Here are seven notes and observations in the AFC North:
Early projections have the Green Bay Packers favored by approximately a field goal over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Expect this to be motivation over the next two weeks for Pittsburgh, which traditionally thrives in the underdog role. I'm a little surprised Pittsburgh will head to Arlington, Texas, as the underdog despite being No. 2 seed. The Packers are playing well as a No. 6 seed, but I think these are two evenly-matched teams. Pittsburgh (14-4) also has been more consistent than Green Bay (13-6) over the course of the season.
On Sunday ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter reported Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's contract expires after the season. This may present a scenario where the Hall of Famer coaches his last game in the Super Bowl. LeBeau, 73, said three seasons ago after turning 70 that he's coaching on a year-to-year basis. There was speculation he could retire after Pittsburgh's previous Super Bowl win following the 2008 season. That likely will start up again next week in Arlington. Expect this call to be totally up to LeBeau, who has been the NFL's top defensive coordinator for a long time and may take some time in the offseason to make his decision. LeBeau loves coaching his current group, and Pittsburgh will re-sign him to an extension in a heartbeat if LeBeau wants to continue coaching. Also, don't believe the hype linking LeBeau to Arizona. That's a pipe dream, at best.
Here is an interesting note: The Dallas Morning News reports Cowboys legend Roger Staubach will present the Lombardi Trophy to the winning team following Super Bowl XLV. It's well-documented that the Hall of Fame quarterback had heated rivalries with Pittsburgh in the 1970s, including two Super Bowl losses in '76 and '79. It's already gut-wrenching enough that Pittsburgh, which owns one more Super Bowl title (six) than Dallas (five), can extend that lead on the Cowboys' home turf with a win over the Packers. But for Staubach to potentially hand over another championship to a team he loathed in his playing days would make for another awkward moment for the Cowboys organization.
In non-Super Bowl news, quarterback Carson Palmer made big headlines by requesting a trade from the Cincinnati Bengals. Team owner Mike Brown responded by saying he's not going to trade Palmer, which creates an interesting offseason standoff. But you also have to wonder how badly things really are behind the scenes in Cincinnati if Palmer wants out. Palmer is one of the nicest, most honest and optimistic players I've been around in seven seasons covering the NFL. Even when the Bengals have awful years, Palmer is the one player who remains positive that things will get better. But every player has a breaking point and it appears Palmer, 31, has reached his. Cincinnati has yet to make any significant changes that were thought to be in the works after a 4-12 season, and you wonder if Palmer sees where things are heading.
But ... let's say Bengals ownership caves in to Palmer's demands. Let's look ahead to what type of trade value Palmer would have on the open market. For starters, he’s not the same Pro Bowl quarterback he once was, but Palmer remains a better option than a lot of players. The contract could be an issue, as Palmer is slated to be one of the NFL's highest-paid players at $11.5 million next season. I also think it hurts Cincinnati's leverage that it’s now public that Palmer is unhappy and wants out. All things considered, I think the Bengals may be able land a second-round pick and perhaps another late-round pick for Palmer.
The Cleveland Browns are still suffering for their poor draft in 2009. That's one key reason the team remains in rebuilding mode. Last week I talked to an NFL scout about Cleveland's three second-round picks. The scout said they had a late-round grade on linebacker David Veikune, who was released by the Browns this season, and Brian Robiskie was described as a receiver who can't separate and has a low ceiling. The scout did believe Mohamed Massaquoi could be productive in the right situation and the right system. But Cleveland's lack of offensive identity isn't helping Massaquoi develop.
The Baltimore Ravens' quick work to get kicker Billy Cundiff signed to a five-year extension is a good sign. The Ravens have several big free agents, including defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and punter Sam Koch, and they aren't waiting for a new collective bargaining agreement to get started. Cundiff's contract as a kicker was easier than most. So don't expect a much larger deal like Ngata's to be completed any time soon. But the Ravens potentially could get some lesser free agents signed in the next few weeks.