NFL Meetings Notebook: AFC North coaches pick Ravens No. 1

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PHOENIX -- They tiptoed around the subject, but the coaches in the AFC North ultimately picked the Baltimore Ravens to repeat as the division champions this season.

"They're the division champs," answered Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis. "Last year was the Steelers, right?"

Actually, the Bengals won the division at 11-5 in 2005, winning a tiebreaker with the Steelers, who then made history by winning three playoff games on the road and then the Super Bowl.

Baltimore came from a 6-10 season in 2005 to win the division at 12-4 after they acquired quarterback Steve McNair.

"I think you have to say they're the favorite," Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel said. "And Cincinnati is right there behind them."

After that, "Pittsburgh and then the Browns."

New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin did not pick his team to win it, but he left little impression how he feels about the question.

"Are you kidding? Who would you like me to say? You never have to worry about asking me that question."

OK, after the Steelers then?

"You have to acknowledge the Ravens are a good football team."

Cincinnati, he said, also could be poised for a comeback.

"Anytime you have a quarterback as talented as Carson Palmer, you have a shot. They have a very talented quarterback and they have some talent around him, of course. They're a dangerous team.

"But you have to acknowledge that the Ravens are rock-solid top to bottom, offensively, defensively and, of course, with the acquisition of Steve McNair who is just a leader in every way, a game manager -- they have a good football team."

Billick on Cowher

With Bill Cowher gone, Baltimore's Brian Billick becomes the reigning graybeard coach of the division, entering his ninth season. He believes the dynamic without Cowher will change in the division.

"Anytime you lose -- maybe short of saying an icon -- but I mean for this league and what Bill represented and how he represented Pittsburgh ... it certainly will change it.

"I loved competing against Bill because you knew it was going to be a hell of a game, I don't care what circumstances.

"I know coach Tomlin -- I don't know Mike real well -- but Pittsburgh's been pretty good at its transitions, and they're going to be a good football team again."

Billick and Cowher had their moments, only adding to the bitter Steelers-Ravens rivalry through the years. Billick predicted that won't change much because of Cowher's departure.

"Thank God, Bill and I never went toe-to-toe on the 50-yard line in front of anybody because he'd probably kick my butt," Billick said. "But it's the players, it's still going to be Pittsburgh-Baltimore; I can't imagine that changing dramatically."

Whisenhunt on Steelers

Ken Whisenhunt spent six years with the Steelers as their tight ends coach and coordinator and believes the transition they are making now will not change them much.

"In my six years there, anytime there was any kind of obstacle or any kind of change, the organization found a way to adapt or overcome it. I think that's been the theme of that organization for a number of years, with losing players, losing coaches -- obviously not head coaches. But I anticipate them being a good football team."

Whisenhunt also does not think the loss of Cowher and linebacker Joey Porter will change the dynamics of the locker room.

"I think there is a culture there with the identity of the team, certainly with coach Cowher there a number of years, and they have been successful with that. I would anticipate they would continue with that same mentality with how they play football."

One key rule change

The only notable rule that was adopted or changed at the annual NFL meetings created an additional penalty. Players who spike the ball in the field of play will be penalized 5 yards.

Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, was disappointed that a proposal to move opening kickoffs for overtime from the 30 to the 35 had to be tabled for a lack of support.

"We'll keep working the issue, but I'm not exactly confident we'll get 24 votes" needed to pass it.

Tampa Bay withdrew its proposal to expand replay to include reviewing penalties, and the idea to increase game-day rosters from 45 was killed.


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