NFL Preview Bonanza: AFC North

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Last Season: 12-4

This Season: 11-5, AFC #4

The defending Super Bowl champs will suffer a little from the Super Bowl hangover, but not quite to the extent they did when they missed the playoffs three years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if Santonio Holmes uses his incredible performance in Super Bowl XLIII as a springboard to greater things, or if he Deion Branches it from here on out. The defense is still the best in the league, and Rashard Mendenhall will provide needed depth in the backfield.

Tim’s favorite player in Steeler history is…: Lynn Swann’s graceful game may have complemented his name better than any other player in NFL history.

You know who might be underrated: Kordell Stewart kind of grew into a laughingstock later in his career, but the guy did lead his team to two AFC title games as a starter, was a huge part (perhaps illegally) of the AFC Champion squad in 1995, and in a way set the stage for the running quarterbacks and Wildcat packages we see today. I’m not saying he was great, but he wasn’t as bad as most people remember. Plus, he did this.

Remember when Tommy Maddox was quarterback of the Steelers? Me neither.

A Great and Recent Steeler Game: The aforementioned 1995 AFC Championship is the second-best AFC title game of the last 15 years. Kudos to Dick Enberg’s “Not just the work of a week or a season, but the dreams of a lifetime on the line right here.”

If the Steelers were a work of American literature, they would be: Moby Dick. Good, but pretty boring.

Did you know? The Steelers’ logo only appears on one side of their helmet! Crazy!

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Last Season: 11-5

This Season: 9-7

While Joe Flacco will be given more offensive responsibility in Year Two (besides, you know, handing off and throwing the occasional deep ball), the defense will take a step back with the departures of Rex Ryan, Bart Scott, and Jim Leonhard—all to the Jets. It won’t be a huge step, but it will be enough to offset the offensive improvement, especially considering the uncertainty in the Baltimore running game.

Tim’s favorite player in Baltimore Raven history is…: The other Michael Jackson. I don’t really have a reason why.

A Great and Recent Raven Game: This is just a regular season game, but it involved the following: Matt Hasselbeck throwing for five touchdowns, Anthony Wright throwing for four touchdowns, Anthony Wright converting a 4th-and-28, the referees granting the Ravens a fourth timeout. Suffice to say, it was pretty crazy.

Is Titans-Ravens the best rivalry of the decade? No, but it’s close. The teams have met three times in the playoffs, with the road team winning each time. You can make a good case it’s No. 2 behind Patriots-Colts.

Don’t you love how the Ravens are named after a poem? By Edgar Allan Poe, no less. It made the loss in Super Bowl XXXV just a little easier to swallow. It was a victory for literature.

Remember when the Ravens had that other, wacky helmet? If you mean this one, then no.

If the Ravens were a Batman villain, they would be: The Penguin. With only one weapon, he’s not flashy. But that umbrella works.

Did you know? The leading passer in Ravens’ history is Kyle Boller.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Last Season: 4-12

This Season: 7-9

They’re not as good as the 10-6 season two years ago, or as bad as the 4-12 one last year, so I’m splitting the difference at 7-9. Either way they go at QB (and it should be Anderson), the success of the offense will depend more on improvement from Braylon Edwards (likely) and Jamal Lewis (not so much). Hard to see Eric Mangini as that big a step up from Romeo Crennel.

Tim’s favorite player in Cleveland Brown history is…: I’ve been a DA guy since his Oregon State days. Honorable mention to the early 90s running back tandem of Kevin Mack and Eric Metcalf.

A Great and Recent Brown Game: YouTube can’t help us out, but the Browns’ last-minute goal-line stand in Week 17 of the 2002 regular season got them in the playoffs for the first time since their re-establishment. Once there, less savory things occurred.

Wait, Butch Davis led the Browns to the playoffs? Yeah, I was surprised by that, too.

And Kelly Holcomb was the quarterback? Ditto.

If the Browns were a pair of American Presidents, they would be: William Henry and Benjamin Harrison. The Browns tried the defensive coordinator route at head coach with Bill Belichick in the early 90s, and have tried to make up for the apparent mistake of firing him by hiring his assistants twice. Like Americans who always wondered what Willy H. H. could have done if he hadn’t died, Cleveland is clinging to the past.

Did you know? John was briefly a Browns’ fan, from the beginning of the 2008 season until he callously discarded the Brady Quinn jersey we bought him for Christmas (he’s a staunch Andersonite). If John were still a Browns’ fan, he would be rather unexcited for this season.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Last Season: 4-11-1

This Season: 6-10

The purported rejuvenation of Chad Ocho Cinco will only compensate for the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, while it’s awfully tough to count on Cedric Benson and Chris Henry to be constant contributors offensively. I think it’s a bounceback year for Carson Palmer and that the Bengals will be competitive, but it’s tough to see this team scratching out much space in this division.

Tim’s favorite player in Cincinnati Bengal history is…: I’m doubling up here for the old pass-and-catch combo of Jeff Blake and Carl Pickens (honorable mention to Darnay Scott). I remember one year, Blake’s Bengals were really bad and they beat the Cowboys anyway. That was really exciting.

The Bengals had a tie last year? Yeah, against the Eagles in that hideous, hideous game that may be the worst ever.

A Great and Recent Bengal Game: I imagine beating the Steelers, in Pittsburgh no less, to more or less clinch the division made for a sweet day in Cincinnati.

Wasn’t that kind of marred? Oh, by Carson Palmer shredding his knee on Cincinnati’s second offensive play in a playoff game in 15 years? No, not at all.

If the Bengals were a character from South Park, they would be: Kenny. Obvs.

Did you know? The Bengals and Browns have played the two highest-scoring NFL games of the last 40 years. Cincinnati beat Cleveland, 58-48, in 2004 and the Browns returned the favor, 51-45, in 2007.

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