AFC North No Cakewalk This Year

Marco RomanellCorrespondent IMay 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  The Pittsburgh Steelers line up for a successful 42-yard field goal attempt by kicker Jeff Reed in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Last year the Ravens were 4-2 against their division in the regular season, winning those games by a combined score of 116-50. Those four wins all came against the Browns and Bengals, who both drafted in the top 10 this season.

The Ravens lost to the Steelers twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs. All three loses were by a combined 16 points, but made the difference in the Steelers hosting the AFC Championship, which they eventually won.

The Ravens did what they were supposed to do last season and beat the teams they were "supposed" to beat. That is what helps teams have winning seasons and puts them in position to make the playoffs.

In order to be a Super Bowl caliber team and make a return trip to the playoffs, the Ravens will need to handle business in their division and that includes the Steelers. The easiest way to make the playoffs is to win the division, and a 5-1 record in the division would likely get this done.

Before the season started, many "experts" thought the AFC North would be a battle between the Browns and Steelers with both the Ravens and Bengals being nothing more than an afterthought.

Once the season started, the Ravens showed they were a major factor and the Browns showed they were nothing but "paper champions." By season’s end, the AFC North had the two best teams in the NFL and two of the worst.

Both the Browns and Bengals upgraded their teams in the draft and both should be better than the four wins they each had last year. Every team in the AFC North hates each other and they come to play every time they have a division game.

By no means is this division going to go from one of the worst in football to the best, but it should produce two teams vying for a playoff position (Ravens and Steelers) and one team hovering around .500 (Browns).

Obviously, a tougher, more competitive division will make it harder for the Ravens to make the playoffs. At worst, they will need to split their six division games. However, if this happens they will need to go at least 7-3 out of division to have a shot at the playoffs. A 4-2, 5-1, or 6-0 record in the division almost most certainly will put the Ravens in the playoffs.

Say for instance 10 wins is the barometer to make the playoffs and the Ravens go 6-0 in the division. In this case, they would only need to win four of their next 10 games to make the playoffs. That is something that is very attainable and is the easiest route to the playoffs.

The Ravens' schedule looks to be difficult and there is no surefire win in the NFL. Winning the three home games in the division is a must and I believe this team needs to go at least 5-1 in the division to make the playoffs.

The AFC North has been up and down the past few years, with only the Steelers showing any consistency. This division will be much tougher than last year and it could be hard pressed to produce two playoff teams again.

All that being said, I think the division winner will be either the Ravens or the Steelers, but the Browns and Bengals could have something to say about that.

Of course, it is the NFL and I could be completely wrong.