The Browns have been the division doormat for most of their existence, but they're showing some encouraging signs heading into Year 2 of coach Romeo Crennel's construction job. They're not quite ready to give the Steelers and the Bengals a run for the top rung of the AFC North, but the Browns are finally starting to put some pieces together on the personnel front.
Offensively, much depends on what Cleveland gets from second-year quarterback Charlie Frye and two injury-plagued former first-round picks -- tight end Kellen Winslow and receiver Braylon Edwards. But Reuben Droughns has supplied a legitimate running game, and the Browns have upgraded their offensive line again with the addition of Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley. On defense, adding veterans Willie McGinest and Ted Washington will definitely help in the locker room, but don't expect either one to perform as if they were in their prime. The draft, however, supplied two future playmaking cogs in Crennel's 3-4 defense: end Kamerion Wimbley and inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. How quickly they develop may determine the level of improvement of Cleveland's defense this year.
Team in transition
The Ravens have endured their first two-season streak of missing the playoffs since coach Brian Billick was hired in 1999, and last year's 6-10 mark was the worst of his seven-year tenure. That said, Baltimore still has formidable talent and figures to rebound from last year's desultory performance, when the once-proud defense lost its aura of superiority and an aging offensive line became a major liability.
The arrival of ex-Titans franchise quarterback Steve McNair has sparked renewed playoff hopes, but he's not the same Stevie Wonder who shared the MVP award in 2003 and routinely rescued his team from defeat. Playing behind a suspect offensive line isn't going to help his slow-footed game, either. Succinctly put, the Ravens have a lot of ifs. If McNair and Jamal Lewis rebound in a big way and the offensive line solidifies, the offense will be better. If Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are the healthy playmakers they have been and first-round pick Haloti Ngata stuffs the run at tackle, the defense again could be fearsome. But counting on that to all fall into place is a lot to expect.
Coach in the spotlight
BRIAN BILLICK, BALTIMORE
Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher is coming off the greatest accomplishment of his career. Marvin Lewis finally delivered a playoff berth for the Bengals. And Crennel is making progress in Cleveland. By process of elimination, that leaves the coaching crosshairs this season on Billick, whom Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti publicly warned during the offseason to make some changes stylistically -- or else. Bisciotti said he wanted Billick to worry more about his team and less about the day-to-day tug-of-war with the media, and it was also clear that the organization's patience with the Ravens' unproductive quarterback play was at an end. Billick will let offensive coordinator Jim Fassel run things more so than in the past, and with McNair on board, Baltimore's passing game will actually be capable of posing a vertical threat.