AFC North: Make no mistake, Steelers still rule here
Aug. 28, 2008
By Pete Prisco
CBSSports.com Senior Writer
Why even bother to play the games in the AFC North? Nobody stands a chance in the division against the Cleveland Browns, right?
That's what most pundits thought for most of the offseason. The Browns were the trendy pick to win the division, the so-called "hot" team. Their 10-6 finish from 2007, coupled with a talent-rich roster, made the entire football world jump on the Browns as the chic team in 2008.
Then something happened on the way to the coronation. The Browns stumbled through the preseason. Now there are doubts.
For the past month, I've been warning anyone who would listen that the Browns were a year away. Now I'm convinced I'm right. The schedule is brutal, the starting quarterback has to prove he's not a one-year wonder and there is a shaky secondary that could lead to a lot of big passing plays for the opposition.
The new Mistake on the Lake is picking Cleveland to win the division.
I remember a conversation I had with Browns general manager Phil Savage last spring. I told him that many of the experts were going to pick his Browns to win the AFC North.
"We have to learn how to beat Pittsburgh first," Savage said.
That is why the Steelers are the team to beat. Pittsburgh won both games against the Browns last season. That won't change this season.
Pittsburgh has a star passer. The Browns, on the other hand, might be going to Brady Quinn this season if Derek Anderson struggles.
So if it's close between teams, and it is, give me the team with the better quarterback. That's the Steelers.
During my camp visit to Latrobe, Pa., a trip that came a few days after watching the Browns work, it became clear to me that the Steelers were the better team.
Pittsburgh has a good defense, the running game will be better with the addition of first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall and the offensive line will be improved over the unit that struggled last season.
Plus, they have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is getting better every season.
So let's hold off on the Browns-to-the-playoffs talk. Pittsburgh, the reigning champions of the AFC North, will be on top again in 2008.
Significant additions: C Justin Hartwig, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Limas Sweed.
Significant subtractions: G Alan Faneca, OLB Clark Haggans, TE Jerame Tuman.
Biggest offseason move: Letting Alan Faneca go. It will be tough losing him as a player, but he was a problem in terms of influencing the younger players to do things the wrong way.
Will go to the playoffs if ... the offensive line can get back to playing Steelers football.
Rookie to watch: Mendenhall. The Steelers want to get more toughness from their running game and Mendenhall will help provide that. Look for him to take 10 carries or so a game from Willie Parker.
Overview: The Steelers won the division a year ago and beat the Browns twice, but are considered behind the Browns by many this season. I don't get it. This is still a talented team with a top-tier passer in Roethlisberger. They will score points, especially if the offensive line takes a much-needed step forward. The defense will showcase future star LaMarr Woodley and a physical style. Pittsburgh is still the team to beat in the AFC North.
Significant subtractions: DE Corey Williams, NT Shaun Rogers, WR Donte' Stallworth, CB Travis Daniels.
Significant subtractions: CB Leigh Bodden.
Biggest offseason move: Adding 700 pounds of beef to the defensive line in Williams and Rogers.
Will go to the playoffs if ... the quarterback situation is better than I think.
Rookie to watch: OLB Alex Hall. They traded away their top three choices in the April draft, but they like Hall, who has flashed pass-rush ability as a seventh-round pick out of St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C.
Overview: The Browns are talented and Savage is building something special here. The problem I see is the quarterback position. I think Anderson got figured out some late last season. If he struggles early, Quinn will take over as the starter. The schedule is murderous. Look for a step back this season and then a playoff berth -- and maybe more -- in 2009 when Quinn is the man.
Significant subtractions: DE Antwan Odom, TE Ben Utecht, LB Keith Rivers.
Significant subtractions: DE Justin Smith, S Madieu Williams.
Biggest offseason move: Making sure Chad Johnson came back to the team. They must have him making plays to make the offense work.
Will go to the playoffs if ... the defense becomes a top-10 unit.
Rookie to watch: Rivers. He is already a starter, even after a lengthy holdout. His speed will be a big plus.
Overview: The offense needs to run the ball better to take the pressure off Carson Palmer and the passing game. He's good, but they asked too much of him last season. Rudi Johnson has to take time off the clock and move the chains. But the offense isn't the problem. The defense has to improve. There is young talent on that side of the ball, players like Rivers and corners Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall. The addition of defensive end Antwan Odom should help the pass rush. Marvin Lewis has to get the defense playing better if the Bengals are to get back to the playoffs. If not, the heat might be on Lewis.
Significant subtractions: CB Frank Walker, RB Ray Rice, QB Joe Flacco.
Significant subtractions: QB Steve McNair, T Jonathan Ogden.
Biggest offseason move: Trading back into the first round to get Flacco.
Will go to the playoffs if ... somebody can throw the football consistently. Who can do it?
Rookie to watch: Rice. He has played well in the preseason and Willis McGahee had a knee scope during camp.
Overview: It's the same old story with this team: Who's the quarterback? It looks like Troy Smith will be the starter, but is he the answer? They traded into the first round to get Flacco because he's their guy long term. That does them no good this season. They will once again have to run the football well, play great defense, and hope the quarterback doesn't screw it up. New coach Jim Harbaugh will have his players playing hard, which is the Ravens way, but you can't win consistently without a passing game anymore. This isn't 2002 anymore. They have to throw it better to win eight games.