- Baltimore Ravens, 12-4. This is a good team. The secondary is a bit shaky and Ed Reed’s possible extended absence will not help. But overall, this team has improved since last year when it was already good. The addition of Anquan Boldin was big. Derrick Mason has been quietly amassing decent season after decent season for the Ravens over the last several years, and having a legit threat opposite him now will suddenly make this passing game quite good. Add in a rejuvenated/healthy TE Todd Heap and there is another good option. QB Joe Flacco has improved as well and to this day, in my opinion, has the best form of any QB throwing the deep ball (he may not complete all these deep passes, but they sure look good). But the guy I think we’ll all be talking about at the end of the year is Ray Rice. This guy is a monster. He is strong, has a low center of gravity coupled with huge legs and importantly, mentally he is very focused on being a great RB. I think at the end of this year, Rice will be the #1 RB in the NFL in terms of total yards gained (remember, he’s a great receiver out of the backfield too – 78 catches last year). Yes, better than Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and MJD.
- Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-6. Pitt at 10-6? What? Without Big Ben for 4 games? After missing the playoffs in 2009? After losing Santonio Holmes? Yes. Something happened last year that caused Pitt to get lost – to lose its identity. Troy Polamalu got hurt. It’s that simple. Polamalu is the soul of that team. Not Ben, not the defense as a whole, not Hines Ward, just Troy. He is a fantastic player whose mere presence on the field changes games. He is an intelligent player with great game sense. With Polamalu back at full strength and the eventual return of Big Ben, this team will resume its quality play. Also, I’m looking for Rashard Mendenhall to take off a bit this year (if he doesn’t get hurt). He may end up as a top 5 rusher as he will have lots of touches. I expect a couple monster games from him. And, it’s no small factor that Dick LeBeau is still running the defense in Pitt. I expect the D to be very tough to deal with especially at home. And remember, last year, Pitt managed to get to 9-7, so it’s not like they were nearly as bad as the Pitt fan-base made them out to be.
- Cleveland Browns, 8-8. What? The Cleve ahead of Cincy? I am one of few probably, who think the Mangini/Holmgren duo might end up working out. Here’s why. Eric Mangini burst onto the scene a few years ago and had some initial success. While I’m not sure I would call his initial success a fluke (he was 10-6 in his 1st season with the NYJ, playoff team), I do think it was unfortunate for Mangini because it brought the immediate weight of expectations. Now, he’s regarded as a mediocre coach (at best) and the Cleve is playing with zero expectations. And most importantly I believe Mangini, if he’s open to it, will benefit greatly from the guidance of Mike Holmgren. Mangini is still a young coach and he hasn’t had the opportunity before to work closely with a very respected NFL mind. I do believe that between Mangini/Holmgren, there is a lot of football knowledge going on. I feel about the Cleve the way I feel about Miami – with guys like Holmgren and Parcells at the helm, it’s just hard to imagine either of these teams in a state of total failure. Delhomme isn’t great but if he plays even decently, there are some weapons on offense (Cribbs, Jerome Harrison could be good, Massaquoi, TE Evan Moore – former Packer who has looked good so far, Joe Thomas helping on the line). Ok, that list isn’t that great and it’s possible the Cleve totally sucks and Mangini gets fired after 4 weeks because he can’t get along with Holmgren – but I just have a feeling they won’t be terrible this year.
- Cincinnati Bengals, 6-10. I don’t think Marvin Lewis should last past this year. He may, because the Bengals front office is weird, but he shouldn’t. Yes, the Bengals got to the playoffs last year, yes they have a legit running threat with Benson, yes they have a decent WR group now with TO in the mix, and they have 2 potential big-time talents at TE in Chase Coffman (son of Paul Coffman) and Jermaine Gresham. Ok, maybe the offense will be good. And, of course, the defense has 2 CBs who are in the discussion at least of best CB tandem in the NFL. But I don’t see it this year for Cincy. I’m fighting logic I realize by projecting the Cleve to finish ahead of Cincy, the NFC North division winners from 2009. But Cincy’s home playoff loss last year to the Jets was one of the least inspiring efforts I’ve seen in years. The Jets played well to be sure, but to fold like Cincy did at home in such a big game told me all I need to know. Cincy is one major injury (Palmer, Benson, one of their CBs) away from 3-13.