As the 2009-2010 season draws even closer, you get a better look at how the teams are shaping up. The AFC North is one with a history of heated rivalries, skilled players, and more than a handful of championships in its dossier.
Pittsburgh is coming off a season in which they won the Super Bowl, lost very few pieces in free agency, and have more veterans and core players coming back healthy.
Willie Parker, coming back after breaking a leg and having a subpar playoff performance, could be a breakout player this year, or he could lose his job. Punter Daniel Sepulveda coming back could sway the fight for field position, where they struggled for the duration of the season.
The Steelers have an easy schedule, which could be the determining factor in where they sit in the standings at season's end, but so could the second-best team in the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens are coming back with a chip on their shoulder, having been swept by the Steelers in the regular season and then in the AFC Championship game. They will still have a dominant defense and, in my opinion, a par offense.
Baltimore fans will tell you about the golden arm of their hero and savior, Joe Flacco. I have not been convinced. I think he is a career backup without the significant skill to actually win a game of significance. He plays in games that are won but rarely is a reason for the win.
When you compare the two teams at each position, the Steelers have far better skill players at almost all of them. It was not by accident that the Steelers beat the Ravens three times.
The Steelers have a better overall defense, offense, and special teams. Ray Lewis is getting old and is slipping performance-wise. Not that he can't still deliver a devastating blow, but those are few and far between.
The only thing that helps the Ravens into an almost guaranteed wild card spot once again is that they have an equally easy schedule as the Steelers. I see the AFC North being the same as it was last year and the same again next year.
The Bengals and Browns have a long way to go before they have the talent to contend against the Northern juggernauts that are the Steelers and Ravens.
The Steelers could easily repeat, but they could be edged late in the season by the Ravens as well. They are the only team in the AFC—or the NFL, for that matter—that makes me nervous.
Even with two terrible teams in the AFC North, I think the AFC North is the most dangerous division in the league—the two best defenses in the league and one of the best offenses in the league all within five hours of each other.