Sometimes I think my pro football writing brethren are frustrated college football writers. How else to explain the rush of predictions and power rankings we've seen this preseason, some even before a snap had been taken. If there's anything less meaningful than preseason scores, it's predictions made by sportswriters based on those scores rather than observations on teams and players. So while Bengals 101 may be late to the game, we're confident that our analysis of the 2011 season will at least be more substantive and hopefully more accurate.
1. Baltimore Ravens Before the preseason began, I thought the Ravens would disappoint this season. That was before they addressed their off season losses and in some cases improved and already good team. No AFC North team suffered more losses this off season. Gone are TE Todd Heap, and most of the defensive backfield along with WR Derrick Mason. The Ravens went out and got Lee Evans from Buffalo to stretch opposing defenses and shored up the offensive line with Bryant McKinnie from Minnesota. The Ravens will return a dominating front seven and by re-signing Chris Carr, the defensive backfield will be just as deep. With a balanced offense led by an improving Joe Flacco, the Ravens are the clear favorite to win the AFC North.
Key games: 9/11 v. Pittsburgh, 11/6 at Pittsburgh, 10/2 v. Jets, 12/11 v. Indianapolis
2. Pittsburgh Steelers The defending AFC champs are getting long in the tooth. In a season with no off season conditioning, that will play against the Steelers this year. Their schedule is appreciably more difficult this season as well. As the season wears on, those over 30 defenders will begin to wilt. Pittsburgh has surrendered over 100 yards rushing in half its preseason games and in the nineties in the other two. This should concern Steeler fans. They start the season on the road in what has become a semi-annual bloodbath with the Baltimore Ravens and Ray Rice. They also face both AFC South contenders Indianapolis and Houston on the road before facing New England and Baltimore at home in consecutive weeks. Dick LeBeau's defense will surrender more yards and points than in recent years and the Steelers, as is customary for the losing Super Bowl team, will struggle to be above .500 and miss the playoffs.
Key games: 9/11 at Baltimore, 9/28 at Indianapolis, 10/2 at Houston, 10/30 v. New England, 11/6 v. Baltimore
3. Cleveland Browns The Browns were the chic pick this preseason to surprise in this division. While I think they will show significant improvement, thanks mainly to the best young offensive line in the division, Cleveland will still miss out on a playoff berth. Early on, however, Cleveland will look great. Their schedule is heavily backloaded with playoff teams and division rivals. The Browns very well may be in first place heading into Houston on November 6. But four of their final five games are against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Browns will limp home short of the playoffs.
Key games: 11/6 at Houston, Four of last five games v. Baltimore and Pittsburgh
4. Cincinnati Bengals While it's been fashionable to declare the Bengals the winner of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, reports of the Bengals' demise are greatly exaggerated. Yes, they're rebuilding on offense. For a unit that was chronically poor in execution and clutch performance, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Mike Zimmer's defense will be much improved with Rey Maualuga in the middle. They've opened up the purses and brought in veterans Nate Clements, Thomas Howard, and Manny Lawson. Andy Dalton struggled out of the gate, but has looked solid in his last two preseason games. The Bengals have the last place schedule and the division faces the NFC West, who have many more contenders for Andrew Luck. Cincinnati will finish last in a tough division, but narrowly. I predict seven wins.
Key games: 10/6 v. Indianapolis, 11/3 v. Pittsburgh, 12/4 @ Pittsburgh
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