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AFC North Preview: Steelers defense means curtains for opponents / Division rating: 14.4

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

(17.5)

Offense: QB Ben Roethlisberger is a tough guy with a big arm and a knack for keeping plays alive. WRs Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes (Super Bowl XLIII MVP) and TE Heath Miller are quality targets. If RBs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall stay healthy, they'll revive a running game that slipped from its normal standard in 2008. Rating: 4.0.

Defense: OLB James Harrison (2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year), S Troy Polamalu, DE Aaron Smith and emerging star OLB LaMarr Woodley lead Dick LeBeau's ferocious defense that dominated in almost every facet in '08. Rating: 5.0.

Special teams: Kicking game is solid with PK Jeff Reed and P Dan Sepulveda, out last season with a knee injury. Steelers are counting on speedy rookie WR Mike Wallace to boost returns. Rating:3.5.

Coaching: Mike Tomlin and his staff have a good stew cooking. Rating: 5.0.

On the spot: Offensive line. With four of five starters back healthy, unit must protect Big Ben better (49 sacks allowed in '08).

Prediction: Defending Super Bowl champs look formidable again.

Record: 12-4.

***

2. Baltimore Ravens

(15.5)

Offense: QB Joe Flacco was a revelation as a rookie, but the attack will continue to revolve around ball-control running game spearheaded by RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee and FB Le'Ron McClain. WR Derrick Mason's unretirement was huge boost to passing game. Rating: 3.5.

Defense: Coordinator Rex Ryan is gone, but MLB Ray Lewis, S Ed Reed and OLB/DE Terrell Suggs are still in place. That means Ravens' "D" should be as nasty as ever. Rating: 5.0.

Special teams: Kicking game is a concern with retirement of 18-year veteran K Matt Stover. Team also needs a kickoff return specialist after ranking 31st in '08. Rating: 3.0.

Coaching: John Harbaugh and offensive staff did wonders with Flacco. New DC Greg Mattison has tough act to follow. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Flacco. Let's see what he does now that people know he's coming.

Prediction: Won't overtake Steelers, but should be good enough to reach playoffs again. Record: 10-6.

***

3. Cincinnati Bengals

(13.5)

Offense: NFL's worst offense gets QB Carson Palmer back from elbow surgery. If rebuilt O-line holds up, Palmer will be able to connect with WRs Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry. RB Cedric Benson impressed as midseason pickup last year, but can he do it for 16 games? Rating: 3.0.

Defense: CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are good in coverage, but they need help from a pass rush that registered only 17 sacks in '08, tied for second fewest in league. Rookie MLB Rey Maualuga adds playmaking ability to an athletic linebacker corps. Rating: 3.0.

Special teams: K Shayne Graham has an accurate leg. Rookie P Kevin Huber should get a lot of chances to prove himself. Andre Caldwell and Quan Cosby show promise as kickoff and punt returners. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: Marvin Lewis and staff seek more consistency on both sides of ball. Rating: 3.5.

On the spot: Palmer. Bengals will only go as far as he takes them.

Prediction: A sixth non-winning record in seven years may finally doom Lewis. Record:7-9.

***

4. Cleveland Browns

(11.0)

Offense: QB Brady Quinn is expected to take over a unit that lost TE Kellen Winslow (trade). His absence puts more pressure on talented but inconsistent WR Braylon Edwards. Aging RB Jamal Lewis might squeeze out one more productive year behind one of NFL's best left-side blocking tandems in Pro Bowl T Joe Thomas and G Eric Steinbach. Rating: 2.5.

Defense: Despite Pro Bowl NT Shaun Rogers clogging middle and ILB D'Qwell Jackson racking up tackles (NFL-high 154), Browns couldn't stop run last season. Secondary was exposed by weak pass rush that had just 17 sacks (tied for second worst in NFL). Rating: 2.0.

Special teams: K Phil Dawson and P Dave Zastudil are all-weather performers. Josh Cribbs was NFL's only player to lead team in return yards and special-teams tackles. Even LS Ryan Pontbriand is a Pro Bowler. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: Eric Mangini gets teams to play hard, but they don't always play well. Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: Quinn. With Derek Anderson looking over his shoulder, Quinn needs to perform to keep job.

Prediction: Looks like another long season. Record 4-12.

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