We started our slog through the NFL's eight division with the horrible NFC West, and now we finish with the rugged AFC North. The worst team in this division -- Baltimore, it says here -- would be a fringe contender in either conference's West. Whoever survives this division figures to be a battle-tested Super Bowl contender.
Or a weary, beat-up mess ripe for a first-round loss.
1. Cleveland Browns (10-6, tied for first in 2007)
If your home team is terrible and the future seems bleak, look no further than to the Browns for hope. A year ago they were coming off a 4-12 season, their second in three years. The early promise of the Romeo Crennel regime was gone. They lost their opener to arch-rival Pittsburgh 34-7. At home. The future seemed, oh, what's the word? Bleak. That's the word.
The future arrived the next week and it was a peach. Crennel benched starting quarterback -- it just feels crazy to type these words -- Charlie Frye and handed the ball to Derek Anderson, who figured to keep the seat warm for first-rounder Brady Quinn, who had stupidly held out and missed training camp. He made a few extra bucks, and allowed Anderson to become the Browns quarterback of the future.
Anderson torched the Cincinnati Bengals for a 51-45 win in a game that didn't get many points for artistry but got a lot of points for getting a lot of points. The Browns never got on a roll. They never won as many as four in a row. They just played solidly all year, staying in every game and ending up 10-6. They missed the playoffs on tie-breakers.
If they'd only thrown scissors instead of paper, they might be defending champions today.
Last year was either a fluke brilliant year for Anderson or the start of a great career. The answer to that question will determine where Quinn spends the next part of his career. If Anderson's for real, he's certainly got the tools to work with in Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, newcomer Donte' Stallworth and a very good offensive line, plus running back Jamal Lewis if he as another year in him, which I don't think he does.
Anderson, Edwards and Lewis were all banged up for much of the preseason, but are expected to play Sunday against Dallas.
If the Browns can stop anybody on defense, they'd be Super Bowl contenders. To that end they traded for elite tackles Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. That's a lot. Will it be enough to complement the offense? The defense just has to be decent.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, tied for first in 2007)
The Steelers' two biggest problems are a weak offensive line that'll be even weaker without Alan Faneca, gone to the New York Jets, and their stubborn insistence that they're a smashmouth running team, when in fact they're a passing team with a terrific quarterback and a stable of fine receivers. This has been going on for years.
There have been times, such as in 2005, when they won the Super Bowl -- and I don't know if you heard this back then but Jerome Bettis was born in Detroit, where the Super Bowl was played -- when the Steelers have overcome this blind spot with punishing, opportunistic defense and a running game that was good enough.
Maybe this year will be one of those years, but I wouldn't bet that way. The Steelers were hurt last year by a lack of depth. Injuries took their toll and they followed a well-earned 7-2 start by going 3-4 down the stretch. They missed Troy Polamalu when he got hurt, and with his reckless style, that's never a long-shot to happen again. The Steelers don't look any deeper than they did last year.
If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the defense can keep themselves more or less in one piece, the Steelers could get back to the playoffs, though they don't look like Super Bowl contenders. If the offensive line is as porous as it looks, Steelers fans might have to acquaint themselves with the new backup, Byron Leftwich.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9, third place in 2007)
The Bengals no longer have Chad Johnson at wide receiver, but it's not how it looked like it was going to be all summer. Cincinnati has its best receiver back, but the team announced Thursday that it would comply with his request to be referred to by his new legal name, Chad Ocho Cinco.
Ocho Cinco spent most of the offseason whining about how he'd been blamed for the team's struggles and saying he wanted out. But he's on the team and saying he has a lot of making up to do. With him on board, whoever he is, the Bengals offense, led by quarterback Carson Palmer -- "Nueve"? -- should remain one of the best in the league.
It's the defense that's the problem. It was hapless last year, particularly against the pass, which in the NFL is kind of important. The Bengals don't appear to have made their defense better in the offseason, so it looks like the plan is to hope for it to be half-decent. That would be good enough to put the Bengals in the playoff picture, but isn't likely to happen.
4. Baltimore Ravens (5-11, fourth place in 2007)
If your home team is terrific and the future seems bright, look no further than to the Ravens for a cautionary tale. A year ago they were coming off a 13-3 season and poised to make a Super Bowl run. They went 5-11, costing coach Brian Billick his job, and are now in rebuilding mode under John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has hired Cam Cameron, a failed head coach but a fine coordinator, to run the offense, which means it'll be a high-flying passing attack. The reins have been handed to rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who last year at this time was working -- sorry, student-athleting -- at Delaware, against whatever Division I-AA is called these days competition.
Flacco's big and athletic and has an NFL arm, and it looks like the Ravens' years and years of wandering in the quarterback wilderness might soon be at an end.
But there aren't many rookie quarterbacks, even ones from big-time programs, who can come into the NFL and succeed running a high-flying passing attack. Ben Roethlisberger was tremendous as a rookie out of Miami-Ohio in 2004, but he never threw more than 25 passes in a game until Week 15, when he threw 28. He cracked 200 yards passing in four games out of 14. And not to doubt Flacco, but Ben Roethlisbergers don't come along every day.
So once again the Ravens will try to survive on their defense, a defense that's still good but getting older by the second. The Ravens have two big problems: They play in a ridiculously tough division -- there are a few divisions the Bengals would walk away with -- and their defense is going to need to be rebuilt right about the time the offense starts clicking.
All NFL previews