The Steelers and Ravens have been super smash brothers for years, but a new foe has appeared! The Bengals have an all-new set of attacks to supplement the classic moves that got them into the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. They are poised to burst through the brick wall above their heads, but the Ravens are the defending champs, while the Steelers acquired several power-ups of their own in the draft. The Browns? They are stuck playing Grand Theft Truckstop.
In a tweet: These HBO stars will be more like "Game of Thrones" than "John from Cincinnati."
What's New: "Hard Knocks!" Semi-viral training camp videos! Predictions to win the division! The Bengals are trendy and trending, which is certainly new. The Bengals made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2011-12 for the first time since 1981-82. Back then, Ken Anderson and his X-rated moustache starred in coffee commercials, and Anthony Munoz (and his X-rated moustache) scored a cameo role in an Academy Award-winning astronaut movie. Will new tight end Tyler Eifert have his own commercials? Will Andy Dalton run barefoot through one of the next eight "Hobbit" movies? If the Bengals advance to the Super Bowl, anything is possible.
What's Old: Marv Lewis is the longest-tenured NFL head coach west of the Berkshires, and his roster, while not old at most positions, is well established. The core of Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Jermaine Gresham, Domata Peko and others has grown up together. The key to the Bengals' playoff chances this year is not what they added, but what they did not subtract: Ghe Bengals took a baby-step forward, while their division foes took at least a bunny hop backward.
Football Outsiders Stat: Bengals running backs caught only 43 passes for 344 yards last year. Since 2002, Bengals running backs have caught more than 40 passes in a season just twice. Rookie Giovani Bernard, who caught 47 passes in 10 games last season for North Carolina, adds a short-passing dimension that the Bengals have lacked since the heyday of James Brooks.
Best-Case Scenario: Eifert and Bernard diversify an offense that was too reliant on Dalton-to-Green bombs in 2011 and 2012. The deepest front four in the NFL achieves quarterback-clobbering critical mass. The Bengals not only crash through the glass ceiling that kept them behind the Ravens and Steelers, but pounce on the weakened AFC superpowers in the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Bengals turn out to be the Platonic ideal of a 10-6 team: good enough at just about every position, but not great enough at any one element of the game to blast into the next tier.
Bottom Line: Dalton is a limited arm-and-athleticism talent with outstanding intangibles. That could make him Joe Montana or Drew Brees (or Ken Anderson), or any of 200 or so fine quarterbacks with modest careers who needed other things to break right for them to achieve immortality. Green, Eifert/Gresham and Bernard give Dalton a passing game that can be dangerous on three levels, while the Atkins-Peko front four give the Bengals a pass rush that can be an equalizer in games where the offense needs a boost. This is a deep, multi-faceted team that has spent two years lingering a rung below the real contenders. They only did a little offseason climbing, but they may finally catch a break in a year with a shorter ladder.
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In a tweet: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and 47 guys named Gino Gradkowski? Not quite …
What's New: For the first time in human history, the Ravens are not Ray Lewis' team. The team lost a worrying mix of franchise legends (Lewis, Ed Reed), important veterans (Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin) and up-and-coming stars (Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, etc.) to retirement and a cap crunch. A camp injury to Dennis Pitta further thinned the ranks of recognizable Ravens. General manager Ozzie Newsome got creative about restocking the shelves, rescuing Elvis Dumervil from paperwork limbo and acquiring Dallas Clark and Raven-of-yesteryear Brandon Stokley to buttress the skill positions and convince Joe Flacco that he is Peyton Manning 2007.
What's Old: Much of the Ravens' Super Bowl nucleus is still intact: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Marshal Yanda, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb and others. Newsome and John Harbaugh lead one of the most stable top-to-bottom organizations in professional sports, so the Ravens always have a pipeline of potential replacements for lost veterans (though, as the losses of Kruger and Ellerbe reveal, opponents are starting to tap that pipeline.)
Telling Stat: The lost defensive players, from Lewis and Reed down to bit players like Brandon Ayanbadejo, accounted for 59.3 percent of the team's defensive plays, 77 percent of its interceptions and 53.4 percent of its "stops"(which are best thought of as solid tackles and passes defensed). Like the Patriots' offense, the Ravens' defense has added replacement talent, but such massive upheaval is bound to have an impact.
Best-Case Scenario: Flacco plays the way he did from Week 16 through the playoffs, proving that the team's late offensive surge was the result of his development and Jim Caldwell's tweaks to a sometimes-sputtering offense. Dumervil and Suggs provide a pincers attack of a pass rush, youngsters like Matt Elam and Arthur Brown prove to be adequate Reed-Lewis impersonators and the Ravens hang around their familiar 11-5 territory.
Worst-Case Scenario: Ray and Ed aren't here? How do we get from the locker room to the field? Does anyone know how to put shoulder pads on? Where's my motivation? I CANNOT FIND MY MOTIVATION!!!! OK, that's pushing it, but the Ravens could flail badly without the Boldin-Pitta safety valve for Flacco and with so many replacements on defense.
The Bottom Line: Newsome excels at reinforcing his roster, and Harbaugh's staff develops newcomers into productive starters as well as any coaches in the NFL. But Newsome and Harbaugh needed to work that magic to win the Super Bowl LAST year, and several of their discoveries -- Kruger, Ellerbe, Cary Williams -- were among the players to leave town. It is optimistic to expect yet another group of unknowns to leap suddenly from the bench to the Super Bowl. As for Lewis, few players in history have been as closely identified with one organization -- we are in Napoleon Lajoie's 19th-century Cleveland Naps territory. So while the "leadership void" thing is a silly old sportswriter saw, there is a chance that Lewis' absence will be felt in some unpredictable ways.
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In a tweet: Existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow? The Steelers were much older then. They're younger than that now.
What's New: Not much. Rookie Le'Veon Bell is a power rusher in the Jerome Bettis-Franco Harris mold. Rookie Jarvis Jones is a pass rusher in the James Harrison-Kevin Greene mold. Rookie Markus Wheaton is a deep threat in the Mike Wallace-Louis Lipps-Lynn Swann mold. In other words, the Steelers have an established way of doing things, and they are doing things that way.
What's Old: The Steelers roster is not as ancient as it was last year, now that greybeards like Harrison and Charlie Batch are gone. But there are plenty of familiar faces, starting with Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu -- and as the last paragraph suggests, the team's method of operation is in its fifth decade of producing quality results.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Steelers ran straight up the middle on 75 percent of their rushes last year, by far the highest percentage in the NFL. Yet they averaged just 3.4 Adjusted Line Yards per rush up the middle, the second-worst figure in the NFL. (The Cardinals' running game was groundbreaking, in a bad way.) New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell is installing a zone-blocking system that will take the Steelers running game in a new direction: slightly sideways.
Best-Case Scenario: Bell and second-year offensive linemen David DeCastro and Mike Adams help Bicknell rebuild the running game, while Jones and other youngsters revitalize the pass rush. Roethlisberger stays healthy, Bruce Gradkowski provides pesky proficiency for a game or two if he doesn't and last years' 8-8 finish proves to just be one of those breathers the Steelers take every third season.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Steelers are a rebuilding team that doesn't know it. The leftover old-timers (and yes, Polamalu is starting to slide into this category) continue to slip, and the rookie class is not ready to fill some huge shoes. The Steelers miss the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1999-2000, and they are left to do some soul searching about the fate of their veteran nucleus.
Bottom Line: Two playoff years, one off year: That has been the Steelers' pattern since 2001. The team changed coaches and quarterbacks during that span, and it has always been under a cash crunch, so a few lost free agents and some adjustment to the running game should not have cataclysmic results. The fate of the Steelers does not rest with the Big Ben generation -- who will keep the team around .500 in the worst circumstances -- or the rookies, who will need a season or two to come into their own. For the Steelers to make the playoffs in 2013, the middle generation of DeCastro, Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds and others must step out of the shadows. (Maurkice Pouncey already has, so he doesn't count.) Some of these young veterans will be pretty good, but to stave off a more thorough rebuilding, they will have to be great, and few of them have shown that potential.
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In a tweet: FBI WARNING By reading this, you waive the right to any past or present gasoline refunds.
What's New: Owner Jimmy Haslam spends his days cooperating fully with a government investigation of his truckstop empire. Luckily, Joe Banner handles football operations for the Browns, aided by a dream team of executives chosen from the Cowboys and Chiefs front offices, plus Mike Lombardi from the world of television and blogging. Rob Chudzinski and Ray Horton are two of the league's sharpest strategic innovators, with Norv Turner on hand to make sure things don't get too innovative. Free agent Paul Kruger and rookie Barkevious Mingo (who survived a scary preseason injury) give Horton two premium pass rushers to build his blitz-happy defense around.
What's Old: Brandon Weeden! He turns 30 during the regular season! But seriously, folks: Most of the Browns' other recent draftees are still in the MTV demographic and have the potential to form an effective nucleus. Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, Jabaal Sheard and others prove that the last Browns administration wasn't just standing around deciding how often they should punt on fourth-and-one. (Their answer: all the time, even at midfield, even while trailing in the fourth quarter, which is one reason why they are "the last Browns administration.")
Football Outsiders Stat: Coach Chud does not get too fancy on third-and-one: His Panthers ran the ball 80 percent of the time in power situations (including goal-to-go situations), the highest percentage in the league. Turner has always been a fan of keeping things simple when only a yard or two are needed. Trent Richardson is going to be a happy, busy young man.
Best-Case Scenario: NorvChud and Horton bring refreshing new approaches on both sides of the ball, and the youngsters blossom. Weeden either conclusively proves that he can be an effective quarterback for a few years or that he cannot, and the team can adjust its long-term quarterback plans appropriately.
Worst-Case Scenario: Well, the owner could possibly end up in jail, for one thing.
Bottom Line: The Browns have been in a state of perpetual regime change since their rebirth in 1999. That's what makes the offseason headlines so distressing. Itis hard to get excited about the possibility of Kruger-Mingo-Sheard combining for 30 sacks in Horton's defense when the FBI is investigating the owner and Banner is deflecting rumors that there are already rifts in the team's crowded command structure. If Weeden were five years younger, it would be easy to get excited about the team's youthful core, but quarterback is likely to become a problem before the rest of the roster grows into a solution. The Browns are doomed to a 6-10 season, but a 6-10 season with stability and player development would be a reason for optimism, while 6-10 with in-fighting and quarterback controversies will be a sign that nothing really changes on Lake Erie.