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Friday, September 5, 2008
Audibles: AFC North Week 1 preview


Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Houston at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET

Skinny: The Pittsburgh Steelers have an interesting matchup against Houston. It's well documented that Pittsburgh struggles in pass protection and the Texans have one of the NFL's top young defensive ends in Mario Williams. So expect the Steelers to give Houston a heavy dose of tailbacks Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall to negate the Texans' pass rush. Then the Steelers can double-team Williams with an extra tight end or running back when necessary. Defensively Pittsburgh will try to pressure Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who only has 13 career starts, to see what he's made of.

Prediction: Steelers 24-17

Why: This isn't an easy team for Pittsburgh. The Texans can rush the passer and have a group of receivers that can give the Steelers trouble on defense. But as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stays upright, he should have little trouble picking apart Houston's secondary. Head coach Mike Tomlin has an interesting task this weekend of keeping his team focused on Houston before a much-anticipated rivalry game against the Browns Sept. 14.

Dallas at Cleveland, 4:15 p.m. ET

Skinny: There might not be a more-hyped pair of football teams this year than the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns. The Cowboys didn't win a playoff game in 2007 and the Browns didn't qualify for the postseason despite a 10-6 record. Yet most people pick these two teams to do serious damage in their respective conferences this season. It should be a good measuring-stick game for both teams. Dallas, with 13 returning Pro Bowlers, arguably has more talent than any team in the NFL. But Cleveland, with its seven Pro Bowlers, has enough depth to compete. The deciding factor in this game is which defense is able to slow down the other team's offense at crucial times.

Prediction: Cowboys 27-21

Why: I don't know what it is about season openers at home, but the Browns simply don't win them. Cleveland is 1-8 in home openers since returning to the NFL in 1999, which defies logic. What doesn't defy logic is the Cowboys are a matchup nightmare for Cleveland's defense. Dallas should have success both running and passing the ball down the field enough to keep a rowdy crowd at bay. Cleveland's offense will put up points, too, but just not enough.

Cincinnati at Baltimore, 1 p.m. ET

Skinny: This division game is bigger than you think. Both teams have a lot of questions and are fragile right now after getting banged up and struggling in the preseason. The Ravens also have quarterback issues and will start rookie Joe Flacco in his first NFL game. Meanwhile, the Bengals' defense hasn't looked good and offensive cogs of quarterback Carson Palmer (broken nose), Chad Johnson (shoulder) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring) haven't played together all preseason. Despite all these questions, the winner Sunday will suddenly feel a lot better about itself by being the only AFC North team with a division win, while the loser could spin further into turmoil.

Prediction: Ravens 16-14

Why: This is the most difficult pick in the AFC North this week, because both teams haven't shown much promise to date. It will simply be a matter of which club can suddenly turn it on Sunday. The Bengals' offensive timing might be off, at least early. Meanwhile, Flacco needs to make good decisions. Tailback Willis McGahee's possible return would be big for Baltimore, but it appears he will be a game-time decision. Either way this game won't be pretty. But when in doubt, we give a very small edge to the home team.