Part one of my eight-part series breaking down the entire NFL as we move closer to the 2009 season.
Now with the Penguins on top of the NHL, Pittsburgh is officially the sports city of 2009.
The Steelers' trip to the Super Bowl was scripted nearly the same as it was in 2006. They rode their rock-solid defense to the Big Game, and timely throws by Ben Roethlisberger were just good enough for the Steelers to collect their record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Mewelde Moore was a pleasant surprise in relief of the banged-up Willie Parker, and James Harrison became the scariest edge rushing hybrid in the league. He not only took a Kurt Warner pass back 100 yards in the Super Bowl, but the Defensive Player of the Year Award sits on his shelf.
Outside of Bryant McFadden's departure to Arizona and Nate Washington now wearing a Tennessee Titan uniform, the Steelers were relatively quiet in an offseason that saw a lot of action elsewhere. Re-signing Hines Ward and James Harrison leads us to believe that we will see much of the same out of the boys from Sixburgh in 2009.
With the defense intact, and the addition of monster Ziggy Hood via the draft, look for the Steelers to again have one of the most ferocious defenses in the NFL.
Mike Wallace, a speedster with great big-play ability from Ole Miss, will be Nate Washington's replacement and was gift-wrapped for Roethlisberger when the Steelers took him with the No. 84 draft pick.
Although the Steelers seem primed for another Super Bowl run, everything may hinge on whether Willie Parker can return from injury with the same power and quickness he's exhibited early in his career. And don't forget about former Illinois star Rashard Mendenhall, who was also injured early last season.
If those two are back to 100 percent, the Steelers should be the favorite in the AFC.
Entering the 2008 season, no one knew what to expect from Baltimore.
With Steve McNair retired, the offensive weight was placed on rookie signal-caller Joe Flacco. Many weren't even sure if the former Delaware standout would start in Week 1, but Flacco surely exceed expectations.
The defense rarely budged, and answered critics who believed they were too old to be amongst the leagues' best.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed led the Ravens to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, but Flacco's inexperience ultimately halted Baltimore's Super Bowl bid.
New Look Birds
The Ravens lost both the tackling tenacity of Bart Scott and the mastermind behind the best defense of the decade, Rex Ryan, to the Jets. Jim Leonhard, who took many Raven fans by surprise with his football IQ last year, also joined Gang Green.
The Ravens also didn't add a wide receiver in the draft.
Couple all of that with the loss of Jason Brown, and the Ravens are hoping the saying "addition by subtraction" rings true in 2009.
Joe Flacco was more of a game manager in 2008, but don't be surprised if his big arm is put on display more this year. With a season under his belt, look for Flacco to shoulder more of the offensive responsibility.
The combo of Willis McGahee and Ray Rice may be one of the more underrated running back duos in the AFC.
Veteran Derrick Mason should provide unmatched counsel to a group of young Raven wideouts that need to be become formidable targets for Flacco.
Even with all the losses in the offseason, the Ravens look to be an ideal Wild Card team.
Where to start?
Carson Palmer was hurt, Chad Johnson's talking wasn't backed by his play for the first time in his career, and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The ex-Ivy Leaguer wasn't terrible, but then again, the Bengals were last in the league in scoring, averaging a meager 13 points per game.
Cedric Benson carried the load for Cincy, but only averaged 3.5 yards per rush and reached the paint only twice.
The Bengals' offense, which used to be more in sync than any other in the NFL, was extremely dysfunctional in 2008.
After the 2008 season, it was clear that the Bengals would have to make some serious upgrades.
Initially, the disappointing year carried over to the offseason when TJ Houshmandzadeh signed with Seattle.
But after the draft, the Bengals' faithful had plenty of reasons to be excited.
Cincinnati orchestrated one of the most solid drafts from top to bottom, adding top college talent like Andre Smith, Rey Maualuga, Chase Coffman, and Michael Johnson. All of these players are instant starters and were selected at positions needed desperately by this franchise.
With Marvin Lewis in a make or break year at the helm, look for the Bengals to play with more passion than they did in 2008.
Chad Ochocinco has returned to the offseason workouts, and Carson Palmer is ready to build on his early career accomplishments.
The question lies in the defense. If Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga can rekindle the havoc they wreaked on the Pac-10 while at USC, and third year starter Leon Hall becomes more of a lock-down corner, the Bengals might have the start of a young and very athletic defense.
The Browns were the league's darling heading into 2008.
Cleveland fans couldn't have been happier with the five primetime games that the Scheduling Gods arranged for them.
Unfortunately, once the season began, the Dawg Pound was once again howling in agony.
Derek Anderson relinquished his starting job to Brady Quinn in Week 9 after he showed that his 2007 season may have been an aberration.
Jamal Lewis ran more like a small passenger train than the freight-train style we're familiar with.
Braylon Edwards again was tops in the league as a receiver. This time, it wasn't in touchdowns, receptions, or yards, but drops. His substantial production drop-off signified a season of disappointment in the city of Cleveland.
After Eric Mangini got the ax in NYC, the Browns' front office was quick to hire the former Bill Belichick mentor. He wasn't extremely ineffective during his tenure as the Jets' head coach, but as well all know, in New York City, you have to win and you have to win now.
Mangini was very Patriot-esque during the draft, moving back in the first round several times to accumulate more picks. He ultimately selected the best interior lineman in this year's class, Alex Mack out of Cal.
Mangini's tough yet intricate approach to coaching seems to be a good fit for the rebuilding Browns.
Many will say there's a quarterback controversy in Cleveland, which is never a good thing. Yes, it increases competition, but the last thing a team needs is the media bombarding the coaches and players over who's going to throw the balls on Sundays.
Brady Quinn looks to be the early favorite, as he executed his duties fairly well down the stretch last season.
Mack may be the key to a Jamal Lewis resurgence, and with Kellen Winslow now a Buc, Braylon Edwards has to prove to everyone that the Browns were smart for not trading him this offseason.
Overall, this is a tough team to figure out.
Part Two Coming Soon—AFC West