Nfl Preview 2004

The League

September 09, 2004|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

DIVISION PREVIEW

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Brian Billick (52-35), sixth season with Ravens.

Last season: 10-6, first place. Lost wild-card game to Tennessee, 20-17.

Burning question

Will QB Kyle Boller validate the Ravens' faith in him after an erratic and injury-shortened rookie season?

Must-do project

The Ravens need to develop a legitimate passing game with a young quarterback and a group of flawed receivers.

Team MVP

LB Ray Lewis might be the best player in the game. At the least, he is the most inspirational to his teammates.

On the hot seat

Whether they wanted to or not, the Ravens have dumped Super Bowl expectations at Boller's feet.

Upside

With competent quarterbacking, they're good enough to win it all. Shaky quarterbacking won't get them close.

Downside

RB Jamal Lewis' legal status needs to be resolved. A year after his 2,066-yard season and a federal drug indictment, will he be the same player?

Projection

They should have no trouble winning the division. Getting to the Super Bowl will require much more than Boller showed last season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Bill Cowher (122-84-1), 13th season with Steelers.

Last season: 6-10, third place.

Burning question

How long will it take rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger to supplant Tommy Maddox?

Must-do project

Restore the running game. Duce Staley gives the Steelers the best chance to regain their run-first personality.

Team MVP

WR Hines Ward (right) is the team's best playmaker, but Staley can be a major force on offense if he can be an every-down back.

On the hot seat

WR Plaxico Burress is in the final year of his contract and making waves. That's not Steeler-like.

Upside

Cowher upgraded speed in the secondary and brought back Dick LeBeau to resuscitate the defense.

Downside

The defense had a Cowher-era low of 34 sacks; obviously it wasn't all the defensive backs' fault.

Projection

The Steelers not only need an improved running game, but also better quarterbacking.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Marvin Lewis (8-8), second season with Bengals.

Last season: 8-8, 2nd place.

Is first-time starter Carson Palmer ready to quarter- back a team with playoff ambitions?

Must-do project

Run defense was the Bengals' Achilles' heel a year ago. MLB Nate Webster was signed to cut off the run.

Team MVP

If WR Chad Johnson can tone down the theatrics, he could be a team leader as well as playmaker.

On the hot seat

Between dumping Corey Dillon and drafting Chris Perry, the Bengals gave the RB job to Rudi Johnson. They need the running game to protect Palmer.

Upside

After a decade of franchise incompetence, Lewis has the Bengals pointed in the right direction.

Downside

Team defense was awful in 2003.

Projection

Although the future looks bright, this could be a fall-back year for Lewis.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Butch Davis (21-28), fourth season with Browns.

Last season: 5-11, fourth place.

Burning question

Can intense rookie TE Kellen Winslow effect a change in attitude of a team used to losing?

Must-do project

The Browns were soft up the middle in run defense -- see Jamal Lewis -- and need DT Gerard Warren to step up.

Team MVP

QB Jeff Garcia's escapability will come in handy behind a suspect offensive line.

On the hot seat

Davis purged the franchise of players from the previous regime and fired anyone he viewed as a front- office threat. Now he needs to win.

Upside

The Browns seem to have enough threats on offense to be entertaining at least.

Downside

Too many high draft picks -- the departed Tim Couch, Warren, Courtney Brown -- have underachieved.

Projection

The offense has multiple options, but until the Browns play better defense, it won't matter.

SCHEDULE

RAVENS

9-12 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

9-19 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-4 Kansas City, 9 p.m.

10-10 at Washington, 8:30 p.m.

10-17 Open

10-24 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

11-7 Cleveland, 8:30 p.m.

11-14 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

11-21 Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-28 at New England, 1 p.m.

12-5 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

12-12 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m.

12-26 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

1-2 Miami, 1 p.m.

PITTSBURGH

9-12 Oakland, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Ravens, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Miami, 1 p.m.

10-3 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-10 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-17 at Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

10-24 Open

10-31 New England, 4:15 p.m.

11-7 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

11-28 Washington, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Jacksonville, 8:30 p.m.

12-12 N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

12-18 at N.Y. Giants, 1:30 p.m.

12-26 Ravens, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

CINCINNATI

9-12 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

9-19 Miami, 8:30 p.m.

9-26 Ravens, 1 p.m.

10-3 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

10-10 Open

10-17 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-25 Denver, 9 p.m.

10-31 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

11-7 Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Washington, 4:05 p.m.

11-21 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

11-28 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Ravens, 1 p.m.

12-12 at New England, 1 p.m.

12-19 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

12-26 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

CLEVELAND

9-12 Ravens, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

9-26 at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

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