AFC North preview: Anticipating two-horse race

Although there are four teams in the starting blocks, this figures to be a two-horse race between the Steelers and the Browns. Baltimore has enough defense and Cincinnati has enough offense to cause the front runners some angst during the course of the season but neither has enough of what's missing on the other side of the ball to consistently challenge them throughout a long year.

The trendy pick to win the division is the Browns, who came on strong at the end of the season by winning eight of their last 11 games only to miss the postseason on a tie-breaker. Mathematics won't be enough to trip them up this time. It will take a stronger effort from the Steelers, as well, but until someone in the AFC North actually unseats Pittsburgh atop the division they remain the wise man's choice.

Under the radar's Gil Brandt has identified four underrated players in the AFC North, one from each team, who will bear watching this season:

Jared Gaither
OT, Baltimore

An excellent high school basketball player, who had limited college football experience. He continues to get better and has long arms and great strength.

Stacy Andrews
OL, Cincinnati

Played only one year of college football, so he continues to improve. Entering his fifth NFL season, he has shown versatility and a great deal of upside.

Josh Cribbs
KR, Cleveland

Established himself as a big-time return threat last season. With more national TV games in '08, he'll become more of a known quantity.

LaMarr Woodley
LB, Pittsburgh

Second-year player can rush the passer and play well in space. Had four sacks in the regular season last year and two more in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh can run it, throw it and defend against it. They have the best quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) in a division with three very good ones (Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, Derek Anderson in Cleveland and Roethlisberger) and are more evenly balanced than the Browns, who still haven't appeared to solve all their defensive problems yet.

Cincinnati is a dark horse possibility because of its explosive capabilities on offense but the recent re-signing of troublesome wide receiver Chris Henry blew all the offseason talk of Marvin Lewis becoming more of a disciplinarian. Worse than that, their defense has never ranked better than 19th since Lewis arrived in Cincinnati in 2003. So what happened? They drafted USC linebacker Keith Rivers No. 1, but couldn't avoid a holdout. That's not good enough to cut it in a division with the Steelers and Browns in it.

Team on the rise

Cleveland. The Browns have been struggling for so long it feels like the last time they won anything Otto Graham was at quarterback, but the patient Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel approach paid off last season once a quarterback was finally located. Now they have a nose tackle in Shaun Rogers to shore up a similar defensive weakness on an improving 10-6 team.

Team in transition

Baltimore. The Ravens' defense has begun to age but is trying to hold on, while new coach John Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are working to fix an offense that ranked 22nd in the league a year ago. An unsettled quarterback situation and the loss of perennial All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden continue to be a source of the struggles.

Coach in the spotlight

Marvin Lewis promised to be tougher this year after the Bengals spent the last few seasons embarrassing themselves worse off the field than on it. He refused to back down from productive, but always complaining, wide receiver Chad Johnson and cut Chris Henry and Odell Thurman. But he was forced to re-sign Henry by owner Mike Brown at the first sign of trouble. Problem is, Henry's off-field issues have overshadowed his playing ability. Lewis has to get the Bengals back into contention and off the front page of the newspaper or he'll be running someone else's defense this time next year.

Star on the rise

Stacy Andrews. The Bengals franchised Andrews after having played in only 17 games the past four years. They believe he's ready to replace Willie Anderson at right tackle. That needs to happen quickly, because after 13 seasons Anderson is no longer the player he used to be.

Impact rookie

Rashard Mendenhall doesn't figure to see the ball much with Willie Parker toting it for the Steelers. Still, he's a powerful inside presence who the Steelers hope can become the new version of Jerome Bettis, especially around the goal line.

Count on it

Ben Roethlisberger will have his most productive season as the Steelers begin to throw the ball more than in the past from spread formations.

Don't be surprised if...

Troy Smith starts most of the year at quarterback for the Ravens and makes some plays. They have secretly liked him all offseason and he has done enough this summer to win the job. With No. 1 choice Joe Flacco not ready for prime time yet, Smith will keep it as long as he stays healthy.

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