AFC North: AFC South

Seven-step drop: Losing Aaron Smith

October, 25, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 7:
    [+] EnlargeSmith
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers could be vulnerable against the run without defensive end Aaron Smith.

  • Lost in the Pittsburgh Steelers' controversial win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday was the probable season-ending triceps injury to Aaron Smith. This is a huge blow to Pittsburgh (5-1), because Smith is the prototype 3-4 defensive end and one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. This could be the second straight season-ending injury for Smith, who has been one of the NFL's most underrated players. The Steelers are very hard to run against when Smith is healthy, but the defense suffers mightily when he's out. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is also banged up, making it possible that Pittsburgh will start backups Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason this week against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints. Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, must grow up fast for the Steelers.
  • Although they narrowly escaped Miami, the Steelers are now tied with the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Dolphins for the NFL's best road record at 3-0. All three of these teams are physical and play a consistent style, home and away. Pittsburgh must continue its road success; four of its next six games are away from Heinz Field.
  • Here is a suggestion for the Cincinnati Bengals: It's time to hold a players-only meeting. The Bengals' season is on the brink after a 2-4 start, and there are so many leaks in this sinking ship that players need to talk it out amongst each other without coaches around and demand everyone look in the mirror to figure out how to improve. Cincinnati's issue isn't with one player or one position or one side of the football. It's been a team-wide failing with different culprits, including coaching.
  • It's officially time to wonder if too many offseason activities negatively impacted Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco. I've had this theory for a couple weeks, but wanted to be fair to Ochocinco and allow enough time and games to be played before I brought it up. Ochocinco had two nationally televised shows in the offseason and another just starting with teammate Terrell Owens that airs on Tuesdays. Ochocinco received a lot of press and knew he would get heat if he struggled this season, prompting his "birth control" comment. So far Ochocinco's production has been inconsistent and his attention to detail is waning. Ochocinco had a 100-yard game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. But quarterback Carson Palmer got on him about running the wrong routes, and the receiver also dropped an easy pass that went through his hands. Many Bengals are suffering mental errors this season, but Ochocinco has been one of the biggest offenders.
  • Kudos to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff and head coach Eric Mangini for pulling out the bag of tricks before the bye week. Many teams use the extra week of preparation to add wrinkles and practice trick plays. But the Browns (2-5) decided there was no time better than the present to run a tricky fake punt that worked to perfection against New Orleans. Tailback Peyton Hillis also caught the Saints' defense by surprise with a 13-yard pass. Cleveland's staff has struggled this season, particularly with second-half adjustments, and needs to be more creative with things like this to spark the team.
  • The Browns will spend the bye week determining whether it's best to stick with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy or turn back to one of their veteran quarterbacks -- Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme. In my opinion, McCoy has played well enough to keep the job. Against the past two Super Bowl champions, McCoy put up Cleveland's season-high passing yards (281) against Pittsburgh and was the winning quarterback against the Saints. In two starts, McCoy has thrown for 355 yards and completed 65.3 percent of his passes. With the Browns coming off a huge win, there's no reason to disrupt things with another shakeup at quarterback.
  • What happened to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington on Sunday? Washington had his worst day as a Raven, allowing three touchdown passes to the winless Buffalo Bills (0-6). His play was so bad that Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh benched Washington in favor of Josh Wilson in the fourth quarter. Washington has had solid games this season, but he was awful against the Bills. He will have a lot of corrections to make during the bye week.

Ravens put their 'trust' in Ray Rice

October, 10, 2010
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RiceAP Photo/Gail BurtonRay Rice rushed for a season-best 133 yards and two TDs as Baltimore cruised past Denver.

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' offense was inconsistent in the first four games. But as it turns out, all it needed to do was add Rice.

Baltimore running back Ray Rice had been injured and ignored so far this season. While fantasy football owners have been disappointed, the Ravens (4-1) shrugged it off because they were winning and knew eventually they would turn back to their Pro Bowl back.

Sunday was that type of game, as Rice rushed for a season-high 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over the Denver Broncos. It was the first 100-yard game of the season for Rice, who was heavily involved in the game plan and had his number called 27 times after getting just 23 carries in the previous two games.

Rice, a three-year veteran, finally had a chance to put the Ravens on his back and it produced the easiest victory of the season for Baltimore. It's no coincidence Baltimore put up a season-best 415 yards on offense with Rice as the lynchpin.

"That's trust," Rice said. "I couldn't say that [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] would do that my rookie year."

Baltimore added former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the passing game in the offseason, but the Ravens aren't at their best offensively unless Rice is healthy and productive. With a quick burst, several nice cuts and tough runs, Rice proved he's back to 100 percent after suffering a knee bruise in Week 3. Although Rice nearly broke a couple big runs, his longest rush was for 18 yards as he grinded out carries against the Broncos, who held Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl tailback Chris Johnson to 53 yards in Week 4.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice rushed 27 times and averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
When Rice gets going, everyone else's job becomes easier. Last week, for example, quarterback Joe Flacco had to throw a late touchdown to Houshmandzadeh to pull out a dramatic win over Pittsburgh Steelers. This week, with Rice as the focus, Flacco only needed to throw 25 passes.

Baltimore rushed for four touchdowns and improved to 10-0 all time when it runs for at least three scores. The Ravens rushed for 233 yards as Rice, Willis McGahee and Flacco each scored.

"It's important. We need to be able to run the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's nice to know we can run the ball. That's a defense that's pretty much set up to stop the run in a lot of ways, and we did a good job of running on them anyway."

Rice credited his offensive line, which played its best game of the season. In addition to paving the way for Rice, Baltimore’s offensive line allowed just one sack, on the opening drive.

"I've never seen a group work harder," Rice said of his blockers up front. "The stats haven't shown the last few weeks, but today [it did]. If I was to give a game ball, I'd have to give it to them."

Baltimore, a preseason favorite by many to win the Super Bowl, is off to a great start, but this team could still play better. The Ravens had several blown plays in pass coverage. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and touchdowns of 42 and 44 yards to receiver Brandon Lloyd. That will give the coaching staff something to criticize this week despite the relatively easy win.

But the talent is there for Baltimore to have a big year.

"We feel like we've got a pretty special team here, and we just got to continue to work hard to get better each week," Flacco said. "We can't stay the team we are ... We're showing a lot of promise and getting better week to week, and that's the mark of a championship team."

AFC North NFL's best division?

October, 5, 2010
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In the midst of helping put together ESPN.com's Power Rankings this week, I came across something that caught my attention: ESPN.com now ranks the AFC North as the NFL's best division.

After watching the first month of the season, is this accurate? I felt the AFC North deserved consideration coming into the season. But now I'm not so certain.

The strength is at the top, where the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) and Baltimore Ravens (3-1) were rated No. 1 and No. 6, respectively. Both teams are legit contenders, but from there things get dicey. The Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) are No. 18 and very inconsistent. The Cleveland Browns (1-3) are competing but probably won't win many games this year at No. 27.

In my opinion, it's currently neck-and-neck between the AFC North and AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts (2-2) are off to a slow start, so that's hurting their division because there are no dominant teams. But there's also no weak links in the AFC South, either, as no team has a losing record.

The AFC East is in the mix, but the Buffalo Bills (0-4) are so bad that it's dragging down the rest of the division. The same goes for the NFC South and the winless Carolina Panthers (0-4). The AFC North is playing both of these aforementioned divisions this season. Therefore, things will be settled on the field.

Walker's AFC North picks

September, 17, 2010
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The AFC North blog got off to a successful 3-1 start in Week 1. The Pittsburgh Steelers' narrow win in overtime prevented a perfect record.

But we're going to keep the momentum going all season with "Walker's AFC North picks." Here are my division picks for Week 2 (all times are ET):

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Cleveland Browns (0-1), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Skinny: Injuries and instability at quarterback make it hard to pick the Browns, especially after the Chiefs looked pretty good last week beating the San Diego Chargers.

Pick: Chiefs, 20-17

Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) at Tennessee Titans (1-0), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Skinny: The Steelers proved me wrong last week. Still, I like Tennessee's aggressive, no-name defense against Pittsburgh's inexperience quarterback: Dennis Dixon. Home team wins in a hard-hitting, low-scoring game.

Pick: Titans, 17-13

Baltimore Ravens (1-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-1), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Skinny: Quarterback Carson Palmer is 8-3 against the Ravens, who are coming off a short week. But I'm not sure I can trust Cincinnati after what I saw early against the New England Patriots.

Pick: Ravens, 21-17

Last week's record: 3-1

Overall record: 3-1

Record in non-overtime games: 3-0 (wink, wink)

Morning take: Max Starks update

September, 15, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

  • The injured ankle of Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Max Starks is not as serious as originally projected.
Morning take: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says Starks may only miss one game. Backup Jonathan Scott will likely start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Morning take: A loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doesn't inspire much confidence. The Browns need a win badly against the Kansas City Chiefs in Cleveland's home opener.

  • The Cincinnati Bengals' defense will go back to basics after getting shredded by the New England Patriots.
Morning take: One game does not make a season. Look for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to ride his group hard this week.
Morning take: I've watched Zbikowski field punts in training camp and the preseason, and he is good. But I wonder if all those snaps at safety impacts his effectiveness. Perhaps a rotation with Chris Carr would help.

AFC North Week 1 decisive moment

September, 14, 2010
9/14/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

In the few seconds that it took running back Rashard Mendenhall to gallop 50 yards for a touchdown in overtime, all the offseason stress for the Pittsburgh Steelers temporarily disappeared.

For those precious moments, there were no concerns about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, and the Steelers couldn't have cared less about their sputtering offense the previous four quarters. All that mattered was Mendenhall's sprint up the right sideline gave a jubilant Pittsburgh team its first victory of the season, a 15-9 decision over the Atlanta Falcons.

It doesn't get more decisive than overtime -- and Mendenhall was ready for the big moment.

"In the run game, you just have to be patient," said Mendenhall, who rushed for 120 yards on 22 carries. "We knew that something was going to open up, and it did in overtime."

There were many important plays in the AFC North this weekend. But Mendenhall's clearly was the biggest. Roethlisberger will miss three more games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but the Steelers proved they can win without him.

The Steelers (1-0) will need more big plays from Mendenhall and others when they travel to play the Tennessee Titans (1-0) on Sunday.

Walker's weekend mailbag

September, 4, 2010
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Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag.

Brian from Conshohocken, Pa., writes: How much more will RB James Davis be a factor in the Browns' offense with Montario Hardesty's knee injury?

James Walker: Hardesty's season-ending injury took Davis off the bubble. But Hardesty's role in the offense would have been bigger. They are two different running backs. Hardesty had the talent to be an every-down back who eventually could have pushed for a starting job. Davis is more of a change-of-pace back who will get significantly less playing time. The Browns will still run the ball well this year, but Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis will get the majority of the carries.


Eric from Princeton, N.J., wants to know if the Cleveland Browns will be interested in former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Antonio Bryant.

Walker: I don't foresee any interest in Bryant from the Browns or anyone else until he gets healthy. The fact the Bengals completely gave up on him indicates it could be a while before Bryant sees the field again.


Eric from Chicago writes: With the recent release of Bryant, will the Bengals sign another wide receiver or are they set with the group they have?

Walker: The Bengals are set. Even after Bryant's release, they still have tough decisions at the position. The team has to choose between Matt Jones, Jerome Simpson, Maurice Purify and Dezmon Briscoe. Cincinnati can only keep one (maybe two) from this group. But the team doesn't need to look outside for additional help.


Richard from Beijing writes: Is there some particular reason the Ravens are grabbing up former University of Maryland cornerbacks?

Walker: Some of it is coincidence. Domonique Foxworth was a free agent and Josh Wilson were available via trade at the right time for Baltimore. But the Ravens naturally have a good relationship with the University of Maryland, because of the location. It's nearby, easy to scout, and many of their players grew up in Ravens' territory and know about the team.


Lenny from Hollywood, Md., writes: Random question but do you think Jamal Lewis is a Hall of Famer?

Walker: I don't have a vote, so I usually avoid these questions. But an educated guess is Lewis doesn't get in. It still shouldn’t take away from a great career.


Comment and complaint department

We have plenty of comments and complaints from our community this week.

Jay from Dublin, Ohio, writes: James, no way the Steelers go 1-3 without Big Ben. The Steelers defense is loaded and will help grind out a close game with Atlanta. Remember without Troy Polamalu and Big Ben we had the Ravens beat in Baltimore. Worst-case scenario is 2-2, and I wouldn't count us out against Tennessee. I am not convinced Vince Young is the real deal, and we know Chris Johnson isn't going to run on the Steelers’ D.

Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: I feel like the Steelers as an organization should uphold the six-game suspension. It would be a good message to send players and fans that their standards are higher than what the league imposes. It also says that appropriate punishment for personal mistakes is more important than playing time and a winning season. Current good behavior should not be able to make up for previous appalling actions.

Rhonda Pierce from Illinois writes: I am Pittsburgh born and bred. I love my Steelers, but Ben's suspension should not have been reduced. His success and our franchise's history and image mandated that Ben demonstrate more responsibility and appreciation for the team and city. His behavior has forever tarnished the gold in the Black and Gold dynasty. I believe Leftwich's injury played a role in the Roger Goodell's decision, because not enough time has elapsed for the commissioner to know if Ben has really changed. How will he conduct himself in the offseason is the question? More than one "sexual" incident is more than one too many.

Zack from Middletown, Conn., writes: You know what I like about other fans in the AFC North? The way Ravens fans think Tom Zbikowski will step in for a Hall of Famer and there will be no drop off; the way Steeler fans think that Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon are actually quality QBs; and the way Browns fans think that Jake Delhomme is actually good. Bengals may have their issues. But they aren't replacing Pro Bowl [level] talent with guys who are washed up and were never that good in the first place. All they've done is add young talent and veterans for depth without losing key pieces.

Luke from Cincinnati writes: Why can't my Bengals get any love? I understand the Ravens and Steelers are great, but c'mon! We bring back basically everyone on a top five defense that's only going to get better and have appeared to strike gold with Adam Jones at the nickel. And on offense we add Jordan Shipley and T.O. to surround Carson Palmer with a great receiving core AND a great running game. This is the same team that swept the division last year, and were going to be even better this year!

Jason Myers from Baltimore writes: Hey, JW! How come you never point out the obvious to Bengals fans? They're always commenting about how they swept the division last year and that they're the defending AFC North champs. But it seems that they forget how they got bounced in the first round of the playoffs last year. Will you please tell them to win a playoff game first and then they can talk a little trash. I mean, seriously, as a Ravens fan I don't care if the Bengals sweep us every year as long as we continue to win in the playoffs and they continue to be...well...the Bengals.

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: What is it about the Ravens' offense that is so stacked? Joe Flacco hasn't been anything better than solid and has been flat-out terrible in the clutch (especially in the playoffs). Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are a good possession duo, but neither screams downfield threat. Mark Clayton and Donte' Stallworth have never done anything worth noting on the field and, frankly. aren't good players. Todd Heap is still a nice TE but the rest of the group are rookies. There's a very good stable of RBs but you can't give them all the ball or even have them all on the field at one time. Two strong possession WRs and a TE to go with a good running game isn't a stacked offense. Talk about overhyped.

Shaneeka from High Point, N.C., writes: Hey James, you want to know why Ravens fans are not allowing the teams recent record vs. division rivals to rain on the teams Super Bowl hopes? It’s because the Ravens have been to the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years, including back to back trips. So the Ravens poor showing vs. division rivals have not cost them playoff berths and once the playoffs start, as the Cards showed in 2008 and the Jets last season, it’s anyways game. So, no we don’t care about Carson Palmer's winning record vs. the Ravens, nor do we care that the team has only beaten Pittsburgh once in two years. Neither of them kept the team out of the postseason. To think that it would now is pushing it considering the Bengals history and all the drama Pittsburgh has gone through this offseason.

Kovacs from Santa Monica writes: We knew the Browns would have a tandem backfield, it just looks like a different tandem. I do think Peyton Hillis should start. He's endeared himself to the team and is great out of the backfield. He also seems like a guy that you'd love to get going early with his physicality to wear a defense down. Then bring in Jerome Harrison to gash a defense with his speed late in the game.

AFC North Homer of the Week

Darryl from Oakland, Calif., writes: I'd rather have Dennis Dixon than Matt Ryan. I know you disagree, but I'll check back after Week 4.

AFC North preseason recap

September, 3, 2010
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The preseason is finally over. All four AFC North teams were in action Thursday night for their exhibition finales.

Here are some notes from each game:

Pittsburgh Steelers 19, Carolina Panthers 3

The Good
  • Rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer both made strong cases in their final chance to impress before Saturday's cuts. Dwyer, a sixth-round pick, led the Steelers in rushing for the second straight week with 86 yards on 20 carries. Sanders, a third-round pick, led Pittsburgh in receiving with 66 yards and a touchdown. Both players were up and down in training camp but came on strong late in the preseason to likely earn roster spots.
The Bad
  • The huge negative was the left knee sprain to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was expected to be Pittsburgh's Week 1 starter. Leftwich was hit low in the first half and didn’t return. Now his status is in question for the regular-season opener, where quarterbacks Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch may have to step in against the Atlanta Falcons.
Cleveland Browns 13, Chicago Bears 10

The Good
  • We mentioned quarterback Colt McCoy's perfect 13-for-13 passing earlier in the AFC North blog. So let's shift the focus to Cleveland running back James Davis, who likely claimed a roster spot. The backup was on the bubble but led the Browns in rushing with 66 yards against Chicago. Davis also caught five passes for 53 yards and showed good elusiveness to break tackles. Davis was the talk of the preseason last year when he led the Browns in rushing. But he's been quiet this exhibition season until Thursday.
The Bad
  • Browns rookie running back Montario Hardesty's much-anticipated debut ended poorly as he suffered another knee injury. Hardesty missed all of training camp and three preseason games with a right knee injury. After seven carries, he hurt his left knee and was on crutches after the game. Hardesty came to Cleveland with a reputation of being injury-prone in college.
Baltimore Ravens 21, St. Louis Rams 27

The Good
  • Baltimore rookie WR David Reed showed flashes. Reed recorded 138 yards on four kickoff returns. The fifth-round pick also caught three receptions for 65 yards. Reed is on the bubble but helped his case to be one of the final receivers to make the team.
The Bad
  • We also mentioned Ravens quarterback Troy Smith earlier. But let's discuss the most unnecessary move we've seen in the AFC North this preseason, which was Dannell Ellerbe stopping at the goal line to taunt the Rams before scoring a defensive touchdown. Where to start with this one? First, the Ravens were losing. Second, it was the preseason. Third, Ellerbe is fighting for playing time and made a good defensive play look unprofessional. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cleary wasn't happy with Ellerbe's antics.
Cincinnati Bengals 30, Indianapolis Colts 28

The Good
  • The Bengals finally got great quarterback play from backups Jordan Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan. Both players have been inconsistent this preseason but had their best efforts against Indianapolis. O'Sullivan was 9-for-12 for 102 yards, and Palmer was 10-for-14 for 114 and two touchdowns. This should bring a little bit of calm in relation to Carson Palmer's replacements heading into the regular season.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati had another double-digit penalty game with 11 infractions. Sure, a lot of backups played Thursday, but there were some on the field who will contribute in the regular season. Cincinnati doesn't seem concerned about its penchant for penalties. But we will see if it disappears or carries over when the games count.
Fantasy football is a huge component of NFL fandom. So with drafts taking place around the country, the AFC North blog wants to offer several tips for fantasy players within our community.

Here are five thoughts to consider when drafting players in the AFC North:

Rice
Rice
1. Don't worry about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice: The Ravens are not giving Rice many carries this preseason because they want to conserve him for the long haul. That should have no impact, as Rice should remain one of the safest picks in your fantasy drafts.
Rice brings rushing and receiving yards to the table, which makes him very valuable. Despite having depth at running back, Rice will get plenty of opportunities when it matters.

Palmer
Palmer
2. Quarterbacks could have great value: No one is thinking about AFC North quarterbacks in the first round. But this division could provide a great opportunity to steal a quality starter later in the draft. While everyone is jumping at the chance to take Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, GMs can stock up at other positions like running back and land someone like Joe Flacco or Carson Palmer further down the draft board. Barring injury, both AFC North quarterbacks have enough weapons around them to put up solid numbers, making them well worth the wait.

Mendenhall
Mendenhall
3. Keep an eye on Pittsburgh Steelers' sleepers: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's conditional six-game suspension will scare off a lot of fantasy GMs. But Pittsburgh's skill players such as tailback Rashard Mendenhall, tight end Heath Miller and receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace could be a great value picks later in the draft. Pittsburgh's offense is expected to struggle early. But there's at least 10 games (maybe 12) available when the production for all these players will get back to their usual standards. Keep that in mind when you're stocking up reserves.

4. Defenses are key: Defenses usually go later in fantasy draft, but these units sometimes are the difference between winning and losing. The AFC North had three defenses rated in the top five last season: Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Cincinnati Bengals. This physical and talented trio should be a threat to rack up fantasy points on a weekly basis. You can't go wrong with any of these units.

Dawson
Dawson
5. Be wary of AFC North kickers: In terms of fantasy numbers, you might want to avoid kickers in this division, particularly if you're drafting this week. Baltimore and Cincinnati still have kicking competitions ongoing, so you don't know for certain who those players will be. Jeff Reed and Phil Dawson are much safer choices. But Reed is on an offense not expected to do much early, and Dawson kicks for last year's No. 32-rated offense.

Take your pick: Leftwich or Dixon?

August, 30, 2010
8/30/10
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This week's "Take your pick" in the AFC North blog involves the hottest topic with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Who should start at quarterback Sept. 12 against the Atlanta Falcons: Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon?

We've waited weeks for this "Take your pick," because we wanted to make sure each quarterback had a fair chance to show what they could do with the first-team offense. Dixon made his debut with the starters in Sunday night's 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos, and now Steeler Nation is better informed to make a decision with Ben Roethlisberger's suspension looming.

Dixon has been lights out against backups this preseason but showed his inexperience against Denver's starters, throwing for 94 yards and two interceptions. One pick was returned for a touchdown by Denver. Leftwich has been average but not great, completing 9 of 20 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in three preseason games. He was 0-for-4 against the Broncos.

Although the Steelers have about two more weeks to make their choice, our community no longer has that luxury. Take your pick Monday between Dixon and Leftwich (or Charlie Batch if you wish). Send your comments to our division inbox or AFC North Twitter, and we will run the best responses throughout the week.video

The future according to 'Madden 11'

August, 16, 2010
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This AFC North blogger has officially retired from the popular "Madden" video game series. Free time during football season is just too scarce.

But this weekend I rented a copy of "Madden 11" for (cough, cough) research purposes. Our community wants to know how the AFC North will play out this season. So we simulated an entire season.

Here is what you can expect in 2010:

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, first place)
  • It will be a great year for the AFC North as three division teams make the playoffs. The Steelers will win the division at 12-4. I couldn't figure out how to sit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games. So the Steelers were dominant in the regular season, sweeping the division (6-0) for the second time in three years.
  • Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley (14) and James Harrison (15) will combine for 29 sacks this season, According to "Madden 11." Woodley, who is in the final year of his contract, will be a very rich man next year if that's the case. Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals will lead the NFL this season with an amazing 21 sacks.
  • Roethlisberger will be solid, but not spectacular. The "Madden 11" simulation projects he will throw for 3,242 yards, 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. To no surprise, he also will get sacked 46 times this season.
  • Tailback Rashard Mendenhall will have another good season -- 1,092 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Receiver Hines Ward keeps plugging along this season with 82 catches for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns.
  • According to "Madden 11," receiver Mike Wallace doesn't step up in his first year as a starter, recording just 40 catches for 556 yards and three touchdowns. Wallace had more yards (756) and more touchdowns (six) last season as a backup.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, second place)
  • Receiver Chad Ochocinco will back up his offseason trash-talking with a monster year. "Madden 11" projects he will grab 80 receptions for 1,388 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010. The Terrell Owens factor helps. Ochocinco's yards will be second in the league behind Andre Johnson (1,397) of the Houston Texans.
  • Owens is a decent addition. Besides being a decoy for Ochocinco, he records 54 catches for 652 yards and five touchdowns. First-round pick and tight end Jermaine Gresham will shine in his rookie season with 67 receptions for 529 yards.
  • According to the simulation, tailback Cedric Benson will prove 2009 was no fluke. He will rush for 1,049 yards and six touchdowns. Benson's numbers are slightly down because of Cincinnati's penchant for throwing the ball more this season. Backup Bernard Scott also was solid with 408 rushing yards.
  • Quarterback Carson Palmer will return to form and make the Pro Bowl, "Madden 11" says. Palmer will throw for 3,556 yards, 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His yards rank fourth in the NFL. Palmer also stays healthy and plays all 16 games.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7, third place)
  • Quarterback Joe Flacco also is stellar in his third season, with a 87.5 passer rating, 3,550 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Flacco's passer rating is third in the NFL behind Drew Brees and Tony Romo.
  • Beware fantasy buffs: "Madden 11" projects running back Ray Rice will get hurt this season. He records just 789 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Willis McGahee fills in with 508 rushing yards, and fullback Le'Ron McClain adds 445 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
  • The Anquan Boldin acquisition was solid in his first season in Baltimore. He notches 61 catches for 896 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. Derrick Mason's production will drop off significantly, according to "Madden 11," as he records just 44 receptions for 639 yards. Those totals are his lowest as a Raven.
  • Linebacker Ray Lewis will lead the team once again with 98 tackles and three interceptions. But this simulation projects the secondary will be a disappointment. Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington combine for just three interceptions and 25 tackles. Both will be hurt at different points of the season. The Ravens will be just 2-4 in the AFC North, according to "Madden 11."
Cleveland Browns (4-12, fourth place)
  • Many expect the Browns to struggle this season, so a 4-12 projection isn't surprising. The game predicts Cleveland will be 0-6 against the AFC North and 2-10 against AFC opponents.
  • The simulation also predicts Browns starting quarterback Jake Delhomme will be brutal this season. He will have a 61.3 passer rating and throw for 2,811 yards, 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
  • Tailback Jerome Harrison will not be able to stay hot, according to "Madden 11." He will rush for 737 yards and two touchdowns, while averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.
  • No one will step up at receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi will grab 62 receptions but for just 533 yards (8.5 yards per catch). Josh Cribbs will be a bright spot and surprise with 59 catches for 712 yards and five touchdowns. Cribbs also leads the NFL in kickoff return average (29.8 yards with a long of 86 yards) and makes the Pro Bowl. "Madden 11" believes Brian Robiskie will disappoint with just 23 catches for 117 yards (5.0 yard average) no touchdowns.
Playoffs
  • This simulation projects the AFC North will be successful in the wild-card round. The Bengals will pull off a road upset against the Indianapolis Colts in a shootout, 38-35. The Ravens also will travel to beat the Denver Broncos, 20-16, to advance.
  • But the season stops in the divisional round for the Bengals, according to "Madden 11." The New York Jets pound the Bengals in the playoffs for the second straight season, winning 27-17. The simulation believes the Ravens will continue their hot streak in the playoffs by going to Heinz Field to defeat the AFC North champion Steelers at home, 21-17.
  • The Ravens will be in the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three years. This time "Madden 11" predicts Baltimore goes to the Super Bowl as an AFC wild-card by beating Rex Ryan and the Jets in a rematch from the regular season, 20-17.
  • Ten years after winning their only Super Bowl in franchise history, the Ravens weren't so lucky this time, according to "Madden 11." The Minnesota Vikings will beat the Ravens in Super Bowl XLV, 27-14, as Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson rushes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Peterson gets Super Bowl MVP honors. Meanwhile, Flacco struggles on the big stage, throwing for only 144 yards.

So that's how the 2010 season will play out, according to "Madden 11." It looks like the Steelers will win the division, but the Ravens will advance to the Super Bowl.

How accurate was this game simulation?
ESPN.com kicked off this week by revealing its training camp power rankings.

But something interesting that stood out for our division was AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky's placement of the Cincinnati Bengals. He rated the defending AFC North champions No. 19, which I noticed raised some eyebrows in our community. (Overall, the Bengals were No. 11.)

So we checked in with Kuharsky to get his explanation:
"I think the Bengals were a bit of a fluke last year. I think Baltimore is going to be really good. I have a hard time seeing the Steelers finishing behind Cincinnati two years in a row. Teams that win divisions by surprise often disappear the next year. I won't be surprised at all if that's the case with the 2010 Bengals."

There is Kuharsky's opinion of Cincinnati. Do you agree or disagree?
NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

It's both a blessing and a curse to be a fearless and physical receiver.

The positive is Anquan Boldin plays with a toughness and reckless abandon that should fit in well with the Baltimore Ravens. The negative is Boldin's style has resulted in injuries, and he hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2006.

Will Boldin's health be an issue in Baltimore? The Ravens hope that's not the case, because they will need the three-time Pro Bowler on the field to remain strong Super Bowl contenders.

Baltimore recently traded for Boldin to get over the hump against teams like the high-powered Indianapolis Colts. After losing to Indianapolis in the playoffs last season, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome came to realize that Baltimore cannot always rely on defense in today's NFL. There are too many rule changes favoring the offense and too many great quarterbacks leading playoff teams.

That's where Boldin comes in. His job is to become the No. 1 target for third-year player Joe Flacco, who is trying to become one of the NFL's better quarterbacks. Boldin's presence also should take some of the pressure off Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice and the running game.

The Ravens sought out Boldin's medical records before finalizing the trade with the Arizona Cardinals. So there is some concern. Last postseason Boldin dealt with an injured left ankle and in 2008 he took a crushing blow to the head against the New York Jets that required facial surgery.

Baltimore's best-case scenario is that Boldin left his history of ailments in Arizona. His style of play won't change, but perhaps his luck will.

New contract for Ed Reed?

July, 7, 2010
7/07/10
11:30
AM ET
In an offseason where it's been one surprise after another in the AFC North, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed provided another unexpected revelation.

Reed
According to the six-time Pro Bowler, Reed has contacted the Ravens about a new contract.
"I'm not making it a big deal," Reed said in a radio interview this week, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun. "[But] I think it needs to be taken care of."

This is unexpected because Reed strongly considered retirement in January following Baltimore's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. While dealing with a neck ailment and coming off hip surgery, Reed has given the impression that he's playing on a year-to-year basis.

Does wanting an extension mean Reed is committed to the Ravens beyond 2010? That's something both Reed and Baltimore would have to figure out. Reed makes just under $20 million over the final three years of his contract, according to the Sun.

It will be interesting to see where this goes.

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