Now it’s for real. Right now, at the beginning of the regular NFL season the best team in football is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last season the Steelers appeared in their second Super Bowl in three seasons. Although they handed the Green Bay Packers the title, anyone who knows football knows who the best team was, even without their star rookie offensive lineman, who missed the game because of injury.

READY TO GO—Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (7) and Mike Wallace (17) share a laugh during the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 1. The Steelers defeated the Panthers 33-17. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The Steelers return 21 of 22 starters from last season and even though they will face four division winners, only 4 of the 13 teams they meet had a winning season last year.

Injuries always play a key role in any championship run, and the Steelers are no exception. But barring any major injuries the Steelers right now have the best defensive unit in football, and one of the best ever assembled in NFL history, even with their weakness at cornerback. All their starters return.

There has never been a better set of linebackers in NFL history than James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrier with Larry Foote backing them up; not even in the steel curtain days with Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell. The defensive line of Casey Hampton anchoring at nose tackle, flanked by Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel with key backups Chris Hoke, Ziggy Hood and first round draft pick Cameron Heyward, is second to none. The secondary, however, must prove themselves because with the league becoming more and more pass oriented, they must perform at a high level to win.

Troy Polamalu is the best safety in football, and Ryan Clark has developed into an excellent compliment, making them as good a duo as there is. Teams will be reluctant to go deep on the Steelers because of the pressure up front as well as the speed and intelligence of the two safeties which generally results in interceptions. However, until the Steelers prove otherwise, teams will test them over the middle and on short routes, especially third down situations. Can the Steelers cornerbacks lock down the abundance of outstanding wide receivers they will meet every game?

Ike Taylor has proven to be a Pro Bowl corner, but he has had very little help in previous seasons. So far no one has stepped up among the players on the current roster. That’s why most expected a cornerback to be a top priority of the Steelers during the off season, either through the draft, a trade or free agency. So they are left with what they had last season, Bryant McFadden, William Gay, and promising youngster, Keenan Lewis, who was hurt during the pre-season but should be ready.

On offense everything starts with Ben Roethlisberger. The good ole days of running the ball down teams’ throats are over. The Steelers will live and die by the pass, and Roethlisberger is one of the best. He has the greatest assortment of receivers he has ever had, and as great at the trio of Frank Lewis, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were during the mid ‘70s, this group has the potential to be even better. Starting with the old man, the third down master, Hines Ward, to the blistering, blinding speed of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanual Sanders. And that’s not counting Jerricho Cotchery who would be the second or third receiver on most teams.

And that’s not all folks. At tight end Heath Miller is one of the best all around players in the game. Some tight ends are great blockers but weak receivers, or vice versa but Heath is one of the best blockers as well as being a great target for Ben. In short, the passing game should be as good as any, and that includes the Colts, Patriots and Packers.

The running game is in good hands with Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Isaac Redman keeping defenses honest. But what about the offensive line?

This has been the weak link the past few years, but the coaching staff doesn’t seem to be worried as long as Maurkice Pouncey is healthy. They got rid of Max Starks who many felt was the second best lineman because of the outstanding job Jonathan Scott did filling in for the injured Starks last season. They are joined by Willie Colon, tackle; Chris Kemoeatu, guard and the only new starter Doug Legursky at guard. Key backups are Trai Essex and rookie Marcus Gilbert. Don’t be surprised if Gilbert beats somebody out before the year is over. As Mike Webster led a no name offensive line during the ‘70s, opening big holes for Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, look for this group to give Big Ben plenty of time to find receivers while staying healthy. However, just how great this offense will be will depend on Ben making quick intelligent decisions as to which receiver to go to and where, and getting the ball to them where they can do something with it.

As far as competition, the Steelers are still the team to beat in the AFC North Division. The Baltimore Ravens will be their only competition, because even though the Cleveland Browns finished strong last season they were still only 5-11 and is no match for the Steelers or Ravens, nor are the Cincinnati Bengals, who may struggle to win a game with one of the weakest defenses in football and the offense being dismantled with Quarterback Carson Palmer sitting out demanding a trade. Terrell Owens is still recovering from an injury while looking for a team and Chad Ochocinco now catching passes in New England. Poor, Marvin Lewis, he deserves better.

Whoever made up the Steelers schedule must have been high on something because one of the greatest rivalries in the division and the NFL will be over before the Steelers play any other team in the division. They play the Ravens this weekend in Baltimore and then again at home in week nine. They will fatten up on the Bengals during week 10 and 13, then the Browns during week 14 and 16.

The first half of the season will be the toughest. After the Ravens they face: the Seattle Seahawks, 7-9; Indianapolis Colts, 10-6; Houston Texans, 6-10; Tennessee Titans, 6-10; Jacksonville Jaguars, 8-8; Arizona Cardinals, 5-11; New England Patriots, 14-2; Ravens, 12-4; and the Bengals, 4-12 before their bye week. They finish up with the Kansas City Chiefs, 10-6; Bengals, Browns, San Francisco 49ers, 6-10; St. Louis Rams, 7-9 and the Browns.

My prediction for the season is 14-2 with the first Ravens game being a key. AFC Division winners: South, Colts; East, Patriots; West, Chiefs and North, Steelers.

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