AFC North: Multitude of mediocrity

If you are looking for the division to produce the next Super Bowl champion, look somewhere else. The AFC North is comprised of four mediocre teams, all of which have a great chance of finishing 8-8. At least all the teams have some playmakers to keep the fans mildly interested.

Baltimore Ravens

The defending division champs bring in several new pieces to try to get them back to a first-round playoff exit. Quarterback Kyle Boller returns from injury to lead his meager receiving corps. Boller will need to improve on his accuracy to put the Ravens back in the playoffs, especially with weapons like Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson starting at wideout.

The good news is that Baltimore has the best running back in the division… hopefully. Assuming Jamal Lewis isn’t too embroiled in his drug-charge fiasco late in the season, he could single-handedly take this team to the post-season.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens once again should be near the top of the NFL, as Ray Lewis returns for another tour of intimidation. The secondary will have no trouble as Chris McAlister, Corey Fuller and Ed Reed create some pretty thin passing lanes.

Look for the Ravens to make the playoffs, only to get obliterated on Wildcard Weekend.

Prediction: 9-7

Cleveland Browns

Often, the best way to predict the standings in the NFL is to find the teams with the least talent and pick them to finish well. Given Cleveland’s lack of any decent players, you have to assume they will do well in this parity driven league. The best chance the Browns have is to let their newfound quarterback Jeff Garcia run wild. Like Baltimore, he has nothing to throw to (except for self-proclaimed master of the universe Kellen Winslow III). Unlike Baltimore, he also has no one to hand off to. Running back Lee Suggs was barely the number one back on his college team, and backup running back William Green might as well be collecting his paychecks with a gun and a mask. On defense, I sincerely believe that this is the year that defensive linemen Gerard Warren and Courtney Brown become worthy of their high draft picks. If they combine for 20 sacks, the Browns could win the division.

Prediction: 8-8

Cincinnati Bengals

For a guy who had one good year in college, Carson Palmer is being treated like a god. Until he proves himself, the Bengals are still the Bengals. Luckily for Palmer, he has some serious track stars to throw to. Chad Johnson is one of the top five receivers in the league; Kelly Washington could chase down Maurice Greene; and Peter Warrick might finally be coming around. If Rudi Johnson can repeat last year’s breakout season this could be a very strong unit.The defense could be suspect, with Deltha O’Neal and Tory James trying to lock down the secondary. The Bengals could be in plenty of shootouts.

Prediction: 8-8

Pittsburgh Steelers

Given the extension that Tommy Maddox received, it appears the Steeler brass wants the XFL MVP to be the starter for the next few years. The problem is that Ben Roethlisberger is by far the best quarterback on the team. As long as Maddox is starting, the Steelers will finish last.

Running back Duce Staley was a good pickup for the backfield, but it would be surprising if he remained healthy. Hines Ward is a good receiver, but Plaxico Burress is liable to drop every ball thrown at him. (And yes, I know he’s 6 feet 5 inches.)

The defensive exodus is finally taking its toll as Jason Gildon took the free-agent boat out of the three rivers area. Even though he’s back on the market after a pre-season release, it looks like the cash strapped Steelers will not be able to bring him back.

Prediction: 7-9

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