Pittsburgh should have an easier time of things this year, as I expect a second year regression from Joe Flacco and another year of being the Browns and Bengals for Cleveland and Cincinnati. And although I don't have them in the playoffs, Browns fans can rejoice in knowing that I fully expect them to finally knock of the Steelers this year (probability demands they win at least one, right?).
ORDER OF FINISH
y-Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
Cleveland Browns 9-7
Baltimore Ravens 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals 7-9
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
This is completely by default, as Roethlisberger is generally terrible until the last two minutes of the game. The list of potential best offensive player candidates dismissed for injury reasons (Carson Palmer, Willie Parker, Hines Ward) serves as exhibit A to the physical brand of football played in the AFC North, a brand that is dominated by defense. Roethlisberger wins by default because he's always the last man standing, the only quarterback able to withstand an AFC North beating and still be able to collect himself and lead his team to victory. I hate him for it, but dammit if I don't respect him.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore
This could have easily gone to Troy Polamalu, as well. While Polamalu is every bit the hitter Reed is, the Raven safety holds the slight advantage in coverage (43 career INTs to Polamalu's 17) and giant advantages in special team play (4 blocked punts with 3 returned for touchdowns as well as a punt return for a touchdown) and big play ability (11 career return TDS, including the two longest plays in NFL history). Beyond the two safeties, other defensive stalwarts include Shaun Rogers of the Browns, James Harrison of the Steelers, Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis (still) of the Ravens, and nobody for the Bengals.
BEST COACH: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
In two seasons in western Pennsylvania, Tomlin is 22-10 with two division titles and a Super Bowl championship. He replaced a legend in Bill Cowher without missing a beat, all while seamlessly transitioning a traditionally run-oriented offense into one centered around Ben Roethlisberger. Tomlin has quickly risen to the ranks of the league's elite coaches by delegating his ass off. Coming from a Tony Dungy cover-2 background, Tomlin had no qualms about keeping Dick LaBeau and his zone-blitz 3-4 in place. Instead of trying to force "Steelers football" (run, run, and run) behind a suspect offensive line, Tomlin allowed Bruce Arians--master of the spread field check down offense Tim Couch used to run in Cleveland--to spread the field more and put the game in Roethlisberger's free-wheeling hands. Tomlin's main job is to exude a bad ass attitude and then get his team to feed off that bad ass-ness. If his first two seasons are any indication of future success, then mission accomplished.
1. Who is the Browns starting QB?*
Brady Quinn, and I don't really even think there is any doubt about it. The Browns know what they have in Derek Anderson (a guy who can throw one of the best deep balls in the league but struggles with underneath throws, inclimate weather, and, except for one magical Monday night last October, good teams). Brady Quinn, however, is a bit of a mystery. Yes, he did start 3 games last year, but just as it seemed like he was getting things rolling (the Browns should have been 2-0 in the two games he stayed healthy, but the defense gave away a game to Denver), Brady broke his finger and was out for the season. The big difference between the two is that when Anderson is on, he can be better than Quinn will ever be, but when DA is off, he can be worse than 90% of QBs in the league, while Quinn will be above-average almost all of the time. Eric Mangini seems like the kind of guy who prefers a steady hand over boom-or-bust (and in Anderson's case, a lot more bust than boom), so Quinn is the logical choice.
*My theory is that Mangini is really going to mess with the media by naming Josh Cribbs his starter, if only to run a Wildcat play to start the game. The only problem with this theory is that Cribbs will also be returning the opening kickoff, which could leave him a little winded for that exciting first play.
2. Why are the Ravens picked to be worse than the Browns?
Mainly, the Browns play a much easier schedule. The Ravens have to play at New England, vs. Indianapolis, at San Diego, at Minnesota, and at Green Bay. Cleveland plays at Buffalo, vs. Jacksonville, and hosts San Diego, Minnesota, and Green Bay. Do I expect Baltimore to lose all of those games and Cleveland to win all of theirs? No, but it is entirely plausible to see Baltimore going 1-4 in those five games while the Browns win three out of their five. Throw in a season split between the two teams (which I see happening), and you already have a three game difference. I think the Ravens defense is another year older (especially Ed Reed and Ray Lewis), and that the offense will come back down to earth a bit (especially Joe Flacco). The Browns, meanwhile, still have most of the offensive talent that was present during their 10-6 2007 season, while since adding Shaun Rogers to the defense. Factor in the coaching improvement (say what you will about Mangini's style, but even his abrasive approach is better than Romeo Crennel's corpse routine), and it's easy to see the Browns winning between 7 and 9 games.*
*Unless you are Peter King.
3. Will Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco party like it's veinte cero cinco?
A lot of fantasy buzz is surrounding Ochocinco and (to a much lesser extent) Palmer in regards to a resurgent season for the pair, but I just can't see it. Palmer is a huge injury concern, especially behind an offensive line that will be without its potential savior (Andre Smith) for perhaps the whole season. And if his QB is a non-factor, then that means another lost season for 85 regardless of how hard he's trained in the offseason. Cedric Benson is Cedric Benson, so it isn't like teams will be stacking the box to stop the run and create favorable matchups on the outside, and Ochocinco is going to be seeing a lot of coverages skewed his way with Laveranues Coles rotting opposite him and Chris Henry playing the slot with an ankle bracelet on. The defense better continue to improve on its late season hot streak, because for the first time since, well, last year, the Cincinnati offense is going be a continuous struggle.