NFL Football Preview 1999: AFC Central
Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jags have the talent and the coaching to go all the way. Quarterback Mark Brunell is exciting, provided he stays healthy, and the offense has balance, especially with the emergence of running back Fred Taylor a year ago. They have shored up their defense somewhat through the draft and with the acquisition of safety Carnell Lake. The Jags should win the division with relative ease and could secure homefield deep into the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers are a team with questions. Jerome Bettis had off-season knee surgery and will have to prove himself early in order to reassure coaches and fans that "the Bus" is back in business. Perhaps more important than the Bettis situation is the condition of All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson. Dawson, who missed most of the preseason with a bum knee, is the tie that binds the offensive line and if he is sub-par then it could sabotage the entire offense. It appears that quarterback Kordell Stewart, who has yet to fulfill all the hype, might need a little help from his line to get better. But if everything falls together things could get bright in a hurry in the Steel City.
Tennessee Titans - The Titans have a lot going for them this year: new name, new stadium and new uniforms. If the football product will be as appealing as the rest of the show remains to be seen, but there is promise. The offense will rest on the shoulders of Steve McNair and Eddie George. Expect a break-out year from McNair if the offensive line can do the job and give top receiver Yancey Thigpen a chance to get open. The defense is certainly improved but the pressure is on their no-name linebackers to make big plays.
Baltimore Ravens - The biggest problem for the Ravens recently has been scoring points. So what did team owner Art Modell do in the off-season? He hired the offensive coordinator from the highest-scoring team in NFL history as his new head coach. Brian Billick, who managed the offense of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, has a tough task with this new cast of cast-offs. Scott Mitchell is no Randall Cunningham. He won't get much help from his backfield either. Priest Holmes is a good back-up but not the answer at running back. The only hope is that their defense, led by their excellent linebackers, will shut out teams and maybe get a few points to help out the offense.
Cincinnati Bengals - It could be said that the biggest reason that the Bengals won't finish in the division basement again this year is not the drafting of highly-touted savior quarterback Akili Smith or the improvement of the defense but rather the presence of the reborn (and expansion) Cleveland Browns. The Bengals, who finally signed Smith after a holdout, will find the going rough in 1999. With the inconsistent Jeff Blake leading the offense, at least until Smith is ready, and a reshuffled offensive line protecting him, it could get ugly. But maybe not as ugly as the defensive secondary will look, getting burned with regularity.
Cleveland Browns - At least in their first season back, most Browns fans will just be happy to be there. A brand new, modern stadium will be a nice diversion from what is almost certain to be a season that will be tough to watch on the field. A handful of wins are not out of the question and the grooming of top-draft pick Tim Couch will be on the agenda for 1999. In fact, it will be best for the team not to make the postseason. If the Browns miss the playoffs in 1999, they will receive seven extra draft picks in 2000.