A traditionally tough division enters 2010 with four big question marks for four different teams. Will the Steelers be able to overcome the four to six game absence of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? How much time will new Browns QB Colt McCoy see playing in his rookie season? Will Anquan Boldin be the missing piece that makes Joe Flacco the top tier QB he was though to be coming off of his rookie season? Will Carson Palmer be able to sustain the same level of play throughout the season and keep the two big egos in check? The 2010 AFC North is a division of questions looking for answers...
The AFC North
2009 Record: 9-7
Want to know about good quarterbacks? Anquan Boldin will tell you about good quarterbacks. He played under a potential Hall of Famer in his time in Arizona. Kurt Warner was one of the best in the game and Boldin was his second favorite target. The big, physical receiver compiled over 7,500 yards in the Red and White of the desert. A contract dispute meant a change of scenery was coming for Boldin.
In his short but solid career, Joe Flacco has yet to miss the playoffs. In his rookie season he reached the AFC Championship Game. He threw for over 3,600 yards in 2009 and just came shy of 3,000 yards in 2008. However, he's never quite felt like the game breaker so much as a strong game manager who will take risks. Part of this could be the reliance on the run game, bolstered by Ray Rice in a break out rookie campaign in 2009, and part of his could be his lack of true weapons to work with. Flacco finally has a strong #1 receiver to work with following Boldin's arrival in Baltimore. Will Flacco elevate himself to a new tier of quarterback in 2010?
People questioned the Ravens defense with the departure of Rex Ryan to the New York Jets and for the most part the questions were silenced. While the Ravens didn't quite have the same snarl as they'd had in the past, they still ranked in the top 10 in major statistics. The only concern as of now are injuries. They are already piling up with the biggest key on the back end, Ed Reed, on the PUP list to start the season, expected to miss a solid portion of the season. Will the defense be healthy? Will Flacco prove to be the franchise QB needed?
2010 Prediction: 12-4
2009 Record: 10-6
1,832 yards 14 TDs 7 INTs from the air. They were impressive numbers for the first half of an NFL season. They showed the signs of a former franchise Quarterback finally regaining his stride after a horrible knee injury several years earlier. It was something his team hoped he'd see. Yes, Carson Palmer seemed on the right track. And then the second half of the season. The bottom fell out. Only 1,262 yards and 7 TDs in the next 8 games. To compliment it? Six interceptions.
The challenge for Palmer becomes sustaining the first half numbers. The Bengals were able to average 21 points per game before Palmer's game took a nose dive. After that, the Bengals were only able to manage 16 points per game. Palmer is the key to the offense, especially behind the new dynamic duo of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Utilized correctly, they could be the best one-two punch in the league. They also need another solid year from Cedric Benson (who rushed for 1251 yards in 2009) if they want to contend.
Also a worry for the Bengals, can their defense continue their surprising solid play? With rush and pass defenses ranked in the top 10 (6th and 7th respectively), the Bengals look to continue that stellar play with the hopes that 2010 draft pick Carlos Dunlap can play a big part in making the defense one of the best in the league once again. With two potentially high powered offenses being faced twice, Palmer better hope he can keep up.
2010 Prediction: 9-7
2009 Record: 5-11
It's a damn good thing he liked the color orange. Colt McCoy may have thought he was leaving the combination of red and yellow behind when he left the Texas Longhorns. Instead, come the 3rd round, he was scooped up by the Cleveland Browns. Expected to be the new face of the franchise, he is expected to once again lead a team in orange to victory and prominence.
Perhaps the biggest question facing McCoy and the Browns in the 2010 season is how much playing time will he get? The Browns also signed beleaguered former Panthers QB Jake Delhomme to man the helm while Colt learns the ropes. Will Delhomme have a resurgence or will a continued case of the yips limit Jake's time under center and quickly usher in the Colt McCoy era? Either way it's bound to be an improvement over last years 32nd ranked passing attack. Right? Only if Jake remembers he's throwing to Browns...
Also a big problem for the Browns, what will the defense look like? While Scott Fujita left the Champion Saints and signed with the Browns there wasn't much else done to improve the D, which shouldn't look to do much better than being ranked 29th in passing and ranked 28th rushing. And finally, with Josh Cribbs repeat him impressive 2010 performance on Special Teams, which accounted for more than a few Browns victories? Too many question marks for the Browns heading into 2010 for it to not leave a queasy feeling in the pit of the Dog Pound.
2010 Prediction: 4-12
2009 Record: 9-7
Only two people know what happened that night. However, the whole world knows what Ben Roethlisberger is accused of. What people also don't know is how many games he will miss to start the 2010 season. The good money is currently on the first four games. The potential still lies for six games. Only one person knows: Roger Goodell.
While no one knows how long Ben will be gone, they do know that the reins of the offense will be shifted from the 9th ranked passing game to the hands of what looks to be a capable Rashard Mendhenall. After a break out years, running for 1,108 yards in roughly 13 games the Steelers brought in Flozell Adams to shore up the offensive line and run block. Combined with newly drafted Jonathan Dwyer plus the departure of Willie Parker, the ground game will have the traditional look of the rough and tumble than the speed and finesse of recent.
In 2009, injuries hampered the most important parts of the Steelers defense. Once Troy Polamalu went down in the first game of the season, the defense's problems were exposed as Troy's massive range was removed from the equation. So far, his recovery looks on track and the re-acquisition of Bryant McFadden should mean the passing defense will improve over the 16th overall ranking from last year while the rushing defense should remain strong. It won't be the Steel Curtain, but it will be steady once again. Much like the Steelers in 2010.
2010 Prediction: 10-6
AFC North Final Projected Standings-
Baltimore Ravens: 12-4
Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7
Cleveland Browns: 4-12
Bold= Division Winner
Italics= Wild Card team
Coming Sunday: AFC South