Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6 record (4-2 division, 6-2 home, 4-4 away)
AFC North rank #2 (1st place tie)
- The Steelers seem to have a little swagger back on both offense and defense. Their running game will be much better, as will their ability to defend the run.
- A healthy Ben Roethlisburger is always tough on opposing defenses. He and offensive coordinator Todd Haley seem to be playing nice this year despite others trying to generate controversy (see Snoop Dogg).
- The Steelers have a fairly easy start to the season as they play just one potential playoff team in their first seven games, according to many preseason predictions.
- A flight to Jacksonville is their longest road trip.
Not so fast:
- The Steelers will need to show a much stronger pass rush than they did in 2013 to help their defensive backs stay with receivers.
- In addition to DBs, there are more questions regarding the Steelers’ defensive line and inside linebacker positions, which won’t be answered until the season is underway.
- Age is not as big of a concern in 2014, but could affect a few key positions if the proverbial wall is hit.
- Too many passing yards is a bad thing. The Steelers were 2-7 when Big Ben threw for more than 250 yards, and 6-1 when he threw for less than 220.
Must wins to take the division title: Browns, @Panthers, Buccaneers, @Jaguars, Houston, @Jets, Chiefs
Bubble games: Ravens(2), Bengals(2), @ Browns, Indianapolis, @Titans, @ Atlanta
Tough matchup: Saints
Analysis: While I predict that Pittsburgh and Baltimore will end in a tie, the reason I give the Ravens the edge in rankings (I actually went back and forth on this, much to disbelief of many readers), is that while the Steelers have the easier “tough matchups” and play the most difficult portion of their schedule at home, the bubble games are more difficult. Tennessee will be better than last year, and they appear to match up well with the Steelers. Atlanta at home should be in the “tough matchup” category, but were downgraded because of their poor play last year. Playing Indianapolis anywhere is a challenge, especially with Andrew Luck now in year three.
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 record (4-2 division, 7-1 home, 3-5 away)
AFC North rank #1 (1st place tie)
- The Ravens only play two out of 16 games outside of the Eastern time zone, and zero games past the central time zone (one of which is schedule after their week 12 bye) .
- The Ravens will run the ball much better than in 2013 and will have better offensive line play. They can’t play any worse. OL looked much better this preseason than last, and stronger OL play will open up the entire offense (which also allows the defense to rest).
- Although hometown scalpers will be hit hard this season, the lack of sexy out-of-division games should translate into at least seven home wins.
- The Ravens under John Harbaugh are 17-2 when having 10+ days to prepare for an opponent (games after the off-season, byes, and Sundays following a Thursday night game). They have three such games in this category including the game in New Orleans.
- The Ravens have won their last 15 home games in September, which could give them a jump-start on the division
Not so fast:
- Playing indoors against accurate passers has never been the Ravens thing, and this year they face New Orleans and Indianapolis.
- They have a new offensive philosophy after five years of the same game plan, more or less.
- They have an interesting combination of aging veterans and extreme youth at key positions, which could present challenges, or at the very least, uncertainty.
- Cornerback play and quarterback pressure will be the key to defensive success, and there are many question marks with the former.
Must wins to take the division title: Browns, Jaguars, Titans, @Texans, Panthers, @ Buccaneers, Falcons
Bubble games: @ Browns, Bengals (2), Steelers (2), @Dolphins, Chargers
Bad matchups: @Saints, @ Indy
Analysis: The Ravens are coming off their worst season since 2007, which should be motivation enough. They have a relatively easy out-of-division schedule (six of 12 games are against fairly soft opponents reflected in “probable wins”), and the Ravens should experience stronger play at just about every position not named “defensive back”. That said, major questions in the defensive backfield could spell doom, especially if their fragile cornerbacks stay out for extended periods of time. They get the nod at #1 because although the Dolphins and Chargers are on the “bubble” list, they should be favored in those games.