If you didn't pay attention to the NFL playoffs last season you may not have noticed, but the AFC Championship Game featured two teams from the same division: The AFC North.
The Steelers emerged victorious over the Ravens that day. In fact, Pittsburgh won both regular season matchups also.
Everyone who follows the NFL at all knows that the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl over the Arizona Cardinals. But the story that can be gleaned for the 2009 season would be that the AFC North may not just be home to the best rivalry in the league, but perhaps the two best teams in the AFC.
The other side of that story would be that the division is also home to two of the worst teams in the AFC.
The Browns and Bengals had the fifth and sixth picks, respectively, in the 2009 Draft. Both teams are looking to—and should—improve this season. But the fanbases of both teams would tell you the same thing: It's a long road to the top when the top is occupied by two fiercely dominant and consistently good teams.
The Browns are under an entirely new administration, with Eric Mangini holding the coaching reins. The franchise has long been a doormat of the NFL, and don't expect much more than the usual this season. The team may be improving, but not drastically enough to expect much more than last season.
The weaknesses of this team are many, but I'd say the worst is a lack of leadership on either side of the ball. This is a team with things to figure out in training camp if it wants to even pretend to be competitive.
Good leadership can make a bad team good, so the Browns need either Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson to step up and put the team on his back. This position battle at quarterback will be one of the most interesting of the offseason.
They're the only two real X-factors on the team. You know exactly what you'll get from every other member of the team, whether it's good or bad. They both want to be big-time quarterbacks in the NFL, so one of them needs to step up, otherwise this will just be another forgettable season for the Browns.
The Bengals have been nicknamed "the Bungals" for very good reason: The franchise has not enjoyed very many good seasons, and this one isn't looking much rosier. The team has improved significantly through this year's draft, the consensus pick for best overall draft, but don't expect that to translate into a huge improvement this year.
The team will, however, be better than last year, with Carson Palmer returning healthy from an injury-shortened season. They'll be a few wins better, but not in the playoff hunt.
Between Palmer's return and his apparent chemistry with new arrival Laveranues Coles, the Bengals offense should be fun to watch, at any rate. The overall quality of the team has gone up and it should be reflected in wins, but probably not that much this season. They could be vastly improved in 2010 with one more good offseason.
So it comes down to the smash-mouth rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. These are two teams that hate each other. They will both fight tooth, nail, and claw for every yard, every win, and, ultimately, for the division title.
The Steelers have known hardly anything but sustained success over their long and storied history. They're fresh off their sixth Super Bowl victory and the team doesn't appear to have deteriorated noticeably. So they're right on track for another Super Bowl run.
The offensive line is still the only chink in the armor, but the team found a way to overcome that last season.
The key to their success is the defense as usual, but Ben Roethlisberger is nearly as important. When he's successful, so is the team. So if the line can give him time to make throws, the rest should fall into place. Hey, it worked last season.
The Ravens' history is much, much shorter, moving from Cleveland in 1996, but they enjoyed a relatively quick rise to the top with a Super Bowl victory in the '00 season. Since then the Ravens have been consistent contenders, with only a couple underachieving seasons.
The team had both key departures and arrivals, so it's hard to gauge whether they've improved or gotten worse. But the general feeling is that they're better than last year. The team's main weakness is the lack of an established big-play threat at wide receiver.
The Ravens' success is predicated on the same philosophy of dominant defense, and the team's quarterback, Joe Flacco, is constantly compared to Ben Roethlisberger. Similarly, he holds the key to the Ravens' season. The team needs Joe Flacco to step up in his second year, and all reports from camps indicate he's improved in a big way. Things look good in Ravens Land.
As a Ravens fan, I'd like to say that the Ravens hold an edge in the divisional race, but, in good faith, I could not do that. I'd give a very slight edge to the Steelers, if only because they took three of three very, very physical games from the Ravens last season.
I feel like we'll see both teams in the playoffs again. It's just a matter of which one comes in as the division winner and which comes in as the wild card.
Either way, this will be the season that the rest of the league sees just how vicious a rivalry this division houses, and just maybe they'll see another Super Bowl trophy in one of these teams' trophy cases.