Afc North

September 05, 2002|By KEN MURRAY

Baltimore Ravens

Last year: 10-6, second place, AFC Central. Lost divisional game to Pittsburgh, 27-10.

Coach: Brian Billick (30-18), fourth year with Ravens.

Story line: Is Chris Redman the quarterback of the future or merely of the present?

Power game: The Ravens want to return to the smash-mouth running game that helped carry them to the Super Bowl two years ago. But they need a healthy Jamal Lewis and an improved offensive line to get there. It may take some doing. The two tight-end set is in vogue this year, even if Shannon Sharpe is gone.

Achilles' heel: The record-setting defense of two years ago has been torn apart. The Ravens will have seven new starters on that unit from last year, and the replacements are mostly inexperienced. That doesn't bode well for an offense that is going through similar growing pains.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. He lost six starters total from the defensive line and secondary. His answer is the 3-4 scheme, which may minimize the losses up front. But there will be a lot of mistakes by the new guys.

Ticket to San Diego: The Ravens are paying for their Super Bowl success this season. If it's only a one-year deal, they'll be fortunate.

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 6-10, sixth place, AFC Central.

Coach: Dick LeBeau (10-19), third year with Bengals.

Story line: Can the Bengals reach the playoffs with Gus Frerotte or Jon Kitna at quarterback?

Power game: Led by LB Takeo Spikes, they're on the verge of having a top-flight defense. The secondary should be better with free agent Jeff Burris at cornerback and second-round pick Lamont Thompson at free safety. Watch second-year DE Justin Smith. He could have a breakout year.

Achilles' heel: Their passing game ranked only 23rd last year and they have turned to Frerotte in an attempt to get a vertical game. Kitna remains a mistake-prone alternative. Akili Smith, playing against marginal players, had good preseason numbers but has yet to prove he can do it for real. It didn't help that WR Michael Westbrook broke his hand early in training camp, either.

Pressure's on: Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. He's got to make defenses respect the pass and keep from loading up on RB Corey Dillon. Frerotte, who had a Pro Bowl season with the Redskins under Norv Turner, may be the answer.

Ticket to San Diego: The Bengals are due to have things break right for a change. But it probably won't be this year.

Cleveland Browns

Last season: 7-9, third place, AFC Central.

Coach: Butch Davis (7-9), second year with Browns.

Story line: Can the Browns become the latest team to come from the middle of the pack to reach the Super Bowl?

Power game: The Browns led the NFL with 33 interceptions and 42 takeaways last season. To make the playoffs, they have to stop the run better (ranked 29th). To achieve that, they signed MLB Earl Holmes from the Steelers. They also recruited DE Kenard Lang to help the pass rush.

Achilles' heel: QB Tim Couch hasn't had a running game since he arrived in Cleveland, so Davis drafted William Green in the first round. The one-dimensional Browns had the worst offense in the league a year ago. Green gives them balance and hope.

Pressure's on: Couch. With new weapons like Green, rookie WR Andre Davis and an improved line, it's time for him to show he was worth the first pick in the 1999 draft.

Ticket to San Diego: Stranger things have happened, but the Browns would need a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball to make it happen.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 13-3, first place, AFC Central. Lost AFC championship game to New England, 24-17.

Coach: Bill Cowher (99-61), 11th year with Steelers.

Story line: How do the Steelers respond after losing the AFC title game at home for the third time under Cowher?

Power game: Like the Ravens before them, the Steelers were dominating on defense. They led the league in total yards and rush defense, and finished fourth against the pass. They lost Holmes from that unit, but kept LB Jason Gildon and extended LB Joey Porter and DE Aaron Smith. They're still going to dominate -- and win -- on defense.

Achilles' heel: QB Kordell Stewart was a Pro Bowl QB until the championship game, when he reverted to his erratic past. He's got to be more consistent because he only has Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch behind him, and RB Jerome Bettis is winding down. Points may come harder this season.

Pressure's on: Cowher. Blowing home-field advantage again ruined what had been a marvelous comeback season for the Steelers.

Ticket to San Diego: They still look like the team to beat in the AFC.

Team previews by Ken Murray

AFC NORTH

MVP candidate -- QB Kordell Stewart, Steelers

Impact rookie -- RB William Green, Browns

Best Pickup -- LB Earl Holmes, Browns

Biggest loss -- Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, Ravens

Most Vulnerable -- Chris Redman, Ravens

Best comeback -- RB Jamal Lewis, Ravens

STAFF PREDICTIONS

Jamison Hensley

Steelers

Browns*

Bengals

Ravens

Ed Lee

Steelers

Browns

Ravens

Bengals

Brent Jones

Steelers

Browns

Bengals

Ravens

Ken Murray

STEELERS

Browns

Ravens

Bengals

Mike PReston

STEELERS

Browns

Bengals

Ravens

* -- Wild Card, ALL CAPS -- AFC CHAMP

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