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Old 08-28-2008, 03:47 AM   #3
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Cool A Closer Look: AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-7
Must take biggest year-to-year SOS jump by any NFL team since the league began using previous season's standings to determine upcoming season's schedules three decades ago - a staggering .145 - but rest of division will suffer almost as much; not taking any chances with injury-prone RB Willie Parker, they spent 1st-rounder on Rashard Mendenhall; QB Ben Roethlisberger comes off 1st-ever Pro Bowl invite and WR Santonio Holmes has bright future. Age becoming bit of a concern on defense, which debunks finesse tag frequently attached to 3-4s. Yes, the schedule is daunting; but, as already pointed out, their division foes aren't in good shape themselves in that regard, so even 8-8 might be good enough to enable them to repeat as AFC North champs - and that mark is certainly well within their reach.

Baltimore Ravens: 8-8
The small-college factor didn't keep Big Ben from making immediate impact, so equally-big rookie QB Joe Flacco's saga might not be as quixotic as it looks, and having workhorse RB McGahee to turn to doesn't exactly hurt the cause. Receiving corps will need to step up though, but very well might if TE Heap is healthy, which was not the case last year; OL will sorely miss retired T Ogden however. On defense it's same-old-same-old, but in this case that's good thing. Incoming HC John Harbaugh (ex-QB Jim's older brother) seems like player's-coach type and getting to play Mia and Oak where Steelers have to face NE and SD could come in handy; quite playable at what promises to be square price with team coming off 5-11 season that cost Brian Billick his job.

Cleveland Browns: 7-9
A funny thing happened on the way to what was supposed to be the dawning of the Age of Brady Quinn: Journeyman Derek Anderson just wouldn't give up the starting job, tossing 29 TDs; and now Anderson will have Donte' Stallworth as well as Braylon Edwards to throw to. Ex-arch-nemesis Jamal Lewis rolled up 1,304 yards in '07, and O-line was led by T Joe Thomas, who Pro-Bowled as a rookie. Defense, however, is a whole different story, and even if DL is stronger pursuant to DT Shaun Rogers' arrival, it may come at expense of secondary as CB Leigh Bodden was traded for him. Won't have element of surprise going for them this time around, although they'll have plenty of opportunities to spring upsets thanks to killer sked which should see them give back about half the gains they made a season ago.

Cincinnati Bengals: 6-10
Chad Johnson and Marvin Lewis had their off-season stare-down, and, rather surprisingly, it was Ocho Cinco who blinked, then suffered preseason's most notable injury, forcing them to bring back the disgraced Chris Henry to help QB Carson Palmer match or exceed his 26 TDs of 2007. RB corps got bogged down with injuries a season ago and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will be showcasing his many talents in anticipation of 2009 FA bonanza. Defense, unfortunately, closely resembles Cleveland's, so top draft pick went for USC OLB Keith Rivers. With volatile locker room and skyrocketing SOS, Lewis is at or near the top of everyone's endangered list of HCs for this year, and wouldn't bet on him surviving; leaning in another direction.
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