Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
After going 7-8-1 against the deep NFC East in 2008, the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers should have a relatively easier interconference schedule this season against the NFC North.
But to turn a more manageable matchup on paper into reality on the football field, here are several keys for the AFC North:
1. Tame the Lions: No team wants to be the first to lose to the Detroit Lions, who went winless in 16 games last season. This is especially the case for the AFC North, which is expected to be very competitive. The Lions should be outmanned against every division team. The Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals all could use an easy victory, because there won't be many on the 2009 schedule. Therefore, it's important for the AFC North to take advantage of its games against the lowly Lions.
2. Baffle Jay Cutler: The former Denver Broncos quarterback put up some great numbers against relatively soft competition in the AFC West. Not only will Cutler face better defenses in his division, but the new Chicago Bears quarterback will meet two elite defenses this year in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Steelers and Ravens finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL last season, respectively. Even the Bengals had the No. 12-rated defense. No defense in the AFC West finished in the top 24 teams in 2008. So to be successful, it's important for the defense-heavy AFC North to give Cutler a rude awakening in his first year with a new team.
3. Handle the "Williams Wall": The pending four-game suspension against Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams was put on hold last week. But the Browns, who play host to Minnesota in the season opener, were the only team affected by the decision. The Vikings play Baltimore in Week 6, Pittsburgh in Week 7 and Cincinnati in Week 14. So the best-case scenario is at least three AFC North teams will have to deal with the "Williams Wall" regardless. Running directly at the Williamses hasn't worked in the past. Stretching players to test the perimeter might be the best approach.
4. Contain Adrian Peterson: While we're on the subject of the Vikings, stuffing tailback Adrian Peterson will be a major challenge for the AFC North. Because of the Vikings' struggles at quarterback, many opponents stacked eight in the box in the past and the dynamic Peterson still found a way to have big games. This will be more even difficult if/when quarterback Brett Favre comes out of retirement to join the Vikings, making the team more balanced with a vertical passing game.
5. Take advantage of Green Bay's defensive transition: The Green Bay Packers are trying to make the switch this season to a 3-4 defense, which is no easy task. Just ask the Browns. Cleveland has attempted to implement a successful 3-4 scheme since 2005 with mostly poor results. Green Bay could have similar struggles in the first year under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and it's a potential opening for the four teams in the AFC North. The Browns, Ravens and Steelers all play 3-4 defenses, as well. So in many ways, playing Green Bay will have the familiarity of playing a division opponent.
6. Get off to a fast start: There are some early matchups between the divisions where the AFC North can set the tone against its NFC North counterp
arts. The Browns will play host to the Vikings in Week 1. In Week 2, the Steelers travel to play the Bears, and Cincinnati travels to Green Bay. These are three early, important games for six of the eight teams that will give one division an early advantage over the other.
7. Steal games on the road: It's natural to expect the AFC North to have the most success against the NFC North at home. But to truly win this year's interconference battle, it's going to take some teams in the AFC North winning on the road. Places like Lambeau Field and Soldier Field can be tough places to play, particularly late in the season when weather becomes an issue. But the division that takes more games on the road probably will come out on top.
Who benefits most?
Of the four AFC North teams, Pittsburgh stands to benefit most in these interconference matchups against the NFC North. Naturally, the Steelers are the largest target in the division as the reigning Super Bowl champions. But they also have the biggest disparity in strength of schedule -- going from the top-rated schedule last season to the No. 29-rated schedule this year. A major reason for this is the interconference switch from the NFC East to the NFC North, and Pittsburgh's talent level should give the Steelers the most favorable matchups.