Rethinking the AFC North

<p>The Pittsburgh Steelers are everybody's favorite to win the AFC North. Part of that is based upon the success of last season but the other side of this glowing attention is the weakness of the division. If not the Steelers, then who? A few prognosticators have jumped on the Butch Davis bandwagon. There is some wisdom in going against the flow of popular opinion and the proof lies only as far away as last season…</p>

The Steelers went 13-3 last season and are this season's favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. There is every reason to believe the Steelers will hit playoff pay dirt in 2002. However, all this parity talk and dramatic seasonal swings in fortunes misses a few other key trends. The most important trend missing from this media frenzy over the annual NFL surprise is the one of teams that repeated their success from the previous season.

Since 1998 there have been 11 teams that have finished with a 13-3 record or better. 3 of those teams are from last season (Steelers, Bears, and Rams). 4 of those teams fell from grace over the course of just one off-season ('99 Broncos, '99 Falcons, '00 Jags, and '01 Titans). Will the Steelers be next?

Such a fall is not likely. Teams that have burst on to the scene usually do so thanks to the surprisingly great play of one or two players (e.g. QB Kurt Warner). The swing of fate the other way has followed a similar pattern with the loss of a key player or two (sometimes much more than two). The '98 Broncos are probably the poster-child for this with the retirement of QB John Elway, though Denver lost more than just Elway going into the 1999 campaign. So, cap hell, free agency, injuries, and retirement have ravaged the prominent teams and thus their demise.

For the most part, none of those off-season negatives applies to the 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only have the Steelers held their team intact (in a way that is unprecedented during this era of cap constraints), but also they are even deeper at many positions than they were last season. Simply put, the Steelers are more likely to mimic the 1999 and 2000 Tennessee Titans, who went 13-3 both seasons, than the collapsing Broncos of 1999.

The Steelers at the very least will be a playoff team with a 10-6 record being the bottom end of such predictions. Will that be good enough to take the North? Probably, but no one could be very sure given the swings of fortune in the NFL these days. Or could they?

Is there a surprise player waiting in the wings that could lift the Browns, Bengals, or Ravens to the top of their division? The Steelers lost only 3 times last season, all to divisional opponents. If anyone knows how to crack the Steeler juggernaut it is a divisional opponent. However, the smaller divisions as a result of realignment have de-emphasized divisional play. The Steelers have gone from 10 divisional match-ups in 2001 to just 6 in 2002. Pittsburgh could go 0-6 in the North and still finish 10-6 atop the division. The Browns, Bengals, and Ravens will have to do more than succeed during Steeler Week.

The Cleveland Browns had a relatively impressive preseason, despite the loss of OLB Jamir Miller. In fact, LB Darren Hambrick has stepped in for Miller and been the most pleasant surprise in camp. The Browns also sport a player that may be the best 3rd cornerback in the game today, second-year man Anthony Henry. However, the Browns defense will hinge on the knees of MLB Earl Holmes. If Holmes' knees hold up, the Browns should be considerably better against the run. If the knees fail and RDE Courtney Brown continues to disappoint, the Browns would probably do worse than last season in terms of record. The Browns led the NFL in interceptions last season, by far. They are not likely to repeat such a feat and will have to depend more on solid play.

The Browns offense was dramatically revamped during the off-season. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Butch Davis cult, any significant improvement by the Browns this season will depend on the offensive line. The preseason has been promising, at least in terms of pass protection. Given some time, QB Tim Couch should be able to do some damage. As for the running game, the jury is still out. RB William Green did not exactly electrify the crowd during the preseason games and the run blocking clearly still needs a lot of work. The Browns do have the look of promise about them and I would now move them above the Bengals in terms of second best in the AFC North, though there is little hope for a player to emerge out of nowhere.

The story in Cincinnati is still the same, no leadership at quarterback. Akili Smith did have a surprisingly good preseason, but last year's starter Jon Kitna was horrible. Journeyman QB Gus Frerotte did not so much win the starting job as Kitna gave it away. Frerotte will be erratic, but he does provide a legitimate QB threat in Cincinnati. So, the Bengals should surprise a few teams this season, including the Steelers.

The Bengals defense has been one of its strengths over the last few seasons, but injuries to linebackers Takeo Spikes (who should be back to full strength soon) and Steve Foley (out for the season) has many in Cincy concerned. Plus, the secondary is still a big question mark. The Bengals will probably be in a more than a few shootouts this coming season. They will lose more those than they win and the Bengals might just flop again in 2002. Though, if Frerotte is reborn as Rich Gannon was, the Bengals could finally emerge.

In some ways, the Baltimore Ravens are not as bad as some expect them to be. They have the most unknowns in the division (if not the entire NFL) and that could be a good thing. Despite a new scheme and so many new faces, the Ravens defense looked very impressive during the preseason games. However, the Ravens lack a true nose tackle for the 3-4 scheme and the secondary is very inexperienced. Still, unknowns such as ILB Edgerton Hartwell should grab the attention of the rest of the NFL and the defense will be much better than most think.

The offense has been downright awful. If this has been the Ravens weak point in the past, it is a major handicap now. The offensive line is a mess and greenhorn QB Chris Redman has not exactly lit it up. But perhaps Redman will settle in and as he goes so the Ravens may go. In fact, if any team could surprise out of the AFC North it is the Baltimore Ravens. They are a team full of unknowns waiting to be discovered. Don't pencil in two wins here just yet, Steeler fans. If any team could surprise the sports world in 2002 it is the Baltimore Ravens.

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