This Thursday marks the start of the NFL season, and what better way to start my annual previews than with the division I'll be watching the closest?
The AFC North is largely considered one of the top two divisions in the league, due in large part to every team but the Browns. The Steelers, Bengals and Ravens are all threats to win the division, and the Bengals and Steelers are both legit Super Bowl contenders.
Three of the four teams in the have the potential to be good this year, but all have questions at the quarterback position, which is a great equalizer.
Teams listed in projected order of finish. Estimated record in parenthesis.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Nobody would be questioning this team if not for the misadventures of Ben Roethlisberger. Nearly killed in a motorcycle accident this summer, he will now miss at least the opener recovering from an appendectomy.
If not for Roethlisberger stealing the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, the main question on this team would be running back. The retirement of Jerome Bettis creates a shuffle in the backfield. Duce Staley will leave the feature back role to take over Bettis' short-yardage role. Willie Parker takes over as the feature back fulltime, but he's undersized and quick, not the thickly-built power rusher that has traditionally flourished in the Steeler offense. It will be interesting to see how coach Bill Cowher employs Parker.
The x-factor: Roethlisberger. If he can finally return to health, the Steelers are a threat to repeat. If things keep happening to him, this could be a down year in Pittsburgh.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
If the defense rises to match the weaponry on offense, the Bengals might become the class of the AFC. Carson Palmer continues to mend from a torn knee ligament, and while he might not be 100 percent this season, he will rebound enough to captain the offense effectively so long as the offensive line can compensate for his decreased mobility. As it is, Palmer has two of the top 10 receivers in the league (Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and one of the premier power backs (Rudi Johnson) at his disposal. Imagine if underachieving Chris Perry develops into a good change-of-pace back.
The x-factor: Palmer. When he finally returns to full health, the Bengals' offense can rival the Colts.
3. Baltimore Ravens (7-9)
Steve McNair would have been an awesome acquisition five years ago. Now, it's a roll of the dice at best.
There's no question he brings a list of accomplishments not seen out of a Ravens QB since Vinny Testaverde 10 years ago. But there is also no question that McNair is a nearly-flattened tube of toothpaste, and there's no telling how many more hits he has in him.
The entire Ravens offense is kind of in the same boat: old and injury-prone. Jamal Lewis has never totally recovered from the legal troubles of several years ago. Newly-acquired Mike Anderson is well past his prime. Todd Heap is arguably the team's best receiver, and his health is constantly questionable as well.
Even the vaunted Baltimore defense is getting kind of long in the tooth. Ray Lewis is entering his 11th season.
The Ravens still have the ability to be a playoff contender, but here's betting age and injuries put a crimp in their season.
The x-factor: McNair. With him, the offense stands a chance. Without him, it will be a purple nightmare.
4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
The acquisition of Hank Fraley should help everyone in Cleveland get over the LeCharles Bentley injury. Once you get past the house of horrors at the center position, the Browns actually emerged from training camp in pretty good condition. Some pleasant surprises even revealed themselves as Jerome Harrison and Jason Wright impressed enough to allow the Browns to part ways with William Green and Lee Suggs.
I still don't know what the Browns think they're doing with the backup QB position. Neither Ken Dorsey nor Derek Anderson has looked adequate. The Browns remain a Charlie Frye injury away from total disaster.
The defense is being constructed as this team's bread-and-butter, and rookie Kamerion Wimbley is quickly asserting himself as the centerpiece. If early returns are true, he will be this team's first legit pass rusher since returning to the league.
Several national outlets have pegged Wimbley as the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Just because of the difficulty of their schedule (six games against the AFC North, four against the NFC South), the Browns could go 6-10, finish in last place, and still be a markedly improved team from last year.
The x-factor: NT Ted Washington. His presence as a run stopper will allow the Browns' blitz packages to be more effective, and could pave the way for Wimbley to stake his claim as a rising star.
Up next: the AFC East