Reason for Pessimism: This may be the best team that Marvin Lewis has had in his time as head coach with the Bengals, but is he really that good a coach? His career mark of 79-80-1 gets most coaches fired, but the Bengals keep moving on. At quarterback, all agree that Andy Dalton has been a wonderful surprise, but to truly progress he has to play his best in the playoffs. The two losses in the wildcard rounds keep the evaluation on Dalton open -- just like it did for Peyton Manning many years ago and Matt Ryan until last year. Dalton needs that playoff win ASAP. And who will compliment A.J. Green? All teams that have success find two good receivers in order to isolate the second receiver when the first draws double coverage. Someone has to emerge opposite Green.
Reason for Optimism: The Bengals may have the best defensive line in the NFL. Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson are not big names to the casual follower, but out of the franchise record 51 sacks the Bengals posted in 2012, 42 were from the defensive line. If you can rush four and drop seven, that's great news for any defensive co-ordinator. It limits the 1-on-1 opportunities for all the excellent receivers on all the other teams. And as coordinators go, Bengals DC Mike Zimmer is up there as one of the best. He is future head coach material (Dallas?) Logic says Dalton should continue to improve, and so should the Bengals. They only lost one of their last eight games of the regular season in 2012, and that was a one-point loss to Dallas, so Cincinnati has shown the ability to play great football late in the season. They just have to take care of January and early February.
Reality: When Baltimore's window may be closing, the Bengals is wide open. They only lost three free agents and only Manny Lawson (Bills) was a full-time player. With an offence that should catch up to the defence, I think the Bengals can win the AFC North.
Prediction: First place in the AFC North.
Reason for Pessimism: The Pittsburgh Steelers were an 8-8 football team last year that missed the playoffs. And on defence, they are an old football team. And without Mike Wallace (Miami) they lost maybe the best “burner" in football. How well do Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger continue to co-exist? We've heard, "just fine thank-you" and then "not so good." I am not sure where the truth is on that one – we will see.
Reason for Optimism: This is a consistent franchise. The Steelers had a down year in 2009 with just nine wins, but that was following a Super Bowl victory over Arizona. Then they won 12 games in 2010 and the year after that there were 12 more. Pittsburgh will bounce back from last year's disappointment to win at least 10 games. Last year the Steelers finished first in total defence again. As long as Dick Lebeau is with the organization, that side of the football will be very good to great. I also thought Pittsburgh drafted well. Top pick Jarvis Jones (linebacker from Georgia) and second pick Le'Veon Bell (running back, Michigan State), looked good before getting hurt in the pre-season. Both will end up being starters when healthy. Getting 16 starts out of Troy Polamalu will also make a difference and I sense this year he accomplishes that goal. The hardest thing to do in NFL football is to stay on top all the time, ever year. With a tough training camp, physical in design, I expect a bounce-back year.
Reality: I can't see the Steelers missing the playoffs two years in a row. Roethlisberger is at that point of his career that he can still perform with athletic excellence but also with genuine experience. There is nothing he has not seen before and he can still buy time to make it happen on his own. There are two key dates for the Steelers -- September 16th is a Monday night game in Cincinnati, and December 15th when the Bengals play at Heinz field in Pittsburgh. If they win those…
Prediction: 2nd in the AFC North.
Reason for Pessimism: Free agency is a wonderful thing for players, but a difficult and agonizing aspect of modern football for owners and managers. Nobody was hit harder by key retirements and free agency defections quite like Baltimore. Of the nine players lost, eight were starters, so the question is how the Ravens can recover in just six months. Yes, GM Ozzie Newsome has already made some excellent and well calculated moves, but are they enough? Joe Flacco is sitting fat and happy with his new contract and, based on his playoff performance, the Ravens really had no choice but to respond in a market-driven way. But the Ravens are a team that won four straight in November and lost four of five in December before winning four straight in January/February. Tough to figure out why or even how relevant that reality is coming into this season with so many new faces, but the hold-overs proved that they could play when the pressure was highest. As hard as it is to win a Super Bowl, it may be even harder to defend one. The sense of satisfaction lingers throughout the year and seems to take an edge of desperation away from a team. Not sure if the Ravens can repeat without leaders like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed keeping the fires stoked.
Reason for Optimism: $120 million is ridiculous, but in the world of TV revenue and pro football, that is what the market demands for a quarterback that responded so well in the playoffs like Flacco did. Who will emerge at wide receiver to replace Anquan Bolden? And at free safety for Ed Reed? Middle linebacker for Ray Lewis? Well, history says Newsome will find a way to find the players. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumerville will be a pass rush nightmare and Ray Rice will continue to do it all as a running back. If Baltimore can beat the Broncos in Denver in Week 1 and then beat Houston in Week 3, they have a chance to be on their way to something special again.
Reality: Burnout and leadership. The Ravens have to battle against the first and find the second. I wonder if that is too much in one year. The divisional final was won in Denver on one play, the Super Bowl on a four-play goal-line stand. Not this year. Newsome needs more time.
Prediction: 3rd in the AFC North .
Reason for Pessimism: Since 1999 and their "re-entry" to the NFL, the Browns have had seven head coaches and 10 offensive co-ordinators. So why not do it again? Enter Rod Chudzinski as another new head coach, which means a new playbook to learn on offence, defence and special teams. The Browns spent two years drafting talent to play a 4-3 defence and, you guessed it, will now go back to a 3-4. In free agency they lost their best returner and most explosive player in Josh Cribbs, plus their steadiest player in kicker Phil Dawson. It's no wonder that the Browns have averaged 4.5 wins in the last five seasons. They have never won more than six games in that span. Winning six this year would be a surprise.
Reason for Optimism: The best move that Chudzinski made was hiring two good co-ordinators in Ray Horton (defence) and Norv Turner (offence). Turner is exceptional with quarterbacks. Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers had their best years with Norv Turner. If Turner wants QB Brandon Weeden to improve, RB Trent Richardson has to stay healthy -- that would take a lot of pressure off the quarterback. Weeden has a lot to prove with fellow 2012 draftees Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and even Ryan Tannehill appearing to be on their way. Weeden is not in their league – yet. Horton is young and respected due to how he improved Arizona on defence, and Cleveland has some talent for him to work with on that side of the ball.
Reality: Everything old is new again, and having a relative unknown at quarterback is too much. The bottom line with the Browns is that they have some good players, just not enough of them. At least this year the Browns have a sense of direction, but they are still in a tough division, and have the NFC North on the schedule.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC North.