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Couch Groove Football Preview: The AFC North

Ben Roethlisberger FOREWORD
It’s been not even a year and a half since the Pittsburgh Steelers eked out a win in Super Bowl XLIII over the Arizona Cardinals. Since leaving the warm confines of Tampa the following day, the Steelers have been befallen with misfortune and controversy. From Troy Polamalu‘s destroyed knee to Santonio Holmes‘ brushes with the law to Willie Colon’s recent injury to Mike Tomlin’s “Unleash Hell” proclamation that went nowhere, to, most importantly, Ben Roethlisberger’s public character assassination, the Pittsburgh Steelers are finding themselves tumbling out of control. What does it mean? It means the hierarchy up North has changes coming.

QUESTION ONE: IS ANQUAN BOLDIN THE ‘MISSING LINK’ IN BALTIMORE?
The Ravens defense has generally been their most dominant feature, but now the addition of a tested wide receiver in Boldin certainly gives the offense a deadly weapon. In fact, you could argue that in the fifteen seasons that the Ravens have flown in Baltimore, Boldin is the most impressive wide receiver to wear the purple and black. The offensive side has Derrick Mason and the troubled Donte Stallworth alongside Boldin, and the running game is accentuated by Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain. Add Joe Flacco and Todd Heap, and for once Baltimore’s offense is as scary as the D.

QUESTION TWO: IS CARSON PALMER’S TIME UP?
Since Carson Palmer’s leg was wrecked in the 2005 AFC playoffs, he hasn’t been the effective signal caller that he was expected to be coming into the 2003 draft. The offense was largely carried by Chad Ochocinco and the departed TJ Houshmandzadeh. In 2008, the offense bottomed out as the worst in the league, and then climbed to a stagnant twenty-fourth the following season. If football is chess, the quarterback is king, and the Bengals are only as good as Palmer. He’s never made it to the elite tier that he perhaps should be on, and he’s not getting any younger.

QUESTION THREE: WILL BEN ROETHLISBERGER EVER BE THE SAME?

Ben Roethlisberger is the NFL equivalent of Linsday Lohan: on top of the world at a young age, but bad decisions and a lack of common sense have derailed his momentum and made him a laughingstock. Big Ben will miss anywhere from four to six games this season, which is a good time to see what over sized backup Dennis Dixon brings to the table. Pittsburgh may find it hard to cut ties with the man who helped them win their last two Super Bowls, but Santonio Holmes, a Super Bowl MVP, was dealt away to New York, so it’s possible.

QUESTION FOUR: WILL THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS BE BLOWN UP?
It was losing close games, not poor play, that cost the Steelers a shot at the playoffs to defend their crown. The offensive line has not been conducive to the team’s traditional power-run approach, and many of the team’s stars like Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, and others are dealing with age and/or injuries. It seems that, if anything, Pittsburgh may be content to send Mike Tomlin on his way, even if the off-field issues aren’t his fault. The Steelers are a joke right now, and Dan Rooney, savvy owner that he is, won’t tolerate the garbage for long.

QUESTION FIVE: CAN JAKE DELHOMME BOUNCE BACK?
Jake Delhomme could be found chopped up in a dumpster for all that Panthers fans care. Throwing eight touchdowns against eighteen interceptions last season ended his unlikely run as the face of Carolina. Jake, however, has overcome plenty of adversity in his career, having worked as a truck driver and sitting as an antsy backup while waiting for his time. Perhaps the change of scenery will spark another improbable run for Delhomme. He’s now working for a team that has Mike Holmgren tinkering with offensive personnel, which works for Jake, a gritty Brett Favre clone. Well, stranger things have happened.

PREDICTIONS

1. BALTIMORE RAVENS (13-3)
Really, how can you go against Baltimore here? With Ray Lewis still the barking voice of the ferocious defense, and with an offense that has improved by bringing in two class wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, the division should be theirs for the taking. Of course, nothing’s guaranteed in football, and Herm Edwards said that you have to play the game to win it, but Baltimore’s more than capable. Joe Flacco has to do what Mark Sanchez is doing right now in New York: not screw up. If it works out that way, the Ravens have it.

2. CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-7)
Cincinnati’s hit a glass ceiling ever since Carson Palmer had his knee ripped out. Acquisitions like Antonio Bryant and Jermaine Gresham may serve to improve Palmer’s stats, but it comes down to the defense for the Bengals. Last year, nobody expected Mike Zimmer’s crew to do as well as they did, but Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall have proven to be hard to throw over the top on. Add to that Dhani Jones as a great quarterback reader and a very pressuring line, and the Bengals have surprised many. A bigger surprise? Taking the division again by fending off Baltimore.

3. CLEVELAND BROWNS (6-10)

Nowhere to go but up for Eric Mangini’s crew. Mangini needs to show improvement now, since his job was barely spared by the philosophically-different Mike Holmgren this offseason. So, what to do? Mangini’s a defensive guy, and yet his team went thirty-first in the league last year in defense. A tough schedule can be made easier if additions like Scott Fujita and rookie Joe Haden step up early. Benjamin Watson as a target for Jake Delhomme has been overlooked, since nobody expects the Browns to do much. There’s still work to do, but it isn’t as bad as it looks.

4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-10)
It almost doesn’t seem right. Pittsburgh last in the North? The team needs continuity, and they’ll get none when they play quarterback musical chairs early in the season. When they settle in there, there’s a declining offensive line to deal with, as well as a possibly-ineffective Troy Polamalu, who hurt his knee twice last season. If anything, the rest of the defense is in one piece, but it seems that the pressure’s going to be on their shoulders. If the team does go 6-10 as guessed here, Mike Tomlin might be the first one in line for the chopping block.

Justin Henry is the owner and (currently) sole writer of Couch Groove Football. He can be found on Facebook.com and Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/couchgroove

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Eric G.

Eric is the owner and editor-in-chief of the Camel Clutch Blog. Eric has worked in the pro wrestling industry since 1995 as a ring announcer in ECW and a commentator/host on television, PPV, and home video. Eric also hosted Pro Wrestling Radio on terrestrial radio from 1998-2009. Check out some of Eric's work on his IMDB bio and Wikipedia. Eric has an MBA from Temple University's Fox School of Business.

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