisberger was as bad as he'll probably ever be, and the Super Bowl hangover was one of the worst in recent memory. Coach Bill Cowher would never have been fired, but judging from the comments out of Pittsburgh, a new era is a good thing. This is still the same basic team that went 15-1 in 2004 and won the Super Bowl in 2005, and in the salary-cap era keeping a good team together is often the same as going forward. If Tomlin can boost morale and Big Ben can avoid being a Big Stiff, this is a playoff team again. The only thing keeping Pittsburgh from being a true contender, at least at this point in the season, is the new coaching staff. Tomlin may prove to be the second coming of Paul Brown. But until we see the evidence, we have to believe that he'll go through the normal first-year learning curve. Unless your George Siefert taking over a defending Super Bowl champ loaded with talent, that first year usually means no Super Bowl soup for you.
 
Cold, Hard Prediction: 10-6, second in AFC North
 
 
CLEVELAND BROWNS
(last year's record: 4-12; 2-5 vs. Quality Opponents)
How they ranked in 2006
Total O
Score O
Rush O
Pass O
Total D
Score D
Rush D
Pass D
31
30
31
23
27
22
29
15
 
Major additions:
RB Jamal Lewis (Baltimore)
G Eric Steinbach (Cincinnati)
C Seth McKinney (Miami)
TE Ryan Krause (San Diego)
DE Antwan Peek (Houston)
DE Robaire Smith (Tennessee)
DT Shaun Smith (Cincinnati) 
 
Major subtractions:
S Brian Russell (Seattle) 
 
Draft choices:
1 (3) Joe Thomas, ot, Wisconsin.
1 (22) Brady Quinn, qb, Notre Dame.
2 (53) Eric Wright, db, UNLV.
5 (140) Brandon McDonald, db, Memphis.
6 (200) Melila Purcell, de, Hawaii.
7 (213) Chase Pittman, de, LSU.
7 (234) Syndric Steptoe, wr, Arizona.
 
CLEVELAND SUCKS BECAUSE:
The Browns haven't had a great quarterback since the 60s. Frank Ryan had a great run for the Browns in the mid-60s, making the Pro Bowl three straight seasons from 1964-66. Since Ryan, the Browns have sent three, count 'em, three QBs to the Pro Bowl: Bill Nelsen in 1969, Brian Sipe in 1980 and Bernie Kosar in 1987. And the Browns have had different leading passers in each of the last five seasons. Is it any wonder they're falling all over themselves for Brady Quinn in Cleveland? 
 
CLEVELAND RULES BECAUSE:
The Dawg Pound never died. Even when the Browns didn't have a team from 1996-98, you know those crazed Dawg Pound fans got together on Sundays to watch old footage of Jim Brown and Otto Graham, stick pins in their Art Modell dolls and eat dog bones. And even though the Browns are terrible, the Cleveland faithful still turn out in droves to hope for the best. Cleveland rocks!
 
BROWN SHIVERING ON THE COLD SEAT:
RB Jamal Lewis.  For a 28-year-old running back, Lewis runs like he's ready for the retirement home. Back to back seasons of 3.4 YPA and 3.6 YPA in Baltimore led to his departure – was his 2,066-yard season of 2003 a fluke? The Browns hope not. With a promising passing game and big investment on the O-line, a rebirth by Lewis could actually mean winning games in Cleveland. If he plays poorly, so will the Browns – and they'll likely be less than patient with Lewis if they're playing garbage time in December. This is Jamal's last chance, although if they cast for "The Longest Yard II" he might be available.
 
WHAT THE FACTS TELL US:
2006 "Real Wins" (based on point differential): 4.4 (tied for 30th)
2006 Quality point differential: -3.3 PPG (13th)
2007 Quality strength of schedule: 11th easiest
 
The Browns were better than their 4-12 record of 2006 – they were downright respectable against Quality Opponents, with as many wins (two) and a better point differential than the Steelers. And they had one of the best offseasons in the NFL, with an A- in our Fillability Index. In the NFC, we'd be talking about them as a sleeper playoff team. But they don't play in the NFC, so they'll probably have to play spoiler a bit and hope their AFC North counterparts slide back (a possibility). Could this team win eight games in 2007? Nine? Maybe. But the facts don't quite go that far ...
 
COLD, HARD PREDICTION: 7-9 , third in the AFC North
 
 
CINCINNATI BENGALS
(last year's record: 8-8; 3-5 vs. Quality Opponents)
 
How they ranked in 2006
Total O
Score O
Rush O
Pass O
Total D
Score D
Rush D
Pass D
8
8
26
6
30
17
15
t31
 
 
Major additions:
None.
 
Major subtractions:
QB Anthony Wright (New York Giants)
G Eric Steinbach (Cleveland)
TE Tony Stewart (Oakland)
DT Shaun Smith (Cleveland) 
LB Brian Simmons (New Orleans)
S Kevin Kaesviharn (New Orleans)
 
Draft choices:
1 (18) Leon Hall, db, Michigan
2 (49) Kenny Irons, rb, Auburn. (out for season)
4 (114) Marvin White, db, TCU.
5 (151) Jeff Rowe, qb, Nevada.
6 (187) Matt Toeaina, dt, Oregon.
7 (230) Dan Santucci, c, Notre Dame.
7 (253) Nedu Ndukwe, db, Notre Dame.
 
CINCINNATI SUCKS BECAUSE:
They've taken a bad uniform and made it progressively worse. Cincy's original uniforms were basically the Cleveland Browns' unis with a little more red in them. This was supposedly thanks to coach Paul Brown's desire to beat his former team at their own game in any way. Then, all of a sudden, there were stripes on the helmet and on the uniform, and on the pants, and oh! the humanity. Now, it's the worst of all worlds – a orangy-red jersey that reminds you of puking, stripes on the helmet, a zubaz-like stripe on the pants and a weird new font. Even Ocho-Cinqo can't make that thing look good. 
 
CINCINNATI RULES BECAUSE:
It's all about the Johnsons. Until they ruined everything by cutting backup QB Doug Johnson, the Bengals had five – count em – five Johnsons on the er, staff. Chad and Rudi are the big guys, but don't forget fullback Jeremi and OLB Landon. Do they need a new punter? Lee Johnson must still be keeping his 42-year-old leg warm. How about Jimmy Johnson to replace Marvin Lewis for next year? And folk-funker Jack Johnson to sing the national anthem on opening day. We could go on, but our collective Johnsons can't take any more of this.
 
BENGAL SHIVERING ON THE COLD SEAT:
Head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis got an awful lot of credit for Baltimore's defensive success, but it's worth noting that while the Baltimore D train has kept rolling, Lewis's new ride hasn't. In 2002 with Washington, his Redskins unit was 21st in total defense. In four years with Cincy? It's been 28th, 22nd, 21st and 17th. A positive trend in Cincy, but still five straight subpar ranks. With all the struggles off the field – and three .500 seasons – only the franchise's amazing lack of success in the past has kept Lewis safe. It's playoffs or bust for Lewis this year.
 
WHAT THE FACTS TELL US:
2006 "Real Wins" (based on point differential): 9.1 (tied for 10th) 
2006 Quality point differential: -3.0 PPG (12th)
2007 Quality strength of schedule: 12th most difficult
 
The Bengals are a heck of a fantasy football team but a middling real football team. Their defense was quite poor by any measure a year ago, and they'll be facing a tough slate of offenses this year – the NFC West, plus the tough North teams. They made no move to improve anything, and their hope of getting LBs David Pollack and Odell Thurman back came up snake eyes. So it's all on the offense – which lost two starting linemen and has both starting tackles nursing injuries. Add the absence of WR Chris Henry (9 TDs) for eight games and a season-ending injury to No. 2 pick RB Kenny Irons, and this is a thin, one-sided team going the wrong way. Let the hate mail begin!
 
COLD, HARD PREDICTION: 4-12, fourth in the AFC North  


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