2009 AFC North Predictions From WhatIfSports.com image

2009 AFC North Preview

NFL Predictions and Projections
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 10th, 2009

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 9, 2009. 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 10,000 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.

Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.

Today we preview the AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The 2008 Super Bowl champions look to go back-to-back and win their seventh ring. We will look at the playoffs later, but Pittsburgh has smooth sailing to a first round bye from this mediocre division. The Steelers average 21.2 points per game (#16 in the NFL) and only allow 14.1 points (#2) against a schedule featuring six games against teams who made the playoffs in 2008.

Absolute Record: 14-2

Most Significant Newcomer: Evander "Ziggy" Hood, DE - With very few players of significance coming or going, Hood is essentially the only option here. That being said, the pressure will definitely be on the rookie from Missouri starting in Week One. The Steelers will need him to contribute; yet will never rely on him to make big plays. At 6'3", 300 pounds, Hood has prototypical size for a 3-4 end who needs to be adept at stuffing the run and neutralizing blockers in passing situations. He is not spectacular in any facet of the game and rarely had to worry about rush containment as a tackle in the pass-happy Big 12. We are projecting 16 games played, 30 tackles and two sacks for Hood, which is probably right in line with Pittsburgh's expectations and about all they need from the first-year player.

Biggest Strength: Defense up the Middle - The Pittsburgh Steelers are built like a great defensive baseball team with the smart, solid players on the inside and the flashy, headline-grabbers on the outside. Nose tackle Casey Hampton may be one of the most valuable players in football. In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle must take on multiple blockers to hold the line and open up opportunities for the inside linebackers (and/or at least one of the safeties) to stuff the run. Assuming this can done effectively, outside linebackers and corners can be more aggressive, which leads to sacks and turnovers. Pittsburgh does all of this beautifully and it starts with Hampton. Behind him at linebacker, James Farrior is as solid as it gets, while Lawrence Timmons looks like a star ready to breakout with additional playing time after the release of Larry Foote. Pittsburgh obviously also has the luxury of having two athletic, hard-hitting safeties who are both equally capable of making big tackles and creating turnovers.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Mistakes on Offense - Pittsburgh's defense was so good last year that it always kept the Steelers in games and masked many of the costly turnovers and mistakes made by the offense. Of all active quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger actually had the highest (worst) percentage of his passes intercepted in 2008. He was also sacked the second most times in the NFL (behind Matt Cassell of New England) last year. Typically a team built in this mold with a very strong defense and a rushing attack with several weapons that can stay fresh and take time off the clock needs a quarterback who plays smart and minimizes mistakes. Roethlisberger, on the other hand, favors the big play and often compromises his team's chances of winning with mistakes - only to seemingly win the game at the end by making plays "when it counts." In other words, the Steelers, with some luck, win in spite of their quarterback's antics. In the playoffs, Roethlisberger often slows the game down and plays smarter. Pittsburgh needs him to play that way more often or it may catch up with them.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Santonio Holmes, WR - In the 2008 post-season, Hines Ward was banged-up, making Holmes the go-to receiver for the Steelers' passing attack. A changing of the guard may have taken place in the Super Bowl when it was Holmes, not Ward who made the game-winning TD catch. Ward is still around and can be effective, but Holmes will be the guy in 2009. He is very much in the discussion for 1,000 receiving yards and a top 15 fantasy ranking amond wide receivers. Our projections have him at 1,000 yards even on 60 catches, both career highs.

Closest Game: Minnesota (Week 7) - The AFC North plays the AFC West and NFC North, meaning its teams will have a fairly easy schedule (Pittsburgh's is the easiest because they don't have to play themselves twice like everyone else in the division). The most likely loss on the schedule comes against the Vikings. Even though the Steelers will be at home, Minnesota is a team that can put together the few explosive plays necessary to beat Pittsburgh in a low-scoring game. And no, this game will not likely end in a tie. The teams are just that close that the projected scores round to the same value.

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Ben Roethlisberger (15) 3,070 yards, 18 TDs, 14 INTs; Willie Parker (29) 1,030 total yards, 7 TDs; Santonio Holmes (17) 60 receptions, 1,000 yards, 6 TDs; Hines Ward (22) 79 receptions, 982 yards, 6 TDs; Heath Miller (19) 39 receptions, 424 yards, 2 TDs; Jeff Reed (9) 34/35 XPs, 28/35 FGs

Projected 2009 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Tennessee Titans6721-14
2@Chicago Bears6717-14
3@Cincinnati Bengals7621-13
4San Diego Chargers6223-18
5@Detroit Lions8325-14
6Cleveland Browns9531-7
7Minnesota Vikings4518-18
9@Denver Broncos7423-16
10Cincinnati Bengals6721-14
11@Kansas City Chiefs7018-14
12@Baltimore Ravens6417-15
13Oakland Raiders7023-15
14@Cleveland Browns8523-12
15Green Bay Packers7622-12
16Baltimore Ravens7321-12
17@Miami Dolphins4515-18

Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)
Carson Palmer's return to full health will benefit the Bengals greatly in 2009. With a young and talented defense on the field less and a light schedule, the Bengals improve by (at least) four wins. The Bengals average 20.9 points per game (#18) and allow 20.8 points (#16) against a schedule featuring six games against 2008 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 10-6

Most Significant Newcomer: Andre Smith, OL - As we noted last month, the Bengals had a great draft according to our analysis of rookies who positively impact their teams in 2009. Andre Smith is at the top of that list for Cincinnati. He was a dominant run-blocker for Alabama in the ultra-competitive SEC and projects to a better-than-average pass protector in the NFL. We just mentioned how much better the team should be with a healthy Carson Palmer at quarterback. Palmer will be at his best if Smith can pave the way for Cedric Benson and an effective running game that can balance the offense and keep defenses guessing. Smith comes with some potential pitfalls as well. As we mentioned in the drat analysis, "the computer does not know what Andre Smith looks like with his shirt off." Right now, we assume that he will have a sizable (pun-intended) impact on the team - akin to Joe Staley or Jake Long as rookies. He could be even better like Joe Thomas or Ryan Clady. Or he could go Tony Mandrich on us and crush an already dismal franchise.

Biggest Strength: Youth on Defense - For a .500 team that is actually favored in ten games, nothing really jumps out as a definite strength. Several pieces - a healthy, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, an athletic, revamped offensive line, a stable of diverse running backs and wide receivers, a young defensive core, newly signed veterans, upgrades on special teams, etc. - that could be characteristic of a successful team appear to be coming together at one time, but none of them is much more of a lock to perform well than the others. We will highlight the young defense here as that is the most promising aspect of this team for 2009 and beyond. Seven likely defensive starters - like Leon Hall, Keith Rivers, Ray Maualuga and Domata Peko - and many more contributors have three or less years of experience. And as rare as it may sound in Cincinnati, all of them belong.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Uncertainty - There may be several promising aspects of this team, but that also means that the Bengals must take a leap of faith that all of those pieces will improve as they hope and jell in 2009. There is a good chance that at least one of those items does not materialize. The talented rookies may be slow to develop. Carson Palmer or others may get hurt. The youth could be prone to mistakes. Or all of the above.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Henry, WR - "Changed man" or otherwise, Chris Henry has a great deal of talent, Carson Palmer loves throwing to him and he has been showing up to everything in the offseason (while others ahead of him do not). Whether Chad Ochocinco gets back to his 2002-2007 numbers or not, Henry should eclipse his 2006 numbers when he had 36 catches for 605 yards. Our projections have Chris Henry at 41 catches for 696 yards (despite being the third option at WR for the Bengals).

Closest Game: @ Oakland Raiders (Week 11) - If the Bengals want to "turn the corner" and get back in the playoffs, they have to be able to win a road game like this in Oakland. By Week 11, we have Jeff Garcia and Darren McFadden entrenched as starters for the Raiders so they will be improved over the beginning of the season, but the Bengals are still the better overall team.

Fantasy Notables: Carson Palmer (15) 3,065 yards, 19 TDs, 11 INTs; Cedric Benson (24) 1,197 total yards, 8 TDs; Chad Ochocinco (37) 63 receptions, 851 yards, 5 TDs; Laveranues Coles (38) 66 receptions, 842 yards, 5 TDs; Chris Henry (43) 41 receptions, 696 yards, 4 TDs; Shayne Graham (13) 34/35 XPs, 27/33 FGs

Projected 2009 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Denver Broncos6829-21
2@Green Bay Packers5621-21
3Pittsburgh Steelers2413-21
4@Cleveland Browns8226-17
5@Baltimore Ravens4517-21
6Houston Texans5423-20
7Chicago Bears5120-18
9Baltimore Ravens5121-19
10@Pittsburgh Steelers3314-21
11@Oakland Raiders5123-24
12Cleveland Browns7828-16
13Detroit Lions6524-18
14@Minnesota Vikings2517-26
15@San Diego Chargers3220-27
16Kansas City Chiefs6424-18
17@New York Jets3217-24

Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Joe Flacco's sophomore season is not as impressive as his rookie year as Baltimore falls short of the playoffs. The team clearly misses misses Bart Scott and Rex Ryan. The Ravens average 19.7 points per game (#25) and allow 19.1 points (#11) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 8-8

Most Significant Newcomer: Michael Oher, OL - Assuming he was not yet ready to unseat right tackle Willie Anderson, we originally had Michael Oher ranked as the 63rd most impactful rookie, behind other Ravens like DE/OLB Paul Kruger and ILB Jason Phillips. That changed drastically when Anderson retired shortly after the NFL Draft. Now Oher will be expected to help protect second-year quarterback Joe Flacco and pave the way for Flacco's fellow sophomore, running back Ray Rice. To be honest, Oher was drafted a round or two ahead of his value in our analysis. Despite starting three seasons at Mississippi, Oher is fairly new to football and could still be a project. The Ravens aren't waiting on him, so he'll have to do well now. The projections put him in the middle of his potential, just below average for an NFL RT. His extremes are not as pronounced as a guy like Andre Smith, but neither is his talent. He should at least retain his job this season and for several years to come.

Biggest Strength: Defensive Intimidation - Intimidation comes through in the numbers when teams are scared to run up the middle toward Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, pass deep near Ed Reed or scramble around a freak like Terrell Suggs.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Offense - It is not that Joe Flacco is a bad NFL quarterback. He actually projects to be just better than average this season. The concern with the passing game is a lack of weapons and question marks on the offensive line. Flacco should be able to complete 60% of his passes again this year, while minimizing interceptions, but his completions may not go very far after the catch and he should end up on his back even more often than he did in 2008 when he was sacked the eighth most in the NFL. Derrick Mason is banged-up right now and is 35 years old. Todd Heap's career has fallen off over the last two years. The same can be said for free agent signee LJ Smith. And Mark Clayton has never really shown that he can be a go-to guy. There is no else on the roster worth mentioning here. Especially with potential issues on the line, the running game is not strong enough to overcome the liabilities of the passing game.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Ray Rice, RB - By the time most fantasy drafts begin, Ray Rice may actually be around the 20th running back taken, but for now, we have him valued higher than most. Le'Ron McLain had an impressive season in 2008, yet, without Lorenzo Neal and with an offensive line in flux, he will be needed more in blocking from the fullback position in 2009. Willis McGahee can be productive in spurts, yet has major durability concerns. Whether he opens the season first on the depth chart or not, Ray Rice should be the Ravens best fantasy running back. Our projections see Rice net almost 1,200 total yards and ten touchdowns on about 15 touches a game.

Closest Game: Kansas City (Week 1) - Kansas City is probably stronger in Week One of the simulations than they will be to begin the actual season, yet the revamped, recharged Chiefs would like nothing more than to open the new year with a road win over a playoff team. We should know quickly how much the losses of Bart Scott, Willie Anderson, Lorenzo Neal, Rex Ryan and Jim Leonhard mean to the Ravens.

Fantasy Notables:Joe Flacco (14) 2866 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs; Ray Rice (21) 1,189 total yards, 10 TDs; Willis McGahee (47) 794 total yards, 6 TDs; Derrick Mason (30) 67 receptions, 890 yards, 5 TDs; Mark Clayton (40) 43 receptions, 788 yards, 5 TDs; Todd Heap (20) 33 receptions, 412 yards, 2 TDs; Steven Hauschka (30) 34/34 XPs, 21/29 FGs

Projected 2009 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Kansas City Chiefs5018-16
2@San Diego Chargers3218-25
3Cleveland Browns8629-14
4@New England Patriots2315-26
5Cincinnati Bengals5521-17
6@Minnesota Vikings2416-26
8Denver Broncos7726-16
9@Cincinnati Bengals4919-21
10@Cleveland Browns8226-16
11Indianapolis Colts4518-18
12Pittsburgh Steelers3615-17
13@Green Bay Packers5718-18
14Detroit Lions7225-16
15Chicago Bears5318-16
16@Pittsburgh Steelers2712-21
17@Oakland Raiders4621-24

Cleveland Browns (3-13)
Clearly a team in disarray as they transition coaching staffs and philosophies, the Cleveland Browns are simply the worst team in the NFL in 2009. The Browns average 16.9 points per game (#32) and allow 28.1 points (#31) against a schedule featuring just six games against 2008 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 0-16

Most Significant Newcomer: Eric Barton, LB - Barton was a tackling machine for the New York Jets in 2008 and was hand-picked by his head coach, Eric Mangini, to lead the Browns defense in 2009. Barton should help to anchor the interior of the defense which also includes D'Qwell Jackson. Barton and Jackson, both former Maryland Terrapins, each topped 100 total tackles last season.

Biggest Strength: Special Teams - The sad thing is that Joshua Cribbs, the team's return specialist who also plays on the coverage units, knows this is Cleveland's biggest strength and has tried to leverage that in contract negotiations. Phil Dawson may be the worst starting fantasy kicker in the league, but that has everything to do with the offense. He has a strong leg, capable of hitting from 50+ yards, which is a big weapon for a team that will struggle to move the ball. Cribbs' numbers from 2008 do not look as great as the previous season, but he helped the team to finish second in the league (behind Oakland) in net punting margin (Cleveland averaged 5.7 more net yards per punt than its opponents). Cribbs also made 23 special teams tackles.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Everything Else - It may not quite be that bad - Joe Thomas, D'Qwell Jackson, Shaun Rogers and Braylon Edwards should be bright spots for the Browns - but the team lacks cohesive pieces and standout players. The numbers don't like Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson at quarterback. Jamal Lewis is a well-below NFL-average performer at this point, who inexplicably still gets touches - probably because there really isn't anyone behind him to trust. The team shipped out its promising, young - though oft-injured and hot-headed - tight end. The offensive line is not anything special. Braylon Edwards has talent, but he also drops too many passes. Brian Robiskie looks good, yet is not likely ready to be a clear number two - and there is no one behind him who is. The 3-4 outside linebackers can't get to the quarterback. The corners show up on every NFL receiver's highlight reel - for the wrong reasons. Their nose tackle is frequently out of playing shape and too easily disgruntled. And the coaching staff is already drawing the ire of many players and fans.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Brian Robiskie, WR - With Donte' Stallworth's legal issues, Robiskie is the likely second receiver on the Browns. He is a great compliment to Braylon Edwards as he is most things that Edwards is not. Robiskie is mild-mannered, a great route runner and has sure hands. He is not fast nor an exceptional deep threat. The projections give Robiskie 30 catches for 434 yards. Considering the projected poor performance of the quarterbacks, that's significant. If either QB can exceed expectations and put together a great year, Robiskie's projections will greatly improve.

Closest Game: Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 17) - This could be the battle for the first draft choice, with the loser earning the prize. By now, Cleveland should have realized that neither of its quarterbacks is the answer, so it may be in the Browns' best interest to lose and draft Sam Bradford first overall.

Fantasy Notables: Brady Quinn (30) 2,166 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs; Jamal Lewis (28) 1,101 total yards, 6 TDs; Jerome Harrison (55) 718 total yards, 5 TDs; Braylon Edwards (15) 67 receptions, 1,069 yards, 6 TDs; Steve Heiden (24) 33 receptions, 375 yards, 2 TDs; Phil Dawson (32) 28/28 XPs, 20/24 FGs

Projected 2009 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Minnesota Vikings818-33
2@Denver Broncos2923-31
3@Baltimore Ravens1414-29
4Cincinnati Bengals1817-26
5@Buffalo Bills1814-29
6@Pittsburgh Steelers57-31
7Green Bay Packers2819-24
8@Chicago Bears1713-26
10Baltimore Ravens1816-26
11@Detroit Lions3421-28
12@Cincinnati Bengals2216-28
13San Diego Chargers1119-33
14Pittsburgh Steelers1512-23
15@Kansas City Chiefs2118-29
16Oakland Raiders2021-29
17Jacksonville Jaguars3723-25

Click here to view a schedule of 2009 NFL previews and see others that have been posted.

Want to know how the best players of today would do against the greats of all-time? Find out using SimMatchup or build a team of the best ever and compete gainst others in the SimLeagues.

Paul Bessire is the Product Manager of Content and Quantitative Analysis for WhatIfSports.com, a division of FOX Sports Interactive specializing in fantasy football simulation analysis and football sim games. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!

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