Everybody settle down. Just because most talking heads are not picking the Steelers to repeat is no reason to smash your bobblehead collection. Remember, preseason picks are like blogs: Everybody's got one, and most of them are hard to fathom.
With the Steelers' title defense ready to kick off, it seems like eight out of 10 pundits are picking the Ravens to win the AFC North. The remaining two incline toward the offensive firepower of the Bengals. (Figures may not be precise, but you get the drift.) And in my neighborhood, it's not going over well. Heck, I don't know why Ben Roethlisberger even bothers to dress for games.
Sure, there are problems. Depth at running back is a huge issue enough to make you wonder whether the Steelers will turn away from their winning, running ways and back into the miasma of the pass-happy 2003 campaign. And just how much will special teams miss designated wedge-buster Brett Keisel, now that he's the starting defensive end? How will things at safety shake out?
But other aspects of the team look positively rosy. The wideouts look deeper and more explosive, even with Antwaan Randle El's departure. The offensive line has a full season of experience together and should be one of the best in the league again. And I swear Bill Cowher manufactures linebackers in his basement. Perhaps most importantly, the coaching staff itself remains completely intact.
Yet if you turn on ESPN or Fox, you'll be sure to hear that the Ravens are clearly the class of the AFC North.
The national media has been silly-drunk in love with the Ravens since self-proclaimed genius Brian Billick landed in the Inner Harbor. The NFL network even runs a Ray Lewis ad. (Ostensibly, it's an ad for the network, but it's the only "single player" ad I've seen. Why a league that prides itself on being squeaky-clean would hitch its wagon to this guy has puzzled me for years. Not even the ubiquitous Peyton Manning has his own spot.)
Even though I know I should ignore all the wind on the pre-game shows, I thought I'd ask some experts about the Ravens' psychological hold on sports commentators. One of my favorites, Jason Whitlock, of the Kansas City Star and a regular on ESPN's The Sports Reporters, has picked the Ravens to win the division. In a July column, he doubted Ben would be fully back to being Ben, and cited a Ravens offense guided by resurgent QB Steve McNair.
"I like the addition of Trevor Pryce and the rookie [Haloti] Ngata," Whitlock told me via e-mail. "I think their additions and the health of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are going to make Baltimore's defense great again. And I think McNair is going to be an upgrade. That's my gut feeling."
Those are salient points, but Air McNair or not, the Ravens have big problems on offense. They ranked 21st in the NFL in rushing overall, and they lost their best running back when Chester Taylor left for Minnesota. If they don't run well, McNair's gonna get killed.
Still mystified over the national lovefest with the Ravens, I pushed on, looking to sports satirist D.J. Gallo (of SportsPickle.com and ESPN.com) for answers.
"It's not surprising," he says of the Ravens' popularity. "Almost every year the same thing happens: The Steelers dominate the division, and then the experts pick Baltimore to win it in the coming season due to their 'dominating' defense and 'sure-to-be-improved' offense. Only their defense has been living off its reputation from 2000 for three of four years, and their offense continues to be theoretical much like Ray Lewis' innocence."
Writers, Gallo speculates, might be "impressed by Brian Billick's Word-A-Day calendar vocabulary. Or it could just be that they're afraid they'll get a shiv in the stomach if they dare utter a bad word about the Baltimore Ravens."
He's kidding, right? I'm not gonna get shivved for dissing the Ravens regularly, am I?
Either way, I hope the Steelers don't read their press clippings. I don't want to live through a season of hearing them sound like the New England Patriots whining about how they didn't get any respect, how nobody outside the locker room believed in them, etc.
If you feel the same way, you may want to send coach Cowher a "Word A Day" calendar. Maybe then his team will be the media's darlings.