by Dennis Waszak Jr.
AP Sports Writer
(AP)—The Steelers were a team in flux a year ago, their star quarterback about to sit out a four-game suspension.
Ben Roethlisberger returned after Pittsburgh went 3-1, leading the team to its third AFC championship in six seasons. Now the bitter taste of a Super Bowl loss to Green Bay and a controversy-filled offseason have the Steelers itching to defend their AFC title. After keeping the core of their roster together, they’re loaded to make another run.
But so are plenty of other AFC teams.
Just ask Rex Ryan, who says this is the most talented Jets roster he has had since becoming New York’’s coach. Oh, yeah, he guarantees—again—this is the year the Jets bring home their first Lombardi Trophy since the days of Broadway Joe.
“Everything that I’ve said in the past,” Ryan said, “is still in play.”
Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots might have something to say about that. After all, they’ve been the kings of the AFC East for eight of the last 10 years. And Tom Brady—the NFL’s MVP after 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions—has a dangerous new target in Chad Ochocinco.
While Jets-Patriots should make for an intense matchup in the AFC East, watch for the Baltimore Ravens to ramp up the volume—and violent hits—with the Steelers in the AFC North. Ray Lewis is still the fiery leader of an always-dominant Ravens defense, and quarterback Joe Flacco has improved in each of his first three seasons.
Peyton Manning’s neck, even more than his arm, will have a big impact not only on the AFC South, but the entire conference.
The AFC West could be a free-for-all, with Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers’ quick-strike offense looking to get back to the playoffs after a year away. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs have a new offensive coordinator, and the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos are playing under new head coaches.
The Steelers’ long offseason started when they lost the Super Bowl to the Packers. Sure, Roethlisberger got married—in 2010, he got suspended for a night of boorish carousing in Georgia—but that was about the only good news off the field.
Rashard Mendenhall drew heavy criticism when he questioned celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death in a tweet, James Harrison called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “crook” and “the devil” in a magazine article, and Hines Ward was arrested on a drunk driving charge shortly after winning TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
The Steelers get to focus solely on football now and winning their seventh Super Bowl; they already hold the record with six. They kept their aging but solid defense intact by re-signing CB Ike Taylor, and the offense should again be productive behind Roethlisberger. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s passing game might rival its always-potent running attack as speedy receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown emerge as forces.
Baltimore got younger in some key spots, and adding Evans gives the Ravens a formidable duo with Anquan Boldin. The running back combo of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams should wear out defenses. They’ll help Flacco, one of the league’s top young quarterbacks. But as always, Lewis and the defense will set the tone.
Cleveland is on its fifth coach since returning to the NFL in 1999. This time it’s Pat Shurmur’s task to turn around the fortunes of a franchise that has missed the playoffs the last eight seasons. Good luck with that in a division dominated by the Steelers and Ravens.
Carson Palmer is gone from Cincinnati, deciding he’d rather not play anymore than deal with more losing. In his place, rookie QB Andy Dalton will likely step in and should expect a rough introduction to the NFL. Ochocinco was traded and Terrell Owens was allowed to leave as a free agent, meaning the offense will need to jell quickly. The Bengals tied the franchise record by losing 10 in a row last season, and coach Marvin Lewis still got a contract extension.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) New England Patriots (13-3)
2) New York Jets (11-5)
3) Miami Dolphins (6-10)
4) Buffalo Bills (5-11)
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (14-2)
2) Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
3) Cleveland Browns (4-12)
4) Cincinnati Bengals (3-13)
1) Indianapolis Colts (13-3)
2) Houston Texans (11-5)
3) Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)
1) San Diego Chargers (9-7)
2) Denver Broncos (8-8)
3) Oakland Raiders (4-12)
4) Kansas City Chiefs (4-12)