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Jay Castro’s NFL Preview–AFC North

afc north 

 

DISCLAIMER: Do not exhaust your bank account, mortgage your home, or sell your children over my prophecies; if they were that accurate, I’d keep them to myself while the money rolls in. Besides, the Fantasy Football Gods enjoy tormenting you…so please, merely enjoy my rants, and consider them somewhat entertaining, kind of as you might Bubbles and Bunny from the Nudie Bar…

AFC NORTH

1: Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
2: Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6
3: Baltimore Ravens: 10-6
4: Cleveland Browns: 1-15

Pittsburgh Steelers: Skill Positions: QB: Ben Roethlisberger, WR: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emanuel Sanders, RB: Rashard Mendenhall (INJURED), Isaac Redman, TE: Heath Miller, Notable DEF/ST: Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Kiesel, Ryan Clark, Lawrence Timmons

For the first 39 years of their history, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the league doormat. They had just a single playoff appearance during that span, and it saw them getting both blown out and shut out by their cross-state rivals, the Eagles. At the height of World War II in 1944, they were so strapped for players that they temporarily merged with the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals to create the ungodly mutant called Card-Pitt (better known as “the Carpets); the nickname perfectly fit a team that finished winless in a ten game season. It wasn’t until 1972, and the play now known as the “Immaculate Reception,” that the entire franchise’s fortunes turned. No other franchise has more Lombardi Trophies in the Super Bowl era than the Steelers, and names such as Bradshaw, Swann, Harris, Greene, Webster, and Lambert await the day await the day they are joined in Canton by modern day greats such as Bettis, Ward, Roethlisberger, Polamalu, and Faneca.

And for this reason, I am selecting the Pittsburgh Steelers to win another AFC North crown. My pick this time is not based on how strong their defense is (rated #1 overall in 2011), or the fact that they strengthened their suspect offensive line through the draft this past postseason. That very same, and very aging, defense was exposed more than a Led Zeppelin groupie by none other than Tim 3:16 this past January, and the young linemen will have their hands full trying to play keep-away while Big Ben gambles and scrambles for the maximum amount of time he could sit in the pocket before finally taking off for the first down marker. What’s more is that the Steeler offense, much like the Cardinals did under offensive coordinator Todd Haley (there goes that Card-Pitt association again), could go to a throw-only option while Rashard Mendenhall rehabs from a torn ACL. It’s a good thing they have a massive QB who can be difficult to tackle.

However, their intangibles will get them back to the top. If this were any other organization, I would look at the injuries to the running game and the defense, the fact that their QB holds the ball a little longer than most, and the questions surrounding the offensive line, and pencil them in for no better than a 7-9 record and 3rd place in their division. But two-time Super Bowl champion organizations that still boast many of their starters from the last Lombardi don’t just forget how to win. This is really a hunch on my part–I don’t know how they’ll get there, as the Steelers have a brutal schedule that has two dates each with the rising Bengals and the hungry Ravens, trips to the Meadowlands and Cowboy Stadium for matchups with NFC East foes, and season games that will have them facing Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Denver, the Jets, Eagles and Chargers. Soft landings are few and far between (they don’t see the Browns until week 12). But when all is said and done, I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers will again be at the top of the AFC North pile come January, and every football analyst out there is going to wonder how they managed to do it again.

Cincinnati Bengals: Skill Positions: QB: Andy Dalton, WR: A. J. Green, Brandon Tate, RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, TE: Jermaine Gresham, Notable DEF/ST: Leon Hall, Rey Maualuga, Reggie Nelson, Geno Atkins, Nate Clements

Bungles no more. Arguably the biggest surprise of 2011, the Bengals are coming off a campaign that saw them make the playoffs in spite of carrying rookies at major skill positions and in spite of playing in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions. The Andy Dalton-A. J. Green combination beat the odds in becoming a historic one, combining for the most receptions and yardage ever by a rookie QB/WR tandem.

If that doesn’t scare you enough, just think—they can only go up from here.

Much like the St. Louis Rams, the Bengals looted a foe in desperate need of a starting QB (ironically, the Oakland RAID-ers) and came away with a top CB in Dre Kirkpatrick, who along with Leon Hall, should give opposing offenses pause before letting the deep balls fly if they can both remain healthy. They still have a 2nd rounder in 2013 they got for nothing from Oakland (okay, it was for Carson Palmer, same thing). In addition, they also dropped down from their 21st pick (trading with New England, no less) to add another pick to their back end (who they turned into defensive tackle Brandon Thompson in the third round) while immediately strengthening their O-line with young guard Kevin Zeitler. These sharp drafting moves help to address holes on both sides of the ball.

While many analysts feel that Cincinnati is due for a correction, I say otherwise as long as they can avoid major injuries. While there are no bona-fide superstars on this squad, (and let us remember what happened when there were, hmm), that ought to change within a couple of years. Dalton has shown unusual poise for a young QB under the circumstances, becoming only one of five passers in history to amass over 3,000 yards and 20 TDs (the others being Charlie Conerly, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and fellow super-rookie Cam Newton); he also engineered four 4th quarter comebacks. A. J. Green has been garnering Megatron-like comparisons, and while who will start opposite of him remains in question (as Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell have moved on to other pastures), former Patriot Brandon Tate, practice squad member Armon Binns and 5th round pick Marvin Jones have all turned heads this preseason; whoever doesn’t win the wideout battle could very well end up returning kicks alongside Pac-Man Jones. The Law Firm (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) provides veteran leadership and a goal-line presence, but probably not much statistical help as Cincinnati will probably run a strict West Coast offense; he does bring the league’s best nickname to the fold. Defensively, the Bengals should remain in the league’s top ten as long as they stay away from both the trainer’s facilities and the correctional ones.

Schedule-wise, their season could be a tale of two halves. They get Miami, Washington, Jacksonville and Cleveland twice before their week 8 bye and the other three NFC East teams, San Diego and Denver afterwards; they also close out the season with back-to-back divisional games (including a showdown at home against Baltimore week 17). I expect them to start strong early, but injuries and team chemistry will dictate how they finish. I believe they will gel way before the tough part of the schedule comes—doing so will be the difference between the double digit wins I’m predicting and a catastrophic slide towards .500 or below. But it’s a learning process either way, and they will be in contention come 2013 whether they make the playoffs this year or not.

Baltimore Ravens: Skill Positions: QB: Joe Flacco, WR: Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, RB: Ray Rice, TE: Ed Dickson, Notable DEF/ST: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs (INJURED), Bernard Pollard, Haloti Ngata, LaDarius Webb

Let us step in the Castro time machine for a moment. I’ll be nice; we’ll set it for January 28th, 2001—the greatest moment in the history of the Baltimore Raven franchise. (I’m going to turn around for a minute; I can’t bear to watch my Giants get blown out in Super Bowl XXXV again). The reason why I’m doing it is to show you a defense many feel is perhaps the greatest in NFL history. The 2000 Ravens allowed the fewest points in a 16 game season, held opposing rushers to just 970 yards overall and limited opponents to ten or less points fourteen times, including in all four of their playoff games (they also pitched four regular season shutouts). While their run-first, 14th overall ranked offense was busy not turning the ball over, their defense was busy making the plays needed to win games. This gave birth to the Ravens’ good defense, no offense reputation they have been trying to shake seemingly ever since.

Now, fast forward to 2012. This is the year they shake it.

I don’t think it will be because the offense makes significant leaps and bounds, although I think the ones they will make will be substantial. Torrey Smith has scorched opposing defenses thus far this preseason and is primed for a breakout year; with diesel-armed Joe Flacco slinging him the ball, a thousand yard, double-digit TD campaign is not out of the question assuming his route-running and hands have truly improved from a year ago. Anquan Boldin may not be the threat he once was in Arizona, but makes for a good possession receiver. Ray Rice is a do-everything monster back who will tear apart opposing defenses as long as he stays away from the trainer’s room.

But Flacco himself is the wild card. He’s entering a contact year, and while his completion percentage (57.6) and TD-INT ratio (20-12) from a year ago were rather pedestrian, not all of it was his fault—he was working with a new set of receivers after veterans Derrick Mason, T. J. Houshmanzadeh, Donte Stallworth and Todd Heap were not retained. Dropped passes by receivers also became an issue, and none were as scrutinized as the horrific botch by Lee Evans in the 2011 AFC Championship game—the one that led to Billy Cundiff’s wide left debacle; neither player was retained. He’s been to the dance now in each of his first four years in the league and held the motel room keys twice, so now it’s time to shag the homecoming queen. The Ravens are taking the chains off and rolling with a no-huddle offense, so I’ll be targeting him in fantasy leagues, and suggest you do the same.

But let’s get back to why I feel the Ravens will shake their defense-first reputation. While I believe the offense to be a top ten unit, I can see the defense taking a fair step backwards. Yep, you heard it here. For starters, they will likely be without star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs until after their week 8 bye, during which they get league juggernauts New England, Philadelphia and Houston, and a potential one in Cincinnati—rookie first-rounder Courtney Upshaw will have to fill his shoes. Although always ready to raise the energy level, defensive stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed appear to have lost a step. The Ravens will still be difficult to throw against, but they’ll need a healthy Haloti Ngata if they’re going to effectively pressure opposing passers as they have in years past. They will also need to rely on youngsters Terence Cody and Arthur Jones on the defensive line, and losing run-stuffing nose tackle Cody to a concussion during their second preseason game could prove quite unfortunate.

And this is why I have the Ravens just barely missing the playoffs this time around. Their rough early schedule might be difficult to overcome even if they get a healthy Suggs back for the second half of the season, and matchups with San Diego, Denver and the Giants loom in the second half; not to mention going to both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati late. A playoff berth will likely ride on that week 17 matchup in the Queen City, and my coin toss says to ride with the home team.

Cleveland Browns: Skill Positions: QB: Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, WR: Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi, RB: Trent Richardson (INJURED), Montario Hardesty, TE: Benjamin Watson, Notable DEF/ST: Joe Haden, D’Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita (SUSPENDED), Josh Cribbs, Reggie Hodges, Phil Dawson

(Hello?)

Dear Cleveland Browns fan, I have no jokes to make here. No witty comments. Simply put—I have nothing to say.

(Is anyone there?)

The next time you go to a bar, someone ought to buy you a drink. A really stiff, really refreshing one. You’ve earned it. Simply by putting up with a bad football team in a city filled with lousy sports teams.

(Somebody?)

When I started working on these previews, I’d pegged Tampa Bay to have the worst team in football this year. But since then, I’ve seen the three I’s rise up and embrace the Brownies—Trent Richardson’s knee (injury), Brandon Weeden’s inability to hang on to the football in preseason games (ineffectiveness), and Scott Fujita’s suspension (issues off the field); not to mention Joe Haden’s bustup with head coach Pat Shurmur to end their training camp.

(Bueller?)

Never mind that the Browns have one of the league’s very best left tackles in Joe Thomas, or a special shutdown corner in Haden who helped them actually finish 2nd overall in pass defense last year. Forget about their still-stellar special teams, who along with playmaking returner Josh Cribbs and big-legged kicker Phil Dawson, will welcome back punter Reggie Hodges to a unit that was tops in the league in 2010. This is about the hardcore X’s and O’s, and Cleveland just doesn’t have them.

(Help me. Please.)

Indications are that Weeden is having trouble handling the speed of the NFL, which is never a good thing for a quarterback pegged to start from day one. Say what you want for maturity, but the last team to start a rookie QB at such an advanced age was the 2001 Carolina Panthers with Chris Weinke, and they finished 1-15. Throw in their pedestrian receiving corps (West Coast offense, my ass) and mediocre rushing attack sans Richardson, and you have an offense that could be even worse than last year’s 29th ranked unit, which averaged less than 14 points per game.

(Please? Someone?)

Defensively, there’s hardly more reason to be optimistic. Haden reportedly failed a drug test and may be suspended along with Fujita for the first four games of the season, during which Cleveland sees Philadelphia (who trashed them 27-10 in week 3 of the current preseason), Cincinnati, Buffalo and Baltimore. Jackson had a standout 16 game campaign last year and should continue to thrive as the middle linebacker in their version of the 4-3 defense, but needs to remain on the field like he did last year, rather than miss 26 games like he did the previous two.

(WHY WON’T ANYBODY ANSWER ME!!!)

Cleveland’s fan base has been crying out for a championship in any sport for nearly fifty years now, since the Browns last won the NFL Championship (precursor to the Super Bowl!) in 1964. Unfortunately, nobody’s been listening; not even in the mostly uniform NFL, where any given Sunday, any team could rise up and surprise. And while they have had the good fortune of high draft picks, they haven’t spent them on the right personnel. If neither Weeden nor Colt McCoy pan out at QB, and Richardson can’t stay healthy, we might be seeing this decade’s version of the last one’s Detroit Lions.

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About Jason E. Castro
Jason E. Castro isn’t here to govern your Caribbean island, sell your convertible furniture or sing you a top 40 hit. He is a writer from New York City and you can find more of his work online at literary websites such as Danse Macabre or Mediavirus Magazine. And while you're at it, feel free to check out his full length novel, "Rowdies", or his on-line novella, "Cricket for Souls"; both are available from Amazon.

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