In the eight years since the AFC North was formed, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won the division four times.
They will be looking to return back to the top of the division in 2010 after a disappointing third place finish in 2009.
Part of their failure to win the division last season was a 4-4 record against Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh split with Baltimore and Cleveland and was swept by Cincinnati.
If they would have been able to split with the Bengals and defeat the Browns in both games, the Steelers very well could have been the team atop the division.
Moving on to 2010, Pittsburgh has high aspirations for the season, and that will begin with returning to the top of the AFC North.
When examining the Steelers' offseason moves and their division rivals, the Steelers and their fans should be excited about the potential of winning the division title.
The one perk of playing in the AFC North is that you get to play two games against the Cleveland Browns.
Prior to last season’s embarrassing 13-6 loss against the Browns, the Steelers had won 12 straight in the series and 18 of the past 21.
Since Mike Tomlin became the Steelers head coach, Pittsburgh has gone 5-1 against the Browns.
The results should be similar this year.
The Browns are a team in transition with Mike Holmgren taking over the direction of the team.
Jake Delhomme, a faded star, is expected to be the starting quarterback and they lack any playmakers on offense besides Josh Cribbs.
This probably means a last-place finish in the AFC North for the Browns and a sweep for the Steelers, who will not allow another pathetic offensive performance cost them a victory against the rival Browns.
Cincinnati had an impressive season last year, finishing 10-6 and winning the division before falling the in Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Do not expect another division title this year.
Since Marvin Lewis took over for the Bengals they have been a better team, but have never had back-to-back winning seasons.
The last time the Bengals won the division, in 2005 with an 11-5 record, they followed it up with an 8-8 second-place finish.
Cincinnati should have a solid defense, with young playmakers at linebacker and cornerback, and a decent defensive line. However, the safety position will hold them back, and they are still no better than the third-rated defense in the division.
The Bengals real problems are on offense.
Even with new weapons in free agent Antonio Bryant, rookie Jordan Shipley at receiver, and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, the offense could take a step back.
Chad Ochocinco is always good to create some unnecessary drama for the Bengals, and last season’s surprise running back, Cedric Benson, may face a suspension after encountering off-the-field issues this offseason.
The resurgent ground game was a big part of the Bengals success last season. With this likely to take step back this year and the fact that Carson Palmer has not been the same quarterback that he was prior to injuring his knee, Cincinnati will be on the bubble for making the playoffs.
Add on a first-place schedule and expect a mediocre record for the Bengals, and a possible Steelers sweep, particularly after their uncharacteristic loss in Cincinnati last year.
Right now in Baltimore, they are not only thinking division championship, but they are thinking Super Bowl, and for good reason.
The Ravens added a lot of talent this offseason after acquiring wide receivers Anquan Boldin from the Cardinals and Donte Stallworth, as well as in rookies Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody on defense.
Baltimore now has playmakers in the passing game on offense to go along with their outstanding running back Ray Rice, as well as depth at key positions on defense.
They are not without concerns, though.
Ray Lewis is another year older and will not be able to play forever, and Ed Reed is battling some injury issues. Baltimore also has a weak spot at cornerback, which can be exploited by the Steelers at least once this season, after Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup.
The Ravens’ offensive philosophy will be interesting to watch.
All signs are pointing toward them putting a larger emphasis on Joe Flacco carrying them team with their additions at receiver.
From the Steelers' perspective, taking the ball out of Rice’s hands and putting it in Flacco’s is great news.
Flacco has to prove that he can put a team on his back and lead them to victory. If he cannot, the division will be there for the Steelers' taking. If he can, it will be another year in which the Steelers and Ravens battle it out for the AFC North title.
It is not very often that a team can add two Pro Bowl players to its roster.
While the Steelers aren’t exactly doing this, they will see the return of Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu to their lineup after starting only 10 combined games last season.
The absence of these two players was very noticeable, as the performance of Pittsburgh’s defense dropped off significantly, particularly when defending the pass.
Pittsburgh allowed 215.4 passing yards per game and only had 12 interceptions compared to only 156.9 yards per game and 20 interceptions when they were the top-rated passing defense in the league.
The rush defense also took a step back, allowing 89.9 yards per game last season compared to only 80.2 yards per game in 2008.
The more telling number is the average yards per carry, where teams averaged 3.9 last season compared to only 3.3 in 2008.
Smith is one of the best run-stuffers in the league, and will help the Steelers return to their 2008 level.
The presence of Polamalu will help the defense as a whole, as he is the best playmaker in the NFL.
Polamalu can play near the line to help against the run, but can also quickly get back into position to defend the pass. In his past 21 regular season games, Polamalu has a very impressive 10 interceptions.
The Steelers take a lot of pride in their defense and they took a hit last season.
An annually dominant defense looked downright awful at times, particularly in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers defense allowed 10 points or more in the fourth quarter six times last season and blew fourth quarter leads which resulted in losses on four occasions. They will look to change those results this year.
The return of Smith and Polamalu will help the Steelers return to their dominant ways, but so will the additions of cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Larry Foote.
McFadden was acquired for a fifth round selection from the Arizona Cardinals just one year after leaving Pittsburgh. He will instantly return to the starting lineup and provide the Steelers with an upgrade at corner.
Like McFadden, Foote is also returning after one year away from the Steelers, though he was a free agent addition.
Unlike McFadden, Foote will not be expected to start, but rather provide quality depth and a leadership voice on the field and in the locker room.
Add in rookie outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson, Pittsburgh has a nice mix of youth and veterans giving them a talented and deep defense for Dick LeBeau to work with.
LeBeau, one of the best coordinators in the league, is highly respected by his players and they will not want to have a repeat of last year, particularly since LeBeau is finally being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.
Another factor in the Steelers defense maximizing its potential is the play of their offense.
Pittsburgh has an aggressive, attacking-style defense and they like to go all out for 60 minutes. The problem, with a majority of the starters over 30 years old, the defense wears down at the end of the game, evident last season.
Polamalu has cited this problem on multiple occasions and he should be excited in knowing that the Steelers will look to improve their ground game with the goal of having a balanced offense.
This should also be a welcomed change for running back Rashard Mendenhall, who had 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging an impressive 4.6 yards per carry last season.
Mendenhall will be expected to carry the load this year, but has a solid backup in Mewelde Moore.
Second year player Isaac Redman may finally earn a roster spot given the Steelers short yardage problems and rookie Jonathan Dwyer could be one of the steals of the draft.
If one or both players pan out, Pittsburgh will have good depth at the position.
Integrating more running into their offense will keep the defense on their toes and allow the Steelers to utilize the play action pass, one of Roethlisberger’s strengths.
They will also be able to potentially integrate more trick plays with Antwaan Randle El if they have the threat to run.
More importantly, this will enable the team to control the clock to help keep the defense fresh throughout the game while wearing out the opponent’s defense late.
Pittsburgh is pretty stable with kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda, but the rest of the special teams could see some major changes this year.
Stefan Logan, who set the Steelers single-season kickoff return record with 1,383 yards, averaging 26.7 yards per return, which was good enough for second in the AFC. Though he did not have a return touchdown, Logan could put the offense in good field position.
Despite the success, Logan will be pressed by rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
Brown was named as an All-Conference special teams player as a returner several times throughout his college career.
Second year cornerback, Joe Burnett, should also compete with Logan giving the Steelers a nice stable of potential returners.
However, the biggest change will come with new Special Teams Coordinator Al Everest.
Everest is experienced with special teams, coaching them for 14 years while earning Special Teams Coach of the year twice.
He will have two new special teams’ players to work with in Will Allen, signed from Tampa Bay, and Arnaz Battle from San Francisco.
Reducing the threat for return touchdowns and simply long returns will go a long way to the Steelers reclaiming the AFC North.
There may be no player motivated to win more than Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of his teammates, coaches, front office, and fans.
While Roethlisberger’s off-the-field behavior is the key to that, his on-the-field performance will be what makes people support him again.
After setting Steelers passing records last season, Roethlisberger will take a small step back to the running game, but this will make him a more dangerous quarterback and this will be necessary if the Steelers want to win the division again.
It is not often that the Steelers miss the playoffs or experience losses with Roethlisberger at the helm, missing them only twice in his six seasons as the Steelers starter all while accumulating an impressive 68-28, including 8-2 in the playoffs, career record.
Roethlisberger will look to add to his football legacy with another championship and that will start with a division championship.
There is a significant trend to finishing in third place in the AFC North. Since it formed in 2002, the third place finisher won the division the following year six out of a possible seven times, including the Steelers twice.
While finishing third typically means a missed playoff appearance, AFC North teams are typically solid and lose games here and there on some tough breaks, so they retool in the offseason rather than rebuild.
This offseason, Pittsburgh had two of its best players, Smith and Polamalu, return to health and added veteran depth to the team.
With an improved roster, even with the injury to Colon, the Steelers get the third place schedule, which includes games against the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
Now, the Steelers did lose to the Raiders last season, but them and the Titans should present less of a challenge than Indianapolis and San Diego will for Cincinnati and Houston, and possibly Denver, for Baltimore.
The games still have to be played and anything can happen on any given Sunday, but these matchups present an opportunity for a couple of wins that may not have been there if they were facing last year’s division title winners.
There is something to be said about players stepping up in a contract year. They work a little harder during the offseason, give more time studying film, and give that extra effort on the field.
Expect all of that and more from Mike Tomlin.
Given the Steelers past procedures, they would normally extend their head coach this offseason.
So far that hasn’t happened for Tomlin, but there is still time before camp that it will.
After facing his first season with significant adversity, Tomlin will be looking to make vast improvements.
The roster is deep in most areas with talent and he has a first round draft pick that should actually contribute as a rookie.
Tomlin also has pressure from the front office to prepare his young players and to rejuvenate the run game.
Not every coach can handle that type of pressure. Tomlin, however, may thrive on it.
He has a deep drive and passion for the game of football that missing the playoffs, despite a winning record last season, cannot sit well with him.
Tomlin will not be without his challenges, missing his franchise quarterback for at least the first four games of the season and losing his starting right tackle for the season.
However, this will put the Steelers in the underdog role, where they have to face much adversity that they have to overcome, much like they did in 2008, when facing the toughest schedule in the NFL.
With the renewed focus, the AFC North will need to be ready for the Steelers, because unlike last season, this year’s team will be prepared to “unleash hell.”