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What lies ahead (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 4:30PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 4:49PM
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AFC North

After offering a bit more bark than bite recently, Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense are poised to back up their words in 2007.
After offering a bit more bark than bite recently, Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense are poised to back up their words in 2007.
John Iacono/SI

1. Baltimore Ravens

A reason to believe: The Ravens have that swagger back on defense, and nobody does a better job than D-coordinator Rex Ryan of creatively game planning to attack and exploit an opponent.

The thing that makes you nervous: Everyone in Baltimore seems to believe that Steve McNair will be even better and more proficient in Year 2 in the Ravens offense. But I can't get that egg he laid in the playoffs against Indianapolis completely out of my mind.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

A reason to believe: New head coach Mike Tomlin has swept the stale air out of the Steel City, and his drive to build the Steelers back into a hungry, disciplined team that knows how to impose its will is going to pay off sooner than later.

The thing that makes your nervous: It's hard to picture the Steelers returning to the playoffs if Ben Roethlisberger's mojo doesn't return in '07. This is a pretty pivotal fourth season for Big Ben in terms of which direction his career is heading.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

A reason to believe: When you can trot out Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh every game, you've got a chance to beat anyone in the league.

The thing that makes you nervous: I'm not breaking news here, but the Bengals' pass defense isn't good enough to play with the heavyweights of the AFC. Cincy will win some games this season by out-gunning teams, but that's a formula for another 8-8.

4. Cleveland Browns

A reason to believe: No more calls, we have a winner. It may take a few weeks or even a month for him to fully earn the job, but the Browns have finally found a quarterback in Brady Quinn who can elevate the play of the offense around him.

The thing that makes you nervous: The Browns' snake-bit offensive line is unquestionably better. But with guard Eric Steinbach nursing a knee injury, and tackle Ryan Tucker about to start his four-game regular-season suspension, Cleveland still has no idea what continuity up front would feel like.

AFC West

1. San Diego Chargers

A reason to believe: The Chargers, by consensus, owned the most talented roster in the NFL last season, and yet they clearly have improved it with the likes of rookie receiver Craig Davis, rookie safety Eric Weddle and a couple other members of their '07 draft class. Stacked doesn't do this depth chart justice.

The thing that makes you nervous: A new head coach and two new coordinators? That's not exactly the blueprint for how you keep the train rolling. Norv Turner, Clarence Shelmon and Ted Cottrell could require a little time to master their assignments, and in the rough-and-tumble AFC, that could prove too costly.

2. Denver Broncos

A reason to believe: Jay Cutler has upside all over him. If you can watch him play quarterback and not see how much room for improvement there is in comparison to the Jake Plummer era, then you must be a member of Plummer's immediate family.

The thing that makes you nervous: Denver's defense has looked a bit tentative this preseason in adjusting to the schemes of new coordinator Jim Bates. The 49ers, Cowboys and Browns all had some success against the Broncos' first-team defense this month, and that's not a good omen for Denver, which faces early season matchups against potent offenses like San Diego and Indy.

3. Oakland Raiders

A reason to believe: There's nowhere to go but up when you score 12 offensive touchdowns in 16 games, as the anemic Raiders managed last season. New head coach Lane Kiffin won't let that happen again. His aggressive approach has been just what Oakland needed, and he shows signs of putting his players in the position to succeed.

The thing that makes your nervous: With newly acquired Dominic Rhodes facing a four-game league suspension to start the season, the Raiders' running game is going to have to rely again, at least early on, on LaMont Jordan. The ex-Jet was a bust last season, and his goal-line fumble and 2.8-yard average carry in his preseason starting debut against the Rams last week did not inspire confidence.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

A reason to believe: This is the best cause for hope I can point out, Chiefs fans: Head coach Herman Edwards came to his senses over the weekend and named Damon Huard his starting quarterback to start the season, rather than the overmatched Brodie Croyle. Huard was 5-3 as a starter last season with roughly the same team to work with.

The thing that makes you nervous: The state of the offensive line has been highly scrutinized, and the news is mostly bad. Pro Bowl guard Will Shields retired, leaving a void, and then new left tackle Damion McIntosh was felled by a preseason knee injury. The Chiefs, for the first time in years, have problems up front on offense. And that's going to make Huard and running back Larry Johnson's jobs even harder.

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