NEW HAVEN, Ct.
— Continuing BASN’s look at the National Football League’s 2006 season, today we put the AFC North under the microscope. Last year, the Steelers rode a wild card berth from this division all the way to a Super Bowl title.
Entering 2006, the main questions center around (no surprise) the quarterbacks in this division. Questions like: how much will Evel Knievel’s…..oops, I mean Ben Roethlisberger’s injury effect Pittsburgh’s repeating chances?
Can Steve McNair bring a Super Bowl back to Baltimore? Will the Bengals have to play half of their games in those lovely orange jumpsuits instead of the their regular stripes? Will the Browns have a say in this at all? Read further and find out.
With the exception of Big Ben’s reckless brush with death, the off-season was rather quiet and uneventful for Pittsburgh. Yeah, there were the defections (Antwaan Randle El, Kimo von Oelhoufen), but that seems to happen every year. Despite the fact that the division has gotten just that tougher, I really feel that Pittsburgh can not only win the division, but can also make a decent push to repeat as champs. The offense really showed versatility in the playoffs and we all know about the defense. Also, I’m not buying the rumors that Bill Cowher will leave after this season. The Rooneys may be a tad bit cheap, but they’d be foolish to let the Human Chin get away. Especially after bringing another title to Blitzburgh.
What To Watch For: Don’t be surprised if early on, the Steelers fall back on their bread and butter offensively (i.e. the running game). An early dose of Miami, Jacksonville, Cincy, and San Diego (following a bye) during the first five weeks of the season will probably dictate that.
Outlook: Yes, I know they were a Carson Palmer injury and a Jerome Bettis fumble away from being sent home. But all during Cowher’s tenure, the Steelers have proven to be road warriors. Last year’s run did nothing to change that and it will definitely help them in 2006.
That collective sign of relief you hear coming from the jungle is Marvin Lewis and the rest of the Queen City after finally seeing Carson Palmer in a upright position. As long as he remains relatively healthy, the Bengals are serious contenders. However, Coach Lewis must get some more consistency from the other side of the line. While they led the NFL with 44 forced turnovers last season, the overall D was ranked 28th overall. That can’t make Marvin too happy.
What To Look For: Apparently, Cincinnati pissed someone off on the scheduling committee. We’ll get a gauge on just how good the Bengals will be this year right from day one. They’ll open at Arrowhead against the Chiefs. After a week two home game against the Browns, they’ll see the Steelers and Patriots. Following a bye, they get Tampa, Carolina, Atlanta, and Baltimore. Ouch!
Outlook: Because we know just how explosive the Bengals offense can be, we’ll put them just ahead of the Ravens and just behind the Steelers in the division race. The element of surprise has pretty much been used up by this team. Now they must take it to another level before you can say them and Super Bowl in the same sentence.
Seeing Steve McNair in a Ravens’ jersey is almost like watching Derek Jeter playing for the Red Sox. It’s hard to believe that “Air” and his defensive rival, Ray Lewis are teammates, but stranger pairings have been put together for the sake of reaching a Super Bowl. Baltimore is betting that the former MVP has enough left to put them back in the big game. If the Ravens’ D can bounce back from the uncharacteristic letdown of 2005, this division race could be the most intriguing to watch. They may have to settle for a wild card, but you know what happened the last time someone in this division was handed a wild card.
What To Watch For: While the acquisition of McNair and ex-Bronco RB Mike Anderson got all the headlines, adding DE Trevor Pryce to the defense may make an even larger impact. With Pryce, Lewis, Reed, and McCallister all on the same side of the ball, it may be time to hide the women and children again when facing Baltimore.
Outlook: The Ravens are just part of a three-headed beast that will battle for a division crown along with the Steelers and Bengals. Again this season, at least two playoff teams will reside in this division. And it really wouldn’t be a stretch to see a third team as well.
When training camp began, I felt the Browns were a possible team on the rise. Just after making that statement Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley was lost for the season with a knee injury. His backup, Bob Hallen, then retired. Then another backup, Alonzo Ephraim, was suspended for the season’s first four games. Needless to say, but Romeo Crennel won’t return my calls. Despite the buzzard’s luck, I still feel that the Brownies aren’t that far away from being a decent team. Stubborn on my part?? Not really. Because the division is so top heavy strong, Cleveland’s improvement will be very hard to see.
What To Watch For: The Browns brought in several veterans (Willie McGinest, Ted Washington, Joe Jurevicius) with Super Bowl experience during the off-season. While these players are likely on the down side of their careers, they may help instill an attitude that Crennel is seeking to instill with his youngsters.
Outlook: Contenders? No, not yet. But there’s enough talent of this team to be a decent spoiler late in the year. They’ll be tested early after they open at home against New Orleans. They travel to three of their next four games at Cincinnati, at Oakland and at Carolina. Romeo, if you’re out there, really it’s not my fault!
Predictions 1. Steelers 2. Bengals 3. Ravens 4. Browns Tommorrow: The AFC South.