Today in the AFC North

The AFC North, lightly considered by many self-described NFL experts, is likely to be full of surprises in 2003. If there's one thing that's predictable about the NFL, it's that it's unpredictable. Lane takes a stab at it anyway, offering his thoughts on what we're likely to see in today's AFC North contests...

Pittsburgh: The Steelers look to find the lost art of playing defense in the 2003 season. Okay, it may have not been that bad, but the Steelers believe that they have improved their defensive backfield, an area that was a sore point with head coach Bill Cowher late in the 2002 season. Linebacker Jason Gildon needs to rebound from a disappointing 2002 season and Clark Haggans replaces linebacker Joey Porter, lost due to a gun-sho wound. Tommy Maddox is back leading an explosive offense that features wide receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. The Pittsburgh offensive line should have problems containing the hard-charging rush of the Ravens. Amos Zereoue replaces Jerome Bettis as the starting running back, but Bettis will see plenty of action. The Steelers will win the game, wounding the Ravens in a physical contest...

Cleveland: the Browns look to build upon a 9-7 record in the 2002 season. A defensive meltdown cost the Browns an opportunity to advance in the playoffs last season and they will be fortunate to be in the same position this year. The team tore down the defense due to the salary cap, and will start three players at linebacker that have never started a regular season game. The defensive backfield is very questionable. The Browns have a strong offense and they will need to be efficient and explosive, as the defense may not be able to stop the opposition. The opposition in week-one is the explosive Indianapolis Colts. Led by quarterback Peyton Manning and running back Edgerrin James, the Colts are explosive. Can the Browns contain Indianapolis? Not Sunday in Cleveland, the Colts will be in a horse-race and edge the Browns at the finish-line...

Baltimore: Ravens head coach Brian Billick has turned the reins over to impressive rookie Kyle Boller. Ready to embark on another excellent adventure, the Ravens can make a statement in the opener, as they travel to Pittsburgh to face the offensively-potent Steelers. The league's best player, Ray Lewis, is back from shoulder surgery and looking better than ever. This should be a tough, physical battle and the team that can capitalize on opportunities will survive. The Ravens will again attack the line of scrimmage and pressure the opposition. This week Tommy Maddox is the target, and if the line play of the Steelers in the preseason is any indication of things to come, he will be under heavy pressure. The Ravens will be strong against the run again in 2003, and if they can get a solid effort in the defensive backfield, they can surprise in the AFC North. It will be a tight-battle. Look for Boller to struggle Sunday, but it won't be a crash-landing...

Cincinnati: The Bengals can't be taken lightly any longer. New head coach Marvin Lewis has brought a new attitude to the once tame Kittens of the Riverfront. Lewis worked the team hard in training camp, and there is a new found respect and optimism swirling around the team. Quarterback Jon Kitna played well in camp and will start until rookie Carson Palmer is fully ready to take over the helm. Team speed and depth will be a question that must be answered, but look for the Bengals to play a little defense. The Bengals will lose Sunday, but the Broncos won't stampede the ‘new' Bengals...


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