The 2008-2009 NFL season was as close to perfection as the Baltimore Ravens could have hoped.
Despite early doubts over new head coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens excelled in the AFC North, losing only to the future world champion Pittsburgh Steelers on three separate occasions by a total of 16 points.
As the 2009-2010 season approaches, the Steel Curtain remain Baltimore's most challenging division opponent, but Harbaugh would be wise not to overlook the previously impotent Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
2008-2009 Record: 4-12 (1-5 AFC North)
2009-2010 Matchups: Week Three in Baltimore, 1PM; Week 10 in Cleveland, 8:30PM.
Offseason Changes: Lost LB Andra Davis, S Sean Jones, LB Willie McGinest, TE Kellen Winslow; added LB Eric Barton, WR Mike Furrey, RB Noah Herron, CB Corey Ivy, CB Hank Poteat, TE Robert Royal, LB Bo Ruud.
Draft Picks: C Alex Mack, WR Brian Robiskie, WR Mohamed Massaquoi.
The Browns head into the 2009-2010 season with almost nowhere to go but up. First year coach Eric Mangini and first year GM George Kokinis hope to revitalize a team that has struggled since rejoining the NFL in 1999.
The first order of business this preseason was to choose a starting quarterback, and as of today (September 8th), Mangini has picked a quarterback, but he refuses to say which one he's chosen.
Although Yahoo! Sports has suggested that Mangini has elected to go with Brady Quinn rather than Derek Anderson.
With that dilemma seemingly figured out for the moment, Mangini can focus on beating the Vikings this Sunday, along with all the other opponents looking at Cleveland as chopped liver.
On offense, Mangini will alternate between riding veteran running back Jamal Lewis and leaning on a deep corps of talented wide receivers to pick up the slack left in the wake of Kellen Winslow's departure.
WR Braylon Edwards will carry the passing game as he tries to replicate his dynamite 2007 campaign (1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns), but he will be greatly aided by the arrivals of Furrey and Robiskie, both of whom have the potential to be quality number two options through the air.
The biggest concern will be keeping Edwards healthy, as an injury would take away Cleveland's only deep threat and force them into a run-heavy game plan.
On the opposite side of the ball, Mangini will rely on a few veterans to hold things together. The secondary is barely worth mentioning, but the prowess of LB D'Qwell Jackson, last year's leading NFL tackler, and DT Shaun Rogers should help control the middle of the field.
LB Eric Barton follows Mangini to Cleveland from the Jets and should help shore up the perimeter defense along with Kamerion Wimbley.
Player Battles to Watch:
1) Browns QB Brady Quinn vs. Ravens LB Ray Lewis
Quinn, if he is in fact the starter, has yet to prove that he can consistently perform at an NFL level.
In four career starts, he possesses a less-than-impressive quarterback rating of 65.8. Statistics aside, Quinn has yet to face a defensive front as stout as the Ravens, nor has he had to confidently stare down the man some call the best linebacker of this decade.
If Quinn starts, look for Lewis to snatch down a rare interception.
2) Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson
Jackson is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine in the mold of Ray Lewis, and Rice will be hard pressed to find lanes anywhere on the field that are not in some way blocked by Jackson or someone trying to block Jackson.
If the Ravens choose to run right at him, they had better put a man (or two) on Shaun Rogers if Rice even wants to make it past the line of scrimmage.
Take note of how many yards Rice accumulates in each game against the Browns. Any total higher than 60 is a huge victory for Baltimore.
2008-2009 Record: 4-11-1 (1-5 AFC North)
2009-2010 Matchups: Week Five in Baltimore, 1PM; Week Nine in Cincinnati, 1PM
Offseason Changes: Lost OT Stacy Andrews, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh; added WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier, S Roy Williams.
Draft picks: OT Andre Smith, LB Rey Maualuga, DE Michael Johnson, TE Chase Coffman.
All hope for a successful 2008-2009 season were lost early last fall with Carson Palmer's departure from the starting lineup due to an elbow injury.
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took the reins, and quickly proved why he was listed second on the depth chart in the first place.
This season however, with a healthy Palmer and a few new faces around the locker room, there is hope for improvement.
The success of the offense will rest on the shoulders of two Bengals in particular, namely RB Cedric Benson and WR Chad Ochocinco.
Benson, a first round pick in the 2005 draft, has yet to have the kind of season that won him All-America status and the Doak Walker award in his senior season at Texas.
He had just over 200 carries last season for less than 800 yards and found the endzone only twice; however, he has shown steady progress the last three years and, if the pattern holds, will only continue to improve this season.
Likewise, Ochocinco hopes to return to Pro Bowl form following the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the Seattle Seahawks.
Ochocinco's production dipped to just 53 catches for 540 yards and four touchdowns last season (largely because of inept quarterbacking), but in the two years prior to last year's campaign, he averaged 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns, a mark he hopes to replicate this season.
On defense, Cincinnati will look to its strong group of linebackers to maintain control on the field.
Dhani Jones is coming off a banner season, and he will team with rookie Rey Maualuga to control the second level.
Newly acquired veteran safety Roy Williams should bring stability to a secondary that has missed it since the depart of Madieu Williams to the Vikings in 2008.
Although the Bengals play a 4-3 defense, they appear to be building an agile personnel set capable of playing in a 3-4 scheme as well, as seen by their new-found depth at linebacker and the acquisition of physical freak Michael Johnson in this year's draft.
Marvin Lewis is a defensive whiz, having won a Super Bowl as the coordinator for the Ravens back in 2000-2001, so he may give Baltimore problems if he unveils a previously unseen defensive package.
Player Battles to Watch:
1) Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Bengals S Roy Williams
Williams won't be playing Mason man-to-man most of the time, but you can be sure that words will be exchanged in whatever interaction they have on the field.
Both are tough, wily and relentless, and both have something to prove. Williams will try and re-establish himself as the feared tackler he once was in Dallas, and Mason will do his best to perform at a high level in spite of his aging body.
Don't expect any punches to be pulled by either one.
2) Ravens DE Haloti Ngata/LB Tavares Gooden vs. Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth
Whitworth is 6'7", 330 pounds. Ngata is 6'4", 340 pounds. Need any more be said?
If Whitworth isn't stymied by the sheer force of Ngata's frame driving against his own, he'll have a difficult time adjusting to the speed of a blitzing Gooden, who some are already comparing to Ray Lewis himself.
Look for Baltimore's pass rush to put pressure on Palmer all game long.
2008-2009 Record: 12-4 (7-0 AFC North); Super Bowl Champions
2009-2010 Matchups: Week 12 in Baltimore, 8:20PM; Week 16 in Pittsburgh, 1PM.
Offseason Changes: Lost WR Nate Washington, CB Bryant McFadden, OT Marvel Smith, OG Kendall Simmons, LB Larry Foote; added CB Keiwan Ratliff, RB/KR Stefan Logan, WR Shaun McDonald.
Draft Picks: WR Mike Wallace, DE Evander Hood.
The Steelers return the majority of their starters from last year's Super Bowl squad, so it's no surprise that some fans are picking them to repeat as champions.
Stalwart defense and hard-nosed running remain head coach Mike Tomlin's bread and butter, so expect a very mirrored approach on both sides of the ball, as the Ravens subscribe to much of the same philosophy.
To be frank, it's difficult to articulate any sure-fire way to attack the Steelers' D with any success.
Either you must beat them at their own game (tough, relentless running between the tackles) or imitate the Arizona Cardinals' Super Bowl approach of passing quickly and often.
The Ravens are better at the former, so expect them to use their depth at running back (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, LeRon McClain) to their advantage.
The Pittsburgh offense, on the other hand, is considerably less formidable, and this year's point totals may drop to start the season, as starters Willie Parker and Ben Roethlisberger are both recovering from preseason injuries.
Still, the offensive line returns almost entirely intact from last season, and second year running back Rashard Mendenhall has the talent to carry the load if Parker cannot.
Player Battles to Watch:
1) Steelers DE Aaron Smith vs. Ravens OT Michael Oher
Smith will be Oher's primary foe, but the Ravens' first round pick from Ole Miss will also have to handle the complex blitz packages that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will surely direct to his side of the field.
Smith is an inch taller and ten pounds lighter than Oher, but it remains to be seen whether or not his 11 years of NFL experience will trump Oher's youthful mobility and strength.
2) Ravens S Dawan Landry vs. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Landry is returning from an injury that limited him to just two contests last season and is hungry to prove himself once again after having five interceptions in his rookie season in 2006-2007.
The last time he picked off a pass? Christmas Eve, 2006, against (you guessed it) Roethlisberger.