- Baltimore Ravens (11-5) - Best offensive player in the division (Ray Rice), best defense in the division (still, even without Suggs), and a quarterback that won't kill you. That's the recipe for the Ravens. This pick is as much an indictment of the rest of the division (chiefly, the Steelers) as anything else, but Baltimore has high-end talent and that's enough. I absolutely love Ray Rice, and I think he's the best running back in the game today when you combine his reliability, explosiveness, ability to block, and catch the ball out of the backfield. Look for Torrey Smith to explode a bit on the outside as Flacco throws a very nice deep ball, and Smith is, well, fast. On defense, Terrell Suggs is hurt and Ray Lewis is old, but the Ravens will still be good over there with Haloti Ngata, and I think Paul Kruger can and will fill in admirably for Suggs. I don't think they're a Super Bowl team, but they're the cream here.
- Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) - Health and age are the concerns here. Ben Roethlisberger is a top-tier QB when he's on the field, but with his past injury woes coupled with a dreadful offensive line, how many games does he play? 10? 12? The backfield is a mess with a Mendenhall injury paving the way for Isaac Redman (also hurt) and Jonathan Dwyer. Mike Wallace held out and missed nearly all of camp. Did I mention the defense lost a ton of talent and that guys like Troy Polamalu aren't getting any younger? I think this is the year that it starts to unravel a bit for Pittsburgh. 9 wins shows my respect level for their culture, but I don't see it.
- Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) - Solid team. No upside. That's what I see in Cincinnati. Their only explosive player on offense is AJ Green and he is a big-timer as he enters year two. That said, I think there's a ceiling there with Andy Dalton, who is decent and nothing more, and with the Lawfirm (Benjarvus Green-Ellis) as the starting tailback and no 2nd receiver to speak of, I'm not frightened. On defense, I love the corners (Nate Clements and Leon Hall) but they need pressure to make things work. Wouldn't surprise me if they won 9 games, but it's a middling roster.
- Cleveland Browns (5-11) - Brandon Weeden is the quarterback. That's virtually all you need to know about Cleveland this year. Trent Richardson may be Adrian Peterson 2.0 but he's already banged up and they have zero at receiver to go with Weeden's likely ineptitude. They couldn't stop the run at all in 2011, and while the secondary is solid, it almost doesn't matter when you're 30th in the league against the run and you're seeing guys like Ray Rice twice a year. Godspeed.
Enjoy! Stay tuned for Part 3 with the AFC East....