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AFC North preview: Rolling the dice with the Bengals

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Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is taking a big chance with his football team. He must truly believe they are playoff good because Lewis is in the final year of his contract with the team.

That's gambling, folks. If the Bengals are good, he will cash in huge, probably with a chance to move to the upper echelon of high-paid coaches. If the Bengals are bad, who knows what can happen?

Lewis has been coach of the Bengals for seven seasons. In those seven seasons, the Bengals have won the division twice, but his overall record is only 56-55-1. That's not sterling, to say the least.

When I spoke with Lewis in camp, he seemed like a confident man, ready to take his chances with his contract and his team.

"I feel good about where we are," he said.

And the contract?

"Those things will take care of themselves," Lewis said. "I have to worry about getting this football team ready to play. I like this team."

So do I.

The Bengals are good. They won the division last season, swept through 6-0 against division teams, yet they aren't being considered one of the top teams in the division. Most are picking Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

I'm picking the Bengals.

"We went out and added some guys who made us better," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "You look around at this team and there is a lot of talent. And we won the division. Now we have to learn how to handle that. That's the tough part."

Palmer didn't play that well last season. But with receiver Terrell Owens and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham added to the offense, look for more passing from Palmer, although Lewis wants to run it and play good defense.

"The passing numbers do have to improve," Lewis said. "We will be more balanced."

The defense and weather would seem to warrant a ball-control offense. Cincinnati's defense, led by coordinator Mike Zimmer, was fourth in total defense last season and might be even better this time around.

Baltimore will also play good defense. But the Ravens have issues at cornerback. The Bengals don't. That could force the Ravens to get into some shootouts, which will force quarterback Joe Flacco to do even more.

That's not Ravens football. They want to run it and play suffocating defense. In 2010, it might mean throwing it and hoping they can hold up in the back end of their defense.

Pittsburgh will have to deal with the suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to open the season. That will be tough to handle. Byron Leftwich was to be the starter but injured his knee, so Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch will start, which might not be a good thing for the Steelers.

That will put more on running back Rashard Mendenhall and the defense. If Pittsburgh starts slow in this division, they can forget it. It's too good a division.

Cleveland is playing for the future. They have way too many holes to even think playoffs this season. But they will be better. Even so, expect coach Eric Mangini to be let go after the season.

It's the other team in Ohio that will garner the division title and most of the attention, even if there's a perception that it won't repeat.

"It doesn't matter what the perception is," Lewis said. "The perception last year was that we wouldn't do what we did, but we knew better. We have the pieces in place."

Lewis is rolling the dice that they do. He better hope his biggest role comes up a winner.

Cincinnati Bengals

Predicted Order of Finish
1 Bengals2009: 10-6 (1st AFC North)
Cincinnati Bengals Pts. Scored: 305 (22nd overall)
Pts. Allowed: 291 (6th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 309.1 (24th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 301.4 (4th overall)
2 Ravens2009: 9-7 (2nd AFC North)
Baltimore Ravens Pts. Scored: 391 (9th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 261 (3rd overall)
Off. Yds/G: 351.2 (13 overall)
Def. Yds/G: 300.5 (3rd overall)
3 Steelers2009: 9-7 (3rd AFC North)
Pittsburgh Steelers Pts. Scored: 368 (12th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 324 (12th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 371.3 (7th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 305.3 (5th overall)
4 Browns2009: 5-11 (4th AFC North)
Cleveland Browns Pts. Scored: 245 (29th overall)
Pts. Allowed: 375 (21st overall)
Off. Yds/G: 260.2 (32nd overall)
Def. Yds/G: 389.3 (31st overall)

Significant additions: WR Terrell Owens, TE Jermaine Gresham, P Dave Rayner, WR Jordan Shipley, DT Geno Atkins.

Significant losses: WR Laveranues Coles, DE Shaun Smith.

Biggest offseason move: Getting Owens to team with Chad Ochocinco at the receiver spots. They needed someone to take away some of the coverage from Ochocinco. Owens can still get down the field.

Will go to the playoffs if ... They take the passing game up a few levels. It's time to let Carson Palmer go again. He has the weapons now.

Rookie to watch: Gresham. They've lacked a good receiving tight end for years. This kid has the ability to help open up the middle of the field.

Overview: This is a balanced team that is being overlooked by many. The offense will be better because the passing game will be better. Palmer is still a top-notch passer and the league will see that now that he has the people around him again. They will still run it with Cedric Benson, but look for a more wide-open passing game. The defense is loaded. They have a great corner pair in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph to allow defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be aggressive. The defensive front is deep and talented. The Bengals won the division last year, and they will do it again. Don't go to sleep on this team.

Baltimore Ravens

Significant additions: WR Anquan Boldin, WR Donte' Stallworth, DT Terrance Cody, TE Ed Dickson, DE Cory Redding.

Significant losses: DE Justin Bannan, DE Dwan Edwards, CB Domonique Foxworth (injury).

Biggest offseason move: Trading to get Boldin. They think they have a No. 1 receiver for QB Joe Flacco. We'll see.

Will go to the playoffs if ... Flacco and the passing game become a top 10 unit. That has to happen if they are to go deeper in the playoffs.

Rookie to watch: Cody. He has a chance to really be a force inside. He will back up Kelly Gregg early on, but might take the job late.

Overview: The Ravens have talent on defense again, but the key there will be the secondary. They have major issues in the back end. Losing Foxworth for the year with a knee injury is a damning blow. And when will safety Ed Reed return? The secondary could be a season-long problem. If it is, that could mean shootouts. That will put more pressure on Flacco and the passing game. Are they up to it? We might see a different team in Baltimore than what we've become used to seeing. This could be Flacco's team by season's end. I just don't think they're as good as the Bengals right now.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Significant additions: QB Byron Leftwich, S Will Allen, WR Arnaz Battle, WR Antwan Randle-El, G Maurkice Pouncey, T Jonathan Scott, ILB Larry Foote

Significant losses: WR Santonio Holmes, RB Willie Parker.

Biggest offseason move: Seeing Ben Roethlisberger get into legal trouble that has him facing a four-game suspension to open the season.

Will go to the playoffs if ... Dixon or Batch can handle the first four games as a starter for Roethlisberger during his suspension.

Rookie to watch: Pouncey. He is already in the starting lineup at center and the Steelers coaches are raving about him. He will be another in a long line of great Pittsburgh centers.

Overview: The suspension of Roethlisberger will hurt this team in a big way. When he does come back, when will he regain his form? Dixon will start the games when Roethlisberger is out. The Steelers will have to lean on running back Rashard Mendenhall and that defense early on until Roethlisberger gets back into the lineup. The defense will be good again, but there are some questions at corner. The Steelers will push for a playoff spot, but I think missing Roethlisberger will have too much of an impact on this team to win the division.

Cleveland Browns

Significant additions: CB Sheldon Brown, QB Jake Delhomme, LB Scott Fujita, T Tony Pashos, TE Ben Watson, CB Joe Haden, S T.J. Ward, RB Peyton Hillis and RB Montario Hardesty.

Significant losses: S Brodney Pool, QB Brady Quinn, OLB Kamerion Wimbley.

Biggest offseason move: Hiring Mike Holmgren as president to turn this thing around. They better hope he's a better GM than he was in Seattle.

Will go to the playoffs if ... LeBron James comes back to Cleveland. It's not happening.

Rookie to watch: Ward. He is already pushing for a starting job and will likely have it at some point this season.

Overview: This will be a long season for Mangini. He knows he's probably gone if he doesn't win eight games, and that's not happening. Holmgren will hire a new coach after the season and there is talk it could be Carolina's John Fox, who is in the last year of his contract. Delhomme, who played for Fox the past seven seasons, will start at quarterback for the Browns. He's just OK and needs a lot of help. The Browns can't give that to him. They'll be lucky to get to six victories. But they will play hard, that's for sure.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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