With Pittsburgh mired in controversy, and Cleveland still fully in the throws of a rebuilding process, the AFC North appears to be a two-horse race between our beloved Who-Deys and the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore is already an early media darling and they have unquestionably improved their team through the draft and free agency, but the Bengals are better too and they won both contests last season despite being underdogs each time. Even though the majority of the sports world will once again pick Baltimore to come out of the North in 2010, Cincinnati remains the cream of the divisional crop.
Ravens general manager, Ozzie Newsome is a man who sticks to his winning formula closely. His squads of the past have typically been brutish, smash-mouth teams that win through their defense and ball-control. While they have thrown the ball more in the last couple seasons with quarterback Joe Flacco running the show, they remain a beefy team with the same tough characteristics. But so do the Bengals. In fact, the two teams are closely matched in many categories, but it's one wild-card category that makes the difference: the passing game.
Each team bolstered its passing game this offseason.
Baltimore traded for Anquan Boldin—a highly talented but oft-injured receiver (hasn’t played a full season since 2006) who enjoyed playing along side Larry Fitzgerald since 2004. They also acquired the once-promising Dante Stallworth, who was suspended last year after killing a pedestrian in Miami Beach with his automobile on March of 2009. Boldin has size and Stallworth has the speed making them interesting compliments to one another. The Ravens of course still have the ageless Derrick Mason with previous first-round bust Mark Clayton residing in their system as well. Newsome also ended up with two quality tight-ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in this year's draft to eventually compete for playing time with longtime Raven installment, Todd Heap.
The Bengals reloaded their passing attack as well. Antonio Bryant replaces Laveranues Coles, rookie Jordan Shipley will battle Andre Caldwell for the third-receiver, and first-round pick Jermaine Gresham comes into training camp as the best tight-end prospect the team has seen in years. Like the Ravens giving Stallworth another chance, Cincinnati signed the long and tall Matt Jones who once had a promising career with the Jaguars before a series of arrests related to drug charges and probation violations. Jones will likely battle for a roster spot and may have to outperform the insofar disappointing Jerome Simpson in training camp to make that happen. And, of course, the Bengals still have Chad Ochocinco, who had an average 2009 and who hopes to do more dancing in '10.
Then there are the quarterbacks.
For the Ravens, it starts and ends with Flacco. Cool Joe has improved in both of his professional seasons and there's no reason to think that this season will be any different. He has all the physical elements—a big, smart guy with a strong arm that can move around pretty well—but it's his leadership skills that make him dangerous. He isn't the most verbose or intense person it seems, but he's cool under pressure and his teammates respond well to that. Compared to Carson Palmer, I'd say Flacco ranks pretty evenly heading into this season so I'm calling it a draw on the quarterbacks.
The success of the running game obviously factors into the success of the passing game as well. While Cedric Benson and Ray Rice are very different backs, their rushing production totals are pretty much the same, earning both men trips to the Pro-Bowl. Once again, this category is also a draw.
Therefore, the category that makes the most difference between these two teams isn't necessarily the passing game after all, rather how to stop it.
It needs mentioning that a good pass-rush has a lot to do with the effectiveness of a pass defense as a whole; each team drafted a pass rusher in the second-round this season, and therefore, comes up as yet another draw.
Yet if the Ravens have a detectible weak link, at least on paper, it's their secondary. While nowhere near the ineptitude of say the Cleveland Browns' secondary, the Ravens had their issues at key times last year. Their safeties are fine. It's true that Ed Reed is a sage old-timer by NFL standards and he leaned heavily toward retirement after last season. Nonetheless, the man is one of the best safeties ever and he's always dangerous when on the field. But it's the Fabian Washingtons and Chris Carrs and Dominique Foxworths of that secondary that make me shrug. Those guys are okay, but they had trouble with Bengals receivers last year. So why would I expect them to do any better against an improved Cincinnati team?
The Bengals, meanwhile, have one of the best corner tandems in the league. Ask Derrick Mason what he thought of last year's Bengals pass defense. The man was covered more than spilled oil in the Gulf, racking up three catches for 31 yards in two starts against Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. Just in case those two studs aren't enough, Cincinnati also drafted Brandon Ghee and brought in Adam Jones to compete with second-year man Morgan Trent for the nickel position. Also back are the hard-hitting veteran safeties Roy Williams, Chinedum Ndukwe, Chris Crocker, with Gibril Wilson being added to that mix.
Yes sir, throwing on the Bengals will be tough this year for the Ravens and everyone else in 2010. Both teams are high-quality squads that should end up in the Playoffs but it's the Bengals pass coverage that gives them the slightest edge in the division over Baltimore. Either way, no matter which side you're talking to, both cities will be glad to see Pittsburgh pouting around and kicking things because they missed the Playoffs again. Suckers.
Mojokong—certainly not as worried as some other local Bengal writers about the division.