AFC North: Ben Roethlsiberger

A respected committee of ESPN experts -- including Trent Dilfer, Mel Kiper, Gary Horton and Matt Williamson -- got together to look into the crystal ball and produce the NFL Future Power Rankings .

The projection is for the 2015 season and takes into account five factors: roster (32.5 percent), quarterback (17.5 percent), draft (15 percent), front office (15 percent) and coaching (20 percent).

You'll need an Insider subscription to see the entire post, but here's the AFC North portion of it:

5. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Williamson: The "Steeler Way" has been working extremely well for a long time, as Pittsburgh's front office evaluates college talent and its own players as well as any team in the league. They are exceptional.

Hensley: The key was the Steelers using their top two picks on offensive linemen. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is protected and stays healthy, the Steelers will be among the top teams in the NFL.

10. BALTIMORE RAVENS

Kiper: No team consistently delivers as much value. Ozzie Newsome is a Hall of Famer … in the front office, too. The Ravens face some big personnel losses on defense coming soon, but few are better equipped to move on.

Hensley: The biggest question mark facing the Ravens by 2015 is how do they replace the leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Baltimore needs its offense to become the dominant unit in order for the Ravens to be a top-10 team at this point.

11. CINCINNATI BENGALS

Dilfer: Andy Dalton quietly had an exceptionally good rookie season. Only Cam Newton diminished it. He has maintained a mature approach that we saw when he was at TCU; he gets deep into his reads, has an accurate arm and should continue to get better. If they can run it a little better, this offense will take a big leap.

Hensley: The Bengals have certainly set themselves up with two really strong drafts. The key is developing this talent and making sure these young players reach their potential. Cincinnati could be the most complete team in the division by 2015, with the emphasis on could.

32. CLEVELAND BROWNS

Williamson: Color me skeptical of the Browns' front office -- and this organization isn't exactly patient. Cleveland's front office is now directly tied to Brandon Weeden's future success. I can't say that is the perfect position to be in.

Hensley: With the exception of Trent Richardson, this team lacks playmakers. That's a rough spot to be in when you play defenses like the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. And don't forget that Weeden will turn 32 during the 2015 season.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Former Cincinnati Bengal John Thornton believes the longer this Mike Brown-Carson Palmer feud goes, the worse it is for the Bengals.
Morning take: I agree that both sides need to establish a resolution. Does Cincinnati really want to enter the NFL draft not knowing if its franchise quarterback will retire?
Morning take: This is part of the growing process for Harbaugh, who comes from a defensive and special-teams background. But everything as head coach, including the results of the offense, eventually falls on his desk.
  • Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review believes the Steelers' underdog status could help against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Morning take: Pittsburgh thrives in this role. The Steelers have felt slighted all season and this will give them something additional to talk about in the final game.
  • Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository points out the Cleveland Browns passed on drafting Super Bowl quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers.
Morning take: This is further proof the draft is the foundation for good franchises and the bane of bad ones.

The future according to 'Madden 11'

August, 16, 2010
8/16/10
11:00
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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?
The bad news continues for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One day after the team announced quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be disciplined this season, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports a fine also could be next for the franchise. Schefter estimates the penalty could be in the range of $200,000 following off-field issues with Roethlisberger and former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes.

Holmes was traded to the New York Jets this week for a fifth-round pick, while Roethlisberger awaits a decision on a suspension.

Seven-step drop

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
1:00
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 12 in the AFC North:

  • I'm not sure the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) or Baltimore Ravens (6-5) are playoff worthy. Something must change, because the Ravens and Steelers are not performing close to the same level I witnessed this time last season on their way to the AFC title game. Sunday night's game was wildly entertaining, but it was also very sloppy. There were three turnovers after halftime, including Pittsburgh's crucial interception in overtime, and 14 combined penalties amassing 139 yards. Many of the penalties were careless. The fact Baltimore struggled at home against a third-string quarterback is not encouraging. Also, Pittsburgh losing three straight, albeit without Ben Roethlisberger in one of those losses, makes it hard to believe the Steelers could pull off a repeat of 2005, which included winning four straight postseason games away from home.
  • There was tension in the Steelers’ locker room Sunday night. Players are frustrated. Veteran receiver Hines Ward was among the most vocal, even venting his frustration that Roethlisberger (concussion) was pulled at the last minute. Chances are this is something that could simply blow over with winning. Ward wears his heart on his sleeve and is upset with losing three straight. He went on ESPN's SportsCenter Monday morning to clarify his statements.
  • [+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
    Frank Victores/US PresswireLarry Johnson rushed for 107 yards on 22 carries Sunday.

  • The Ravens were better in the red zone, going 2-for-4 after being shut out in four attempts in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. I liked getting defensive tackle Haloti Ngata back in as one of the lead blockers. Ngata crushed a Pittsburgh defender during running back Willis McGahee’s touchdown run in the first quarter.
  • Is it time to start worrying about the passing game of the Cincinnati Bengals? Quarterback Carson Palmer hasn’t looked comfortable lately, as the Bengals’ offensive line has been surprisingly shaky the past two weeks against inferior opponents in the Oakland Raiders (3-8) and Cleveland Browns (1-10). Cincinnati only has 317 passing yards in its past two games, and Palmer has been sacked six times in that span. The Browns also got six additional hits on Palmer on Sunday. If the Bengals (8-3) plan to keep winning down the stretch and into the postseason, the team must get back to protecting its most valuable asset.
  • A great bright spot for Cincinnati was the performance of Larry Johnson. The veteran tailback ran hard between the tackles, gaining 107 yards on 22 carries against the Browns. Cincinnati has implemented plays that Johnson is most familiar with, and he looked very natural running them. Johnson may take carries away from injured starter Cedric Benson (hip) even when he returns. But a trio of a healthy Benson, Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott could give a lot of defenses headaches.
  • Brady Quinn wasn’t nearly as comfortable in the pocket and that was the difference in Cleveland's 16-7 loss to the Bengals. Quinn was coming off a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns against the Detroit Lions. But he threw for just 100 yards and no touchdowns against the Bengals. Cincinnati only had one sack and three quarterback hits, but the Bengals covered on the back end much better than Detroit and forced Quinn to try to fit the ball into tight spots. Quinn’s timing and throws were off and that was enough to disrupt Cleveland’s offensive rhythm. The Browns were 4-of-14 on third down.
  • As a final note, I was pleasantly surprised by the play of new Browns linebacker Matt Roth. The former second-round draft pick was cut by the Miami Dolphins last week and picked up by Cleveland on waivers. After just several days of preparation, Roth already appeared to be one of the Browns’ more active defenders, recording seven tackles and a sack. It’s probably not a good sign when a waiver wire pickup sees significant playing time so early. But Cleveland may have found a nice late-season gem in Roth.

Steelers-Ravens inactives

November, 29, 2009
11/29/09
7:12
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BALTIMORE -- Here are the players you won’t see in Sunday night's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) and Baltimore Ravens (5-5):

Steelers

QB Ben Roethlisberger

S Troy Polamalu

OG Chris Kemoeatu

CB Keenan Lewis

OT Tony Hills

DE Sunny Harris

DE Nick Eason

QB Charlie Batch

Ravens

QB John Beck

OT Tony Moll

OT Oniel Cousins

FB Charles Ali

CB Cary Williams

LB Antwan Barnes

LB Terrell Suggs

NT Kelly Talavou

Morning take: Benson's long road back

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
7:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
  • Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson has taken a long road back to facing his former team Sunday in the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: Benson says the Bears talked bad about him recently, which Chicago denies. That adds another interesting angle to what is a big game for both teams.
  • Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson will try to have a big game against the tough defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Morning take: If any back can have a big day against the Steelers, it’s Peterson. We will take a further look at the Minnesota star later today (hint, hint).
Morning take: Jackson had pectoral surgery and will be out for three months. He’s also a free agent, and it will be interesting to see if he remains part of Cleveland's rebuilding process.
  • Can Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco make the Pro Bowl this year?
Morning take: You have to assume annual stalwarts Peyton Manning and Tom Brady get in, which leaves one spot for a lot of talented throwers. There are three alone in the AFC North to be considered right now in Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.

Was Pittsburgh given extra possession?

October, 19, 2009
10/19/09
10:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

Lost in the mix of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over the Cleveland Browns was a controversial fourth-down conversion that gave Pittsburgh a first-down and led to a field goal in the first half.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leaned forward on fourth-and-one and didn’t get much. When the sticks came out, Pittsburgh was awarded a first down when most people in Heinz Field (including myself) thought otherwise.

Granted, my perspective was up in the press box -- not on the field --where the best view available was on the television replay. But unless my eyes deceived me, the replay showed space in between the football and the pole.

Here was the explanation from referee Walt Anderson, who stands behind the call:

"It depends on which angle you might be looking. I’m looking from straight on so I guess it’s conceivable [it appeared short]. That’s why I don’t get it back at an angle, because it can be deceptive because there’s a little bit of a distance, probably in the neighborhood of five or six inches between the actual point of the football and where the stake actually sets the ground. If you shot at an angle maybe from back behind the ball it might look like it’s short. If you shot at an angle the other side, it might actually look like it’s further in advance of the stake than it actually is."



Did the call determine the outcome of the game? No. The Steelers beat the Browns by 13 points.

But the purpose of officiating is to get the call right for both teams, and from my view (the replay) the referees missed this one.

Also, in another note for Pittsburgh, kicker Jeff Reed reportedly was cited for public intoxication and disorderly conduct Sunday night after the win. It's his second run-in with the law this year. The Steelers are looking into the situation, but it's unknown at this point if he willl be disciplined by the team.

Morning take: Mack deal close?

July, 24, 2009
7/24/09
9:20
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:

  • The Cleveland Browns and first-round pick Alex Mack are getting close to a multiyear deal, according to Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Morning take: The Browns begin training camp for first-year players this morning and currently have zero first-day picks signed in the debut camp of coach Eric Mangini. But it appears that status can change at any moment.

  • Gene Collier and Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have dueling Ben Roethlisberger columns Friday, providing their thoughts on whether the quarterback's civil suit will become a distraction for the defending champs.

Morning take: I have to side with Collier on this one. The Steelers do have a distraction on their hands. But an even bigger issue will be how well the Steelers handle this ongoing situation as a team moving forward.

  • Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun writes Ravens coach John Harbaugh will not put a deadline on the return of veteran receiver Derrick Mason.

Morning take: With one foot already out the door, it is probably in Baltimore's best interest not to pressure Mason. A forced decision could lead to Mason sticking with his game plan instead of contemplating a change of heart.

Morning take: For Bengals fans, the out-of-date photo caption is ironic with happier days between two players. Check it out.

Take your pick: Go for it on fourth down?

December, 15, 2008
12/15/08
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BALTIMORE -- In this week's "Take your pick," we have an interesting hypothetical coming off Sunday's controversial touchdown by Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes.

What if the catch wasn't ruled a touchdown? Down 9-6 on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, do you go for the win or kick to tie the game?

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said there were discussions during the replay period. But since they didn't have to make the call, neither revealed the team's decision.

Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said he wasn't sure what the coaches had in mind, but he provided his opinion from a player's perspective.

"What would I do? I would go for it," Ward said after the game. "I believe I would have the confidence in our 11 guys on that field. We came up short a couple times. But for the win in Baltimore with an inch left, I got to trust and have faith in my guys."

Whether you're a Steelers fan or not, this situation can happen to any team.

So put on your head-coaching hat like Ward just did and take your pick: Play for the win and division title late, or kick to tie the game?

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