Forget past glories. The AFC Central is a division with a future.
Judging by the new construction and fresh faces, the division is being designed for the MTV generation. The league's hottest and trendiest division boasts the following:
Talk about appealing to every demographic. You've got the country music crowd (Tennessee), blue-collar workers (Pittsburgh), East Coast (Baltimore), beachcombers (Jacksonville) and heartland (Cincinnati). There are worse ways for fans to spend their disposable income.
Bottom line, the NFL's young and restless could produce its first Super Bowl representative since Pittsburgh in 1996. That it will be Pittsburgh -- again -- is likely. The Steelers have the best coach (Bill Cowher), best running back (Jerome Bettis) and best defense (No. 1 against the rush in 1997).
That doesn't mean the rest of the division should pack it up. Winning the division is only the first step and no one is conceding the Steelers anything. Jacksonville was able to post an 11-5 record despite devastating injuries. Tennessee has everything but a downfield passing game. There is hope in Cincinnati, where it is believed Dillon will emerge as a go-to back. Baltimore lost five games by a total of 15 points.
"The sky's the limit for us," said Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams.
The same could be said for one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Pittsburgh has had to do its annual rebuilding job. Not only recovering from free-agent departures (Yancy Thigpen et al) and cuts (Greg Lloyd) but there is a rebuilding job to be done on quarterback Kordell Stewart. He was raked over the talk-radio coals in Steeltown after his three-interception performance (two in the end zone) against Denver in the AFC Championship Game.
Bet Stewart and the Steelers to get over the hump this time. Although it seems like he's been around forever, Bettis is entering just his seventh pro season at age 26. His best years are ahead of him. The same can be said for talented wideout Charles Johnson who is certain to become Stewart's favorite target. The fifth-year receiver had a 1,000-yard season in 1996 and is one of Stewart's best friends.
If Pittsburgh slips up just a little bit, look for Jacksonville to slide past them. The Jags' 11-5 season was actually considered a disappointment considering what they could have done if healthy. Coach Tom Coughlin lost his three best defensive tackles, his besoffensive lineman (Tony Boselli), best defensive lineman (Tony Brackens), best linebacker (Kevin Hardy) and best cover corner (Aaron Beasley) to injuries.
Quarterback Mark Brunell missed two games with a partially torn ACL and didn't regain full mobility until later in the season. In a division full of scrambling quarterbacks, Brunell might do it most effectively, avoiding the ruh and spotting receivers on the run. With Brunell, the offense, quite simply, cannot be stopped. Look for it to average 30 points per game.
The Jags' hopes rest on a defense that was 23rd in the NFL last season. Rent-a-linebacker Bryce Paup was signed to take care of the strong side (left outside) of the offensive formation. Hardy is back healthy and moves to the weak side. The difference might ultimately be the special teams. Punter Bryan Barker has added length to his usual dose of accuracy. Mike Hollis is a Pro-Bowl kicker.
Steve "Air" McNair was the NFL's best-running quarterback a year ago (674 yards) and continues to re-define the position. The Oilers would like McNair to refine his passing, though. He threw for 2,665 yards last season but averaged only 6.42 yards per attempt. Only Neil O'Donnell (6.08), Elvis Grbac (6.19) and Todd Collins (6.05) were worse among AFC starters.
Fortunately, the Oilers are able to set up the pass with punishing runner Eddie George who was third-best in the NFL with 1,399 yards. Thigpen comes over from the Steelers to help make more yards out of McNair's completions.
Baltimore is where the young and restless become the old and sedate. Coach Ted Marchibroda proved at age 67 he has plenty of fuel left. He hopes the same can be said for 12-year veteran Jim Harbaugh, 34, who is trying to recapture his Colts glory of a couple of years ago.
If the Ravens are to improve on their 6-9-1 record, we'll basically know in September. The Ravens get Pittsburgh, the Jets and Jacksonville in the first three games. They were 0-5 against those teams last year.
No one may notice, though, in Baltimore. The new stadium in Camden Yards will make mediocrity comfortable to watch.
Cincinnati might go backward before it goes forward. Exiled from Bill Parcells' glare, 32-year-old Neil O'Donnell beat out 27-year-old Jeff Blake in the preseason. That's not necessarily a good thing. Bengals fans have been waiting for years for Blake to blossom into an everyday quarterback. Coach Bruce Coslet was forced to go out and get O'Donnell for insurance.
Dillon got only 39 carries in the first eight games before figuring out he had to pick up blitzes as a blocker to get playing time. His 246 yards on Dec. 4 against Tennessee was the fifth-highest total in NFL history. The key is gettig Dillon to perform at an NFL level every week.
Then there is a defense that surrendered 405 points last season. Only two teams were worse in total defense. Not surprisingly, the Bengals first four draft picks were defenders. Coslet would be tickled if first-rounder Takeo Spikes and second-rounder Brian Simmons earned significant playing time. Injuries along the defensive line necessitated the signing of 13-year veteran Clyde Simmons.
In a division full of promise, the Bengals have the least. There are too many players who have to come through in order for Cincinnati to be successful.
Pittsburgh and Jacksonville are locks for the playoffs. Depending on luck and/or injuries either one could end up in the Super Bowl. Tennessee has an outside shot at a wild-card berth. Baltimore and Cincinnati are still building.
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