The AFC North is home to some of the NFL’s most historic and hated rivalries. Every time these four teams play each other, the games seem more intense and the victories seem harder to come by. With the 2009 regular season fast approaching, let us preview these four teams to see what fans can expect this season.
In 2008, Pittsburgh Steelers had a year that will forever be remembered by their Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers rolled through the regular season, going 12-4. They were a perfect 6-0 against divisional opponents in the regular season, and defeated the Baltimore Ravens for the third consecutive time to advance to the Super Bowl. This season, the Steelers will be looking to capture their third-straight AFC North title, and the Steelers remain the favorites to do just that. The defense of the Steelers still looks devastating. The addition of Ziggy Hood will add speed and explosiveness to the defensive line. Halfback, Rashard Mendenhall, is back healthy after a fractured shoulder prematurely ended his rookie season. Mendenhall will join Willie Parker in the backfield, to create a powerful running combination. At the helm will be third-year head coach, Mike Tomlin, who has won the division in each of his first two seasons. Under center will be the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who holds a stellar winning percentage of 71.8% in the regular season. The weakness of this team remains the offensive line, who has given up over 90 sacks over the past two seasons. The only thing capable of stopping the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 is the Pittsburgh Steelers. As long as they can avoid injuries and distractions, this team will not only win the AFC North, but will also have the opportunity of bringing a seventh Super Bowl trophy to the city of Pittsburgh.
Led by rookie head coach, John Harbaugh, and rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, the expectations for the 2008 Baltimore Ravens were not exactly high. But, when the season began, those expectations soon changed. The Ravens would go on to have an 11-5 record, and finish their season one game shy of the Super Bowl. The Steelers, Ravens matchups of 2008 were nothing short of epic. The two teams would meet twice in the regular season and in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers would get the best of all three games, but the Ravens showed they were a formidable opponent. The Ravens had some major losses this offseason, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, left the team to become head coach of the New York Jets. Under Ryan, Baltimore was the number two ranked defense in the NFL. The Ravens also lost longtime linebacker, Bart Scott, to the Jets. Losing their defensive coordinator can only hurt the Raven’s aging defense. It will be interesting to see how Joe Flacco will perform in 2009 and whether he will face the dreaded “sophomore slump”. The defense might not be as daunting as it has been in years past, but still expect the Ravens to be battling it out with the Steelers for the division title.
The surprise team in the NFL this season could very well be the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals’ 2008 season was plagued by an elbow injury to quarterback, Carson Palmer. The injury, which was later diagnosed as a partially torn ligament, sidelined the quarterback for twelve games as the Bengals would finish the season at 4-11-1. In the offseason, the Bengals lost wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency, but brought in Laveranues Coles to fill his position. The Bengals also made some key additions at the 2009 NFL Draft, drafting offensive tackle, Andre Smith, in the first round. The Bengals added more youth to an already young defense, by selecting linebacker, Ray Maualuga, and defensive end, Michael Johnson. Carson Palmer is now ready for 2009 and with a rejuvenated Chad Ochocinco, there is no telling how much success the Bengals will have this season. If Palmer can remain healthy, Cincinnati may have the potential of contending for a wildcard spot in the AFC.
After a promising 10-6 campaign in 2007, the 2008 Cleveland Browns took a giant step back and posted a disappointing 4-12 record. As a result, the Browns’ front office felt the need shake things up, firing Romeo Crenell and bringing in new head coach, Eric Mangini. In the offseason, the Browns also saw the departure of two of their biggest offensive weapons tight end, Kellen Winslow, and wide receiver, Dante Stallworth. It will be a difficult challenge for the Browns offense to have the same amount of success that they have enjoyed in seasons past. Perhaps the biggest concern for the Cleveland Browns coming into 2009 is which quarterback will start come Week One of the season. Coach Mangini is using this year’s training camp as an opportunity to hold a competition between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson to determine the starting quarterback position. The 2009 Browns simply have too many questions on the offensive side of the ball, and it will take some time for Mangini to have this team going in the right direction.
Michael C. Smith