AFC North and NFC North

Since I'm going to be gone this weekend, I'm going to give you a double dose of my season preview, both AFC and NFC Norths.

In the AFC North, I like the Ravens this season (like I said I'm a sucker for teams with good defenses and power running games)

For the NFC North, Minnesota is the clear favorite, what with a Packers team in decline and a Detroit team that is still wet behind the ears.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (Playoffs)
I really like the Ravens to win their division but I don't think they are better than the Colts or Jets. The newly implemented 4-6 scheme will make the sixth ranked defense even better this season. Additionally they finally fixed their passing woes by adding veteran receiver Derrick Mason and the most developed rookie receiver Mark Clayton. Assuming Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap stay healthy this season the Ravens should win their division.

The biggest question mark (and potential problem) for the Ravens will be the play of Kyle Boller. The guy is talented enough to play the position, but he makes poor decisions and hasn't full matured as a quarterback. I caught the first two quarters of the Ravens-Eagles preseason game, during which I saw Boller throw two bad interceptions, fumbles the ball, plus he nearly injured one of his receivers going over the middle by throwing the ball too high. Boller has Brett Faver disease, he thinks he can make every throw, and he puts too much steam on his passes which leads them to drift high.

On a sidenote, the Ravens have an odd schedule this year. Through six game in September and October they have only two tough games (Colts and Jets), then have a really tough November (two games apiece against Pittsburgh and Cincy, plus a game at Jacksonville) then a easier December (only two tough game against Houston and Minnesota). I could see the Ravens easily going 12 and 4 this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers (Playoffs)
For all the hype about rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, this team was led by its rushing attack and defense. You put Eli Manning on that team last year and it beats the Colts in the playoffs (and yes, I have no way to prove this).

I like the Steelers defense but I don't think they can repeat as the number one defense in the NFL again. And the rushing attack doesn't look to be as good as last season considering that Jerome Bettis considered retiring last season and Duce Staley will miss the first couple games of this season. Plaxico Burress took a lot of pressure off of Hines Ward, and it will be interesting to see if Antwaan Randle-El can replicate Burress's effect on a defense.

Cincinatti Bengals
For the first time in a long time they are talking about the playoffs in Cincinatti. Nobody tell them the Bengals are a year away from the playoffs.

This division is simply too competitive for the Bengals to make the playoffs. I like the Carson Palmer to Chad Johnson connection which could surpass Peyton to Harrison as the best throwing-cathcing combo in the next couple of years. They even have a runningback named Rudi. I just don't think their defense (ranked 21st last season) can keep them in close games this season.

Cleveland Browns
Their big offseason acquisitions are Romeo Crennel, Trent Dilfer and Ruben Droughns. They should benefit from an easier schedule this season but they will be lucky to win a game against a divisional opponent.

But hey, they have the Dog Pound . . . that's pretty cool right?

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings (Playoffs)
No Moss? No problem.

Daunte Culpepper is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, all he did last season was lead the league in completions (379) and passing yards (4717). Culpepper has plenty of young talent to complement him on offense. The Vikings don't really expect first round pick Troy Williamson to produce this year, instead the pressure to replace Randy Moss has been placed on third year receiver Nate Burleson. If the defense can rank in the top half of the NFL, the Vikings will easily win the NFC North.

Detroit Lions
The Lion's braintrust reminds me of the guy in my fantasy league who drafts three receivers with his first three picks.

It's easy to fall in love with receivers, but I would rather build my team around a good quarterback and a good defense. The Lions have neither, yet.

Harrington may turn out to be a servicable quarterback (especially when surrounded by so much first round talent) but he has a long way to go before he can prove himself as a winner, and somebody to lead his team to the playoffs. I can easily see the Lions ending up with a better record than Green Bay, they have more young talent than the Packers. But like I wrote, Harrington has to prove himself this season.

Green Bay Packers
The Packers get a year older and farther away from making it to the playoffs.

They didn't take any steps to improve their miserable defense, and they lost two of their starting guards. As long as they have Brett Favre the Packers will remain competitive, but if they have to rely on Favre, Green Bay will not be able to make it to the playoffs. Favre has been slipping the last couple of years and nobody in the mainstream media has been willing to say it. Since 2001 Favre has thrown nine touchdowns and fourteen interceptions in the playoffs and has gone 2 and 4.

Chicago Bears (ok, this is what I wrote two weeks before Rex Grossman broke his ankle)
If the Bears could stay healthy they could make it back to the playoffs. But that's a big if.

They have the most talented defense in their division, and Cedric Benson and Muhsin Muhammed bring a much needed boost to the offense. The key is the quarterback position for the Bears. Last season, the qb position was a revolving door (I think at one point Shaun King was taking snaps). When he's healthy Rex Grossman is the best quarterback the Bears have and can win games. If I had to choose between Grossman and Harrington, I would take Grossman. But Grossman has struggled to stay healthy, and until he can stay healthy for an entire season the Bears will struggle to find a winning record.

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