Prediction: 3-13; 4th in AFC North
Even though Cincinnati seems to have improved of the defensive side of the game, this is a Bengals team that has seen the departure of longtime star wideout Chad Johnson to the greener pastures of New England, as well as the apparent retirement of onetime franchise quarterback Carson Palmer. Andy Dalton may very well become the next "guy", as they say, in Cincinnati, but I don't think it'll happen in this, his rookie season. I think the Bengals are in the unfortunate position of simply having far too much challenge and change than can be feasibly overcome in one season.
Prediction: 5-11; 3rd in AFC North
I think the Browns will end up with the same record they had last year, but I think they’ll look better doing it, if that makes any sense. I think that even though Cleveland will have improved, I’m not so sure it’ll show up in their win-loss record. I think one more losing season might actually be to the Browns’ benefit anyway. They’re still several pieces away, and another high drafting position should help Mike Holmgren nab a few, if not several, of those very pieces.
Prediction: 12-4; 2nd in AFC North
Like the New York Jets, the Baltimore Ravens look downright nasty on paper, and at just about every position. Also like the Jets, Baltimore has one big gaping hole. Once again, like the Jets, that enormous hole is in the secondary. The Ravens used to have the opposite of the Jets’ problem in that they had a couple of great safeties while not really having any noteworthy cornerbacks since the days of Chris McAlister. Well, they still don’t have any cornerbacks, but they also saw strong safety Dawan Landry depart for Jacksonville, leaving Baltimore with approximately twenty-five percent of a quality defensive backfield. As great as Ed Reed is, (and he really, really is) he can’t literally be everywhere. At least not all the time. That said, I still think the Ravens will do very well, but I think they’ll ultimately be bested, in terms of divisional placement anyway, by the only AFC North club I’ve yet to discuss.
Prediction: 13-3; 1st in AFC North
This year’s Pittsburgh Steelers starting lineup is almost identical to last year’s. That alone seems advantageous, given the relative brevity with which teams had to prepare for this season after the months-long lockout. The only major personnel change that can be remotely perceived as a loss is that of former left tackle Max Starks, who was cut near the end of July, shortly after Pittsburgh acquired wide receiver Lee Evans in a trade with Buffalo. The consistency in their lineup is a good thing. Some are making mention of the fact that all of those returning players are another year older, but I don’t think that’ll be too big a deal. If there exists a fountain of NFL youth, I’m pretty sure you’d find it at the intersection of three rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Just look at guys like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and James Harrison. They just don’t seem to age, do they? Yeah, that’s right. James Harrison. He’s 33. Not that one could tell from his play. I think that the Steelers’ ageless defensive unit, coupled with added offensive firepower in the for of the aforementioned Lee Evans and the always-reliable Pittsburgh Steelers running game will see Pittsburgh to its sixth AFC North Championship, and the franchise’s twenty-first divisional title overall.
Prediction: 7-9; 4th in NFC North
Much has been made of Detroit’s personnel improvements over the few years, and that hullabaloo is well earned. Unfortunately for young Matthew Stafford, very little has been done to remedy the Lions’ offensive line. They still pretty much only have Dominic Raiola, and that means Matthew Stafford’s getting close to being dropped by his health insurance carrier. Detroit seems to have all the potential in the world, but until they get that offensive line sorted out, they’re spinning their wheels.
Prediction: 8-8; 3rd in NFC North
Jay Cutler heads into the 2011 season with a year of Mike Martz’s offense under his belt, and a shiny new toy named Roy Williams. I think Cutler and Williams will both have bounce-back years, thanks in no small part to Williams’s familiarity with Martz and his scheme from when the two worked together in Detroit. The Bears’ running game will be there to lean on too, with a healthy Matt Forte in the backfield who will himself be spelled admirably by former Dallas Cowboys tailback Marion Barber. Their biggest problem is their being a part of what I think will be the NFL’s most competitive division.
Prediction: 10-6; 2nd in NFC North
Minnesota is a very good team, but I think they’ll struggle some early in the absence of perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams. No relation. They won’t get Kevin back until his much-publicized four-game suspension has been served, and Pat has told the press that he won’t ever be seen in a Minnesota Vikings uniform again. I think between that, the loss of wide receiver Sidney Rice to Seattle, and the fact that new quarterback Donovan McNabb has had all of about six weeks to acclimate to his new teammates will add up to some slight growing pains for the Vikes. I think they’ll get it together in time to contend for a Wildcard spot, but that’s the only way I can imagine them seeing postseason play.
Prediction: 14-2; 1st in NFC North
Green Bay has managed to remain relatively intact in terms of personnel. They did lose defensive end Cullen Jenkins to the beastly Philadelphia Eagles, but Rian Picket will pick up that slack with B.J. Raji becoming the full-time starter at the nose. They also lost safety Atari Bigby to Seattle, but they’re confident in young Morgan Burnett. After all, why shouldn’t they be? Who’s drafted better in the secondary over the last few years than have the defending Super Bowl champs? As good as they were down the stretch last year, Green Bay looks to start 2011 on even better footing with a healthy Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back in the starting lineup. I can think of no reason why the Pack won’t remain atop what I think will be a very competitive NFC North. In fact, there’s only one club that I think might stand in the Packers’ way of a second consecutive NFC crown, and that’s the Atlanta Falcons. More on them, and the rest of the South divisions tomorrow.