1. Baltimore Ravens (Projected Finish: 11-5)
Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick are the NFL's best General Manager/Head Coach duo since . . . well . . . Bill Walsh and Bill Walsh. The major difference is that today, unlike the 49ers of the Ronald Regan era, there is a salary cap to contend with. In 2002, two years after their Super Bowl title in 2000, the Ravens' veteran core had been gutted by the cap. Most observers at the time expected the bottom to fall out. Instead, they were in the playoff hunt until mid-December and went 7-9. Last season, they improved to 10-6 and won the division, despite starting rookie QB Kyle Boller in nine games and journeyman Anthony Wright in the other seven.
What's the key to the Ravens' 2004 season? QB Kyle Boller? A healthy Ray Lewis? A "Get Out of Jail Free" card for RB Jamal Lewis? Nope. It's the team's new "Senior Consultant, former New York Giants' coach Jim Fassel, who has been hired by Billick to overhaul the Ravens' passing game; which last season would have made Orville and Wilbur Wright double over in laughter (In other words, they were dead last).
Will it work? Yeah. Fassel knows passing. He also knows quarterbacks, and will help the talented Boller's development immensely. TE Todd Heap will also benefit, much as Jeremy Shockey did under Fassel in New York. Look for Heap to get close to the 100 catch plateau. What's that you say? "100 catches for a tight end! Are you nuts!" Maybe I am. . . . Just remember if it happens where you heard it first.
With all this Fassel talk, some might think that this is his team. Far from it, it's still Brian Billick's squad, with Ray Lewis filling the role of lockeroom enforcer. On the field, Ray will once again wreak havoc on opposing offenses; with ILB Ed Hartwell and OLB Peter Boulware close behind. On the outside will reside CB's Chris McAllister and Gary Baxter, who will team with FS Ed Reed and the newly un-retired nickel-back Deion Sanders to lead one of the league's best secondaries (that is if Deion has anything left).
I know the Pats, Colts and Chiefs are the fashionable choices to wear the AFC crown . . . but something tells me (D-Fence! D-Fence!) those teams will all be polishing their golf clubs before this one.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (Projected Finish: 9-7)
A couple of years ago, most thought that Marvin Lewis would one day make a good head coach. Thank God someone finally gave him the chance. If the first season was any indication, the sad-sack Bengals have struck gold with Lewis. The former Raven and Redskins defensive coordinator restored Bengal Pride last season, leading a 6-game turnaround from 2002 (2-14 to 8-8). If everything falls into place this year, the Cincy could taste the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
Carson Palmer, the team's 2003 #1 pick, will start at QB. If he falters early, they still have John Kitna, who passed for 3,591 yards and 26 TD's last season. RB Rudi Johnson, who had a breakout season in 2003, will team with rookie Chris Perry in the Bengals' ground attack. Palmer will pass to primarily to Pro Bowler Chad Johnson, who will team with veterans Peter Warrick, Kelly Washington and Patrick Johnson to form a solid group of receivers. If the offensive line can round into form, the offense could improve on its 13th overall ranking of last season.
Lewis went out and grabbed free agent DT Daryl Gardner from the Denver Broncos to beef up the Bengals' run defense, which ranked 25th in the NFL in 2003. Gardner, who had many productive seasons with the Dolphins before playing for Lewis in Washington, just didn't fit out in the Mile High City during his lone season there. Another newcomer, free agent MLB Nate Webster (Buccaneers) will fill the Ray Lewis role in Marvin Lewis' defense; while Kevin Hardy moves back to his natural SLB spot opposite from speedy veteran WLB Brian Simmons. The Bengal pass defense will suffer from the possible career-ending injury suffered by CB Dennis Weathersby in an off-season car accident. Newcomers CB Deltha O'Neil (Broncos) and FS Kim Herring (Rams) will be expected to fill the Weathersby void.
It will be tough for the Bengals to make the post-season with a first-year starter in Palmer at QB. Lewis believes he is ready however; and with the miracle job he engineered in his first season in Bengal Country, Marvin deserves a little leeway in his rebuilding program. Cincinnati is no longer a gimmie on the NFL schedule. It'll be another year however before a post-season party comes to Paul Brown Stadium.
3. Pittsburgh (Projected Finish: 9-7)
It is hard to believe, but Bill Cowher's Steelers have missed the playoffs four times in the last six-seasons. To remedy the problem, the coach went back to the future and hired former Blitzburg guru Dick LeBeau to run the Steelers defense, as he had done during Cowher's most successful seasons in the Steel City. The roster also underwent change. Goodbye to 2003 starters OLB Jason Gildon, FS Brent Alexander, TE Mark Bruener, DB Dwayne Washington, RB Amos Zereoue and P Josh Miller. Hello to RB Duce Staley (Eagles), DL Travis Kirschke, P Chris Gardocki and 2004 first-round selection (11th overall) Quarterback Ben Rothlisberger.
Tommy Maddox will start at QB . . . for now. Cowher would like to hold the Rothlisberger era off until 2005, but if Tommy struggles like he did last season, the rookie will get the early nod. Both QB's will have plenty of weapons. WR's Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El are all game breakers; while newcomer Duce Staley will be expected to carry the load at RB as "The Bus," Jerome Bettis, now plays more like "The Golf Cart." LG Alan Faneca and C Jeff Hartings lead an O-line that underperformed in 2003. They must improve, because another season of having the NFL's 31st best rushing attack won't cut it with either Cowher or the diehards at Heinz Field.
The defense must also step up if the Black and Gold are to return to the postseason. NT Casey Hampton went to the Pro Bowl last season and was the best player in an otherwise underachieving group. With LeBeau now back in the fold, the defense will surely be more aggressive. That's good news for the linebacking core. Expect OLB Joey Porter and ILB Kendrell Bell to rebound from poor 2003 showings. SS Troy Polamalu will be expected to lead the secondary. After a slow start as a rookie in 2003, Troy was making plays by season's end. Deshea Townsend and Chad Scott are the CB's, but expect rookie first-rounder Ricardo Colclough to supplant Scott as a starter by mid-season.
The special teams were very good last season, and that shouldn't change. K Jeff Reed, who was great as a rookie in 2002, should improve from his so-so 2003. Randle El and Colclough will be the primary PR and KR, respectively.
The Steelers were a better team than their 6-10 record last season. If their running game can get back to respectability and their defense can once again become a force, big things could happen in 2004. However, with the improved Bengals and the tough Ravens in the same division, I think the Steelers return to the playoffs will have to wait one more season.
4. Cleveland Browns (Projected Finish: 3-13)
There is a new "Mistake by the Lake," and his name is Butch Davis. This guy has got the blindfold on and the Pal Mal hanging off his lip. I wonder how many Browns fans would have kept QB Tim Couch around for another dismal season if they could have given Davis his walking papers instead? Butchie Boy was rode hard and put away wet by Matt Millen and the Detroit Lions on draft day. While Kellen Winslow Jr., despite the holdout, was a great pick; for Davis to give up a second-rounder to move up one draft spot was "stupid is as stupid does" enough to make Forrest Gump choke on his shrimp cocktail.
God bless Cleveland's new QB, Jeff Garcia, he is doing everything he can to light a fire under this team. So far he has called out Winslow for his holdout and Davis for his lack of organizational skills (via the scattershot pre-season offensive game planning and playing time). Winslow, to his credit, has seemed to respond and is quickly gaining the respect of his teammates with an unrelenting work ethic and toughness that is sorely needed. However, Davis seems none too concerned that his QB and receivers have had little actual game time to develop cohesiveness with one another.
The offense finished 26th in the NFL in 2003 (20th rushing/ 25th passing). While the receiving core is solid with Winslow and WR's Andre Davis, Quincy Morgan and Dennis Northcutt, the offensive line gave up 40 sacks last season. That does not bode well for the fragile Garcia, who turns 35 in February. Couple that with the pre-season neck injury (team officials call it just a stinger) to starting RB Lee Suggs, which has kept him out of practice and game action for over a week, and the Browns offense may have trouble getting out of the gate.
The defense was a respectable 15th in 2003, but only ranked 23rd against the run, allowing just over 132 yards-per-game. To date, the team has gotten zero out of former first-round D-lineman Courtney Brown and Gerald Warren. Ebenezer Ekuban, formerly of the Cowboys, could become a starter if Brown continues to slide. The linebackers and secondary led by MLB Andra Davis and CB Daylon McCutcheon are speedy if not overwhelming. If the run defense and pass rush don't show signs of improvement early on, Defensive Coordinator Dave Campo will once again have his work cut out for him.
If the Browns had a better head coach, they might have a fighting chance. However, all on the Ohio shores of Lake Erie know it is only a matter of time before they once again will see a regime change for their beloved Browns.