The Pittsburgh Steelers loom over the AFC North like the Steelers of oldimposing, talented and deep.
The only thing missing is Super Bowls, which is a slight oversight that the NFL's dean of coaches, Bill Cowher, must address after losing two AFC title games in the last five years, both at home.
New England Patriots too lightly in last year's AFC title loss at Heinz Field.
The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are fast developing the kind of nasty disposition the Steelers possess and the Baltimore Ravens carried to a championship two years ago. The Ravens fell victim to the salary cap and virtually disbanded this off-season.
With the No. 1 defense, the No. 1 rushing team, the No. 1 team against the rush and the No. 3 offense, the Steelers left few ways to beat them last year. One was on special teams, so Cowher fired coach Jay Hayes (who landed in Minnesota) and didn't exactly lament the departure of unreliable kicker Kris Brown to Houston. As usual, the Steelers were able to keep most of the core players they wanted as well as add pieces to their puzzle.
Good: Running back Jerome Bettis is coming off a severe groin injury that hurt the team down the stretch. He's ready to roll but he's also a well-worn 10-year veteran, though only 30. Quarterback Kordell Stewart has two 1,000-yard receivers in Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward plus exciting rookie Antwaan Randle El. The defense added fast linebacker James Farrior from the Jets to replace Earl Holmes and join rookie of the year Kendrell Bell.
Bad: Special teams haven't passed the test of dependability over time. New kicker Todd Peterson has been around longer than Brown but hasn't faced many pressure situations with Seattle and Kansas City. After his best season, Stewart couldn't get the job done when matched against Tom Brady in the AFC title game.
They were the worst in the AFC in combined rushing (31st) and stopping the run (29th), so coach Butch Davis knows he has lots of ground to cover. Failure to run or stop the run is a recipe for disaster in the NFL. With the drafting of running back William Green and the signing of free agents Kenard Lang, Robert Griffith and Earl Holmes on defense, the problem is being addressed.
Good: The return of Courtney Brown from injury is expected to shore up a defensive front anchored by second-year stalwart Gerard Warren. If Brown becomes more consistent, the defense could get scary. Quarterback Tim Couch looks more comfortable each year and will benefit from his first legitimate running game.
Bad: The Browns could be on the verge, but they still rely more on promise than production. Nobody is sure what to make of the receiving corps, although underrated Kevin Johnson signed a new contract. The loss of top sacker and linebacker Jamir Miller for the season with an Achilles' tendon injury could prove too much for a young defense to overcome.
Coach Dick LeBeau has a new quarterback, nothing new in Cincinnati. He named journeyman Gus Frerotte his starter over journeyman Jon Kitna, who both are ahead of former No. 1 draft pick Akili Smith. Except for the most important position, the Bengals appear ready to compete. Frerotte is the fifth opening-day starter in five years.
Good: Corey Dillon is a big-time running back operating behind a better-than-average offensive line. Receivers Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh are ready to break out. Linebackers Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes are outstanding, and second-year pass rusher Justin Smith looks ready to join them.
Bad: The quarterback situation is such a perennial joke that whomever is playing gets blamed for everything whether he deserves it or not. Placekicking is a problem, but after scoring a league-low 226 points, it's hard to point to kickers as the main culprits. The secondary is average at best.
Real underdogs at last, the Ravens no longer have to meet the expectations of a Super Bowl winner. It's hard to believe they won it all only two years ago. Coach Brian Billick has a new recruiting class with one recurring problemquarterback. Linebacker Ray Lewis stayed behind for old time's sake and a $19 million signing bonus. Lewis says the Ravens will remain competitive, but that's hard to believe.
Good: The return of running back Jamal Lewis from knee surgery and another promising exhibition season by receiver Brandon Stokley are positives. Lewis is a good place for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to start over, although Lewis will be playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme for the first time. Cornerback Chris McAlister also is back and ready for stardom, the only starter left from last year's secondary. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden is the best.
Bad: Quarterback Chris Redman hasn't exactly made anyone forget retired Elvis Grbac yet, which doesn't bode well. Injuries have slowed the cohesion of the new defense. With Shannon Sharpe back in Denver, Billick lost a valuable quote machine, increasing pressure on himself.