Pittsburgh will be a favorite to win this season coming off of their AFC Championship season in which they finished with an 8-1 record against the division, including a playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens will once again be the Steelers’ main competition for the division title, and we do not have to wait long until these two kick off their fierce rivalry in the opening week of the season.
The winner of this game will have an early edge on the division crown, which would ensure a home playoff game.
Pittsburgh most certainly wants to take the AFC North again to secure at least one home playoff game as they have won four of their past five at Heinz Field.
Here’s why the Steelers will win the AFC North for a second straight year.
The Bengals are without long-time starting quarterback Carson Palmer, and it appears that Andy Dalton will be their starter entering the season.
Dalton is surrounded with some young talent at receiver including Jordan Shipley and fourth overall draft pick A.J. Green.
It will take time for these players to develop, meaning that Cincinnati will have to rely upon running back Cedric Benson.
This will be tough to do against the Steelers’ defense which is designed to stop the run first.
The Bengals are also without Chad Ochocinco and Jonathan Joseph.
Already coming off a four-win season, Cincinnati is in a transitional phase and is years from contending for the AFC North title.
Pat Shurmur is in his first year as head coach and has his work cut out for him.
Cleveland only won five games in 2010 and did not exactly bring in a lot of talent.
Though they have the best offensive line in the division, including one of the best left tackles in the league, Joe Thomas, Cleveland still lacks talent at the skill positions.
There are still questions as to Colt McCoy’s ability to be a starting quarterback. He lacks weapons on the outside, meaning that Peyton Hillis should get a large workload.
Last year Hillis averaged 4.4 yards per carry while rushing for 1,177 yards, but defenses will be ready for him this season.
Defensively the Browns are trying to rebuild and have a couple of nice pieces with their past two first-round selections, Joe Haden and Phil Taylor.
On top of this, one of the Browns' most dangerous weapons, Joshua Cribbs, has all but been neutralized with the new kickoff rule.
They simply are not talented enough and will be competing with the Bengals to stay out of the division’s basement.
The Ravens made a number of offseason moves that left a void with veteran talent.
They released Joe Flacco’s go-to target, Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg and Willis McGahee.
Baltimore also lost cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington.
Already thin at receiver and cornerback, these left Baltimore with experienced players at the position.
Jimmy Smith was drafted in the first round to fill the void at cornerback, and they acquired Lee Evans from Buffalo to add speed on the outside.
Overall, though, did the Ravens get better? I’m not so sure about that.
There is also the fact that Joe Flacco has a career 2-6 record against the Steelers including two losses in the playoffs. He has never defeated the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger started.
Though it is a work in progress, the offensive line should be much improved this season.
Maurkice Pouncey is in his second season looking to improve upon his Pro Bowl rookie year.
Jonathan Scott will man the left tackle spot after replacing the injured Max Starks last season.
Willie Colon is back from his Achilles’ injury and will add more athleticism at right tackle than what Flozell Adams brought to the table last year.
So far in camp and the preseason Colon looks fast and strong. He could be on the verge of his best season of his career.
At guard, Chris Kemoeatu will return at left guard, and on the right side the battle is still going on.
Ramon Foster has fallen on the depth chart to Chris Scott, who struggled in the opening preseason game, but Tony Hills is coming on fast.
The competition at the position is pushing the players more than what they have been in the past.
Once the line has time to work together and gel, they will be an improved unit in 2011 which will truly help open up the offense.
Hines Ward is always dependable, but now he is surrounded with playmakers.
Mike Wallace has grown as a receiver this camp, improving his route running which will make him more of a complete receiver.
That does not mean he won’t be a big play receiver anymore. He already was wide open on a deep route this past Friday that would have resulted in a touchdown if Roethlisberger was able to connect with him.
Antonio Brown also showed his deep speed beating DeAngelo Hall, but Bryon Leftwich missed him.
Brown has improved significantly over the course of training camp, particularly with the mental side of his game.
He has shown speed, quickness and great hands and is beginning to show that he can develop into more than a fourth receiver.
Brown may have to step up depending on the health of Emmanuel Sanders' foot.
If Sanders is healthy for the opener, he is an outstanding route runner who can work the middle of the field.
The signing of Jericho Cotchery was a cherry on top for the Steelers’ receiving corps.
Cotchery will add another veteran presence to the position and will be one of, if not the best fifth receiver in the league.
A few seasons ago, the Steelers trotted out one of the best defensive lines in football with Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel.
Smith and Keisel have since had some injury problems, but they, along with Hampton, are still some of the best in the league.
Behind these three are Ziggy Hood, Chris Hoke and Cameron Heyward.
All three could start on a lot of teams in the league.
Hoke has been a dependable backup for Hampton in the center of the line, while Hood stepped up his game at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
Hood did not miss a beat when stepping in for Smith last season and developed into a solid all-around defensive end.
Already in his short time with the team, Heyward has made a strong impact as both a run defender and pass rusher.
He looks very comfortable with the defense, which is pretty scary considering he is still learning. The sky is the limit.
Pittsburgh will be able to constantly rotate a defensive line into and out of the game where each player is more than capable of starting.
As a new generation of talented young Steelers is developing into the leaders of tomorrow, a number of veterans are nearing the end of the line.
This season may be the last chance for Ward, Smith and James Farrior.
No player has announced this would be their last season, but the end is coming near.
Each player has epitomized what it means to be a member of the Steelers and have all led in their own way.
These veterans will be even more motivated after last year’s near miss, so they could possibly go out on top.
I realize not much can be made of the strength of schedule, but the Steelers have the 27th most difficult schedule in 2011 with a cumulative 47.3 winning percentage.
Just in 2008, the Steelers finished with a 12-4 record and won the Super Bowl with the most difficult schedule in the league.
Teams rise and fall from year to year, but if you really look at this year’s schedule, it is difficult to not see a successful season.
Anything can happen, but that group includes a number of either up-and-coming teams or rebuilding teams.
The Steelers have to and will capitalize on these matchups.
The last two times the Steelers played in the Super Bowl, they had forgettable seasons, missing the playoffs both times.
Not this year.
They were left with a bitter taste in their mouths and will accept nothing less than a return trip to the playoffs.
The players did not spend all summer celebrating and enjoying the spotlight but rather having to remember how close they were to a championship.
That motivation will help them along the way in their quest for a division title.
Quite simply, Ben Roethlisberger is a winner.
In his seven seasons, the Steelers have won the AFC North title four times, been in four AFC Championship games and two Super Bowl wins in three appearances.
He also has a 9-2 career record against the Ravens, the Steelers’ top competition for the division.
Providing he is healthy this season, there is little reason to believe that the Steelers will not win the AFC North.
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