For several years now the AFC North has been one of the top divisions in the NFL. This has been due specifically to two playoff regulars, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the reputation of the division has for the most part been held down thanks to two teams that reside in Ohio.
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns have struggled through multiple futile seasons. The Browns are in the midst of another one as they have now suffered their ninth losing season in the last 11.
The Bengals meanwhile have shocked people by finishing the year with a winning season and staying in the playoff picture the entire year. Now entering Week 17, the AFC North is the only division with three teams alive for the playoffs. The Bengals resurgence can lead to the AFC North's claim to being the best division in the NFL.
Here are seven other reasons why the AFC North ends the 2011 season as the best division in the NFL.
Even with the NFL's recent trend toward becoming more offensive and particular pass friendly, a good defense can sometime be enough to contend for a Super Bowl. The 2000 Ravens and four late '70s Steelers teams won Super Bowls thanks to some of the greatest defensive teams of all time. Even now these two teams are locks among the top 10 overall defense every season.
The Steelers have to take top credit here as they have both the top total defense and passing defense this season. The Ravens are close by as they are ranked third overall, fourth against the pass and second against the run.
The surprising Bengals are close by, however, thanks to their underrated defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Although he has been turned down for several coaching opportunities, he has helped the Bengals defense remain respectable and in some instances elite. This season they are ranked ninth overall, 12th against the pass and fifth against the run.
Even the Browns can feel good about their defensive output this year. Joe Haden has emerged as a true shutdown corner this year and has the Browns with the second-best pass defense. Their run defense is, of course, a completely different story but they at least deserve credit for defending the pass well.
As the playoffs take place and it gets colder, it can only help to play good defense. Especially when you play in open air stadiums amidst freezing cold temperatures as all four of these teams do.
With the exception of the Browns, the other three teams in the division have enjoyed surprising early success from young quarterbacks. Amazingly Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton have all led their respective teams to winning records during their first seasons as starters.
Roethlisberger came in early in the 2004 season after the Ravens knocked out starter Tommy Maddox. The Pro Bowl quarterback ran away with the opportunity and has led the Steelers to five playoff appearances. After winning two Super Bowls in three tries, Roethlisberger is easily the division's best quarterback.
There was some doubts that Flacco could succeed in the NFL after he had spent college starting for the Division II University of Delaware. However, he has now become the only quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four seasons. Even with questions about his consistency, Flacco is easily the best quarterback that the Ravens have ever had.
Dalton doesn't have too much of a body of work here, but what little he has done has been impressive. The Bengals were 4-12 in 2010 and seemed to have little reason to expect to be any good in 2011. Thanks to Dalton's rapport with young receivers like A.J. Green and his ability to quickly pick up the offense, the second-round pick out of TCU has the Bengals in playoff contention.
Should the Bengals win on Sunday, they will be the third team in the AFC North with at least 10 wins. It is an impressive record for a division (Browns included!) that has done well against the competition.
The AFC North went 25-15 against opponents outside of the division, which was the best mark for any one division this season. They beat up on the NFC West with the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers all going 3-1 against that division. The AFC South was also beaten in most of their matchups against the AFC North, with the Browns picking up two of their wins against AFC South teams.
This year also saw the Ravens' first perfect home record at 8-0. The Steelers also had a tremendous home-field advantage with a 7-1 record at Heinz Field. Both they and the Bengals have winning records on the road, a very difficult feat to accomplish in today's NFL.
There are several other divisions that could have claim to being the NFL's best division. Particularly the NFC North and the NFC South can claim that title. The NFC North had three teams in playoff contention for much of the year and the NFC South has two playoff teams with another team on the rise (Carolina Panthers).
With an overall record of 34-26, the NFC North has had a great overall season. The Green Bay Packers pursuit of perfection made many people call this the best division. It certainly didn't hurt matters that the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears were contending for wild-card spots much of the year.
Although the Packers pursuit of perfection ended, at 14-1 they have clinched the best record in the NFL. The Lions have clinched a wild-card spot for their first playoff appearance since 1999. However, it would seem the Bears are the key difference in this division. The Bears have suffered five straight losses after injures to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, had they not been lost it's very likely this team would be in the playoffs.
The NFC South has an overall record of 31-29 which is lower than last year when the division had three teams win more than 10 games. Like the AFC North in the past, they have two good teams and two bad teams. Although the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are Super Bowl contenders, the other two teams drag down this division's ranking.
The Pro Bowl roosters were announced a few days ago and not surprisingly the AFC North was well represented. A total of 14 players were invited to start or play as backups for the AFC roster. Seven of them were Ravens, five were Steelers, one Bengal and one Brown made it as well.
The Ravens defense have always been well represented in the Pro Bowl. Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed are the kind of players that are Pro Bowlers year in and year out. The surprise this year was three offenders made it, Ray Rice and Vonta Leach as starters with Marshal Yanda as a backup guard.
Even with the Steelers having the league's top defense, only Troy Polamalu made it in thanks in part to injuries hitting star linebackers James Harrison and Lamar Woodley. However, three offensive players got in: Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace and Maurkice Pouncey. Finally their dangerous receiver and return man Antonio Brown was voted the AFC's kick returner.
The Bengals and Browns have traditionally been low on Pro Bowlers thanks to multiple recent seasons of futility. However, the Bengals got one this year and he looks like he could be headed to many future Pro Bowls. A.J. Green was voted in as a backup receiver and after a 1,000-yard season the rookie has easily made Cincinnati fans forget about Chad Ochocinco.
And believe it or not the Browns actually have a perennial Pro Bowler. It's not in a glamor position but Joe Thomas is widely believed to be one of the best offensive tackles in the league today. This is Thomas's fifth season making the Pro Bowl and he should certainly make many more Pro Bowls.
Again this one really doesn't apply to the Browns. Although if there are any Browns fans that have read this far in the slideshow, my condolences to you. Better days have got to be coming at some point, right?
Anyhow the other three teams have head coaches that have had a lot of success. The obvious top coach in the division is Mike Tomlin who has taken the Steelers to two Super Bowls in three years and is the only Super Bowl winner out of the three. In his five years as coach, he has put his stamp on the Steelers and continued their longstanding tradition of success.
John Harbaugh has also done very well in only four years in Baltimore. All four years he has led the Ravens to the playoffs, which marks the longest streak in Ravens history. Signed through 2014, there should be many more years where the Ravens experience success under Harbaugh.
The Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been an unpredictable one. A lot of that goes to the instability that surrounds the Bengals organization as Lewis has done well with the right pieces. Two years ago he won the coach of the year award after overseeing another Bengals turnaround season similar to the one this year.
Of course there's the mess that surrounds the Browns. They have six coaches since 1999, only one of which has led them to a playoff berth. Current coach Pat Shurmur will get another year after this one although patience has to be wearing thin after another too familiar losing season.
Obviously Week 17 still has to play out and a lot of things could change then. But at this point the Bengals are in the drivers seat for the final AFC wild-card spot. Should they get in the playoffs, the AFC North will have three playoff teams for the first time ever.
Since division realignment in 2002, it has been rare for one division to provide both wild-card teams. The NFC East did it twice, in both 2006 and 2007. The year 2007 also saw the AFC South provide two wild-card teams and is the last year such a thing happened.
Both the Ravens and Steelers have clinched playoff berths so they will absolutely be in the running for the Super Bowl. The winner of the division will have an excellent chance since they are guaranteed a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. If all three teams get in the playoffs, that only increases the chances that the AFC's Super Bowl representative comes from the North.