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AFC DIVISIONAL PREVIEW

North

September 01, 2007|Sam Farmer

2007 predicted order of finish . . .

* 1. Baltimore: It's strange to think that the Ravens haven't won a playoff game since 2001, especially considering how dominant they were at times last season. Steve McNair fit right into the offense and should only be more comfortable this fall. And he'll get some help from newly acquired running back Willis McGahee, who replaces the more plodding Jamal Lewis. Rookie guard Ben Grubbs should make an immediate impact too. Baltimore took a big loss on defense with the departure of linebacker Adalius Thomas, yet the Ravens have 10 starters back on that side of the ball.

* 2. Cincinnati: As much as they've built up their offense, the Bengals just can't seem to get it right defensively. They were 30th in total defense last season, and tied for last against the pass. The addition of rookie cornerback Leon Hall could help tighten up the secondary, or at least he might inspire Deltha O'Neal to start playing a little harder. Carson Palmer leads the offense, and he's outstanding. He has two very good receivers in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and a 1,300-yard back in Rudi Johnson. The Bengals are hoping to return to respectability on the field -- and off it.

* 3. Pittsburgh: The most obvious change for the Steelers is on the sidelines, with Coach Mike Tomlin replacing Bill Cowher. But a more subtle one will also have an impact on games: the retirement of reliable center Jeff Hartings. That's a big loss -- the Steelers have only had three centers in 30 years -- and not one the team needed, especially after Ben Roethlisberger's string of up-and-down performances. There's a lot of pressure on Big Ben these days. The Steelers need him to perform the way he did his first two seasons, and not as he did a year ago when he had a league-high 23 of his passes picked off. A bright spot from last season: Willie Parker proved he's a flash but not a flash in the pan, rushing for 1,494 yards.

* 4. Cleveland: The Browns had a great draft, picking up tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn in the first round. Both should contribute right away. But it remains to be seen whether that will spark a turnaround for a franchise that has won 10 games in two years and last season led the league in turnovers. Cleveland also has had incredibly bad luck with injuries, particularly on the offensive line. The acquisition of guards Seth McKinney and Eric Steinbach should help bolster that unit. The Browns are getting old on the defensive line, and that front typically has had a tough time shutting down the run.

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