Over the past three seasons, parity in the NFL has been mostly ignored by the AFC North. Excluding the remarkable Cincinnati Bengals run in 2009, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have showcased themselves in a two-horse race for the division crown in recent years.
This season should provide fans with an extra lap to the same exciting race. Pittsburgh has retained many key players from its Super Bowl run of last season and again poses a daunting task to its biggest challenger.
The Ravens lost several key veterans in Willis McGahee, Todd Heap, Derrick Mason and Kelly Gregg this offseason, but welcome back ageless superstars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
To replace the aforementioned playmakers, head coach John Harbaugh will have to turn to the help of several youngsters acquired in the 2011 and 2010 drafts. Time will tell if they are up to the task of picking up where their predecessors left off.
In recent years, Baltimore's finest have been blanketed in the black and yellow shadow of the Steelers. Pittsburgh quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has posted a career 9-2 record against his rivals, and has not lost to them since 2006.
Will this year provide a stage for the Ravens to reclaim their long-lost division title? Let's take a brief glance at their 2011 schedule to find out.
Two hometown showdowns highlight the first four games of the Ravens schedule. Week 4 will showcase a prime-time battle when Rex Ryan revisits Baltimore, hoping to avenge last year's defeat of his New York Jets.
Perhaps no coach in the NFL is more knowledgeable about the Ravens defense than Ryan, and he will look to exploit it as much as possible.
But before that reunion, the Ravens will have a crucial opportunity to make Pittsburgh's Super Bowl hangover last even longer. In Baltimore, the importance of achieving this cannot be overstated.
Last season ended abruptly and in stunning fashion for the Ravens, as the birds squandered a 21-7 lead at Heinz Field last January. This Week 1 rematch will be the first and possibly biggest test for the Ravens in the regular season.
But the timing couldn't be more perfect.
Nothing deepens a wound more than letting it fester, and the Ravens have been given a rare chance to immediately bandage themselves by battering those who beat them.
An Opening Day victory against a bitter rival could provide enough momentum to burst through the first quarter of the season.
And a loss? Well...not so much.
The Ravens will get their rest during Week 5 and will need every bit of it to prepare for a high-flying Houston Texans offense.
Often, the Ravens have relied on the usual stoutness of their defense to keep them in ballgames. In this case, it could be the other way around.
The Texans are in a transitional year on the defensive side of the football. They abandoned their previous 4-3 scheme and have adopted a unique version of the 3-4, taught by new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
New schemes can provide a mixed bag of results. The Green Bay Packers adopted the 3-4 in 2009, and ranked second in total defense that year. The Washington Redskins adopted Jim Haslett's 3-4 in 2010 but finished near the bottom in every defensive category.
Either way, the Ravens offense must keep pace and capitalize on mistakes made by the Texans' new defense. Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson will not let Ray Lewis and company off easy.
Weeks 7 and 8 will likely be different scenarios, where the Ravens defense can again feast upon the efforts of teams with new quarterbacks. The Ravens could face a Blaine Gabbert-led Jaguars offense, although much of that will depend on how successful Jacksonville is during its first few games.
Either way, the Ravens defense usually doesn't provide promising matchups for inexperienced quarterbacks.
Week 9 will surely be circled on the calendar, as the Ravens will prepare for their annual visit to Heinz Field. A very early glimpse of the AFC North's victor could be found in the aftermath of what will be yet another bloody battle.
Barring another postseason battle, the Ravens will be finished with the Steelers in 2011 by the midway point of the season. Their battles with the likely occupants of the AFC North's cellar, however, will just begin.
Between games against the Bengals and Browns will come challenges from the NFC West's "finest." The Ravens will have to cope with the 12th man when they take on the Seahawks in Seattle, however, the other 11 won't likely require much concern.
Then, an appealing family affair will occur against the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving Day, when the Brothers Harbaugh square off in Baltimore to earn ultimate bragging rights at the dinner table.
It would be easy to overlook games against four teams that are rebuilding, but that lesson was likely learned by the Ravens last season.
In Week 3 of 2010, a little-known bruiser named Peyton Hillis gashed the Ravens defense for 144 rushing yards and a touchdown. Hillis' total was the most the Ravens allowed on the ground since 2005. The Ravens emerged victorious, but it was a hard-fought battle for what should have been a more definitive win.
The Ravens should again emerge victorious against their lesser rivals, but only if they don't let themselves get caught napping.
Any momentum that the Ravens generate from their previous stretch of games could easily be halted here.
It's strange how something as seemingly insignificant as a certain month on the calendar can hold a bearing on a game. If the Ravens got to face the Colts and Chargers in September, there might not be as much concern.
In December, though, it's an entirely different story.
Both teams—especially the Chargers—are notorious for storming through the later months of the season. If history repeats itself, as it often does, the Ravens will have two very difficult late-season games.
Once those hurdles are crossed—for better or for worse—the Ravens will close the season against the Browns and Bengals. Both teams will likely find themselves in a spoiler role, and, in a wide-open AFC, the Ravens could have much to lose in terms of playoff seeding.
The Ravens are 19-5 at home since John Harbaugh took the helm in 2008, but they have not had home-field advantage in the playoffs during that stretch. Imagine how much easier the road to the Super Bowl would be if trips to cities like Foxboro and Indianapolis were out of the picture.
A strong finish could go a long way toward making the Ravens a favorite in the AFC.
We've gone through what has turned out to be a pretty encouraging schedule if you are a Baltimore Ravens fan. In fact, the combined 2010 winning percentage of the Ravens' 2011 opponents is just .457, making Baltimore's schedule the second easiest in the NFL.
The bad news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have an equally easy road, with their opponents having a combined .473 mark in 2010.
The Cincinnati Bengals schedule has the same difficulty as the Steelers, but they are currently amidst what could be a lengthy rebuilding period. It could be a 7-9 ceiling for Marvin Lewis' squad.
Cleveland is a team I'm hesitant to sleep on. Despite winning just five games last season, it proved to be no pushover after defeating the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. The Browns also played the Jets, Chiefs and Buccaneers very closely, and they could improve upon those results with a returning core of players.
The Browns, though on the rise, are still far away from fighting back against the juggernauts in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
It will be a year where many previously unfamiliar names will become familiar to the Baltimore fanbase. Names like Pitta, Smith, Doss and Dickson will be relied upon to replace the household names of Heap and Mason.
Newly acquired veterans Lee Evans and Ricky Williams will be immediately inserted into key roles as well. If they can fill the voids left by the veterans of years past, there is much to look forward to in Baltimore.
For now, they remain "ifs."
Nevertheless, with a favorable schedule, a solid core in place and the fourth season of John Harbaugh's system under way, the Ravens should consider anything less than a division title a disappointment.
So will they win the division?
It all hinges upon their new acquisitions and overcoming Pittsburgh. If they see solid contributions from their latest arrivals and can find a way to sweep the Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North in 2011.