The road to the AFC North title—and, possibly, to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI—will travel through either Pittsburgh or Owings Mills, Md., as the Steelers--Ravens rivalry once more sets the pulse for the division. Pittsburgh was the last team Baltimore saw last season, a wild 31--24 second-half comeback victory for the Steelers in the divisional playoff, and—surprise!—the first team the Ravens will see this year. That will only ratchet up the intensity of opening week. This year's out-of-conference games are against the NFC West, which should be easy pickings for both Pittsburgh and Baltimore—and which of them can take better advantage of an overall soft slate (the Steelers are ranked 27th in strength of schedule, the Ravens 31st) will help determine the title. Relatively soft schedules will aid the Browns and the Bengals as well, but both teams are in rebuilding mode and working in young quarterbacks in Colt McCoy and Andy Dalton, respectively. To the Steelers and the Ravens, that sounds like lunch.
Eight great matchups involving AFC North teams
WEEK 1 at Sunday, Sept. 11
This one will feel like a playoff game between the league's most bitter rivals. A loss to open the season will hurt like a giant punch to the gut.
WEEK 2 at Sunday, Sept. 18
An early-season test for Colt McCoy and the young Browns, and a barometer of how close Cleveland is to legitimacy.
WEEK 3 at Sunday, Sept. 25
Two AFC powers meet under the lights at the site of Super Bowl XLVI. Either could make a return visit in February.
WEEK 4 at Sunday, Oct. 2
Rex Ryan faces his old team, whose coordinator, Chuck Pagano, has a bit of Ryan's swagger. Rex will send waves of bodies at Joe Flacco.
WEEK 7 at Sunday, Oct. 23
Super Bowl XLIII redux, with Kevin Kolb in the Kurt Warner role. Can this year's game match that memorable show?
WEEK 9 at Sunday, Nov. 6
If the two meet in the playoffs as they have in two of the last three years, this game could determine home field advantage.
WEEK 10 at Sunday, Nov. 13
First-year Browns coach Pat Shurmur hosts his protégé, Sam Bradford, and one of his mentors, Steve Spagnuolo.
WEEK 14 at Sunday, Dec. 11
The Colts helped usher the Ravens out of the playoffs following the '06 and '09 seasons. Payback time for Baltimore?
DAVID E. KLUTHO (WARD)
HINES WARD, Steelers
BRETT DAVIS/US PRESSWIRE (REED)
ED REED, Ravens