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The four AFC North teams are heading towards what promises to be a very competitive campaign in 2006. Other than the NFC South and the NFC East, the AFC North is arguably the toughest division in the NFL from top to bottom. Optimism abounds as each team prepares for training camp.
The Pittsburgh Steelers believe that they have re-tooled their roster and are poised to make a run at a repeat Super Bowl visit. The 2005 Divisional Champion Cincinnati Bengals could return all of their starters and take that proverbial next step with a healthy Carson Palmer. Many observers believe that the Cleveland Browns have made the off-season upgrades to their roster that will result in vast improvements on the field, while the Baltimore Ravens appear to have filled in the missing pieces of the puzzle, including the largest piece, the Quarterback, to contend for the play-offs. 
IN THE HOOD takes a closer look at the AFC North teams as training camp begins for the 2006 season.

Cleveland Browns

2005 record: 6–10 

Outlook: The Browns begin the second year of the Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage regime with high hopes. The implementation of the blueprint to re-build the Browns into a playoff contender has begun in earnest. The off-season has been a busy one for this group as the team has made significant moves in free agency and in the draft to upgrade the talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Veteran free agent additions such as Joe Jurevicius (WR) Joe Andruzzi (2005) (OL), LeCharles Bentley (OL), Cosey Coleman (2005) (OL) and Willie McGinest (LB) add experience, leadership and stability to a roster that had been in a state of flux during the Butch Davis era. Look for the Browns to improve their play on the field and become a much more competitive and tougher opponent in 2006.
Positives: The return to the field of a healthy Braylon Edwards (WR) and Kellen Winslow, Jr (TE) will provide a higher level of explosiveness to the offense. The interior portion of the offensive line (Andruzzi, Bentley, and Coleman) will enable the rushing game to gain positive yards inside and allow Charlie Frye (QB) to step up into the pocket to deliver the ball. Reuben Droughns had a productive 2005 and appears to have ended the on-going turnstile of running backs in
Cleveland . Young defenders like D’Qwell Jackson (LB) and Kamerion Wimbley (LB) will have the opportunity to learn on the job playing beside the veteran Patriot, Willie McGinest.
Question Marks: The secondary remains vulnerable and is in need of leadership from players such as Gary Baxter who returns from injury. An injury to Charlie Frye would be devastating to the team’s growth. The back-up is Ken Dorsey (QB) who has been around the league for years and the rap on him is “questionable arm strength.”  While the interior of the offensive line has been solidified, the tackle position has been unspectacular and is in need of bolstering. Can Reuben Droughns continue building upon 2005 and end the revolving door at the running back slot and emerge as a dominant force to augment the passing attack?
IN THE HOOD skinny: The 2006 version of the Cleveland Browns will begin to demonstrate the ability to contend in future playoff hunts in the division. The back end of the schedule includes this 7 game stretch: @ Atlanta,
City, @ Pittsburgh, @ Baltimore, Tampa Bay . The playoffs would appear to be a reach for this group, but an 8-8 or 9-7 finish is not out of the question and would leave the team in a position to possibly make a run in 2007. Even if their record shows little improvement from 2005, this team will improve on the field. If nothing else it should be a fun year for Browns fans.

Cincinnati Bengals

2005 Record: 11-6, AFC North Champions 

Outlook: The Bengals begin 2006 as the defending division champions and the belief of many observers that they would have marched farther in the 2005 Super Bowl chase had Carson Palmer not gone down to injury in the playoff tilt with the Steelers. In order to stabilize a defense that ranked 10th  in the AFC in rushing yards allowed at a 4.3 average yards per carry, the team signed veterans Sam Adams (DT) and Dexter Jackson (DB). Four of the first five players drafted in 2006 are defensive players. Coupled with the return of a healthy Madieu Williams (S) and the experience gained in 2005 by Odell Thurman (LB) and David Pollock (LB), the Bengals believe that the ingredients are in place on the defensive side of the ball to make vast strides in 2006. Few teams in the league can match the potent passing attack of Carson Palmer (QB), Chad Johnson (WR) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (WR) and the running game spearheaded by the often powerful and underrated Rudi Johnson (RB). 
Positives: If Carson Palmer returns to the line-up by opening day and the remaining players stay healthy during the preseason, the Bengals will have returned all 22 starters from their division championship team. The defense should improve with the aforementioned additions and experience gained in 2005. Willie Anderson and Levi Jones at Tackle lead an offensive line, often underrated, that has begun to round into championship contender form. On a whole, the offensive skill players are amongst the best in the business.
Question Marks: Past reputation aside, Marvin Lewis has failed to put a first rate, dominating defense on the field in
Cincinnati . While the ingredients for that appear to be in place it has yet to come together; a more dominant and productive defense must be there in order for this team to advance in the playoffs. All bets are off if Carson Palmer goes down. Does anybody out there believe that Anthony Wright (QB) can lead this team to victory over the long term given his penchant for overall inconsistency and poor execution in the red zone? The team has also had more than its fair share of “police blotter” activity over the past several months, i.e. Chris Henry, Frostee Rucker, et al. And let’s not forget the four game suspension to start the season for Odell Thurman.  Think back to Chad Johnson’s tirade with the coaching staff after the playoff loss and you have to wonder if the intangibles are in place for this team to take the next step.
IN THE HOOD skinny: On paper, the Bengals have the talent to repeat as Division Champions and to make a long march in the playoffs. In 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals got off to a fast start and led the division wire-to-wire. This year they open @ Kansas City,
, @ Pittsburgh, New England, bye, @ Tampa Bay,
Carolina . This schedule is a very difficult one on the front end. Given the aforementioned intangible factors and the fact that the defense will need time to gel, ITH sees enough signs that point to a regression. Unless this team has an incredibly fast start, it will be hard pressed to win 10 games in 2006 and may not make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2006 record: 15-5, AFC Champions, Super Bowl Champions
Outlook: Imagine the thrill of winning a Super Bowl as the 6th seeded team in the competitive AFC. The Steelers road march through the playoffs in 2005 was a remarkable accomplishment, and the team has the ingredients available to repeat in 2006. The emergence of Ben Roethlisberger as a star player, a top rated defense with plenty of youth and an emerging secondary, and the best offensive line in the AFC should enable the Steelers to win back the AFC North title. Bill Cowher returns a proven solid coaching staff for the third straight year without change to guide the 2006 version of the Steelers. Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward and top defender Troy Polamalu return to provide the on-the-field leadership needed to make another playoff run.
Positives: The Steelers come into training camp boasting the number 1 total defense in the AFC (#4 overall) from 2005. The front line anchored by Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith is tops in allowing the linebackers to run free. The linebacking corps of James Farrior, Larry Foote, and Joey Porter is tough on the run and applies unrelenting pressure to the passer. Their performance in the playoffs really elevated the Steelers and caused all kinds of problems in pass protection for the Colts and the Broncos. The secondary is young and emerging into a solid and dependable unit. The unquestioned strength of the Steelers is the offensive line. This unit, anchored by veteran Center Jeff Hartings, performs at the highest levels enabling new skill players to merge into the offense in a seamless manner.
Question Marks:
Pittsburgh lost three key players: Jerome Bettis (RB), Antwaan Randle-El (WR), and Kemo Von Oelhoffen (DE). The Steelers used the draft to find replacements for Randle-El (Santonio Holmes) and Von Oelhoffen (Orien Harris). They hope to use the combination of Duce Staley and Willie Parker to replace Bettis, and Verron Haynes will be the third down back. How much leadership left the locker room when Bettis departed? Will Holmes be able to make the game changing plays that Randle-El provided? Overall, this team has few question marks relative to its competition.
IN THE HOOD skinny: The Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC North and are the class of the division. The stability and tenure of the coaching staff and the talent levels and skill of the offensive and defensive lines differentiate this team from the others in the division. That is why ITH believes that the Steelers deserve and have earned the role of favorite to win the division championship. However, the gap is not that wide; and it is possible that a three way battle for the division crown between the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals will occur in 2006.

Baltimore Ravens
2005 Record: 6-10
Outlook: The Baltimore Ravens signed Steve McNair (QB) to take the reins of a moribund offense that has talented pass catchers in Todd Heap (TE), Derrick Mason (WR) and a blossoming Mark Clayton (WR). The team is hopeful that Jamal Lewis (RB) will return to his early career form and if not proven veteran Mike Anderson (RB) is waiting in the wings. For second year Offensive Coordinator Jim Fassel, having McNair in the fold with the skill players at hand will allow him to install a more dynamic offensive scheme. The defense was rated 5th in the NFL and 2nd in the AFC with Ray Lewis (LB) and Ed Reed (S) having missed much of the season with injuries. The unit also failed to produce turnovers at the rate the Ravens have been accustomed to seeing. The team invested in this unit by adding free agent Trevor Pryce (DE) and rookie Haloti Ngata (NT) to strengthen the defensive front. 
Positives: The additions to the defensive front 7 should enable more turnover productivity from back end players like Chris McAlister (CB) and Ed Reed. At the same time, the presence of Ngata and Pryce and the possible emergence of Dan Cody (LB) should take some attention away from Terrell Suggs (LB), which should create more sack opportunities for the former Pro Bowler coming off a disappointing season. Adalius Thomas (Slash) and Bart Scott (LB) emerged as future leaders of the linebacking corps. Derrick Mason (WR) provided the team with productivity not seen from the wide-out position since the retirement of Quadry Ismail. Mike Anderson, Musa Smith, P.J. Daniels and Kyle Boller as back-ups to Lewis and McNair give the Ravens ample depth in the backfield. 
Question Marks: There are several question marks, but 3 are key and critical to the potential success for the Ravens. The offensive line regressed significantly in 2005. Some players were out of shape and injuries impeded progress. Will the off season conditioning and a sprinkling of youth on the roster enabled this unit to step up in 2006? The safety position vacated by Will Demps will be a competition amongst Gerome Sapp, Dawan Landry and others. Will that be a coverage weakness against the likes of Miller (twice), Winslow (twice), Gates, and Gonzales? Can Chris McAlister return to his former Pro Bowl form, or will he continue to allow receivers such as Hines Ward and Chad Johnson to get into his head and trigger a lack of discipline and control?

IN THE HOOD skinny: The Ravens struggled mightily in 2005. Brian Billick was called to task by the owner, and management has made several moves to right the ship. It’s time for the players to heed the call and play like a team. Their time is now. Management can no longer tolerate the “me first” attitude. ITH believes that Steve McNair brings an element of leadership to the offense that has been missing since the departure of Shannon Sharpe. Higher productivity by the offense translates into less pressure on the defense, which will yield a fresher and sharper unit at crunch time. Look for the Ravens to contend for a playoff spot, but they have way too many question marks to assume with confidence that they will achieve one.

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About Eric Buckner

Eric Buckner is a native of Baltimore and has lived in the area his entire life. A graduate of Towson University , Eric has been a student of professional football since the day he wept in his grandfather's bedroom after the Baltimore Colts were upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. A loyal fan of the Colts and subsequently the Ravens, Eric's passion for the NFL is unwavering as evidenced by his near flawless attendance record at Ravens' games. He's missed only one preseason game -- back in 2005. We'll cut him some slack since he was on his honeymoon. You won't find Eric slacking when it comes to covering the AFC North for ProFootball24x7.com.   More from Eric Buckner

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