For years now, the Baltimore Ravens have had their targets firmly locked on their biggest divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It makes sense—since the year 2000, the Steelers have won the AFC North six times, while the Ravens have won it three times.
But this season, the Ravens have another team to be concerned with. The Cincinnati Bengals are gunning for the defending divisional champs, and they just may have the roster of talent to snatch that title away.
That's not to say that the Ravens or the Steelers are set to be any less formidable opponents this year and neither team is on a considerable decline. But the Bengals' upswing, which began last season, is set to continue through this season and it's hard to deny they'll be serious contenders for the divisional crown.
The Bengals are a young team, which generally means there are stumbling blocks to overcome, but they handled what could have been a disastrous 2011 in ways few teams could manage. A rookie starting quarterback generally presents a gamble—and especially last season, coming off of the lockout.
Instead Andy Dalton came in and gave little indication that this was his first time playing the game at a professional level. He was certainly helped along by the receiving corps around him, led by another rookie, A.J. Green.
That receiver group will look quite a bit different this season. Gone are Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, and replaced by rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. The Bengals also added another pass-catching tight end, Orson Charles, to complement Jermaine Gresham.
Their veterans on offense are mainly in the run game. They brought on BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency, replacing Cedric Benson, and he'll be backed up by Bernard Scott. The Bengals didn't really focus much on running the ball last season, and while Green-Ellis is an upgrade, it looks that yet again that area will take a back seat to their passing offense.
On defense, the Bengals didn't look all that bad last season but they could stand to improve, especially when it comes to stopping the run. This is an area they addressed in the draft (bringing on two defensive tackles in the first three rounds), and if they did so successfully, that could pose a real threat to the Ravens' prolific run game that relies almost solely on Ray Rice.
All in all, the Bengals have quickly and (somewhat) quietly put together one of the more-balanced and talented teams in the entire NFL. The AFC North is one of the most—if not the most—competitive divisions in the league.
To best both the Ravens and Steelers and take the divisional title is a difficult feat, but it's one that the Bengals think they can do and they have built a roster almost specifically designed to do so.
Cincinnati fields a very different team than what we all consider a typical AFC North squad—they're trying to be the division's Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints, relying most heavily on an explosive, multi-faceted passing attack.
That kind of approach is a very smart way to defeat both the Ravens and Steelers. If they can be a high-scoring team with a solid, bend-but-don't-break defense, that's a pretty quick and dirty way to the top in the AFC North.
As long as this year's draft class pans out the way the last one did for Cincinnati, this is a juggernaut in the making. The Ravens will need to set their sights on the Bengals with just as much ferocity as they have them set on the Steelers to end the 2012 season on top of the division yet again.