It’s not a far cry to say that last year’s best teams in the conference, maybe even the entire NFL, came out of the AFC North. The Ravens took a rookie quarterback and first-year head coach and made history, making it all the way to the AFC Championship game. But the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame the league’s toughest schedule to win their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, besting Baltimore three times by a total of of 16 points.
The Ravens know they need to overthrow the Steelers to earn their next division title, let alone their next Super Bowl appearance. What was already a bitter rivalry will become that much more crucial when the Steelers travel to Baltimore in Week 12 on November 29, and when the Ravens head to Pittsburgh in Week 16 on December 27.
A revamped offensive line, including Matt Birk at center and first-round draft pick Michael Oher at right tackle, will be better equipped to handle the pass rush from James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley that gave Joe Flacco so much trouble last season. A faster secondary, featuring Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington, will force Pittsburgh receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes to up their game.
And perhaps most importantly, Terrell Suggs’ place on the defense is secure after signing a long-term contract. With the return of Kelly Gregg after missing all of 2008, Baltimore’s defensive line will be at full strength and be that much more effective at getting to elusive Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
But the Steelers are in the ideal position to repeat as champions. They are returning 20 of their 22 starters, and lost no personnel on the coaching staff. All three losses to the Steelers stung last season. The Ravens will remember them, and be that much more focused on finishing the job in 2009.
Which isn’t to say the Ravens’ remaining division foes won’t present their own challenges.
The Cincinnati Bengals have emerged as a bit of a sleeper in 2009. A healthy Carson Palmer has always given the Ravens trouble, as has a non-disgruntled Chad Ochocinco. The Bengals appear to have both this year. Their defense, led by Mike Zimmer, showed marked improvement toward the end of last season and could put the Bengals in the mix throughout the season.
The Cleveland Browns, on the other hand, have yet to name a starting quarterback and overhauled their roster yet again in the offseason. However, the Browns have always played the Ravens hard, perhaps an indication of their own rivalry.
And it was this time last year that the Ravens and Browns were in each other’s position. The Browns appeared ready to contend while the Ravens were the ones with identity issues. It goes to show how anything can happen in the NFL. Cleveland should not be overlooked for that simple reason.
The Ravens know the importance of winning their division, which is why they devoted practice sessions during the offseason to each of the AFC North rivals. They’ve shown under John Harbaugh that they’ll be disciplined and ready for each opponent, divisional or not. Baltimore’s 4-0 preseason suggests they’re ready.
But the Steelers have shown the same thing under Mike Tomlin. The Steelers allowed a league-low 37 points this preseason. They want to repeat.
These two teams match up well, but Pittsburgh has been getting the best of the Ravens recently, even if just by the skin of their teeth.
The Ravens won’t overlook the Bengals or Browns, but the Steelers are the main event. Fans around the league will do best to circle the teams' two meetings on their calendars. The Ravens certainly will.