Disparity among top and bottom teams grows in AFC Central

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 26, 2000

The Associated Press

Talk about your haves and have-nots: The AFC Central has a talent chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon running through its middle.

Saturday, August 26, 2000

Email newsletter signup

Talk about your haves and have-nots: The AFC Central has a talent chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon running through its middle.

At the top are the AFC champion Tennessee Titans, the defending division titleist Jacksonville Jaguars and the rapidly rising Baltimore Ravens. At the bottom are the quickly fading Pittsburgh Steelers, the second-year Cleveland Browns and the usually laughable Cincinnati Bengals.

While the top three teams all figure to make the postseason parade, the tailenders all could vie for the No. 1 draft pick.

The Titans come off a wonderful season, going 13-3, beating Jacksonville three times, including in the AFC title game, then falling a yard short of overtime in the Super Bowl.

It’s obvious how they can top that.

”There’s a lot of optimism, and it’s well-founded this year,” said Bruce Matthews, the 39-year-old offensive lineman entering his 18th NFL season. ”We’re excited about what potentially can happen again this season.”

With the Jaguars riddled by injuries and the Ravens not quite at their level, the Titans seem a clear-cut choice to win the AFC Central. Matthews and his buddies on the offensive line – budding star Jon Runyan is gone, but free agent Fred Miller was signed away from the Rams to play right tackle – are efficient enough to boost Eddie George toward 2,000 yards rushing. George, in turn, is enough of a workhorse to get close to it, and might have to if the passing game doesn’t pick up.

It should. QB Steve McNair comes off a big postseason in which he seemed to mature. He already has a Pro Bowl tight end/H back in Frank Wycheck, and now he has a first-rate wideout in Carl Pickens.

Pickens, considered a troublemaker in Cincinnati, has been a model citizen and solid performer for the Titans.

”I couldn’t have come to a better situation,” Pickens said. ”This is a team that was one yard away.”

It’s also a multidimensional team on defense, led by All-Pro end Jevon Kearse, the 1999 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coach Jeff Fisher and his staff are designing more formations in which Kearse can line up anywhere.

But the suspension of tackle Josh Evans for the season will hurt, although John Thornton looks like a quality replacement. The secondary has sustained some hits, but the revamped linebacking corps looks stronger with free agent Randall Godfrey Bulluck in the middle.

The Titans shouldn’t need any Music City Miracles to hold off the Jaguars, whose only three losses last year were to Tennessee. Jacksonville is good enough to stay close behind the passing of Mark Brunell, receiving of Jimmy Smith, running of Fred Taylor and an upgraded defense featuring Kevin Hardy, Gary Walker and Fernando Bryant.

But the Jaguars have been swamped by offseason problems.

The offensive line was hit hardest, with right tackle Leon Searcy out until at least November after tearing a tendon above his right knee; All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli slowly recovering from his knee surgery; and four other offensive linemen, including two starters, missing hefty portions of training camp.

Taylor has a damaged knee that could sideline him for the opener. Safety Carnell Lake is out for the year. DE Tony Brackens still isn’t happy about his contract situation. And coach Tom Coughlin is being mentioned as a leading candidate for the Notre Dame job.

”Frustration might enter in a little bit,” Coughlin said of the wicked summer his team has endured. ”We’re just trying to get some continuity and it’s time for us to do it. We’ve got to line some people up and let them stay there.”

Jacksonville’s woes could leave an opening for Baltimore, which vastly upgraded its offense and had the No. 2 defense last year. With the turmoil from being charged with murder behind him, All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis leads a squad that can turn games around.

Watch for cornerback Chris McAlister to develop into a star, joining Peter Boulware, Rod Woodson and Mike McCrary to be the key aids to Lewis, although Boulware is still hampered by a shoulder injury.

Coach Brian Billick is an offensive mastermind, and if Tony Banks continues his resurrection and rookies Jamal Lewis at running back and Travis Taylor at receiver can contribute right away, Baltimore will be dangerous. Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates, perennial Pro Bowl tight ends, were signed and Jon Ogden anchors a decent line.

Owner Art Modell loves what he sees.

”I’m more encouraged that I have been since the mid-80s, but I’m not printing playoff tickets yet,” Modell said. ”I think this is a very good football team with a lot of depth and a lot of development of second and third-year players. That’s how you win championships.”

Pittsburgh has won four NFL championships, but No. 5 isn’t coming anytime soon. Bill Cowher, once a fixture on the Steelers’ sideline, needs a turnaround year or he could be looking for work elsewhere.

He’s put tremendous faith in QB Kordell Stewart, who has let him down with poor decision-making. The running game is OK, but no longer special, partly because the line isn’t very good – especially if perennial All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson gets hurt again. Plaxico Burress was drafted to open up the passing game, but is Stewart going to find him, even if Burress does stand 6-5?

Nor is the defense formidable any longer, except at linebacker, where Jevon Kirkland, Earl Holmes and Jason Gildon are overworked.

”This team lost its edge,” Cowher said. ”And I lost my edge.”

The Steelers still should have an edge on the Bengals, probably the worst run pro franchise east of the Los Angeles Clippers. Even though Cincinnati moves into a new stadium, it does so under negative clouds, despite the blind optimism running rampant among the Bengals.

”This is a different team and I don’t understand why people say this is the same old Bengals,” quarterback Akili Smith said. ”That’s stupid.”

Smith will be a solid quarterback someday, and he does have a fine running back in Corey Dillon, whose hold out got him a $3 million deal for this year. But after that, it’s free agency and likely good-bye for Dillon.

Pickens forced his way out, then the other top receiver, Darnay Scott, broke his leg. That leaves no break-in period for exciting rookie Peter Warrick.

There won’t be much help for the offense when it is off the field. The secondary was pitiful last year and appears upgraded a bit, and linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons are comers. But the line is so-so.

Don’t look for Bruce Coslet to last as coach.

There are whispers that the Browns already are disenchanted with Chris Palmer, which is unfair. But they aren’t looking at many more wins than the two they got last year, especially if quarterback Tim Couch continues to struggle.

Top overall draftee Courtney Brown will do some damage at defensive end and Jamir Miller is a very capable linebacker. But the secondary is leaky.

At least the Browns have two games each with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, they also play Tennessee, Baltimore and Jacksonville a total of six times.

Prediction: Tennessee (12-4); Baltimore (10-6); Jacksonville (10-6); Pittsburgh (5-11); Cincinnati (5-11); Cleveland (2-14).