Experience and continuity count
Hines Ward recently told my colleague James Walker: "Anything less than the Super Bowl is a down year for us." And why not?
The New England Patriots are the favorites to win the AFC this season, but let's not forget that they couldn't get past the New York Jets in the playoffs last season, despite going 14-2 in the regular season. The Pittsburgh Steelers worked their way past Baltimore, then the Jets, and were 47 seconds and 67 yards away from winning Super Bowl XLV.
Given the lockout, continuity never has been so important. Veteran teams with coaching staffs that have been together for a while are going to have the advantage, at least early on, and the Steelers are just such a team.
With the exception of offensive tackle Flozell Adams, virtually every starter is back. General manager Kevin Colbert's focus in free agency was re-signing cornerback Ike Taylor, offensive tackle Willie Colon and a host of the team's backups and special teams players, including its punter and kicker. This team has been together before, and just about every important player has played in three Super Bowls. They know what Mike Tomlin expects, how a season can ebb and flow, what the journey to the Super Bowl is like and, most importantly, what it takes to win.
Ben Roethlisberger, Ward, Troy Polamalu, Taylor, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel and James Harrison have 95 combined seasons of experience with the Steelers. Nothing will surprise them.
Sure, the offensive line is a little thin, but Roethlisberger has always been best on the run, and he will have Maurkice Pouncey handing off to him for a second consecutive season. The line's strength, as usual, will be run blocking, and Rashard Mendenhall is coming off a 1,273-yard rushing season with what must be a huge chip on his shoulder after fumbling in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers have a brutal first month of the season, with road games at Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston. But they luck out with the NFC West, and their last five games are against Cincinnati, Cleveland twice, San Francisco and St. Louis, not exactly a murderer's row.
By the time Pittsburgh sees the Browns again on Jan. 1, they should have the No. 1 seed in the AFC wrapped up.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Brady's healthy and D's revamped
The stage is set for the New England Patriots to repeat as the best regular-season team in the AFC. Bill Belichick made the right fixes in the roster to put them as the top dogs in the conference.
Pass rush has been a problem for the past couple of seasons in New England. For whatever reason, Belichick hasn't been able to get the right pass-rusher at linebacker to strike fear among pass blockers. Having a Tully Banta-Cain get 10 sacks in a season helps, but you don't see quarterbacks calling about blocking adjustments for a Tully Banta-Cain.
Cutting Banta-Cain before camp, Belichick went to work on shifting the Patriots in a base 4-3 defense that could not only lead to their having the top record in the AFC, but winning a playoff game or two. The process started with the trade for Albert Haynesworth.
Haynesworth signed a $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins two seasons ago with the owner's promise he wouldn't be playing in a 3-4 defensive scheme. A 4-3 tackle his entire career, Haynesworth hated the idea of being part of a 3-4, which would prevent him from shooting between the gaps in the blocking schemes and disrupting plays.
In Haynesworth's first season on the Redskins line, defensive ends Andre Carter and then rookie Brian Orakpo turned into double-digit sack players. The presence of Haynesworth on the Patriots' defensive line next to Vince Wilfork could accomplish the same. That's why it made sense for Belichick to add Carter to the mix along with Mark Anderson, a defensive end with some pass-rush ability.
Beyond this revamped defensive strategy, the Patriots also have a healthy Tom Brady. Offensively, the Pats changed last season from a team that got the ball to the wide receivers to a two-tight end offense that moved the chains.
Adding Chad Ochocinco was another great move. Even though he lacks the downfield speed of his earlier days, he gives Brady an outside receiving threat that was missing after Randy Moss was traded away. Once again, Brady will be able to spread and stretch the field.
On paper, the Pats are better than the team that won 14 games last season.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.