1999 NFL preview: AFC Central

Josh Flickinger

As we forge onward with our NFL preview, today we will take a look at the AFC Central. The division is characterized by the large gulf between the division’s top team and the rest of the teams.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags are considered a favorite to be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl this season, and this is largely because of QB Mark Brunell.

The graduate of Washington is now in the prime of his career, combining good speed and elusiveness with a canon for an arm to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

The big question always has been Brunell’s health. After not getting a chance to play in three seasons playing behind Brett Favre, Brunell went to Jacksonville, when he was quickly entrenched as the starter.

In only the Jaguars’ second season as a franchise, Brunell led the team to the AFC Championship game as he started all 16 games.

He then missed two full games and parts of three others, and the quality of play clearly deteriorated when he was not in the lineup.

Then last year, Brunell missed several games down the stretch. Although he did lead the team to a playoff win, again the Jacksonville season was a disappointment.

If Brunell can stay healthy this season, it appears the other pieces to the puzzle might be in place.

Running back Fred Taylor was often spectacular in his rookie season, rushing for 1,223 yards. Wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith will be back, and the Jags made a key off-season acquisition, luring tight end Kyle Brady from the New York Jets.

Since the offense seems set to have no problem scoring, the focus turns to the other side of the ball. The defensive line is a solid unit with no real superstar, while linebacker Kevin Hardy will lead a very good corps.

The secondary will feature former Steeler Carnell Lake, and should be a unit that improves as the season goes on.

Clearly, Jacksonville is the class of the division and should make reservations for Atlanta in late January.

Tennessee Titans

Since they moved from Houston in 1997, everyone has seen that the Titans (formerly Oilers) are a decent road team. However, we have yet to see if they can play at home.

Since the move to Tennessee, the team has had to play in makeshift stadiums in front of small crowds. That will change this year with the building of a new stadium in Nashville. The team has sold out every game this year, and the team should flourish with all this newfound enthusiasm.

Quarterback Steve McNair will be counted on to have a big year in his fifth NFL campaign. However, if he falters, Neil O’Donnell is there to step in.

Running back Eddie George is developing into one of the best in the NFL and takes pressure off the easily-rattled McNair. The offense should not be the problem, as those two players combined with other stalwarts TE Frank Wycheck, center Bruce Matthews, and WR Yancey Thigpen will give the Titans a chance to score.

The defense will be the question. Safety Blaine Bishop is one of the best at his craft, but the unit managed only 30 sacks in 1998, third-worst in the NFL.

However, an offense that can control the ball could go a long way in improving the team, and with George and a very good offensive line, the Titans should be in store for a good year.

Pittsburgh Steelers

It appears that the annual going-away party that the Steelers throw for free agents has finally taken a toll. This season, Pittsburgh could suffer its first losing season since coach Bill Cowher arrived in 1992.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily at times last season, which saw the Steelers lose the final five games of the year.

The implementation of a new system and the continuing excellence of RB Jerome Bettis should help the talented but troubled signal-caller.

However, it remains to be seen weather there are enough weapons to instill fear in the hearts of opponents.

Rookie WR Troy Edwards had an impressive preseason, and the team still does have Bettis.

The defense will be led by Levon Kirkland, who needs to have a big year for Pittsburgh to be successful. Losing Lake will hurt, but cornerback Chad Scott has been impressive.

A number of things will have to happen for the Steelers to have a breakthrough season, and they will probably continue their slide that began after losing to Dallas in the Super Bowl in 1995.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have a new head coach in Brian Billick, who may still be in shock after seeing what he has to work with.

As the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, Billick had Randall Cunningham, Robert Smith, Randy Moss and others at his disposal.

The key players in similar positions at Baltimore include Scott Mitchell, Priest Holmes and Qadry Ismail. Ugh.

There is some good news, however. The defense headed by LB’s Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware is one of the best young groups in the NFL.

The Ravens will not succeed unless the offense gets a huge season from someone, and it will have to start with Mitchell, who has been unsteady at best in his NFL career with the Dolphins and Lions.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals continue to be one of the worst-run organizations in football and will struggle to another losing season this year.

They drafted Akili Smith out of Oregon to be the quarterback of the future. He then held out most of camp and has been less than impressive since arriving.

Their best wide receiver, Carl Pickens, says he has retired because he says he would rather quit than play for the Bengals. Anyone here blame him?

Corey Dillon is one of the few bright spots on the team and should rush for over 1,000 yards for the third year in a row. The defense does not have very much talent, although linebacker Takeo Spikes should be a player. At least there is an expansion team in the division.

Cleveland Browns

This team will resemble the 1995 expansion teams of Jacksonville and Carolina much more than the 1978 installments, which went a combined 2-26 in their first year.

The team combines veterans, such as Jerry Ball, John Jurkovic, and Lomas Brown, with promising young players like QB Tim Couch and LB Jamir Miller.

Still, this is an expansion team, and they will struggle to win more than four games.