2008 AFC North Preview

Big Browns win; Gap between top and bottom two widens
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 11th 2008

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.

Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 8, 2008. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.

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For this analysis, each regular season game is simulated 1,000 times, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not (see Super Bowl XLII), our expected record (in parentheses next to each team) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.

Today we preview the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns (10-6)
The team definitely improved its roster in the off-season. A brutal schedule should give the Browns about the same record as last year, but now it is good enough for the division championship, Cleveland's first since 1989. The Browns average 25.8 points per game (#6 in the NFL) and allow 21.5 points (#11) against a schedule featuring eight games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 12-4

Most Significant Newcomer: Corey Williams, DL - The former Packer will likely lineup at end with newly acquired Shaun Rogers in the middle. Williams has an all-around game that is adept at stuffing the run and sacking the quarterback. He's a perfect 3-4 end. The season simulation gives Williams 41 total tackles and eight sacks.
Biggest Strength: Passing Game - Left tackle Joe Thomas helps to keep Derek Anderson upright long enough to hit play-making targets like Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Donte' Stallworth.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Depth - All three of those playmakers have histories with injuries (and attitude). The cupboard is pretty bare behind them, so the passing game could quickly become a weakness if one of them goes down. The same could be said for just about every position on the team, especially at running back where an aging Jamal Lewis appears to be the only NFL-caliber back on the roster.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Eric Wright, CB - It's rare to go defensive player, but the offense is so star-driven that there are no sleepers there. Wright is a second-year corner out of UNLV who made 76 tackles last season. For 2008, we put him at 86 tackles and three interceptions.

Closest Game: @ Philadelphia (Week 15) - Hosting Pittsburgh in Week 2 and at Philly in December are two big swing games for this Browns team. If Cleveland is intent on contending this year and for years to come, it will need to play its best in games like these.

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Derek Anderson (5) 3,853 yards, 27 TDs, 15 INTs; Jamal Lewis (11) 1,488 total yards, 14 TDs; Braylon Edwards (2) 95 receptions, 1,400 yards, 9 TDs; Donte' Stallworth (50) 42 receptions, 640 yards, 5 TDs; Kellen Winslow II (2) 87 receptions, 1,035 yards, 7 TDs; Phil Dawson (19) 45/45 XPs, 25/30 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Dallas Cowboys4122-24
2Pittsburgh Steelers5124-18
3@Baltimore Ravens7428-21
4@Cincinnati Bengals8129-22
6New York Giants3522-25
7@Washington Redskins6326-23
8@Jacksonville Jaguars5722-22
9Baltimore Ravens7628-16
10Denver Broncos7432-19
11@Buffalo Bills6528-25
12Houston Texans7530-19
13Indianapolis Colts4525-27
14@Tennessee Titans6822-17
15@Philadelphia Eagles5121-20
16Cincinnati Bengals8132-16
17@Pittsburgh Steelers4220-28

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
It is not a bad season for the Steelers; they just do not quite make the playoffs. Pittsburgh actually has a fairly explosive offense for 2008, but the defense is not what it has been. The schedule is tough, and the Browns are just a little better. The Steelers average 24.7 points per game (#13) and allow 23.2 points (#17) against a schedule featuring eight games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 10-6 - This would suggest that the team is actually better than the Buffalo Bills, which get a Wild Card due to a higher number of non-rounded expected wins, despite also rounding to a 9-7 record.

Most Significant Newcomer: Rashard Mendenhall, RB - This may not be a big breakout year for Mendenhall, but he looks like a future All-Pro and could still be an electric back as a sub and goalline specialist for Willie Parker. This analysis expects Mendenhall to total 1,008 yards from scrimmage and score 10 touchdowns.

Biggest Strength: Running Offense - Alan Faneca may be gone, but this team just added one of the most NFL-ready backs to come out of the draft in years to an attack that finished third in the NFL in rushing in 2007. Receiving deep threat Limas Sweed should also come in and help Santonio Holmes to keep defenses honest.

Most Exploitable Weakness: The Schedule - Again, this is neither a bad team, nor a bad year. It is just a bad schedule (for the Steelers and their fans at least). For a team that won its division in a year when no other team from the division made the playoffs to have to play eight games against playoff opponents from the previous year is astounding. The AFC North plays a round-robin with both divisions in the league that placed three teams in the playoffs in 2007. Adding the Patriots and Chargers to the mix is torturous.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Santonio Holmes, WR - Everyone knows who he is, but this, his third season, should be the year that Holmes becomes one of fantasy football's elite receivers. Hines Ward will likely be limited again by age and nagging leg injuries, so Holmes needs to step up. We have him as the 13th best receiver with 65 receptions, 1,091 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.

Closest Game: @ Cleveland (Week 2) - Referenced in the Browns' write-up above, this could be the game that decides the AFC North crown - and it happens in September.

Fantasy Notables: Ben Roethlisberger (8) 3,455 yards, 23 TDs, 10 INTs; Willie Parker (13) 1,500 total yards, 12 TDs; Rashard Mendenhall (33) 1,008 total yards, 10 TDs; Santonio Holmes (13) 65 receptions, 1,091 yards, 7 TDs; Hines Ward (45) 64 receptions, 738 yards, 5 TDs; Heath Miller (9) 52 receptions, 613 yards, 4 TDs; Jeff Reed (11) 42/42 XPs, 26/34 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Houston Texans6927-15
2@Cleveland Browns4918-24
3@Philadelphia Eagles5424-23
4Baltimore Ravens7129-17
5@Jacksonville Jaguars4221-30
7@Cincinnati Bengals6728-25
8New York Giants3722-25
9@Washington Redskins5522-22
10Indianapolis Colts3325-28
11San Diego Chargers5227-21
12Cincinnati Bengals6630-19
13@New England Patriots2921-33
14Dallas Cowboys3724-28
15@Baltimore Ravens6225-21
16@Tennessee Titans6823-20
17Cleveland Browns5828-20

Baltimore Ravens (5-11)
The 2008 version of the Baltimore Ravens is almost exactly the same team that took the field in 2007. They went 5-11 in 2007 - and this is not a team that is "developing." They are simply getting older. The Ravens average 20.0 points per game (#28) and allow 27.2 points (#26) against a schedule featuring eight games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 2-14

Most Significant Newcomer: Ray Rice, RB - The former Rutgers standout is a potential workhorse back who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Willis McGahee needs protection. Ready or not, Rice should be that guy in 2008. In the simulated season, Rice totals 394 yards and scores four touchdowns.

Biggest Strength: Name Recognition - This defense, with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg, Terrell Suggs (probably) and others, sounds much better than it is. We will count that as a strength though, because the defense obviously has plenty of experience and good football IQ. It could easily dominate a few games.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Game - Everyone knows that Joe Flacco is the Ravens' answer for the future of their passing attack, but very few people know what that means for 2008. In this analysis, it means that Flacco, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith combine to throw 20 interceptions, while Derrick Mason watches another year of his career pass by.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Joe Flacco, QB - When he gets a chance to play later in the season, the Ravens will likely be behind often and have to throw the ball. Expect some mistakes, but he is a definite upgrade over Kyle Boller. In nine starts, the sim gives Flacco 2,094 yards, 12 TDs and nine interceptions. That's 3,722 yards, 21 TDs and 16 interceptions over a 16 game season. Sounds like a step in the right direction.

Closest Game: @ Houston (Week 2) - Both of these teams may be looking for their identities all year. A statistical dead heat in winning percentage, the team that prevails may ultimately be the one with the greater future.

Fantasy Notables: Joe Flacco (28) 2,094 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs; Willis McGahee (20) 1,456 yards, 11 TDs; Derrick Mason (32) 82 receptions, 870 yards, 6 TDs; Mark Clayton (39) 75 receptions, 832 yards, 4 TDs; Todd Heap (6) 71 receptions, 764 yards, 4 TDs; Matt Stover (22) 34/34 XPs, 26/29 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Cincinnati Bengals4524-26
2@Houston Texans5019-24
3Cleveland Browns2621-28
4@Pittsburgh Steelers2917-29
5Tennessee Titans4920-19
6@Indianapolis Colts1117-35
7@Miami Dolphins4319-28
8Oakland Raiders6729-19
9@Cleveland Browns2316-28
11@New York Giants1716-29
12Philadelphia Eagles2419-26
13@Cincinnati Bengals5327-26
14Washington Redskins2020-28
15Pittsburgh Steelers3821-25
16@Dallas Cowboys816-40
17Jacksonville Jaguars3320-26

Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)
Off the field issues - not just criminally, but in the locker room, the front office and in scouting - have caught up with this franchise, which has only made the playoffs once in the last 17 years. The truth is, Carson Palmer is capable of leading a team to a deep playoff run, and it may just happen with the Bengals some season; the defense is too inexperienced, and the running game has too many question marks for that season to be 2008. The Bengals average 22.2 points per game (#19) and allow 29.2 points (#31) against a schedule featuring eight games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 2-14 - Winning the first and last games of the season.

Most Significant Newcomer: Keith Rivers, LB - If Chad Johnson does not play all year for the Bengals, this could easily be Ben Utecht. For now though, we will highlight Rivers who has been tabbed to lead this defense in the same manner that fellow USC Trojan, Carson Palmer, has led the offense. Rivers will be one of the more productive rookies in 2008 with 109 total tackles and a sack. He and Jerod Mayo of New England should vie for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Biggest Strength: Palmer - Carson Palmer seems to have "it." And he could use "it" to the fullest if he gets time in the pocket, has any semblance of a running game and has two or three NFL-caliber, healthy receivers on the field with him at all times.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Defense - One of the worst all-around defenses from 2007 has lost its three most productive players - Justin Smith (DE, SF), Madieu Williams (S, MIN) and Landon Johnson (LB, CAR). It is hard not to pick on the whole unit. Linebackers Rashad Jeanty and Ahmad Brooks have shown some good signs, yet neither can stay on the field. Deltha O'Neal, Dexter Jackson, Dhani Jones and John Thornton are all veterans who have had a good year or two each, but none has really stood out as a consistently, above-average NFL player. So, the defense is in the hands of a bunch of kids like Rivers, Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Robert Geathers and Domata Peko who may or may not be in over their heads.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Ben Utecht, TE - Carson Palmer has rarely used the tight end in Cincinnati, but now the Bengals actually have one who has produced elsewhere. Utecht's numbers are largely contingent on the play of the wide receivers, but he should get at least 31 catches for 366 yards and three TDs (as he does in the simulated season). Rookie WRs Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell could be turned to fill Chris Henry and/or Chad Johnson's voids as well. On the flip side, it is wise to stay away from all Cincinnati RBs.

Closest Game: Baltimore (Week 13) - The two bad teams in the AFC North look to split the regular season series. By now, Joe Flacco should be starting for Baltimore, so it will be a better team and a tougher opponent than in Week 1.

Fantasy Notables: Carson Palmer (6) 4,061 yards, 27 TDs, 17 INTs; Rudi Johnson (37) 949 total yards, 6 TDs; T.J. Houshmandzadeh (9) 114 receptions, 1,217 yards, 7 TDs; Chad Johnson (21) 67 receptions, 1,002 yards, 6 TDs; Ben Utecht (21) 31 receptions, 336 yards, 3 TDs; Shayne Graham (18) 38/38 XPs, 26/31 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@Baltimore Ravens5526-24
2Tennessee Titans4523-24
3@New York Giants1917-32
4Cleveland Browns1822-29
5@Dallas Cowboys817-39
6@New York Jets3624-32
7Pittsburgh Steelers3325-28
9Jacksonville Jaguars3525-29
10@Houston Texans3523-34
11Philadelphia Eagles2721-26
12@Pittsburgh Steelers3419-30
13Baltimore Ravens4726-27
14@Indianapolis Colts1519-35
15Washington Redskins2922-28
16@Cleveland Browns1916-32
17Kansas City Chiefs6928-17

Click here to view a schedule of 2008 NFL previews and see others that have been posted.

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