1. Cleveland Browns (10-6 in 2007)
The Browns have more talent on both sides of the ball than any other team in the division, and a dominant offensive line - maybe the best in all of football. This will help Anderson (add Quinn in case he gets hurt) and running back Jamal Lewis replicate their 2007 success. They are explosive all the way around on offense and their defense has continued to improve. This put them just about on par with the Steelers talent-wise.
That - and the slightly easier schedule than Pittsburgh’s - will be enough to get Cleveland over the hump in ‘08. Although the Browns and Steelers have identical schedules, the x-factor will be their two games against the AFC East and West - Pittsburgh hosts San Diego and goes to New England while the Browns host Denver and travel to Buffalo. That’s a huge difference, and after a season where they got shut out of the postseason despite a 10-6 record, Cleveland might be able to ride that past the Steelers and to the AFC North title.
Key Additions: DT Shaun Rogers (trade, Detroit), DE Corey Williams (trade, Green Bay), WR Donte Stallworth (free agency, New England)
Key Losses: CB Leigh Bodden (trade, Detroit)
Predicted Finish: 10-6
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6 in 2007)
I feel like Mike Tomlin is going to have this squad just good enough to lose this tossup division. The Steelers will have a great 2back system with Mendenhall and Parker. Also Hines Ward will be good, but he'll be 32 years old this year! I'm not too worried because I think Limas Sweed and Santonio Holmes will be a great young tandem for years to come. Plus throw in Heath Miller at TE...this team will have the ability to outscore anyone in a shootout! That is if Big Ben survives. The offensive line is the biggest question mark for this team and if anything costs them talent-wise it will be the O-Line for sure. The D will be just a hair below what many would consider your standard Steelers D. Overall I think they have better all-around talent than the Browns. However their O-Line and schedule will be the reason why the Browns win the division.
Whatever struggles they have this year will have a lot more to do with their brutal schedule than the talent in Pittsburgh. Winning more than 9 games in a schedule that includes New England, San Diego, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, the Giants, and Philadelphia - as well as each division team twice - is asking way too much.
Key Additions: RB Rashard Mendenhall (first round pick, Illinois), WR Limas Sweed (second round pick, Texas)
Key Losses: OG Alan Faneca (free agency, New York Jets), DB Al Rossum (released, San Francisco), FB Dan Kreider (free agency, St. Louis), LB Clark Haggans (free agency, Arizona)
Predicted Finish: 9-7 wildcard playoff birth
3. Cincinatti Bengals (7-9 in 2007)
The Bengals have replaced the Ravens as the league’s biggest outlaws, and the number of legal issues facing this team has overshadowed on-field expectations. On top of that, the defense - even under defensive mastermind Marvin Lewis - is still subpar and not equipped to handle the better offenses in the league. The Bengals may have the offensive weapons to trump the Steelers and Browns, but can their own defense stop Cleveland’s offensive fireworks on the other side of the ball? As of now, the answer is no, and that could spell a long, frustrating season in Cincinnati.
Their D looks vulnerable to me (horrible tackling against GB in their 1st preseason game) and Rudi Gay is unable to carry the load anymore (although I think Chris Perry will come in and do a good job). The Chad Johnson thing is also pure chaos. Does he want to play on this team, or doesn't he? Seems like a locker room mess and major distraction. I mean come on! This guy asked his QB for help out of Cinci!
You know what they say about talent: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” Cincinnati has Pro Bowl talent at a lot of key positions, but they’ve had that same talent the last several years. It hasn’t won them anything. I think they are an improved team by getting rid of the troublemakers. I also think that Ben Utech will make a huge difference for Palmer and their offense. I just don't think they can win. This really looks to be Cleveland's and/or Pittsburgh's year.
Key Additions: LB Keith Rivers (first round pick, USC), WR Jerome Simpson (second round pick, Coastal Carolina), DE Antwan Odom (free agency, Tennessee)
Key Losses: Madieu Williams (free agency, Minnesota), DE Justin Smith (free agency, San Francisco), LB Landon Johnson (free agency, Carolina), LB/DE David Pollack (paralysis injury, retired), WR Chris Henry (legal problems, released), LB Odell Thurman (violation of league substance abuse policy)
Predicted Finish: 7-9
4. Baltimore Ravens (5-11 in 2007)
The Ravens have history of sneaking up on the league and being competitive when nobody expects them to. They did it in 2002 after a salary cap purge decimated the core from their 2000 Super Bowl run, and that’s the only way they can do it in 2008.
The parade of Pro Bowlers this team enjoyed in the early part of this decade are either retired, in other uniforms, or on the downside of their careers. Ray Lewis is no longer the most feared defender in football, Jamal Lewis isn’t running for 2,000 yards, Jonathan Ogden isn’t manning the blind side for his quarterback, and Peter Boulware isn’t racking up sacks anymore. On top of that, the Ravens have never had stability at the most important position in football: The quarterback position. Banking on Flacco to bring that stability is reminiscent of when Kyle Boller was supposed to do the same, and we all know how that turned out.
Now, Troy Smith has been starting for them in the preseason to this point so maybe they'll try to start the year off with him and fall to Flacco when he struggles. Who knows really. Either way though I think this isn't going to work out for them this year. This team will be near the bottom in the NFL again giving GM Ozzie Newsome more to work with. This is a new coaching staff and young team that will have to start off by taking their lumps early and often.
Key Additions: Head coach John Harbaugh (DB coach, Philadelphia), QB Joe Flacco (first round pick, Delaware), RB Ray Rice (second round pick, Rutgers)
Key Losses: OL Jonathan Ogden (retirement), QB Steve McNair (retirement), C Mike Flynn (released)
Predicted Finish: 4-12