Baltimore Ravens 6-10
Keys to Defeat: The Ravens have been known the past several years for their merciless and unyielding defense, but facts are facts. Ray Lewis is declining, Bart Scott is gone, Chris McAlister is gone, and most importantly, Rex Ryan is gone. Ed Reed remains one of the most elite Safeties in league, and they have a very good defensive line, but that's not going to cut it. Outside of Reed, the secondary now looks like a weakness, and the offense has problems of their own. From day one, I never believed Joe Flacco was the answer, and I'm still unconvinced the kid has the accuracy and vision to lead the team. I think that Troy Smith gives them the best chance to win, but I doubt he'll get the chance. It doesn't help Flacco's situation that the only real receiving threat on the team is the aging Derrick Mason, who already has a flirtation with retirement. Clayton and Williams are too injury prone to be counted on for a full load, and for some reason the team wants to keep the ball out of Todd Heap's hands. The only real bright spot on the team is the running game, which should feature a healthy rotation of the talented young Ray Rice, the powerful LeRon McClain who has a nose for the end zone, and the aging Willis McGahee, who still shows flashes of play making ability. However, it's not going to be enough to carry them back to a winning record.
Cincinnati Bengals 9-7
Keys to Victory: This years Hard Knocks stars. If there is anyone in the league who believes in giving people second (and occasionally third) chances, its Marvin Lewis. And sometimes, it pays off. Cedric Benson may not be the ideal starting RB, but he works for his keep and fights for every yard, and Chris Henry has looked terrific so far in preseason action as he works to redeem himself and show off his natural play making talent. The Bengals could easily find themselves knocking on the door of the playoffs if not for two big issues that must be addressed before they can get there; The offensive line and the defense. The line is full holes, and as of now, promising rookie Andre Smith remains unsigned. The Bengals need the offense to step up and protect Palmer or they're going to find themselves in trouble reminiscent of last year. The defense is pretty weak all around, with Leon Hall being their best player on the defensive side. It's hard not to like the value they got grabbing Rey Maulaluga in the second round, but there's a reason he slipped. There were plenty of whispers circulating pre-draft that Rey was no more than a two down player. The Bengals better hope the rumors were wrong, because they need a play maker right away.
Cleveland Browns 7-9
Keys to Defeat: I want to think the Browns will do better than this, but I just can't. The defense is too soft, and the offensive isn't aggressive enough. The team was willing to make the QB battle between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, but at this point, it seems pretty obvious Quinn will be the starter on day one. Anderson has shown nothing of his 2007 form, and while Quinn has hardly been spectacular, he's playing better ball than Anderson. Braylon Edwards should look better this year, as he's looking to prove he's not a butterfingered bust, just in case the team feels it's time to sever ties with him. The Browns did a ton draft day trading, but what they did come away with in the draft, they've been happy with, praising the abilities of rookie WRs Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massoquoi, and loving the development of rookie RB James Davis, who could emerge as a real threat to Jamal Lewis' job. In addition to their rookie WRs, the Browns brought in veteran receivers David Patten and Mike Furrey, and while they may have traded away one of the better TEs in the league, they have a ton of depth at WR to make up for it. If Quinn can get the offense clicking, I think they can do better than my current projection, but until I see him step up, I think this is the best case scenario for them.
Cleveland fans, hope that Quinn finally will be busy on Sundays.
Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
Keys to Victory: The defending Superbowl Champions. I have to admit, I'm surprised to say that. I didn't think the Steelers would make it to the big game but they did. Coming off of the second championship win of the Roethlisberger era and and underwhelming draft, the Steelers look to remain king of the hill in the AFC North and easily march right back into the playoffs with one of the best defenses in the league. That defense (which only allowed a sparse 10 points per game last year) figures to be the highlight of the year once again, as I refuse to believe that the Steelers have any sort of dynamic offense. The running game is average at best, the oline is letting Big Ben take too much pressure, and way too many hits, and Superbowl MVP Santonio Holmes is the most talented WR on the team, but that's not saying much. While Big Ben may have the rings, he's hardly one of the "best QBs in the league" like most people like to tag him. He reminds me a bit of Joe Flacco, benefiting from having a superior team around him from the start. (Disclaimer: I am not comparing Joe and Ben's talent, only their situation) There's no denying the team has the ability to make the playoffs, they will. Will they make it to the big game? No. But then, I said that last year too.