AFC North: Ravens' title to lose

AFC North: Ravens' title to lose
by Cris Carter, Yahoo Sports
August 23, 2004

Cris Carter
Yahoo Sports
Cris' Prediction
   1. Baltimore
   2. Cincinnati
   3. Pittsburgh
   4. Cleveland
Cris Carter's division previews:
AFC: East | North | South | West
NFC: East | North | South | West

This division is always tight, and while the Ravens may be the second-best team in the AFC, they won't run away with it. Last season it was close. As long as Baltimore stays healthy and has someone in the receiving corps step up, it should win by a couple of games.

Baltimore Ravens (Last season: 10-6, 1st)

Player to watch: Kyle Boller
In just his second season, all eyes are on Boller. Coach Brian Billick groomed many quarterbacks in Minnesota and has pieced together success in Baltimore without the franchise guy. He did great patchwork with Trent Dilfer the year the Ravens went to the Super Bowl. But now he has the young gun he has always wanted. Can Billick develop him into one of the marquee quarterbacks in the league?

Burning question: Will Jamal Lewis get a break?
Can Baltimore's receivers spell Jamal Lewis' production running the football? The responsibility falls on Travis Taylor and new Raven Kevin Johnson. Can they make enough plays down the field to give Lewis a break and take the pressure off a very young quarterback?

Bottom line:
Baltimore definitely is the class of the league. The Ravens have a great identity – they boast a strong defense and can run the football. And with this identity comes a bravado that I really like.

Cincinnati Bengals (Last season: 8-8, 2nd)

Player to watch: Carson Palmer
Can he duplicate the output of Jon Kitna from a season ago? If he can, the Bengals could be a wild-card team. But if he can't, they will take a step back and fail to develop in the second year of the new regime in Cincinnati. Palmer can't try to do too much as he takes the team in Week 1. He should utilize running backs Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry and just do his job. Trying to do everything out on the field will result in turnovers.

Burning question: Sophomore slump in Cincy?
Will Marvin Lewis and the Bengals continue to improve? Lewis changed the mindset last year, but the second season always is tougher. It is easier to take a last-place team to .500 than take a .500 team to the playoffs. That is the task at hand for Lewis.

Bottom line:
Marvin Lewis changed the team's attitude last year and has its attention. And now that he is a proven winner, he can expand on his ideas. From what I hear, his players would run through a wall for him. While I applaud all the new coaches and new attitudes in Cincinnati, I don't see them taking the step forward this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers (Last season: 6-10, 3rd)

Player to watch: Tommy Maddox
Coming off a subpar season, Maddox really needs to return to his form of two seasons ago. He was in a difficult situation last season because the Steelers lacked a good running attack, forcing him to throw the ball too much. Now with Duce Staley, the Steelers have a chance for a more balanced offense. And if Maddox can regain his accuracy, then it should be exciting for Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. But if not, rookie Ben Roethlisberger is waiting in the wings.

Burning question: Can the Steelers defend the pass?
Can Pittsburgh's defensive backs shut down the opposition? Remember the old Steelers who were built on defense. The offense has led the team the past couple of seasons, and Pittsburgh needs to be a defensively dominant team again. A big factor is linebacker Joey Porter and whether he can return to anchor the unit. He was shot before training camp last season and wasn't as effective. If he returns to the form of two seasons ago, the defense could really rally around him.

Bottom line:
The Steelers still have a good nucleus and great receivers who are capable of big downfield plays. That has become their identity over the last several years – a total departure from the past. They must turn the defense around if they want to compete in this division.

Cleveland Browns (Last season: 5-11, 4th)

Players to watch: Offensive line
Can Cleveland's offensive line give Jeff Garcia enough time to utilize his weapons like new tight end Kellen Winslow? Garcia has quick feet and is used to making quick decisions, but the running game in Cleveland is not as good as what he grew used to with San Francisco.

Burning question: How good is Winslow?
Winslow is confident and talks a big game, but will he back it up? I know it may be too much to expect right away, but he has the skills to match the numbers of his father or be even better. And we are talking about a father who is in the Hall of Fame. Winslow will be a No. 1 target for Garcia, who doesn't have the arm strength to throw the ball down the field like Tim Couch. In fantasy football, pick Winslow early – he'll have plenty of catches and touchdowns.

Bottom line:
The Browns offense gets a new look this season with a new quarterback and hotshot rookie. But I know coach Butch Davis' philosophy of building a dominant defense and overpowering opponents on offense. Given the bad weather and field conditions late in the season in Cleveland, the Browns are going to have to run the football.

Cris Carter is Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. Send Cris a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Aug 23, 2004 1:08 pm, EDT

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