- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Last season: 13-3, first place.

Coach: Brian Billick (80-56), ninth season.

Story line: Does new running back Willis McGahee provide enough offense for the fearsome defense to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl?

Power game: The defense lost Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas to free agency but remains the NFL’s best, particularly in the back seven with free safety Ed Reed, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and corner Chris McAlister.

Achilles’ heel: There are serious questions on the O-line. Was QB Steve McNair’s late-season slump a sign of what’s to come at age 34?

On the hot seat: McGahee. He’s just two years younger than predecessor Jamal Lewis but is supposed to play years younger and quicker.

Bottom line: The future is now for the Ravens, whose stars are mostly over 30 and who haven’t won a playoff game since the 2001 season.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Last season: 8-8, second place.

Coach: Marvin Lewis (35-30), fifth season.

Story line: Will famed coordinator Lewis ever have a decent defense as a head coach?

Power game: QB Carson Palmer, wideouts Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson are explosive operating behind tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones. Watch out for second-year linebacker Ahmad Brooks.

Achilles’ heel: Can the Bengals even slow down a top offense, let alone stop one? The departure of corner Tory James won’t help.

On the hot seat: Lewis. He ended Cincinnati’s 12-year playoff drought in 2005 but lost the opener. No team has had more players in trouble.

Bottom line: The offense needs to keep scoring in bunches to allow the young defense to mature. If they survive, the December schedule is favorable.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Last season: 4-12, fourth place.

Coach: Romeo Crennel (10-22), third season.

Story line: How long before first-round QB Brady Quinn takes over?

Power game: Tight end Kellen Winslow and wideout Braylon Edwards finally stayed healthy and teamed for 150 catches, 1,759 yards and nine TDs. Rookie linebacker Kamerion Wimberly had 11 sacks.

Achilles’ heel: The QBs are either inexperienced or awful. New running back Jamal Lewis is an old 28. The front four and secondary only scare Browns fans.

On the hot seat: Crennel. The fact that his ex-New England assistant, Eric Mangini, made the playoffs as a rookie coach in 2006 adds to the feeling that Crennel is a better coordinator than head man.

Bottom line: There are some talented young pieces in place, but someone else figures to be coaching them in 2008.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Last season: 8-8, third place.

Coach: Mike Tomlin, first season.

Story line: How do the Steelers adapt after 15 years with Bill Cowher?

Power game: Tomlin, just 35, wisely stuck with coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 “Blitzburgh” defense that has prospered through the years. Guard Alan Faneca, running back Willie Parker and wideout Hines Ward are offensive sparks.

Achilles’ heel: Free safety Troy Polamalu and Iinebacker James Farrior are the defense’s only true playmakers. QB Ben Roethlisberger crashed in 2006 after the wunderkind season of 2004 and the Super Bowl season of 2005.

On the hot seat: Roethlisberger. Was his slide in 2006 the result of a tough offseason or have defenses figured out Big Ben?

Bottom line: The division’s strength could consign the Steelers to third place unless they take advantage of an easy September schedule.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Ravens

2. Steelers

3. Bengals

4. Browns

MVP candidate: QB Carson Palmer, Bengals

Best coach: Brian Billick, Ravens

Top newcomer: Running back Willis McGahee, Ravens

Most missed: Linebacker Adalius Thomas, Ravens

Top rookie: Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, Browns

Best stadium: Browns Stadium, Cleveland

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