2009 NFL Preview: AFC North

Daniel MaderContributor IJuly 1, 2009

PITTSBURGH - FEBRUARY 03:  James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers shows off the Super Bowl XLIII trophy during a parade on February 3, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Let's take a trip up to the AFC North, where the Super Bowl champions preside. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have created one of the most prolific rivalries in football. Last season these two teams proved to be some of the best in the AFC.

On the other hand, those Browns and Bengals can't seem to make it out of the cellar.

Once in a blue moon, one of these teams actually make a competitive push and own a winning record. The Bengals haven't been able to produce a winning season since 2005, while the Browns were a little more recent, producing a winning season in 2007.

This season doesn't seem to be showing any change in results, as the Steelers and Ravens are expected to be one and two once again.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Super Bowl champs are looking strong again this season, and will be on a quest to not only defend their world title, but also defend their second consecutive division crown as well.

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Big Ben (assuming no more motorcycle crashes) will be the anchor for this offense. Ben was stellar throughout the 2008 season in clutch situations that continued all through the playoffs.

The weapons around Roethlisberger continue to grow and improve, as well. Hines Ward will be the solid go-to guy for Ben that he has been throughout his career, and has no signs of slowing down his hard, aggressive, and passionate play. Santonio Holmes is developing into something special, and has proven that he has big play ability, especially in the clutch. 

Don't forget about the youngster in Limas Sweed who will look to make a contribution to the team's production. His big and tall frame may give Ben the closest target he has had to Plaxico Burress since his departure.

The running game is what it's all about in the tough football town of Pittsburgh. The fans are hoping for their man Willie back, but only time will tell how long Parker will manage to hold up during the season. Certainly being ranked 23rd in rushing is not something the Steelers or their fans are used to, nor do they want the action to be repeated.

If Parker can hold up and split time with Mewelde Moore, then I expect their 23rd rank to rise in the 2009 season.

Defense wins championships! That was the philosophy the Steelers abided by last season to secure their record sixth Super Bowl trophy as a franchise.

James Harrison was the Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL and now has the contract to show for his accomplishments. Between James and Troy Polamalu anchoring this very talented defense, the Steelers could find themselves on top again up in the north this season.

2. Baltimore Ravens

The big story of the year for Baltimore was Flacco at the helm, marching all the way to the conference championship to fall just short to whom else but the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Flacco will improve from the quality of experience he received, being able to play all the way into January. He did his job, which was simply to not lose the game for the Ravens. This season he will look to open up his game a little more. He could be more of a reason why the Ravens win, rather than why they "don't lose."

The Ravens didn't improve the talent surrounding the second-year QB. Derrick Mason will be the main guy in the passing game from the start, but the Ravens have hopes that Mark Clayton will prove to be a very reliable option.

The run game for the Ravens is the bread-and-butter in the offense. Even with the constant questions of who was going to be the starter week in and week out, the rushing game for the Ravens ranked fourth overall in the league.

Ray Rice and Willis McGahee are rumored to be battling it out for the starting slot at the position for when the season kicks off. As for McClain, he was returned to his full time job as a fullback. 

The defense will be the force that carries the Ravens once again. The best thing the front office did for their defense was re-signing Ray Lewis. His leadership and ability are as close to irreplaceable as they come. Without Ray Lewis in black and purple, the Ravens defense just wouldn't be the same.

The Ravens did, however, lose a long-time player and leader for their defense in Chris McAllister when they cut him back in February. He came off IR to find himself out of work. The Ravens felt his contribution was no longer enough to keep a spot on the team.

Even with a very good defense and a developing offense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still more solid on both sides of the ball, making the Ravens just short once again this year.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals ownership somehow found it in their good graces to keep Marvin Lewis employed. I don't know why or how they could just let their team sink like the Titanic after hitting the iceberg (of course referring to Lewis) and do nothing to help.

Even with the stupidity of the front office and coaching staff, however, the Bengals will not be the last place team this season. A healthy Carson Palmer and a refocused Chad Johnson could result in some shootout victories for the Bengals.

Laveraneus Coles is not one to be written off this season, either. Most of the attention from the defensive backs is diverted towards Johnson. This can give Coles those extra one-one-one matchups that he couldn't get in the Big Apple.

If the Bengals can get decent production out of former first round selection Cedric Benson, their offense will be very tough to stop this season. The offense may be able to at least make the Bengals competitive this season, in spite of iceberg Lewis.

The defense, though maybe just as much of a force as a pack of poodles, have a young linebacker corps forming. Keith Rivers, David Pollack, and Rey Maualuga could be the first building blocks this team has seen since the "defensive-minded" Marvin Lewis took over. 

Still, the Bengals are a laughable franchise, even with a third-place finish.

4. Cleveland Browns

This team just doesn't seem to have any daylight around the corner for them.

Kellen Winslow is gone, leaving Edwards to fend for himself against secondaries that will lock on to his whereabouts on the field.

Neither Quinn nor Anderson really stand a chance with the blind side of the line being less than stellar.

As far as the running game, Jamal Lewis is not only aging, but will have a tough time running through eight or nine guys in the box since no defense will respect the Browns' aerial attack.

Don't even get me started on the defense that was ranked 26th in total yards allowed last season.

Other than the usual array of problems the Browns always seem to have (pee wee talent), their new head coach brings his own issues. Eric Mangini has bigger things to worry about than the Patriots getting a sneak peek at practice.

Mangini was just recently fired from the Jets after only three seasons, where he failed to make the playoffs while having a future Hall of Fame QB on the roster.

In Mangini's three seasons as Jets head coach, he had only one playoff appearance, where they were knocked out in the first round.

Another measure of the lack of success he has had is the fact that, as a defensive mind, he led the Jets to an 18th overall ranking in points allowed last season.

Another red flag for Mangini is the fact that Marvin Lewis wasn't even fired!

Why teams love to hire recently fired coaches who leave a pile of rubble for their previous employers will always be a concept that I will never understand.

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