I wanted to write on why the Steelers should be favorites to win the division, and it somehow evolved into this massive post. My apologies in advance for sucking you in, but I hope you enjoy it.
Here's my 5 reasons why the Steelers will win the AFC North in 2014:
Reason #1: The Decline of the Bengals.
Some would argue that the Bengals still have the most talent overall, but upheaval in the coaching staff, the age of the secondary, whether Geno Atkins will return to form, the overall (in)competence of Andy Dalton, the lingering hangover from their meltdown in the playoffs, and then having to play a first place schedule all means that it may very well be a long season for the Bengals.
Don't forget, God is punishing the Bengals for injuring his greatest creation, Vincent Edward (Bo) Jackson, in a playoff game in 1991. Just look their history ever since that incident and tell me I'm wrong.
Plus the last time the Bengals won the division in 2009, they finished 4-12 the next year. Just sayin'.
Reason #2: The Ravens Aren't 'The Ravens' Anymore.
Yes, I realize they won the Superbowl just two years ago due in part to the worst play a safety has ever made in the history of the NFL, but besides another year of Flacco under center, Ngata still wrecking havoc up front & Jacoby Jones (probably) returning kicks, these Ravens don't resemble the 2012 champions much at all.
Let me start here: Yes, I know how we fans love to complain over the Steelers lack of a running game, but did you see the Ravens last year? They weren't just bad- they were historically bad, as in 3.1 YPC bad. No, that's not a typo: THEY AVERAGED 3.1 YARDS PER CARRY, dead last in the NFL by a healthy margin.
Besides the Ravens fan forums who were freaking out about it, not much attention was paid by the national media of the fact that the Ravens were downright putrid on offense last year, and it wasn't just their running game that was bad- They were 25th in Total Points, 29th in Total Yards, 29th in Passer Rating, 30th in Yards Per Completion, gave up the 4th Most Sacks and had the 2nd Most Interceptions.
Basically, the only thing the Ravens offense excelled at was that they had the 4th most completions of 40 yards or more- So if you figured out that their only effective play all season was to chuck it downfield and hope for a P.I. or for a safety to take a bad angle again, you nailed it! Give yourself a goal star.
So what did the Ravens do to address their serious offensive issues in the off-season? IMO, nothing special.
They must have fired their much maligned OL Coach Ray Castillo right? Nope. Meanwhile, the Steelers made a huge move in that department- it may end up being the move of the year for them in fact- we shall see.
The Ravens did hire Gary Kubiak to be their new OC after Caldwell was hired by the Lions, which on paper seems to be a good move. (Hey its not like their offense could be worse right?) But as we experienced with Todd Haley, there can be growing pains when an established coach comes in and implements a new system.
The offensive line is a work in progress. They have solid parts in Yanda and Monroe, and the rest are big question marks. Kubiak will want a zone running scheme, but as we saw last year when the Steelers tried it and failed, it takes a lot of OL coordination to make it work. Will they get there? No one knows.
What about Ray Rice? There's a lot of wear on those tires. Is he done? He sure looked like it last year, and that was before his off-the-field trouble.
Are they better at WR2 with Steve Smith? Sure, if he's still healthy, if he's still got it at age 35, if if if...
What about at TE2 with Owen Daniels? See above, except change the age to 31, and point out the injury history is more dramatic.
Pitta should be fine, and they still have Torrey Smith who is in the last year of his deal and the Ravens have yet to re-sign long term, so watch out if his contract situation creates some in-season drama for them. But really, who's worrying you on offense for the Ravens? Dare I say nobody?
What about the defense? 12th in Total Yards, 12th in Passing YPG, 11th in Rushing YPG. 12th in Points Allowed, 15th in Interceptions, 12th in Forced Fumbles, you get the picture. Solid but not spectacular.
So from the looks of things they have a top 1/3rd defense which excelled at stopping 3rd downs and not allowing red zone touchdowns. So what went wrong on D? A dropoff to 20th in takeaways, (leading to a -5 turnover differential) and the Ravens were BY FAR #1 in Penalties (126 for 1196 yards, with both categories being about 10% more than the second worse team Dallas) which indicates an undisciplined team overall.
Or maybe it just means the defense is getting "old and slow"? Suggs is 31. (turns 32 mid-season, and just got a 4 year contract extension. heh.) Ngata is 30. Dumervil is 30. Canty is 31. Daryl Smith is 32. If anyone knows first hand what happens to a defense when it starts to get long in the tooth, its the Steelers. Now we all get to see it happen to the Ravens- get your popcorn ready!
Finally, while I like what the Ravens did with the draft for the most part, counting on your draft class to make a meaningful impact in the following season is foolish. Steelers fans understand this all too well. Mosley & Brooks will contribute, but the defense is another year older and not spectacular anymore, their bad offense only got older, has to shuffle its OL and looks like it will be once again one of the worst in the NFL. In comparison the Steelers are clearly in much better shape for this upcoming season.
Reason #3: Cleveland May Be Getting Better, But That's Not Saying a Whole Lot.
I don't really feel the need to litigate this like I did with the Ravens. Even the most diehard Browns fans have to admit that there isn't high expectations for this team in 2014 and that they are still building for the future. They aren't a true contender for the division, but I will go out on a limb and say that they will not finish last. Yes, I said it! I believe that either the Bengals and/or the Ravens are ripe for a precipitous drop-off- so congrats Cleveland for not being in the cellar! Johnny Football Baby! 6-10 or 7-9 here we come!
Reason #4: The Steelers Have an Almost Unfair Advantage from the Schedule.
All four AFC North teams have identical opponents, except two. Now who would you rather play?
4) The Browns are disqualified even though they play the Raiders and Bills. (Rule of Thumb: If OTHER TEAMS are licking their chops seeing your name on their schedule, then sorry but you still have to eat at the kiddie table.)
Of the 3 contenders, I'll take my chances with schedule #2. Both those teams have struggled to beat Pittsburgh recently and I see that trend continuing in 2014. (On a related note: Hey, no playing the Raiders this year!)
The Bengals on the other hand: OUCH. And of the 6 teams on that list above, you could argue that the 3rd toughest team would be San Diego.
Then there is the matter of important matchups, both when and where they are played.
Week 1 will be an important for the division as all 4 teams are playing each other, but Week 2's short week Ravens-Steelers matchup will mean the Steelers will be coming off of playing a not-quite-there team in the Browns, while the Ravens will be coming off more of a slugfest with the Bengals. I say that bodes well for the Steelers in week 2 to pull off a win over the ratbirds at their dump of a place. (Cue The 'Seven Nation Army' chant, which the Ravens fans ripped off from Penn State) Its the game of the year in the division imo, even being that its very early.
Then when it comes to byes, Both Cincy & Cleveland have the dreaded week 4 bye, (which the Steelers seem to get every year, but not this time- Suck it Goodell!) while the Ravens have theirs week 11 and the Steelers week 12. But considering how early the Steelers' Thursday game is, it should offer the minimum amount of seasonal disruption, the game won't be played with tired players like it would be mid-season, and the half week afterwards will act as a sort of early season bye. Advantage: Steelers & Ravens. (The Bengals are majorly screwed so far.)
But Here is Where It Gets Good:
The Steelers play New Orleans at home, but the Ravens & Bengals have them in the Superdome. Look at how dominant the Saints are at home and tell me you aren't happy about this.
The Steelers also play the Colts at home, while the Ravens & Bengals have them on the road. Since Indy is perhaps the only meaningful matchup from the AFC South, its advantage Steelers once again.
Then finally: if rookie QBs like Manziel or Bortles are going to "wreck" the league at any point this year, its safe to say it won't be against the Steelers. Its likely the Steelers won't see Manziel week 1, and probably not even week 6, when the Steelers will be done with the Browns. Likewise when/if Bortles gets his chance in Jacksonville this year, its likely the Steelers will be well in his rear view mirror, since they play the Jags week 5.
On the flipside, The Ravens are likely to see Manziel AND Bortles, and with a few games already under their belt too, since they play the Jags week 15 and the Browns to end the regular season. I don't know about you, but I'm happy not to worry about how good these guys might be late in the year when the division might come down to a one game difference. I'd much rather get to beat up on Hoyer & Henne early in the year, thank you very much.
Advantage again: Steelers.
Reason #5: The Steelers Still Have The Best Quarterback. PERIOD.
I refuse to even dignify there being any question of this fact with a response. Case closed.
Ultimately, when you have the best QB, you should win or be in contention to win your division ever year. Its the reason why the Steelers could 'rebuild' for two years while never dropping under .500. Ben Roethlisberger is the most under-appreciated, underrated QB in the NFL. Even Steelers fans don't give him his due at times, and I fear he will only really truly be appreciated as the best QB in Steelers history when he's gone. (Sorry Terry, but its true.)
So in conclusion, the Steelers have the best QB, received the most favorable schedule, and will have a front row seat to declines in their divisional opponents. That my friends, is the makeup of a division champion.