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AFC CENTRAL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 4-12, fifth.

Coach: Bruce Coslet (47-74), fifth season with Bengals, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for 15th.

Starting quarterback: Akili Smith (1-3).

Best move: Drafting WR-KR Peter Warrick with the fourth overall pick was a no-brainer. Carl Pickens was on his way out, and the Bengals desperately needed another game-breaker.

Missing piece: Now that WR Darnay Scott is out for the season with a broken leg, there goes the security blanket the team envisioned for second-year QB Smith. Warrick's job just got tougher.

Pressure's on: The secondary was atrocious, ranking 28th against the pass and giving up big plays with regularity. Seattle reject SS Darryl Williams should help.

Biggest question: Why was Coslet given a contract extension, after he has accomplished nothing and especially with the Bengals moving into a new stadium?

Key statistic: The Bengals allowed 460 points. That's 23 more points than the expansion Cleveland Brown permitted.

Ticket to Tampa: They can dream about getting near a Super Bowl for the next few years. That's about it.

Cleveland Browns

Last season: 2-14, sixth.

Coach: Chris Palmer (2-14), second season with Browns.

Strength of schedule: 14th.

Starting quarterback: Tim Couch (2-12).

Best move: Signing Errict Rhett to a three-year, $4.6 million contract gives the Browns a legitimate RB, which they never had in 1999. This should give a weak defense some much-needed rest.

Missing piece: From a porous OL to a ragtag defense to the terrible front-office direction of Dwight Clark, the holes are numerous.

Pressure's on: The OL, which has added suspect talents like Everett Lindsay and Roman Oben, must at least approach respectability. They nearly got Couch killed, as the No. 1 draft pick was sacked 56 times.

Biggest question: In the age of NFL parity, will the Browns parlay some $60 million in new contracts into a performance that gets them out of division's cellar?

Key statistic: The Browns defense was on the field for an average of nearly 36 minutes, worst in the NFL.

Ticket to Tampa: First things first. Try winning five games, then building from there.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Last season: 14-2, first, lost to Tennessee in AFC title game, 33-14.

Coach: Tom Coughlin (49-31), sixth season with Jaguars.

Strength of schedule: tie for 22nd.

Starting quarterback: Mark Brunell (44-24).

Best move: By acquiring the venerable MLB Hardy Nickerson at $16 million for four years, the Jaguars have strengthened the heart of a defense that allowed the fewest points in the league. Nickerson has at least another Pro Bowl year left in him.

Missing piece: With RB James Stewart having bolted to Detroit, it remains to be seen whether Stacey Mack can be effective backing up the injury-prone Fred Taylor.

Pressure's on: Coughlin keeps getting this team close to the Super Bowl, but another collapse like last year's AFC championship game flop against Tennessee could push him toward the door.

Biggest question: The battered OL never lined up at full strength during the preseason. RT Leon Searcy is out until at least November, and LT Tony Boselli is still recovering from knee surgery. Can this unit come together and protect Brunell effectively?

Key statistic: WRs Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell combined to produce 194 receptions for 2,527 yards, making them the league's best tandem. But they only combined for 11 touchdowns.

Ticket to Tampa: Now that Dom Capers has turned the defense into an elite group, it's up to Coughlin to keep the offense from stumbling as it did often a year ago.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 6-10, fourth.

Coach: Bill Cowher (77-51), ninth season with Steelers.

Strength of schedule: tie for 15th.

Starting quarterback: Kent Graham (15-18).

Best move: The Steelers committed to a youth movement under new football operations director Kevin Colbert by positioning themselves to draft nine players, starting with WR Plaxico Burress.

Missing piece: Despite all of the changes, the only people who can't see that Stewart or Graham is not the answer at QB are the Steelers.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis takes over for Jim Haslett, now head coach in New Orleans. Lewis has a capable LB corps but little else with which to work. This used to be the team's heart.

Biggest question: C Dermontti Dawson is Hall of Fame-bound, but one of the game's premier anchors appears to be breaking down. Can he hold a suspect OL together?

Key statistic: Beginning with a 16-15 loss to Cleveland, the Steelers lost seven of their last eight games and gave up an average of 26.5 points over that stretch.

Ticket to Tampa: They still have playoff-caliber talent at RB with Jerome Bettis and should be better at WR, but Graham and the line offset that with inconsistent play.

Tennessee Titans

Last season: 13-3, second, lost to St. Louis in Super Bowl, 23-16.

Coach: Jeff Fisher (45-41), seventh season with Titans.

Strength of schedule: 24th.

Starting quarterback: Steve McNair (29-20).

Best move: WR Carl Pickens' arrival adds a dynamic dimension. Defenses will think twice about employing eight-man fronts to stop RB Eddie George, which should help McNair's game as well.

Missing piece: The LB corps is quick but undersized. Randall Godfrey, a free agent from Dallas, will man the middle. Top draft pick Keith Bulluck replaces the departed Joe Bowden on the outside.

Pressure's on: The defensive line, which has suffered the loss of DT Josh Evans for the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy, must allow those linebackers to wreak havoc along the line of scrimmage. DE Jevon Kearse probably needs to play like the superstar he is becoming.

Biggest question: Is K Al Del Greco nearing the end of the road? Although he made 21 of 25 field goal attempts, Del Greco struggled late in the season and could be giving in to a tired leg.

Key statistic: With Kearse leading the way, the Titans finished fourth in the league with 40 takeaways and set a club record with 54 sacks.

Ticket to Tampa: If they avoid a rash of key injuries, the Titans should defend their AFC title. Depth at QB with backup Neil O'Donnell is a huge plus.

Division glance

Best rookie: WR Peter Warrick, Bengals.

First-round risk: RB Jamal Lewis, Ravens.

Best free agent: TE Shannon Sharpe, Ravens.

Up-and-comer: LB Joey Porter, Steelers.

Biggest gamble: DT Sam Adams, Ravens.

Most overrated: LB Kevin Hardy, Jaguars.

Most underrated: TE Frank Wycheck, Titans.

Hot assistant: Marvin Lewis, Ravens' defensive coordinator.

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