Balt (12-4). Balt is the best team in the division. Pitt went to the Super Bowl last year and they are still a quality team, but Balt is the best. They have a QB who will be surrounded by talent this year. Ozzie Newsome and Balt’s front office is very good. This offseason, they picked up WR Lee Evans – very quietly. Evans is a really smart pick-up and here’s why: few WRs in the NFL stretch the field as effectively as Evans does and his presence should significantly open things up inside for Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice – who excel at shorter possession routes and screens respectively. Last year with Boldin, Derrick Mason, Ray Rice and Todd Heap all running lots of short routes, Boldin didn’t have the space he needed to be effective. My guess is that this year, he will be a monster. Balt also acquired Vonta Leach, one of the NFL’s premier FBs and Ricky Williams – an upgrade over Willis McGahee. Both should help the running game be even better than it was last year. But the main reason I’m particularly high on Balt this year is that I believe Jon Flacco is finally getting in touch with his nastier side. In previous years, Flacco quietly went about his business seemingly unflappable. But judging from comments he’s made in the past year, clearly he was “flapped” by previous criticisms. He has lashed out a few times at critics and while I don’t always think this is a good thing – in Flacco’s case I do. I think we’ll see a more emotional Flacco this year and this will help the team.
Pitt (10-6). Pitt will be decent this year, but not Super again. I see an interesting transition in Pitt this year considering their offensive personnel. I think they will shift from a running team to a passing team. Though Mendenhall will still do some damage, I think their focus will eventually be on the pass. They have been beaten recently by quality passing teams (like the Packers in the Super Bowl) and I think they know they have a QB who could function well in a system that favors the pass. And importantly, I think they may finally have the depth at WR to make this kind of switch. Ward and Wallace are entrenched as starters – and both are good – but it is backups like Antonio Brown, Emmanual Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery that could help bring about this transition. Call it a hunch – but my guess is that Pitt passes quite a bit more this year than they did last year. D will still be very solid and coaching remains top-notch.
Cleve (8-8). I like the Cleve. Last year the Cleve managed to win 5 games with only a running game (no defense, no passing game). This year, the defense has improved some, they still have Hillis and a very good running game, they have a coach who knows what he’s doing with the offense and importantly, McCoy is more comfortable with the offensive system as taught by Pat Shurmur. Watch for TE Evan Moore and WRs Brian Robiskie and rookie Greg Little to emerge. Also, Montario Hardesty might make some noise as Hillis’ backup. Playing Cleve will no longer be the gimme it has been recently.
Cincy (2-14). Marvin Lewis is terrible. He has had 2 winning seasons in the 8 he’s coached. How does this guy keep his job? I do like Andy Dalton though, and some of his young targets like AJ Green, Jermaine Gresham, Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson. These guys can play – and they’ll have to because Cincy will be throwing constantly after getting behind. Defensively, they have picked up quite a few guys who weren’t exactly busts for other teams – but not big-time achievers either (Manny Lawson, Taylor Mays, Gibril Wilson, Nate Clements). I just don’t see this team doing much of anything until Marvin Lewis is fired.
–I’ve heard “this is the year the Ravens’ offense finally clicks” before. I’ll believe it when I see it. And they’ve got a lot of older guys on defense, not just Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. On the other hand, they’ve got a really soft schedule (although who knows what the Colts are going to be like in December), so maybe they can get to 12 wins anyway.
–I like the way the Browns look too. Colt McCoy looks like the first real QB they’ve had since the reboot. It’s too bad they’ve lost Brandon Jackson, I think he’s an underrated guy, and maybe could’ve helped them contend for the division.
–Paul Brown seems to be in a competition with Al Davis for worst owner in the NFL. The real question is, why hasn’t Marvin Lewis resigned by now. Maybe he’s still paying down his credit cards?