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NFL PREVIEW 2004

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DIVISION PREVIEW

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Brian Billick (52-35), sixth season with Ravens.

Last season: 10-6, first place. Lost wild-card game to Tennessee, 20-17.

Burning question

Will QB Kyle Boller validate the Ravens' faith in him after an erratic and injury-shortened rookie season?

Must-do project

The Ravens need to develop a legitimate passing game with a young quarterback and a group of flawed receivers.

Team MVP

LB Ray Lewis might be the best player in the game. At the least, he is the most inspirational to his teammates.

On the hot seat

Whether they wanted to or not, the Ravens have dumped Super Bowl expectations at Boller's feet.

Upside

With competent quarterbacking, they're good enough to win it all. Shaky quarterbacking won't get them close.

Downside

RB Jamal Lewis' legal status needs to be resolved. A year after his 2,066-yard season and a federal drug indictment, will he be the same player?

Projection

They should have no trouble winning the division. Getting to the Super Bowl will require much more than Boller showed last season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Bill Cowher (122-84-1), 13th season with Steelers.

Last season: 6-10, third place.

Burning question

How long will it take rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger to supplant Tommy Maddox?

Must-do project

Restore the running game. Duce Staley gives the Steelers the best chance to regain their run-first personality.

Team MVP

WR Hines Ward (right) is the team's best playmaker, but Staley can be a major force on offense if he can be an every-down back.

On the hot seat

WR Plaxico Burress is in the final year of his contract and making waves. That's not Steeler-like.

Upside

Cowher upgraded speed in the secondary and brought back Dick LeBeau to resuscitate the defense.

Downside

The defense had a Cowher-era low of 34 sacks; obviously it wasn't all the defensive backs' fault.

Projection

The Steelers not only need an improved running game, but also better quarterbacking.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Marvin Lewis (8-8), second season with Bengals.

Last season: 8-8, 2nd place.

Is first-time starter Carson Palmer ready to quarter- back a team with playoff ambitions?

Must-do project

Run defense was the Bengals' Achilles' heel a year ago. MLB Nate Webster was signed to cut off the run.

Team MVP

If WR Chad Johnson can tone down the theatrics, he could be a team leader as well as playmaker.

On the hot seat

Between dumping Corey Dillon and drafting Chris Perry, the Bengals gave the RB job to Rudi Johnson. They need the running game to protect Palmer.

Upside

After a decade of franchise incompetence, Lewis has the Bengals pointed in the right direction.

Downside

Team defense was awful in 2003.

Projection

Although the future looks bright, this could be a fall-back year for Lewis.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Butch Davis (21-28), fourth season with Browns.

Last season: 5-11, fourth place.

Burning question

Can intense rookie TE Kellen Winslow effect a change in attitude of a team used to losing?

Must-do project

The Browns were soft up the middle in run defense -- see Jamal Lewis -- and need DT Gerard Warren to step up.

Team MVP

QB Jeff Garcia's escapability will come in handy behind a suspect offensive line.

On the hot seat

Davis purged the franchise of players from the previous regime and fired anyone he viewed as a front- office threat. Now he needs to win.

Upside

The Browns seem to have enough threats on offense to be entertaining at least.

Downside

Too many high draft picks -- the departed Tim Couch, Warren, Courtney Brown -- have underachieved.

Projection

The offense has multiple options, but until the Browns play better defense, it won't matter.

SCHEDULE

RAVENS

9-12 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

9-19 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-4 Kansas City, 9 p.m.

10-10 at Washington, 8:30 p.m.

10-17 Open

10-24 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

11-7 Cleveland, 8:30 p.m.

11-14 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

11-21 Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-28 at New England, 1 p.m.

12-5 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

12-12 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m.

12-26 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

1-2 Miami, 1 p.m.

PITTSBURGH

9-12 Oakland, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Ravens, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Miami, 1 p.m.

10-3 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-10 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-17 at Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

10-24 Open

10-31 New England, 4:15 p.m.

11-7 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

11-28 Washington, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Jacksonville, 8:30 p.m.

12-12 N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m.

12-18 at N.Y. Giants, 1:30 p.m.

12-26 Ravens, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

CINCINNATI

9-12 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

9-19 Miami, 8:30 p.m.

9-26 Ravens, 1 p.m.

10-3 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

10-10 Open

10-17 at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

10-25 Denver, 9 p.m.

10-31 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

11-7 Dallas, 1 p.m.

11-14 at Washington, 4:05 p.m.

11-21 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

11-28 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Ravens, 1 p.m.

12-12 at New England, 1 p.m.

12-19 Buffalo, 1 p.m.

12-26 N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

CLEVELAND

9-12 Ravens, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Dallas, 4:15 p.m.

9-26 at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

10-3 Washington, 1 p.m.

10-10 at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

10-17 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

10-24 Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

10-31 Open

11-7 at Ravens, 8:30 p.m.

11-14 Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

11-21 N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

12-5 New England, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

12-19 San Diego, 1 p.m.

12-26 at Miami, 8:30 p.m.

1-2 at Houston, 1 p.m.

AFC SOUTH

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

1 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Tony Dungy (80-58), third season with Colts, ninth in NFL.

Last season: 12-4, first place. Lost AFC championship game to New England, 24-14.

Burning question

How have the Colts improved on defense after breaking the bank for QB Peyton Manning and standing pat in the offseason?

Must-do project

Run defense was their downfall last year. Losing three starters on defense, including their best LB, won't help.

Team MVP

Manning finally won a playoff game and got the team to the AFC title game.

On the hot seat

Neither Joseph Jefferson nor Donald Strickland, the projected starting CBs, has any NFL experience at the position.

Upside

With last year's breakthrough, Manning is ready to move into the elite company of Super Bowl QBs.

Downside

Dungy could really use his old Tampa Bay defense.

Projection

If the Colts can be competitive on defense, they should be a viable Super Bowl contender.

TENNESSEE TITANS

2 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Jeff Fisher (93-66), 11th year with Oilers / Titans.

Last season: 12-4, second place. Lost divisional playoff to New England, 17-14.

Burning question

Did the Titans' salary cap restrictions reduce them to also-ran status in a tough division?

Must-do project

After losing DE Jevon Kearse and DT Robaire Smith, the Titans have to rebuild their defensive front.

Team MVP

Despite more injuries, the often-gimpy QB Steve McNair finally had an MVP year in 2003.

On the hot seat

DT Albert Haynesworth was losing the battle of the bulge at 360 pounds in the offseason.

Upside

The Titans have a good history of finding competent defensive linemen in the draft.

Downside

RB Chris Brown can replace Eddie George on the field, but not in the locker room.

Projection

Hampered by cap woes, this might be a year to reload and regroup.

JACKSON JAGUARS

3 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Jack Del Rio (5-11), second season with Jaguars.

Last season: 5-11, third place.

Burning question

Will QB Byron Leftwich pay early dividends after 13 sometimes painful starts a year ago?

Must-do project

Finish off drives. The Jaguars sputtered fitfully in the red zone, getting just 20 touchdowns in 45 trips inside the 20-yard line.

Team MVP

RB Fred Taylor hasn't missed a game the past two seasons, giving the Jaguars durability as well as big plays.

On the hot seat

WR Jimmy Smith is 35 and in his 12th season in the NFL. It's a tough position to maintain status quo.

Upside

Led by DT Marcus Stroud, the Jaguars ranked second in run defense last season.

Downside

They also ranked 18th in scoring defense, giving up 331 points.

Projection

The Jaguars aren't ready to challenge the Colts until Leftwich establishes himself as one of the NFL's top QBs.

HOUSTON TEXANS

4 -- PRESEASON PICK

Coach: Dom Capers (40-58), third season with Texans, seventh in NFL.

Last season: 5-11, fourth place.

Burning question

Is QB David Carr on the verge of a breakout year after two so-so learning seasons?

Must-do project

Injuries in the defensive line and sub-par play in the secondary made the defense a shambles last year. Capers has to get it fixed.

Team MVP

LB Jamie Sharper led the league in tackles, but it was lost on a bad defense.

On the hot seat

CB Dunta Robinson, the 10th pick in this year's draft, will start right away. In a division that features Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, that's a tall order.

Upside

Building methodically, the third-year Texans appear to be making sound moves.

Downside

They're in a very tough division.

Projection

The Texans are much improved and could surprise this season.

SCHEDULE

INDIANAPOLIS

9-9 at New England, 9 p.m.

9-19 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

9-26 Green Bay, 4:15 p.m.

10-3 at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

10-10 Oakland, 1 p.m.

10-17 Open

10-24 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Kansas City, 1 p.m.

11-8 Minnesota, 9 p.m.

11-14 Houston, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

11-25 at Detroit, 12:30 p.m.

12-5 Tennessee, 1 p.m.

12-12 at Houston, 1 p.m.

12-19 Ravens, 8:30 p.m.

12-26 San Diego, 1 p.m. 1-2 at Denver, 4:15 p.m.

TENNESSEE

9-12 at Miami, 1 p.m.

9-19 Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

9-2 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

10-3 at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

10-11 at Green Bay, 9 p.m.

10-17 Houston, 1 p.m.

10-24 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

10-31 Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

11-7 Open

11-14 Chicago, 1 p.m.

11-21 at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Houston, 1 p.m.

12-5 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

12-13 Kansas City, 9 p.m.

12-19 at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

12-25 Denver, 8:30 p.m.

1-2 Detroit, 1 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE

9-12 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

9-19 Denver, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

10-3 Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

10-10 at San Diego, 4:05 p.m.

10-17 Kansas City, 1 p.m.

10-24 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

10-31 at Houston, 1 p.m.

11-7 Open

11-14 Detroit, 1 p.m.

11-21 Tennessee, 1 p.m.

11-28 at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

12-5 Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.

12-12 Chicago, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

12-26 Houston, 1 p.m.

1-2 at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

HOUSTON

9-12 San Diego, 1 p.m.

9-19 at Detroit, 1 p.m.

9-26 at Kansas City, 1 p.m.

10-3 Oakland, 1 p.m.

10-10 Minnesota, 1 p.m.

10-17 at Tennessee, 1 p.m.

10-24 Open

10-31 Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

11-7 at Denver, 4:15 p.m.

11-14 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

11-21 Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.

11-28 Tennessee, 1 p.m.

12-5 at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

12-12 Indianapolis, 1 p.m.

12-19 at Chicago, 1 p.m.

12-26 at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.

1-2 Cleveland, 1 p.m.

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