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AFC North - Looking Ahead

With the Steelers victory in Cleveland last night, they go to their familiar position at the top of the AFC North standings. The Ravens are in second place, by way of their Bye week and opening day victory over Cincinnati. Speaking of the Bengals, they are now 0-2 and heading to New York to face the Giants. Can you say "basement?" The Cleveland Browns have also lost their first two games and worst of all, both at home, albeit to two of the toughest teams in the league. However, they were the offseason darlings of the league after their impressive 10-6 2007 season. After two demoralizing and lackluster efforts, they now go on the road for four off their next five games, with their only home game being another tough Monday Night Football matchup hosting the New York Giants. The Browns visit Baltimore this Sunday and the only hurricane they'll encounter will be the ones from Miami, namely Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Willis McGahee (nice link, eh?).

The Ravens will have enjoyed their unexpected Bye week, and will be healthy, rested and waiting for a Browns team that took two from them in 2007, including a 33-30 overtime classic that included the supposedly-game-ending-missed-field-goal-that -was-then-called-good-and-led-to-the-overtime-field-goal-that-won-the-game-for- Cleveland (whew!).

Baltimore will have revenge on their minds and will be hungry to hit someone else in over two weeks. Cleveland will be embarassed and angry after opening the season 0-2. An 0-3 start for the Browns would be devastating and most likely end their playoff hopes way too early in the season for their rabid fans to accept. On the other hand, if the Ravens do as I expect them to and come away with what will probably still be called an upset over the Browns and start the season 2-0, then their fans will be calling for the Steelers, whom they face in a week four matchup on Monday Night Football. In last year's debacle on national TV, the Ravens' starting two corners were out and they were embarassed by Pittsburgh in a game over by the end of the first quarter. This year should be different on all fronts as the Ravens are pretty much healthy in all positions and determined to show the nation that last year's 5-11 season was an aberration and their 2006 13-3 season was the norm.

Of course, repeating that type of season will be a tall task, especially with a rookie quarterback in Baltimore. Not since Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger did so a few years ago when he took over and led the Steelers to 15 wins and a Super Bowl victory in the following season has a rookie quarterback succeeded like that. However, the conditions are earily similar in that both teams had tenacious defenses and veteran players to make the QB's role to manage the game, not win it every week. Ravens rookie Joe Flacco has only played one game, and let's face it, it was against the Bungels, so we still have no inclination of how successful his season will be. Having his second game also at home will only help his confidence, as the following week he will see what it is like to face a very stout defense on the road in prime time.

For now, the Ravens have a lot to look forward to, which is more to say than the two Ohio teams, whose fans are frustrated and angry as the state has gone 0-for in 2008 and it doesn't get any easier in the coming weeks.