The Ravens made it obvious that they feel the road to the playoffs goes directly through the AFC North when they held a three-day minicamp focused on the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.
Last year, Baltimore finished a respectable 4-2 within the division to earn a Wild Card bid and advance all the way to the AFC Championship.
The club the Ravens lost out to?
It was the AFC North champion Steelers, who defeated the purple and black for a third consecutive time in that final game.
With that in mind, many Ravens fans are wondering what it will take to win the division in 2009. It is not simply about getting revenge on the Steelers, however. Many factors must come in to play.
Three reasons the Ravens can win the AFC North:
1) The offensive line has beefed up.
With quarterback Joe Flacco entering a pivotal sophomore year, the Ravens invested in their franchise quarterback by solidifying their O-line through the draft and free agency.
First-round draft pick Michael Oher seems to be the answer at right tackle, the spot he manned through the entire offseason. Oher, 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, will tandem with monster left tackle Jared Gaither (6-foot-9, 330 pounds) to make up a young and talented group of bookends.
A less-heralded move was signing six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk via free agency. The former Minnesota Viking replaces Jason Brown and might even be an upgrade. Birk is sturdy and smart, and the Ravens need a great center to handle the huge defensive tackles that permeate the division.
2) Potential Pittsburgh hangover
The last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl, in 2006, they were on top of the world. Then, they crashed down to Earth the next season and didn't even make the postseason.
Could the same thing happen again?
That team featured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Willie Parker and receiver Hines Ward to go along with a stout defense, the same as this year's squad. That team took a header after taking home the Vince Lombardi trophy. The same core enters the upcoming campaign as defending Super Bowl champs, and if similar results continue, the path to the AFC North title will be up for grabs.
3) Baltimore's defensive continuityWhen former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan left for greener pastures in New York, the Ravens promoted former linebackers coach Greg Mattison to the coordinator position. That could have been catastrophic for a defense that has ranked near the top of the pack for the last few years.
But, Mattison has vowed to maintain the integrity of the attacking and versatile system, and that has shown during minicamps, as players have been flying around the field and getting after the ball in multiple formations.
And, the Ravens retained linebacker Ray Lewis, who has rallied the new troops and provided a stellar example of how to "play like a Raven."
Three obstacles to AFC North redemption:
1) Tomlin's steady hand
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has seemingly infused a calming presence in the Pittsburgh locker room, something the Steelers didn't have back in 2006 when Bill Cowher was going through the motions in his final season as a coach.
With Tomlin guiding the ship and Roethlisberger maturing from the second-year signal caller he was when he first won a Super Bowl, the Steelers could continue their hold on the division and avoid a fall off.
2) Chad and Carson are back
Don't rule out the Bengals making a comeback this year. Head coach Marvin Lewis – the former Ravens defensive coordinator – has tried to rally a regularly disappointing defense.
The biggest factor in a Bengals resurgence, however, is the fact that wideout Chad Ochocinco and quarterback Carson Palmer are seemingly back to good terms. Ochocinco admitted he was disgruntled last offseason and didn't work out as much as he could have, which led to less-than-desirable production. Now, Ochocinco is apparently looking very impressive in minicamps. With a Pro Bowl-caliber Ochocinco and the addition of Chris Henry and Leverneous Coles, Cincinnati's offense could be explosive.
3) George and Mangini work in Cleveland
The Browns are the division's wild card. They've been bottom-feeders in recent years, but general manager George Kokinis (formerly of the Ravens) and head coach Eric Mangini have overhauled the roster.
Word out of minicamps is inconclusive. Receiver Braylon Edwards has been sitting out of practices, and running back Jamal Lewis is taking it easy on an ankle injury that bothered him all of 2008.
If Brady Quinn, who is in line to be the starter at quarterback, can cash in on the promise he showed coming out of college, Cleveland will be a challenger for the AFC North crown.