Mountain metaphors are surely a time-worn sports cliche but in the case of the 2009 Baltimore Ravens versus their AFC North rivals, the metaphor is truly fitting.
Like climbing Everest, there are levels the Ravens have to go through to reach the ultimate destination—the Super Bowl—and their three AFC North foes represent unique rungs on the climb.
The Bottom: Cleveland Browns
At the lowest point of the Ravens climb figures to be the Cleveland Browns.
The Brownies are once again in rebuilding mode, having fired one GM/coach combo made up of an ex-Ravens personnel guy and ex-Bill Belichick assistant (Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel) for another (George Kokinis and Eric Mangini).
As of this writing, Mangini has yet to choose a quarterback between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, proving the adage that if you have two quarterbacks you have no quarterback.
Anderson is a guy who has given the Ravens trouble in the past but is also susceptible to turnovers. The Ravens have never seen Quinn before but the book on him is that he likes to control the short passing game, whereas Anderson will take more deep shots.
WR Braylon Edwards has always presented a challenge to the Ravens D with his size and speed but the real question is: which Edwards shows up in 2009? The guy who looked like another Randy Moss in 2007 or the guy who had the drops and seemed more interested in being a fashion model than football player.
On defense, the Browns appear to be a work-in-progress, although they do have some solid players like Shaun Rogers, D'Quell Jackson, and Brandon McDonald.
Still, there isn't much here to make you think they match up very well with the Ravens, especially if QB Joe Flacco steps up and makes the leap this year. The Browns do usually play the Ravens tough, especially in Cleveland, but with a rebuilding team and an uncertain QB situation, the Browns don't appear to be a threat to the purple and black just yet.
Base Camp: Cincinnati Bengals
On Everest, base camp represents the midway point. The point where the climber starts to get ready for the long, treacherous climb to the summit.
In other words, its a pretty close comparison to the Cincinnati Bengals, a club with talent good enough to compete but not good enough to go very far.
Many of the so-called experts are high on the Bengals this year, and while I think they are better than the 4-11-1 mark of a year ago, I'm not sure what is so different about them than the 8-8 and 7-9 squads of 2006 and 2007.
Yes, the Bengals should have a healthy Carson Palmer back behind center and a relatively sane (for him) Chad Ochocinco out wide. Cedric Benson helped the running game last year and Laveranues Coles shouldn't be too big a dropoff from the departed T.J. Houshmanzadeh.
The defense was surprisingly better last year, finishing 12th in the league. It was an even more impressive accomplishment considering how poor the offense was a season ago.
But still many questions remain:
If Palmer gets hurt again, the likes of J.T. O'Sullivan await in the wings. In other words, goodbye season.
Was Benson as good as he looked at times last year or is he the guy who was a bust with the Bears?
Can the defense maintain its form of a year ago?
Will Ochocinco do something ridiculous this year?
Actually that last one is pretty much guaranteed.
The Bengals are a strange team. There's enough on paper to make you believe they could be this year's Cardinals. The Ravens handled them fairly easily last year, but since Palmer emerged in 2004, they have usually been a thorn in the Ravens side. An improved Bengals team can provide a challenge not to be taken lightly.
But at the same time, they are still the Bengals. Like the L.A. Clippers or the Baltimore Orioles, there seems to be a black cloud that hovers around this franchise. In other words, 8-8 sounds about right.
The Summit: Pittsburgh Steelers
Ah yes, the scourge of Ravens fans everywhere, Mt. Pittsbugh.
Not much needs to be said about what the Steelers represent on the Ravens climb. As the defending champions, they are the summit, the measuring stick, if you will.
Don't let anybody tell you different, this is THE rivalry in the NFL these days and part of the reason is because the teams are so closely matched. Yes, the Steelers won all three matchups with the Ravens last year, but all three could have easily gone the Ravens way (people forget, before Troy Polamalu's game-winning INT in the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were only down 16-14 with the ball).
These teams are practically mirror images. Both are known for tough, hard-hitting defense and physical run-based offense. Even the fan bases aren't too dissimilar, even though they despise one another. Both come from blue-collar type towns and have goofy fan traditions—Pittsburgh with the towels, the Ravens with the purple camo pants.
The difference between the two teams last year was simple: Ben Roethlisberger made plays when he had to while Joe Flacco did not. For the Ravens to beat the Steelers, they need to reverse that. Flacco must step up to Roethlisberger's level, or else the Ravens might not get by Pittsburgh again.
Truly, Roethlisberger is the man who traditionally gives the Ravens defense the most trouble because of his size and ability to escape pressure and improvise.
The key for the Ravens D is to figure out a way to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket—where he is prone to holding the ball too long and taking sacks—and getting him down when they have the chance. The Ravens got burned by Roethlisberger most when he was able to scramble and improvise and when he went to a short passing game to counter the Ravens blitz.
New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has said he will play more base looks, which should help with the short passes. How he attacks Roethlisberger with the blitz is what remains to be seen.
The most success the Ravens had against Roethlisberger was in 2006. Then-coordinator Rex Ryan did an outstanding job of confusing Roethlisberger, putting a vice around his escape lanes and then taking him to the turf when they had the chance. That needs to be replicated this year.
For the Ravens offense, experience will hopefully be the tonic needed to overcome the Steelers confusing zone blitz. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seemed to play it closer to the vest against the Steelers and Flacco looked more hesitant, especially in the last two games against Pittsburgh in 2008.
For success against the Steelers D on offense, the Ravens need look no further than the first half of the game in Pittsburgh last year. The Ravens were very successful in mixing things up on the Steelers and keeping the blitz off balance.
The return of Marshal Yanda and the addition of Michael Oher to the offensive line should help. Both have the kind of nasty attitudes to succeed against Pittsburgh's tough defenders. Yanda in particular was missed in the AFC title game.
Cameron also need to figure out ways to make Polamalu play more in deep coverage than as a fifth linebacker. Polamalu is at his best when he plays close to the line of scrimmage and is allowed to freelance, much like Leroy Butler used to with Green Bay.
However, he can be exploited if you can get him matched up with wideouts, much like the Ravens did in 2006 with Mark Clayton. If Cameron can figure out a way to get Polamalu to play as a deep cover man, instead of as a roving fifth linebacker, it will bode well for the guys in purple and black.
Still, it comes down to execution and finishing the game. The Steelers were champions last year for a reason: they always found ways to take advantage of mistakes and would always find ways to pull out close games.
To get over the summit, the Ravens will not only have to scale Mt. Pittsburgh, but drive a stake through its heart.