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2006 Season Previews
AFC North
Updated July 31
Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
WR Santonio Holmes, DE Orien Harris, S Ryan Clark, KR Willie Reid.
Major Subtractions:
QB Tommy Maddox, RB Jerome Bettis, WR Antwaan Randle El, DE Kimo von Oelhoffen, CB Willie Williams, S Chris Hope.

Offense This Year: Steelers nation nearly suffered a heart attack after learning that Ben Roethlisberger was taken to the trauma unit of Mercy Hospital following a motorcycle accident. Luckily for all parties involved, the 24-year-old quarterback was upgraded to fair condition just one day after the incident, and should be cleared to play by the middle of July. The reason for all of the panic should be obvious; Roethlisberger, the youngest signal caller to ever claim the Lombardi Trophy, commanded Pittsburgh to 25.4 points per game when he was under center.

Two major pieces are gone from last year's roster -- Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle El -- but the Steelers will be fine without them. As long as No. 1 pick Santonio Holmes stays away from trouble, he should be able to develop into a top-tier receiver by 2008. If Holmes plays -- he has been arrested twice since being drafted -- he will have the luxury of being marked as a third target by most defenses; Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward (975 yards, 11 TDs) and tight end Heath Miller (459 yards, 6 TDs) will continue to be heavily game planned against. Besides, Randle El was only responsible for 35 receptions, 558 yards and one touchdown. Between Holmes and Cedrick Wilson, the Steelers will have that covered.

As for the running back position, Willie Parker will continue to receive the bulk of the carries -- he rushed for 1,202 yards on 255 attempts -- while Duce Staley will garner Bettis' red-zone opportunities. Staley has injury problems, but they most likely will not be a factor if he only has to carry the ball 100 times.

Pittsburgh returns five starters on an offensive line that surrendered just 32 sacks. I've always maintained that the team could use an upgrade over left tackle Marvel Smith, but he's solid enough to get the job done. There is some age concern with center Jeff Hartings, 34 in September, but he'll be good for one more season. Despite the losses of Randle El and Bettis, the Steelers' offense shouldn't miss a beat.

Defense This Year: Pittsburgh is always ranked near the top of the run-defense chart for a reason. The team had a spectacular front seven, which was comprised of the best three-man line in the NFL and an elite linebacking corps. I put that in the past tense because the Steelers lost Kimo von Oelhoffen to the New York Jets. The 35-year-old will be replaced by underrated Brett Keisel, who should be a formidable substitute. If not, they have Travis Kirschke and rookie Orien Harris in reserve.

The rest of the front seven is peppered with Pro Bowl-caliber players: run-stuffer Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, sack-artist Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Farrior and Larry Foote. In addition to its ability to shut down opposing ground attacks, that unit helped register 47 sacks in 2005.

That kind of pressure allowed strong safety Troy Polamalu, perhaps the best player at his position in the NFL, and free safety Chris Hope to make plays. The latter, who led the team in interceptions, has defected to Tennessee, but Pittsburgh managed to find a solid replacement in former Redskin Ryan Clark. As for the cornerbacking corps, the Steelers could definitely do better than Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend. That said, they got the job done in the playoffs last year, so who am I to argue?

Schedule and Intangibles: Randle El returned two punts for touchdowns last season, so he will be missed in that regard. However, the Steelers drafted Holmes and Willie Reid to take his spot. We'll have to see how the two rookies fare as substitutes. ... Jeff Reed and Chris Gardocki are respectively among the elite kickers and punters in the league, although the former was just 6-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. I expect that to improve. ... The Steelers have enjoyed the AFC's fourth-best home-field advantage since 1995, owning a remarkable 60-27-1 record. ... Pittsburgh's schedule could prove to be pretty challenging. Difficult, non-divisional opponents include: Miami, Jacksonville, Kansas City, revenge-hungry Denver, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Atlanta.

Additional Reading: A Blessing in Disguise

Analysis: As long as Ben Roethlisberger recovers from his accident, the Steelers will once again be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. It will be a war between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati as to who claims the AFC North, but both squads will make the playoffs.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in the AFC North).

Cincinnati Bengals (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
QB Anthony Wright, OT Andrew Whitworth, DE Frostee Rucker, DT Sam Adams, CB Johnathan Joseph, S Dexter Jackson.
Major Subtractions:
QB Jon Kitna, TE Matt Schobel, S Ifeanyi Ohalete, S Kim Herring.

Offense This Year: What's up with AFC North quarterbacks? Carson Palmer suffered a knee injury in the first round of the playoffs; Ben Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident recently; Kyle Boller was hurt for most of last year; and Steve McNair hobbles around like it's his job. Watch out, Charlie Frye. You're next.

I think it's safe to say that Cincinnati's success in 2006 is predicated on Palmer's knee. If the Pro Bowl signal caller is healthy, the Bengals should be able to duplicate last year's performance, in which they averaged 26.3 points per game. If not, Anthony Wright will be the quarterback, which basically means that 2006 will be a lost cause. Based on Chad Johnson's prediction that Palmer will be ready by the season opener, and the fact that he will be participating in some mini camp and training camp drills, it's a good assumption to say that Palmer will be 100 percent by October.

By the sixth week of the season, he will once again be throwing long bombs to Johnson (97 rec., 1,432 yards, 9 TDs) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (78 rec., 956 yards, 7 TDs). Palmer's throwing ability will also open up running lanes for Rudi Johnson, who compiled 1,458 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Rudi can also thank an offensive front that surrendered only 21 sacks in 2005.

The lone hole on Cincinnati's offense resides at the tight end position. I'm not sure why Marvin Lewis didn't go after someone like Leonard Pope in the draft. Reggie Kelly is not getting the job done, and Pope could have been a perfect substitute for wide out Chris Henry, who is having a barrage of legal problems.

However, everything I have written will be nullified if Palmer doesn't make it back by November.

Defense This Year: The Bengals' defense has been subject to gradual improvement under Marvin Lewis. They surrendered 4.5 yards per carry last year, which was better than the 4.7 they permitted in 2004. Lewis was also able to construct one of the better secondaries in the NFL; cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James combined for 15 interceptions last season. While James just turned 33, the Bengals have two young players -- Johnathan Joseph and Keiwan Ratliff -- waiting in the wings. Newly acquired strong safety Dexter Jackson is the weakest link at defensive back, but free safety Madieu Williams is a Pro Bowler in the making.

In addition to Cincinnati's prolific secondary, the team also has three outstanding linebackers. Odell Thurman, who registered five picks in his rookie campaign, is already one of the best players at his position. David Pollack and Brian Simmons provide solid support on the outside.

To counter his squad's ineptness against the run, Lewis signed Sam Adams, who will devour offensive linemen up front, allowing Thurman to make even more plays. Adams will team with Bryan Robinson to form a duo of defensive tackles who weigh a combined 639 pounds.

Like the offense, Cincinnati's stop unit has one problem: its inability to put pressure on opposing signal callers. Defensive end Justin Williams led the squad with six sacks. I'm not sure why the Bengals didn't make a play on John Abraham, Kyle Vanden Bosch or Trevor Pryce.

Schedule and Intangibles: The Bengals need a better punt returner. Keiwan Ratliff averaged just 5.6 yards per return, which pales in comparison to the opponents' mark of 8.1. Ratliff's longest return was 13 yards, which is pretty pathetic. ... Kicker Shayne Graham had another solid year, converting 28-of-32 attempts. ... Cincinnati enjoyed an easy schedule in 2005, but that won't be the case this year. The team has to play the likes of Kansas City, Denver, New England, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Atlanta and Indianapolis. However, a few easy games remain, including: San Diego, New Orleans and Oakland.

July 31 Update: Carson Palmer's knee isn't looking too good, which is why I'm decreasing Cincinnati's win total. "I'm confident running with it and planting and cutting," Palmer said. "But as far as getting hit, having to run full-speed and stop in a small area, I'm not mentally ready for that. And I don't think my knee's ready for that. There's no point in me testing it and seeing exactly what I can and can't do."

Analysis: When the Bengals qualified for the playoffs last year, it broke their 15-year postseason drought. As long as Palmer is healthy, they should be able to do it again. By the way, I have Cincinnati losing the tie-breaker to the Steelers because of AFC victories (Pit. 9, Cin. 8). You can look at my projected results when I post the season simulation after every division has been completed.

Projection: 10-6 (2nd in the AFC North).

Baltimore Ravens (Last Year: 6-10).
Major Additions:
QB Steve McNair, RB Mike Anderson, WR Demetrius Williams, C Chris Chester, DE Trevor Pryce, DT Justin Bannan, DT Haloti Ngata, CB David Pittman, P Leo Araguz.
Major Subtractions:
QB Anthony Wright, RB Chester Taylor, OT Orlando Brown, DE Anthony Weaver, DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, OLB Tommy Polley, CB Deion Sanders, S Will Demps, P Dave Zastudil.

Offense This Year: Brian Billick has finally done it, right? Five years after letting Super Bowl quarterback Trent Dilfer go, Billick managed to land a legitimate replacement. Sort of. Leave it to Billick to acquire a former MVP who is currently experiencing a steady decline in performance. Leave it to Billick to find the most injury-prone signal caller on the market just one season after Kyle Boller missed eight games.

To prevent McNair from getting hurt, which almost seems like a futile effort, Baltimore's offensive line will have to play at its best, which might not be good enough. The Ravens return four of five starters from a front that surrendered 42 sacks in 2005. The lone replacement is pedestrian right tackle Tony Pashos. It's safe to say that the fragile McNair will be limping by October.

Besides, it's not like McNair has many options in the backfield. Jamal Lewis, the current starter, gained just 3.4 yards per carry last year. Was it all of the wear and tear Lewis has accumulated over the years, or was it the offensive line's fault? It probably doesn't even matter because the latter hasn't been fixed. Mike Anderson, Lewis' backup, should see some action. Anderson garnered 1,014 rushing yards last season, but that was done behind Denver's stellar offensive front. It remains to be seen whether or not Anderson, who turns 33 in September, can operate outside of the Broncos' system.

One positive regarding Baltimore's offense is the numerous targets McNair and Boller will have at their disposal. McNair will be reunited with Derrick Mason, who caught 95 passes for 1,303 yards and eight touchdowns as a Titan in 2003. Meanwhile, Todd Heap is one of the better tight ends in the NFL; receiver Mark Clayton registered 44 receptions as a rookie; while fourth-round selection Demetrius Williams could be a pleasant surprise in his initial campaign.

Defense This Year: Baltimore's defense, which is incredibly over-hyped and overrated, surrendered 30 or more points on three occasions last year. The Ravens thrive against one-dimensional offenses, but when they face teams that can run and throw efficiently, they often disappoint.

Speaking of disappointing, I think it's time for everyone to admit that Ray Lewis is no longer the premier middle linebacker in the NFL. Furthermore, he might not even be the best player at his position in the AFC North (see Odell Thurman). Lewis blamed everyone but himself for his declining performance in an interview with ESPN, prompting Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome to draft monstrous defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Monstrous and lazy, that is. Ngata's worth ethic is considered an issue, so he should fit right in; Ed Reed, Trevor Pryce, left tackle Jonathan Ogden, Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs have all skipped June voluntary drills. Good job, guys.

Pryce, another offseason acquisition, should be able to join Suggs at defensive end to collect at least 16 combined sacks. And speaking of sacks, Thomas, who plays alongside Lewis, recorded a team-high nine in 2005. All of the pressure the Ravens will conjure can only help a sound secondary, comprised of cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister, and strong safety Reed.

There is no question that Baltimore has tons of talent on its stop unit, but some of those players are often lazy and unfocused. Plus, the team has some obvious holes at defensive tackle, strongside linebacker (Bart Scott) and free safety (B.J. Ward). Depth at defensive back is also an issue.

Schedule and Intangibles: Matt Stover (30-of-34 in 2005) is one of the top kickers in the NFL, while returner B.J. Sams scored two touchdowns in 2004. However, there is some uncertainty at punter; Leo Araguz should be in the CFL. ... Baltimore will be able to beat up on the likes of Oakland, San Diego, New Orleans, Buffalo and Tennessee. That said, the Ravens must also battle Tampa Bay, Denver, Carolina, Atlanta and Kansas City. ... The Ravens have a tough four-game stretch starting in Week 11 against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati (away) and Kansas City (away). An 0-4 run could put the clamps on any playoff aspirations the team will have.

Additional Reading: Jury is Out on McNair Deal

Analysis: Things will look good until the beginning of November. I have the Ravens starting 4-2, but McNair's injuries will hamper the team during the second half of the season.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in the AFC North).

Cleveland Browns (Last Year: 6-10).
Major Additions:
QB Ken Dorsey, WR Joe Jurevicius, OT Kevin Shaffer, C LeCharles Bentley, NT Ted Washington, NT Babatunde Oshinowo, OLB Willie McGinest, OLB Kamerion Wimbley, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, ILB Leon Williams, P Dave Zastudil.
Major Subtractions:
QB Trent Dilfer, WR Antonio Bryant, TE Aaron Shea, OT L.J. Shelton, G Ross Verba, C Jeff Faine, OLB Kenard Lang, ILB Ben Taylor, S Chris Crocker, P Kyle Richardson.

Offense This Year: Charlie Frye is the only AFC North quarterback who hasn't suffered a serious injury during the past 12 months. I guess that gives the Browns an advantage. Another thing in Cleveland's favor is the fact that they will be getting tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards back. Winslow missed the entire 2005 campaign because of a motorcycle accident; while Edwards was hurt and did not play in the final four games of the season.

Furthermore, Frye will have newly acquired Joe Jurevicius at his disposal. Jurevicius isn't the most gifted athlete in the world, but he catches everything thrown his way. His grit and relentless work ethic should rub off on Cleveland's roster.

Speaking of grit, Reuben Droughns, a punishing running back, compiled 1,232 yards last season. That statistic will probably increase, thanks to the additions the Browns made up front. The most significant acquisition was Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley. Left tackle Kevin Shaffer, who played for the Falcons in 2005, will also offer a positive contribution. The two new linemen will team with guards Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman, and right tackle Ryan Tucker to form a pretty formidable front. The reason for the two signings? Cleveland surrendered 45 sacks last year, which is almost guaranteed to decrease.

With a lot of pieces in place, the only concern remains Frye. The Akron product has shown promise, throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 13 contest against Jacksonville. However, the fact remains that Frye has only five career starts. How soon can he become a playoff-caliber signal caller?

Defense This Year: Like Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Romeo Crennel is a defensive guru who will turn around his franchise's ineptness on defense. A year after obtaining the likes of Gary Baxter, Brian Russell and Brodney Pool, Crennel made a few more key acquisitions, including: outside linebacker Willie McGinest, run-stuffer Ted Washington and promising rookie linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and D'Qwell Jackson.

With Washington clogging the middle, the Browns will instantly improve their 25th ranking against the run. Washington will be joined on a solid defensive line by Orpheus Roye and Alvin McKinley, which will allow the linebackers to act more freely than they were able to in 2005.

I really like what Crennel did with his linebacking corps; he has two veterans -- McGinest and Andra Davis -- who will mentor Wimbley and Jackson, a pair of physically gifted rookies. Crennel's quartette will undoubtedly help the Browns' pass rush, which produced just 23 sacks last year.

Cleveland's secondary is also sound. Cornerbacks Baxter and Daylon McCutcheon anchored a unit that surrendered just 2,867 passing yards in 2005, despite receiving no help from a pedestrian front seven. Safeties Russell and Pool also offered solid support. Russell is one of weaker links on Cleveland's defense, but considering that he was a top player on the team's stop unit last season, things are looking good.

Schedule and Intangibles: Look for the Browns to continue to play with enthusiasm, now that they have their first legitimate head coach since Bill Belichick in 1995. ... Kicker Phil Dawson once again did an excellent job, connecting on 27-of-29 attempts. ... Dennis Northcutt and Josh Cribbs are respectively excellent punt and kick returners; they each took one to the house last year. ... Cleveland needs to improve its play at home; the team is just 21-43 as a host. ... The Browns' last-place schedule grants them a few winnable games against New Orleans, Oakland, Houston and the Jets. However, they must also battle Carolina, Denver, Atlanta, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.

August 14 Update: With Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley sidelined for the entire season, I have no choice but to decrease Cleveland's projected win total.

Analysis: I won't be surprised if Cleveland gets off to a slow start at 1-4 or 2-5, but finishes the year strong at 8-8 or 9-7. I expect Crennel to lead the Browns into the postseason in 2007.

Projection: 7-9 (4th in the AFC North).

2000 Season Preview
2001 Season Preview
2002 Season Preview
2003 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards

2004 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2005 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2006 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation



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