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NFL PREVIEW AFC North


Published: Sun, September 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


BALTIMORE RAVENS
2004 record: 9-7.
Coach: Brian Billick (seventh year, 61-42).
Players added: CB Samari Rolle; WR Derrick Mason; G Keydrick Vincent; LB Tommy Polley; LB Jim Nelson; DT Tron LaFavor.
Players lost: CB Gary Baxter; CB Corey Fuller; LB Edgerton Hartwell; WR Kevin Johnson; C Casey Rabach; K Wade Richey; LB T.J. Slaughter; QB Kordell Stewart; WR Travis Taylor; G Bennie Anderson; FB Jamel White; LB Peter Boulware; OT Ethan Brooks; DE Marques Douglas; CB Ray Walls; LB Cornell Brown.
Draft recap: 1. WR Mark Clayton; 2. DE Dan Cody; 2. OT Adam Terry; 4. C Jason Brown; 5. FB Justin Green; 6. QB Derek Anderson; 7. LB Mike Smith.
Of note: Former Florida State standout Tommy Polley will be the first player from a Baltimore-area high school to start for the city's professional team.
Key question: Can the offense finally match the defense's production? Another year for Kyle Boller will help, and so will the addition of free agent receiver Derrick Mason, who played with the Titans last season.
Playoff outlook: Fair to good. With their defense, the Ravens will always be competitive. Baltimore's mediocre offense has to perform better if the Ravens are entertaining any thoughts of supplanting the Steelers in the division.
CINCINNATI BENGALS
2004 record: 8-8.
Coach: Marvin Lewis (third year, 16-16).
Players added: DT Bryan Robinson; QB Craig Krenzel.
Players lost: P Kyle Richardson; LB Frank Chamberlin; DT Tony Williams; LB Kevin Hardy; C Jerry Fontenot; CB Dennis Weathersby; S Rogers Beckett; G Alex Sulfstead; OT Adam Kieft (injury).
Draft recap: 1. DE David Pollack; 2. LB Odell Thurman; 3. WR Chris Henry; 4. C Eric Ghiaciuc; 5. OT Adam Kieft; 6. WR Tab Perry; 7. DE Jonathan Fanene.
Of note: The Bengals have an NFL-worst 14 consecutive years without a playoff appearance.
Key question: Can the Bengals finally get over the hump? Lewis has slowly built a tough defense and made the Bengals into a decent team. Avoiding a slow start and losing streaks will be key to finally making the playoffs.
Playoff outlook: Fair to good. Cincinnati showed some signs of being a playoff team last season. Led by Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson, they might possess the best offense in the division. Now it's just a matter of putting it together. A wild card would not surprise.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
2004 record: 4-12.
Coach: Romeo Crennel (first year).
Players added: G Joe Andruzzi; CB Gary Baxter; OL Cosey Coleman; QB Trent Dilfer; P Kyle Richardson; DT Jason Fisk; LB Matt Stewart; CB Brian Williams; RB Reuben Droughns; S Brian Russell; QB Doug Johnson; OT L.J. Shelton; S Antwan Harris; LB Orlando Ruff; G Mike Pucillo, G Dave Yovanovits.
Players lost: QB Jeff Garcia; CB Anthony Henry; S Robert Griffith; DT Gerard Warren; CB Lewis Sanders; DE Courtney Brown; OT Joaquin Gonzalez; DT Michael Myers; DE Ebenezer Ekuban; S Earl Little; LB Warrick Holdman; LB Barry Gardner; OT Damion Cook; QB Kelly Holcomb; DE Tyrone Rogers; LB Eric Westmoreland; G Paul Zukauskas; TE Chad Mustard; QB Luke McCown; OT Ross Verba; TE Keith Heinreich (injury); TE Kellen Winslow II (injury).
Draft recap: 1. WR Braylon Edwards; 2. S Brodney Pool; 3. QB Charlie Frye; 4. CB Antonio Perkins; 5. DE David McMillan; 6. OLB Nick Speegle; 6. DT Andrew Hoffman; 7. OT Jon Dunn.
Of note: After seven seasons since their return to the NFL, the Browns will have their first general manager. Former Ravens front-office man Phil Savage takes the reins from former head coach Butch Davis, who assumed GM duties during his tenure in Cleveland.
Key question: How long will it take Crennel to build a defense? The new Browns coach will have his hands full with this group of no-name veterans. But with Savage on board to acquire the defenders, it shouldn't take Crennel too long to create another Patriot-like defense.
Playoff outlook: Poor. The Browns are destined again to the AFC North cellar. The offense is adequate with the acquisition of Droughns and the drafting of Edwards, but there's not enough firepower to make up for a shoddy defense.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
2004 record: 16-2.
Coach: Bill Cowher (14th year, 138-86-1).
Players added: WR Cedrick Wilson; K Jeff Reed.
Players lost: LB Kendrell Bell; OT Oliver Ross; G Keydrick Vincent; DT Kendrick Clancy; S Ainsley Battles; WR Plaxico Burress.
Draft recap: 1. TE Heath Miller; 2. CB Bryant McFadden; 3. OT Trai Essex; 4. WR Fred Gibson; 5. ILB Rian Wallace; 6. G Chris Kemoeatu; 7. DE Shaun Nua; 7. RB Noah Herron.
Of note: The Steelers became the first team from the AFC to go 15-1. They also became only the second 15-1 NFL team not to reach the Super Bowl (1998 Vikings).
Key question: Can Ben Roethlisberger avoid a sophomore slump? Big Ben surprised the NFL last season after coming out of Miami (Ohio). How well he fares this season might determine the Steelers' postseason hopes.
Playoff outlook: Excellent. Despite losing Burress and Bell, Pittsburgh has enough on both sides of the ball to be the class of the division.
Knight-Ridder Tribune


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