1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Pittsburgh Steelers were .500 or worse for 2 consecutive seasons only twice since Watergate. The last time they won less than 8 games in a season was when the immortal insurance selling Tommy Maddox was at the helm. They won all 15 of Roethlisberger’s starts in his first year, won a Super Bowl in his second and haven’t looked back since, achieving a record of 97-46 since taking the helm with two Lombardis. This is also the best offensive line Roethlisberger has had since his first Super Bowl with All-Pro Alan Faneca, with first-rounders Maurkice Puncey and Dave DeCastro (back from a missed 2012) forming the core on the inside. Last year, the Steelers were 6-3 before Ben got injured and ended 2-5. So why is everybody predicting the team’s downfall this year?
Most of the concern is over the defense, widely perceived to be too old and losing its edge. That concern, however, is completely debunked by statistics, after Pittsburgh finished last season ranked #1 in Total Defense, #1 in Passing Defense, and #2 in Rushing Defense. Yes, the team lost James Harrison, and despite his arm-wrestling intimidation antics in Cincy, he was not his former self last year. Insert Jason Worilds and SEC superstar Jarvis Jones, who is one of those players that inexplicably drops in the draft until a smart team picks him up. Troy Polamalu has gotten bitten by the injury-bug in recent years, but he’s back, currently health and ready for more Head n’ Shoulders commercials. While there are some legitimate concerns Troy’s best days are behind him, nobody is concerned about the age of the Steelers’ defensive staple: Dick Lebeau. Lebeau is 75 years old, but could probably beat you in a bar fight. As an old timer, he has the tenacity of Sookie’s grandpa warlock. Since LeBeau joined in 2004, the Steelers have had the #1 defense five times, and been in the top 5 every year but 1, where they fell to a dismal 9th. As long as this warlock is around, you can trust on the defense, and the Steelers to be contend.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
I don’t like when I predict good things for the team on Hard Knocks. My involvement with that show makes me susceptible to bias. I'm sure I'm wildly overrating Jermain Gresham simply because of his Oklahoma Drill pancake. But even when I try to take all the HBO cameras out of the analysis, I believe the Bengals are going to be good. Starting your team with a core of freak DT Geno Atkins, sticky CB Leon Hall, and superstar WR AJ Green is a core that will win you a lot of games. At QB, they have the least discussed QB who made the playoffs each year he started, Andy "Red Rocket" Dalton (for some reason, that nickname just hasn't caught on...). Only 9 QBs in NFL history have started playoff games in their first 2 years, but its still a question whether Dalton will become one of the greats (Elway, Marion, Roethlisberger, Flacco) or one of the discarded (Pat Haden, Bernie Kosar, Shaun King, and Mark Sanchez). The Bengals are eliminating all excuses for Dalton by beefing up the weapons around him, drafting Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard and signing the aforementioned Gresham. With a bevyof weapons on offense, and AJ Green as the superstar, the guy with the orange hair should have no problem leading the orange & black.
Mitigating any concerns over the Red Rocket's (oh, wait, just googled the term... so that's why that nickname hasn't caught on. gross) is a defense that is morphing into one of the NFL's best. During the second half of 2012, the Bengals had the leagues best overall defense and pass defense. Added to the fold are Terence Newman and Pacman Jones who should greatly improve the secondary along with the continued maturity of 2012 first rounder Dre Kirkpatrick. Although I'm mostly crazy about the Bengals because of Margus Hunt's crazy Estonian antics, the Bengals will absolutely be competitive in the AFC.
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Unpopular opinion alert! Michael Huff and Daryl Smith are significant upgrades over Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Although they ended up hoisting the Lombardi, Reed and Lewis spent most of last year either as defensive liabilities or injured. Emotionally, however, their departure cannot be understated. If anybody was going to be able to keep the Ravens from slipping into a Super Bowl hangover, it was the grizzly veterans who represented the heart and soul of the team.
The defending Super Bowl Champions haven't won a playoff game in the following year since the early 2000s Patriots dynasty. Some Pollyannaish fans believe Joe Flacco will resemble 2011 Aaron Rogers, and ride his hot playoff streak to an MVP-caliber performance en route to a 15-1 record. But let's not get crazy, Joe Flacco is not Aaron Rogers.Flacco ranked 12th in QBR in 2012, with 26TDs to 12INTs. He somehow avoided interceptions during his incredible playoff run, but that shouldn't be expected to last. During his first drive of the preseason what do you think happened? Flacco won’t be helped at all by the recent developments of his offense. Anquan Boldin, responsible for so many clutch catches during the playoffs, moved to San Francisco. Dennis Pitta suffered a season-ending injury. And Jacoby Jones showed up fat after his Dancing with the Stars offseason workout plan clearly failed him.
The Ravens are rebuilding, just like after their Super Bowl in 2000. They’ll remain in the picture, but I have the 8-7 Ravens losing to the 9-6 Bengals in Week 17 to determine the playoff fates of both teams.
4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
The Browns are bringing in a new regime. No, not the Brandon Weeden regime, the Jimmy Haslam era. Jimmy Haslam came in and immediately changed the culture, hiring Mike Lombardi of NFL Network and BS Report fame as the GM and Rob Chudzinski as the Head Coach. New practice facilities, new hires, and a new attitude have Cleveland about as excited as Cleveland can get about anything sports-related.
The Browns are going to be very good on defense. Opposing quarterbacks will be pressed for time with incumbent Jabaal Sheard, newly signed Paul Krueger from Baltimore, and top draft pick Barkevious Mingo barreling down on pass rush. When they do get off a throw, fantastic cornerback Joe Haden is as close to a shut-down corner as the NFL has. Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant will also be able to shut down the run up the middle. The latter, Bryant, is so strong, when he thought he couldn't get his keys to work on his house, he quickly ripped the door off the hinges with his bare hands. Later, he was rudely awoken by the real owner of the random house who wondered why a strange man was sleeping on her couch. He was promptly arrested and responsible for the greatest mug shot of all time. As long as the Browns know where they belong on the field, look for this defense to make some noise.
Brandon Weeden is not a great quarterback by any means, but the last time Chudzinski was involved with the Browns he took Derek Anderson to the Pro Bowl. So far, Weeden has been much improved in the preseason, but even when they can't throw the ball, they will be happy to hand off to Trent Richardson. Richardson was above average by producing 4.6 YPC on first down runs, but lacked the big plays, only getting 20 yards or more on 2 of his 267 carries. Even improving to the league average would give Trent 6 more second level runs this year, which would be a huge boost to the Browns offense. The Browns will be plucky this year, but with road games at New England, Green Bay and Kansas City, I don't see the playoffs for at least another year.