AFC NORTH: Cities in which football is the only deterrent to residents leaving for better jobs.
Dan "The Guru Doctor" scalps the AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Old Faithful if it spewed special teams meltdowns and a constant surrendering of big passing plays, the annual collapse of my hometown Steelers in last year's AFC Championship game was more of a "they finally got together" romantic comedy ending than an M. Night Shamalan twist. Nonetheless, there's still plenty of optimism brewing in Steeler country going into '05, just there was plenty of optimism each time Sisyphus began pushing that boulder. Second-year phenom Ben Rothlisberger will feel the pressure with the loss of big-play-nonthreat Plaxico Burress, though the addition of tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick out of UVA (did he get rejected from Wash U and Tufts or something?), gives the QB an even more imposing tight end to never throw to. Pittsburgh's run defense should remain impenetrable with the return of giant fatass Casey Hampton, and the offensive line is strong, if not deep, pending the development of second-year giant fatass Max Starks. Injuries to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis have pushed obscure third-stringer Willie Parker into the starting role at halfback, but Cowher remains confident in Parker, if only because he has the blackest name in league history. This team won't come close to their 15-1 Cinderella season from last year, but a 10 or 11 win Little Mermaid season is not unfathomable, though until Cowher rescinds his "Mandatory Not Covering Receivers In The Playoffs" Policy, Troy Polamalu and James Farrior might make a dozen more Pro Bowls before they see a Super Bowl.
Deflated Steeler fans filter out of Heinz Field after losing the AFC Title Game last January.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Hiring Jim Fassel to take over the offense was a step in the right direction for Baltimore, though being in charge of the Ravens' offense is like being in charge of the hot food at Dairy Queen. Kyle Boller is no Elvis Grbac at QB, but recall that this team won a Superbowl in 2001 behind Trent Dilfer, the world's least effective human. They'll have more weapons on offense this year with the return of Todd Heap, a 6'5" exaggeration of a high school letter-jacket-wearer, the addition of receiver Derrick Mason, who again had 1100 receiving yards last year without ever affecting the outcome of anything, and the arrival of Oklahoma standout Mark Clayton, their first round pick and likely son of ESPN analyst John Clayton. GM Ozzie Newsome is the league's best drafter, and the defense is still top-notch, so this team has the pieces to overtake the Steelers, but, as always, the Ravens' success will hinge entirely on Jamal Lewis' ability to not have his phone calls overheard. Milestone Watch: Coach Brian Billick needs just two public outbursts this season to pass Buddy Ryan for third on the NFL's All-Time Complete Dick List.
I hear Todd Heap's going to pin you at the sock hop tonight!
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The once-endangered Cincinnati Bengals are finally making a resurgence, much like the actual Bengal tiger species, and they possess two legitimate offensive threats in receiver Chad Johnson and running back Rudi Johnson, like the teeth and claws of the actual Bengal tiger. Coach Marvin Lewis is best known for his defensive mastery, but these '05 Bengals are going to have to rely on their offensive skills, like the '05 actual Bengal tiger if the rest of the NFL were and elephant and the tiger was fighting it. Receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is coming off a breakout year, giving the Bengals a third weapon, as though an actual Bengal tiger were holding a spear in its claws, which wouldn't be as deadly as the claws (because they're Chad Johnson) but could still hurt you. After two 8-8 seasons under Lewis, expectations are rising in Cincinnati almost as fast as the crime rate, but if they can win some turnover battles this season, it's conceivable they could grab an AFC wildcard spot, like the actual Bengal tiger if it were trying to get into, like, the wildcard of animals, but it kept having its whiskers intercepted, even though its face was drafted first overall out of USC and paid a lot of money. I'm good at metafords.
Can Carson Palmer (left) take these young Bengals the extra step?
4. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are 30-66 since returning to the NFL in 1999, so they've outperformed the actual city of Cleveland during that span, but the 2005 season promises more frown clowns down in Brown town. What Romeo Crennel did with the Patriots' defense last year was remarkable, but in Cleveland, he'll look like a great classical conductor waving his baton at a pile of horseshit. Past draft choices Tim Couch, Kevin Johnson, Courtney Brown, and Gerard Warren comprise a Washington-Generalsesque roster of ineptitude, though opponents won't need to pull down the Browns' shorts or throw buckets of glitter at their fans to beat them. Braylon Edwards can expect to see lots of octuple coverage while the Browns adjust to Trent Dilfer's "Three-and-Out" offensive scheme. Said Crennel on his new quarterback, "It might be a couple of weeks into the season before we can get to third and long before turning the ball over, but Trent runs this system better than anyone, that's why we got him."
Browns fans will have to be patient as their team rebuilds.