The AFC North in 2003
By Tony George / Midwest Sports Consultants
#1. Pittsburgh Steelers (tie)
Projected record 9-7
Gone is Kordell Stewart, and hello Tommy Maddox as the full time starter this season, and what an arsenal of weapons he has to spread it around to. Many has these guys winning it all in 2002, but they failed to stop anyone on defense. Expectations are high, but many questions still loom large for the Steelers this season.
We have some preseason hype here with the running back situation between Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, but in either case it is a win/win situation for the Steelers, and with a solid group of receivers headed up by Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. Both these wide outs are capable of the big play, and with Antwaan Randle EL in the mix; look for some excitement again on the offensive side. The offensive line is good, big and deep and guard Alan Faneca is one of the best in the NFL. If Tommy Maddox picks up where he left off in 2002, this should be a high-octane offense that has numerous ways to hurt any team, out of any scheme that is thrown at them. Charlie Batch provides some experience and depth at QB, but is not in the mold of Maddox, so Steelers fans hope Maddox stays healthy in 2003.
The weakness in 2002 of the Steelers was the defensive backfield. Some steps have been taken to plug some holes, but I have questions about the secondary again. A key draft pick was all world safety Troy Polamalu out of USC, and he should be a good one, but trust me, he will need experience before he really becomes a factor. The corners, Washington and Scott remain and must do a better job of defending the deep ball, since the defensive line is solid at stopping the run, and weak in the pass rush department. The wins will come in a weak division, but can the Steelers stop anyone from throwing all over them? I see no new arrivals in free agency to prove otherwise. A Playoff team that goes nowhere again in 2003, but a play on team with the Totals and the over against weak defensive teams and I see them in allot of shootouts this season. They play KC, Denver, San Fran, and Cleveland all on the road this season, and with no improvement in the defense, they could be 0-4 in those games.
#1. Cleveland (tie)
Projected record 9-7
This is a big year for Butch Davis and his staff, and if they want job security they better at least have 9 wins. I think this squad has developed young talent and have some key components in 2003 to make a run. Once again this team drafted well, especially on the defensive side and picked up Lee Suggs out of Virginia Tech in the fourth round, which was a steal, and will add depth behind William Green at RB. If this team gets hungry, they could be dangerous.
With little free agent movement by the Browns, they seem content to add experience with a young team. On offense a storm is brewing at QB, with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb. Tim Couch should sit it out for a while and let Holcomb give them a chance. Couch is inconsistent and is a turnover freak, and in my opinion is inaccurate about 50% of the time with his throws. Regardless, it will be an issue in fall camp and a crucial decision by the coaching staff that may decide the fate of the early season in terms of wins and losses. The good news is they are deep at QB, RB, TE and especially at wide receiver, starting with speedster Quincy Morgan. Expect allot of running with double tight end sets and a controlled passing game. The deep ball is questionable because of an average offensive line, but they run block well. If Holcomb gets a shot, he can throw the mid range and deep ball pretty well, and is very smart at reading defense`s. Let`s hope logic rules when picking a QB this season, instead of playing the guy that makes the most money. The defensive line is KEY for the success of this team. They are young and need some chemistry, and Courtney Brown has been injury riddled since day one. They have shuffled this line up and picked up Antonio Garay out of Boston College in the sixth round, and word has it he will be a factor in camp, they really like the kid. Losing Corey Fuller to the Ravens is a big loss for the secondary. Both Henry and McCutcheon are average and this, like the Steelers, is this teams biggest weakness. Special teams are very solid here and Northcutt is a good return guy and Phil Dawson was one of the best kickers in 2002. Overall another year of decisions for Butch Davis. QB problems aside, this will be a solid running team, and if the DL can step up and force teams to throw more, in zone coverage, the secondary will have an easier time of it in 2003, time will tell. A PLAY AGAINST team at home this season, they play better on the road. Look for any numbers above 5, and play against them at home.
#3. Baltimore Ravens
Projected record 7-9
Many people and pundants like the Ravens this season, I do not. No quarterback is a big problem for me with this team, they have lacked talent at this position, even when Trent Dilfer was winning a Super Bowl! They should have retained Jeff Blake and benched the inept Chris Redman. Salary cap problems hurt them last year, but this year will be the test for the Ravens on offense to see if they can play with the talent they have. I fear they will not, and simply cannot rely on a once dominating defense, that now is simply above average.
On offense, it starts and ends with Jamal Lewis, and they added depth in the draft at RB by picking up Musa Smith out of Georgia. What the Ravens needed and did not get was a running back to catch the ball out of the backfield. With a weak QB corp, and only one go to receiver, TE Todd Heap, and a weak WR group at best, the running game will be featured. Pretty easy as an opponent to figure out what to practice on huh? Adding veteran WR Frank Sanders will help, but expect the running game to follow behind OL Jon Ogden again in 2003. Expect teams to know that and once again stop them.
The defense is sound as always, but the defensive line is a question mark in my mind, as the LB.s and DB.s simply have to make too many plays against the run, which opens up the pass against an average defensive backfield, which was shored up by picking up Corey Fuller in the off-season. Ray Lewis and company are excellent, but without some scoring output from the offense, this team will be average at best. You cannot expect Matt Stover to kick 3 or 4 times a game with a single touchdown thrown in to beat teams and get above the .500 mark this season. Opening at Pittsburg will determine how far this team has fallen, or if they have the stuff in 2003, I vote they do not. That game will be a HUGE test for the defense. I would say play against them on the road in their division, as they were just 2-4 in their division last season, and those two wins were against the Bengal.s.
#4. Cincinnati Bengal.s
Projected record 4-12
No surprise here in 2003. However I do see some improvement on the defense and President Mike Brown got off his checkbook alittle in 2003. A new head coach may inject some spirit, but Marvin Lewis has his hands full to say the least. The off-season was good to the Bengal.s, with Carson Palmer expected to step in and play at QB as a rookie after Jon Kitna again fails, as he always does. At running back the same story, Corey Dillon, one of the NFL.s best, but with no help and a very weak offensive line. The WR.s are solid and with Warrick, Washington and Johnson, and should be a threat if the line can block. Numereous question marks surround this team on offense.
The defense was the big push in the off-season, obtaining Kevin Hardy at LB, DE Duane Clemons, CB Tory James and DT John Powell in free agency. They better step it up in 2003, as the defense gave more points per game than any other team in the NFL last year. That explains a 2-14 record, but I see vast improvement, especially with Lewis at head coach. Justin Smith is a Pro Bowl type lineman and with the additions made to this defense, I expect them to be tons better at stopping people both on the ground and through the air, but it will not win them games without scoring help from their offense, so same old story again. This team is 2 or 3 years away, and hold some promise in 2003 to be competetive, especially on defense. A on team getting big numbers aganst average offense`s in 2003, they should be able to compete and hold the scoring down, proved their offense can sustain some drives.
The AFC East in 2003
#1. Miami Dolphins
Projected record 11-5
If defense wins championships, and a sound running game thrown into the mix for good flavor, then the Dolphins have as good as shot as anyone in the AFC to go all the way in 2003, and are my odds on choice to win the AFC Title out of this division.
Starting with the offense, Norv Turner has a host of stars and backups this season to throw into the mix. The QB position has depth with Brian Greise from the Bronco.s, and this may be a source of controversy as the season goes on, if Jay Fiedler struggles and loses games, as he is known to do. What ever the case may be they have talent here, and at running back, they are awesome with Ricky Williams who resurged after a bad deal in New Orleans to led the NFL in rushing and missed not one practice or game in 2002. Having Travis Minor as a back up here is HUGE, and with Robert Conrad and Deon Dryer at FB, this is a lethal combination of talent behind the ball. The weak spot is at WR with James McKnight the only returning player and hopes lie in Derrius Thompson from the Redskins who had a big year last season. The tight ends are both better blockers and catchers, so the run game will be featured again in 2003 behind a pretty solid line. Look for a lot of under.s and low scores from an offense that can chew up a clock in a hurry.
The defense is off the map again, with Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, and with the addition of Junior Seau at LB, Terrell Buckley at CB and Sammy Knight at safety, this unit will dominate opponents again, and the DB.s are the best in the NFL in my book. This will be one of the best defensive units in the NFL in 2003. They rush the passer well, pursue the ball well, have speed, and cover short and deep routes tight, as well as having the ability to break on the ball and make plays out of the secondary.
Special teams will improve with Travis Minor getting the return work, and Mare at kicker. If this team stays focused and sticks to the fundamentals, they will be very tough to beat and if they stay healthy have an excellent shot at the title. A go with team in 2003.
#2. New England Patriots
Projected record 10-6
After winning the Super Bowl with smoke and mirrors and a blown call in the AFC Championship game in 2001, the Pats came back down to earth in 2003. An aging defense has been revamped and the Pat.s adjusted to a quick read passing game in the latter stages of 2002 that seemed to work well with QB Tom Brady, who is as advertised. Getting Kliff Kingsbury from Texas Tech in the 6th round was a steal and he may move up the depth chart in fall camp, he has a great arm and plenty of poise.
The Pats will rely on Antowain Smith at RB but are deep with big play guys Kevin Faulk and second year player J.R. Redmond. The fullback position is solid with all world Fred McCrary, but in my book speed is a problem here with this backfield and J.R. Redmond needs to step up. The WR position is above average with Troy Brown headlining the cast and Deion Branch showed excellent speed and skills in 2002 before injuries ate him up. The TE area is up in the air with Dan Graham and Christian Fauri who are both solid players and excellent blockers, and both should see plenty of time this season. A Solid mix of pass and run should keep this team in many games this season, and with Tom Brady at the helm, I like this offense.
The defense is solid again with excellent DB.s led by Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. Age is a factor here but so is experience and these guys hit hard and cover routes well. They also are deep in this area. The DL is the weakness so expect teams that can run the ball, to once again rack up some yards but with first round draft choice Ty Warren coming in from Texas, the line should shore up at the mid point, because this rookie is good. The linebackers are solid with Johnson, Bruschi and Phifer, but they are aging but I feel this tandem has a solid year two left in them. Injuries may play at part as the seasons goes on with this veteran unit.
Special teams are solid and the coaching staff is excellent as long as Head Coach Bill Belichick lets the offense open up. Against a team that can throw the ball, but struggles running, this team will be a play on team, especially at home.
#3. Buffalo Bills
Projected record 8-8
The Bills could sneak into the Playoffs, but they will need some help and last year Kevin Gilbride.s offense clicked early then struggled behind the arm of Drew Bledsoe.
The offense starts and ends with Bledsoe, and losing Peerless Price to the Falcons hurts this offense, who may rely on the legs of RB Travis Henry more in 2003. Eric Moulds is a Pro Bowl type wide out and the #1 draft choice was RB McGahee out of Miami, but it is yet to be seen if he is 100% in 2003 with his knee injury. Olandis Gary gets second call and is a solid backup and could start for many teams, so with a weak offensive line as far as run blocking, look for Bledsoe to pass it around and set up the running game more in 2003 to find success. This team is deep at running back, but if Bledsoe goes down, they could be in trouble with a predictable offense.
The defense gave up huge plays last year, and the pass rush was weak at best, so getting Chris Kelsay out of Nebraska at rush end may add some speed to the end position. They added plenty of talent in free agency here with Spikes at LB, Sam Adams at DT, and DE Keith McKenzie, which should add some real firepower in stopping the run, and the DB.s are solid with Winfield Nate Clements. These guys are solid stoppers but with only 19 takeaways from this defense in 2002, this defense needs to establish itself early. This team made allot of smart moves in the off-season and drafted well, and played the free market as well as anyone, so there are many intangibles to this team in 2003, and they could be a sleeper in the East. The defense could be formidable and that will be the key to this teams success.
#4. New York Jets
Projected record 7-9
After a wonderful season in 2002, I think the Jets will struggle, mainly due to the division they are in. The lack of big play capability hurt them when it counted down the stretch in 2002, and Chad Pennington now must play a full year with huge expectations on him.
The QB position is solid here, but Testaverde is an aging backup with no mobility if called upon. They picked up Brooks Bollinger out of Wisconsin, who may or may not be the guy to challenge for the #2 spot if needed. The RB position is very solid with LaMont Jordan and Curtis Martin, who never fully recovered from an injury last year. The big question mark is how well Martin performs this year, especially with a predictable offense. This will be a key factor with the Jets on offense in 2003. Paul Hackett must mix it up and go deep this season to have a chance to hang tough in this division. His play calling ability is slipping in my opinion. Losing Laveranus Coles at WR was huge for these guys, he was the big play threat, and I do not think Curtis Conway fits into this system, their free agent replacement. The OL is solid, but since this is a quick play west cost style offense, they rarely had to sustain blocks long, which concerns me when playing from behind. Teams will try to rattle Pennington this season and look for a ton of blitz.s to be thrown at him this year. Man to man coverage will be seen allot due to lack of speed and big play ability with their wide outs.
The Jets needed speed on defense this season, and it looks like they did not add it in the off-season, which will hurt them. They are decent run stoppers on the line, but the LB.s are aging and I am not sure that injuries here will not hurt them. Sam Cowart is good, the rest are average and the DB.s had a ton of penalties in 2003 and gave up the big plays allot. They are an average group at best and lack the speed needed to cover deep routes. Given the improvements by other teams in this division, and the lack of them for the Jets, I see them as a go against team, especially on the road in the AFC East this season.
NOTES: All in all one of the toughest divisions in the AFC without doubt in my book. The Dolphins have all the components to go the distance here and the Bills could be a real sleeper. The teams in this division should spend the most part of the season beating up on each other, and the spreads in these games will no doubt be tight. Simply put, Miami is clearly the cream of the crop and can make a Super Bowl run this season if they stay healthy and would be worth a prop bet to win the AFC championship in 2003.