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NFL 2000 Preview - AFC Central

By: James Alder
Dateline: August 31, 2000

The AFC Central appears, this year, to be a division that holds two Super Bowl contenders, one above-average playoff contender, two improving young squads, and one team that is on a serious slide. Look for three playoff teams to come out of this division, which is developing into one of the strongest in the league.

Most of the major football magazines are picking on the poor defenseless Cleveland Browns just because they are a second-year expansion club. Most of the writers for these major sports magazines say the Browns will bring up the rear in the Central again, not an uncommon prediction for such a young team. But this writer isn't buying into that.

I'm not saying the Browns will make the playoffs, but there is someone in the division that is going to have a tougher year than them. This year, I forsee the Pittsburgh Steelers finally succumbing to the years of free agent defections that have slowly eroded their talent base. Year after year quality players are lured away with big-dollar contracts, and the Steelers have done a great job of filling the holes by drafting well, but the constant offseason losses have finally caught up with them. Combine that with the lack of a team leader and inconsistency at the quarterback position and you have the formula for a disastrous season.

The Browns may still be a couple of years away from from contending for a playoff spot, but they are headed in the right direction. The number one pick in this year's draft, Courtney Brown, was added to the defensive ranks and he should develop into a quality starter early in the season. Errict Rhett was brought in to try and give the Browns some type of running game to balance out the offense a little. If the offensive line can manage to open a few holes for Rhett and also keep the pass rushers out of the backfield, then second-year quarterback Tim Couch could take a big step forward in his development, much like Peyton Manning did in his second season. Look for the Browns to move up a notch this year.

Last year the Cincinnati Bengals were thrilled to see the Cleveland Browns back in the NFL. Cleveland's return meant that the Bengals actually had a chance to finish ahead of someone else for a change, something they haven't done in a while. After suffering through years of poor draft choices and an overall lack of talent, the Bengals' fans can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. They just aren't quite conviced yet that its not just a train coming to knock them off the track... again!

Cincy should develop an effective passing attack this year. Akili Smith has a year of experience under his belt now and on top of that, he will be throwing to a dangerous receiver in first-round pick Peter Warrick. Look for the Bengals to try to get the ball into Warrick's hands as often as possible this year. They also added a few free agents to their defensive squad which may not plug all the leaks, but they should help to keep the dam from breaking every week. With some consistency on both sides of the ball the Bengals may start to think about a .500 season, but that might be stretching it a bit.

The battle for the division crown will probably come down to the remaining three teams, the Tennessee Titans, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Baltimore Ravens. Since the Titans were in the Super Bowl last year, they should be a popular choice to win the division. I believe they will win the division this year, but not just because they made it as far as they did last year. Simply put, the Titans first unit has been very impressive in the preseason, particularly their final game in which they dismantled the Chicago Bears' first-string defense for over 300 yards in the first half alone.

On paper Tennessee looks very good and the addition of Carl Pickens at wide receiver gives them one of the more impressive trio of weapons in the league in Steve McNair, Eddie George, and Pickens. With a strong defense, a powerful ground game, and a consistent passing attack, the titans have the formula in place to make another serious run at the Super Bowl.

Coming in second behind the Titans will be a surprising Baltimore Ravens team. The Ravens are my pick to be the biggest surprise of the year. Their defense, led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, should be one of the best in the league, if not the best. It is doubtful that Tony Banks will have the same success that Kurt Warner had with the St. Louis Rams last season, so I'm not picking them to go all the way yet. But look for a major improvement from this team, especially if rookie running back Jamal Lewis lives up to expectations. A good running game and a strong defense usually spell success in the NFL, but you need a consistent quarterback to go all the way.

The AFC Central Division may very well send three teams to the playoffs this December. The Jacksonville Jaguars should be one of those teams if they can avoid the injury bug. They have been very inconsistent during the preseason, but that can be partly attributed to the fact that they have suffered the loss of several players already.

An area that has the potential to be a problem is at running back. Fred Taylor tends to be injury prone and James Stewert, who left for Detroit, is no longer waiting in the wings. If Taylor is out for any amount of time the Jags offense could have problems moving the ball on the ground. Look for a third place finish and a playoff spot for the Jaguars.

How do you think the AFC Central Division will pan out. Post your opinions on the Pro Football Forum, and cast you vote in the poll below.

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