Work in Sports
AFC Central hot spots
Division holds promise as league's best of the best
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will offer his insights, opinions and analysis of the NFL this season in "Bank on it," a recurring feature on CNNSI.com. Here, as part of our division-by-division NFL training camp previews, is Banks' take on the state of the AFC Central.
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
The AFC Central is where it's at this year in the NFL. Forget about the NFC Central. Don't waste your time pubbing the AFC East. Seemingly overnight the AFC Central is the league's glamor division, with three talent-laden teams and a fourth (Cincinnati) that could open some eyes.
For starters, there's Jacksonville and Tennessee, which combined to go a gaudy 27-5 in the regular season a year ago. Yes, it feels like put-up-or-shut-up time for the Jaguars' Super Bowl dreams, but Jacksonville is still loaded and headed for another double-digit victory season.
The Titans? The former vagabonds are beginning to look right at home atop this division's heirarchy. They're young, still hungry and have had that seductive taste of how the other half lives in the NFL.
Baltimore is another team on the rise and spent its offseason addressing its woeful offensive showing of 1999. They look wild-card ready and should be the division's third playoff entry this season. One of these years Cincinnati will get off to a decent start and climb to the .500 neighborhood. Shoot, we may even live long enough to see the demise of the Bruce Coslet death watch.
Pittsburgh looks old and out-manned, and Cleveland will be better. Only because it can't be worse.
Seeing the calendar turn to football season again has to mean a little more in Baltimore than anywhere else these days. Teams all bemoan their offseason trials, but the Ravens don't have to take a backseat to anyone in that department. With their star middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, cleared of murder charges, can a tough first-half schedule be all that daunting?
You have to admit it, from their entertaining owner, Art Modell, on down, the Ravens are always interesting. Their games often last year had a cardiac-arrest quality to them and the rollercoaster ride ended a very appropriate 8-8.
If Baltimore can get settled at quarterback -- it's Tony Banks for now but bet you anything Trent Dilfer is in the pocket by mid-season -- the Ravens could be this year's Tennessee. With even uglier uniforms.
Will the last disgruntled player who wants out of Cincinnati please turn off the lights? Corey Dillon. Carl Pickens. Does any little kid want to grow up to be Mike Brown these days? Have they ever?
Quarterback Jeff Blake made it over the wall, but that wall is taller now that spanking new Paul Brown Stadium is about to open for business. Maybe brash and talented No. 1 pick Peter Warrick will help transform the horrible karma that has hovered over the Bengals since Sam Wyche tried to ban female sports writers from the locker room.
Cincinnati has some talent to work with. It's just that every season follows the same pattern: The Bengals are eight games out of first by Halloween, Brown gives coach Bruce Coslet a vote of confidence, then the players revolt. It all results in Cincinnati holding the No. 3 spot in the draft. Change is coming. But not enough. And not soon enough.
Admit it. You thought the Cleveland Browns were going to be better than they were last year. Maybe even a contender. At least competitive. They threw money around like they owned Boardwalk and Park Place.
Then came the games.
So much for the notion that there was magic in them there uniforms. To be a Browns believer last year you really, really had to miss NFL football on the shores of Lake Erie the previous three seasons.
The feel-good story of the year turned into the avert-your-eyes trainwreck pretty darn quickly. But for those with the stomach for it, the Browns are back for more. Cleveland again will be the only sixth-place club in the NFL -- and you could probably say the same thing even if they were in a five-team division -- but there will be improvement. If not, Courtney Brown and Tim Couch will have another No. 1 overall pick to commiserate with next year at this time.
Guess who's the biggest Jaguars fan in the country these days? Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. You see, if Jacksonville doesn't get it done this year -- and we mean the Big Game at the end of January -- rumor has it that Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin will pack up his military-man act and march off in the direction of the Golden Dome. But before he wakes up any echoes, Coughlin has a little unfinished business in northern Florida.
Take the Tennessee Titans out of the league and Jacksonville was undefeated last year. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, who looked into it, the NFL wouldn't sign off on the plan. So get ready for the revenge theme to be a little overdone this season in Jacksonville. But look for the outcome to remain the same: Titans rule, Jaguars drool.
Not too put any pressure on Steelers head coach Bill Cowher or anything, but the last time Pittsburgh logged three consecutive losing seasons, Terry Bradshaw was a second-year quarterback, Nixon looked like he was settling into his first term, and Roberto Clemente was the reigning World Series MVP. That was 1969-71. Shoot, the last time Pittsburgh even had three consecutive non-playoff seasons it finished the head coach (Chuck Noll, 1989-91).
So to say that expectations have not been met in the Steel City is to dabble in understatement. But I've got news for you Pittsburgh: Get used to it. The Steelers are an aging team that looks outgunned by its division rivals in any number of ways. Least of not which is at quarterback, where the befuddling Kordell Stewart should have received a wake-up call from the drafting of Chad Pennington. Alas, the Steelers played it safe with Plaxico Burress.
They'll be sorry.
What do we really know about the Titans? Well, for one, like clockwork this franchise can be counted on for a Super Bowl appearance every 40 years. But that ratio is in jeopardy of being cut in half. And like every other football savant in the business, there is no doubt in my mind the Titans would have won last January's Super Bowl in overtime if Kevin Dyson could have just stretched his long lean body one more yard on the final play of regulation.
That said, Tennessee would be wise to stash that what-if scenario into the so-what category as the 2000 season looms. A near miss gets you nowhere the following year. The Titans, however, got that close for all the right reasons. As the cliché goes, the pieces are in place.
If Tennessee gets fat and sassy after its breakout season, falling into the Atlanta, San Diego syndrome -- out of nowhere, then back to nowhere -- it will once again be one of the surprise teams of the year. Don't bet on it. Once the Titans get running back Eddie George extended, they'll have secured their two most important assets: George and recently signed head coach Jeff Fisher.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.