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AFC North: Steelers will be tough to bend

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  • AFC North: Steelers will be tough to bend

    AFC North: Steelers will be tough to bend

    Few teams ever had such a rewarding season as the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. Behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (13-0 as a starter), they became the first AFC team to go 15-1. Alas, it ended in an all-too-familiar place when they lost to New England in the AFC Championship Game at home.

    The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals made their own runs at the playoffs. But the Ravens finished short at 9-7 when, beset by injuries, they lost four of their final six. The Bengals overcame a 1-4 start with a 7-4 sprint to finish 8-8, the first time in 15 years they've gone two straight seasons without a losing record.

    The Cleveland Browns slipped to 4-12 and, after only nine victories the past two seasons following a 9-7 wildcard playoff team in '02, fired coach Butch Davis and decided to rebuild.

    Cleveland has the most ground to make up in the division and the Browns wasted no time doing so with a new general manager, coach and a multitude of new veterans through trades and free agency. The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals had much quieter offseasons.

    Browns GM Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel added veterans such as guards Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman, quarterback Trent Dilfer, cornerback Gary Baxter, safety Brian Russell and tackle L.J. Shelton. Rookie receiver Braylon Edwards gives Dilfer a deep threat.

    Dilfer knows a little about both the division and winning Super Bowls, having helped Baltimore ring up No. XXXV. He's the old hand in a division of good young quarterbacks with Rookie of the Year Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Carson Palmer in Cincinnati and Kyle Boller with the Ravens, all former first-round draft choices not yet in their third NFL season. The Steelers hope their lone free-agent signing, Cedrick Wilson, can replace departed Plaxico Burress. Pittsburgh also drafted Heath Miller to become the tight end target it hasn't had in a decade.

    The Ravens went for receiving help too, in a big way, landing Derrick Mason in free agency and Mark Clayton with their first draft choice. Guard Keydrick Vincent and cornerback Samari Rolle also joined Baltimore as veteran starters. As if the Baltimore defense hasn't been aggressive enough in this century, the Ravens will go with the 46 defense behind new coordinator Rex Ryan, whose dad, Buddy, first started it. Former Giants coach Jim Fassel takes over as Baltimore's offensive coordinator.

    The Bengals added veteran defensive tackle Bryan Robinson to fortify their woeful run defense, which will be headed by new coordinator Chuck Bresnahan.

    Three of the four division teams should be playoff contenders as Pittsburgh tries to hold off Baltimore and Cincinnati to defend its AFC North title, while the Steelers attempt to take that next step themselves.

    And the Browns? Crennel worked wonders with New England's defense; he'd have to work miracles to get Cleveland into the playoffs in his first season as its coach.

    The Steelers have nowhere to go but down in the regular season after 15-1, and up in the postseason, and they're willing to make that tradeoff.

    "It's not about the regular season," Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis said. "It doesn't matter what the record is. You can go 10-6 and make the playoffs. That's the bottom line -- 10-6 in the playoffs and a chance to win the Super Bowl, that's all that matters."

    Baltimore's a popular pick to upend the Steelers. The two teams have split the past four division titles (including the old Central Division), and the Ravens were the only ones to beat Pittsburgh in the 2004 regular season.

    Coach Jeff Fisher, whose Titans played in the old Central and who play each of the four North teams this season, picks Baltimore to win it -- all.

    "They're back up to where they should be," Fisher said. "They're the team to beat this year. I would think they would make their run."

    That's OK with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, where the back-to-back 8-8 Bengals seem poised to make a move of their own. Every year, it seems, some NFL team bounces from mediocrity to Super Bowl contention. Could this be Cincy's turn?

    "Getting back to mediocrity has not gone to our heads," Lewis said. "We're ready to push to get over that hump."

    The Browns are merely trying to return to the hump after injuries helped unravel the past two seasons for them.

    "In this situation, a lot of the talent has been hurt," Crennel said, "so you don't know exactly what you have and what they can do. But they do have talent, no question about that."
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  • #2
    Am I the only one that is not sold on Roethlisberger?


    • #3
      Nope. I think a lot of fans who really paid attention to how he played last year are concerned, especially if they've kept an eye on him this summer. He's looked putrid in the 2 games I've seen, and I don't think he'll have the running game to bail him out like it did last year.
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      • #4
        If you're talking about the two pre-season games, then putrid is not the word for it. It's much worse. The games I've watched, he was throwing high on every one of his receivers. I'm not sure what his deal is, if he changed how he's throwing the ball, or if he's just in panic mode and is in a hurry to pass.

        As far as the running game goes, I like Willie Parker. By the looks of it, he'll be starting in the opener. He gives the Steelers a different look with his speed (think I read he runs a 4.28s 40), but IIRC he doesn't have the best hands in the world.


        • #5
          I don't think Roethlisberger is the type of QB who will beat teams with his arm at this point in his career. The Steelers success will be decided by how well the defense plays and how well they run the ball. What the Steelers need from Roethlisberger is to manage the game and not turn the ball over.
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