In the past few years, the AFC North has been one of the top divisions in the NFL.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are two strong teams that finish consistently in the playoff hunt. Their inner-divisional rivalry is arguably one of the biggest and toughest in the entire league.
However, the two teams in Ohio have been holding the division slightly back.
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns have had a series of losing seasons filled with lots of drama. They're starting to turn around slowly but surely. The Bengals made it to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005. The Browns are finally starting to rebuild and will hopefully begin to find the answer to a successful season.
Nonetheless, all four teams are solid franchises that have great followings.
Here are seven reasons why the AFC North is the NFL's strongest division.
The NFL has started a recent trend of focusing on and becoming more offensive, but all four teams in the AFC North have proven why a strong and solid defense may be all a team needs to be in contention. The 2000 Ravens and late '70s Steelers teams all won Super Bowls thanks to dominating defenses.
Even though the Steelers defense is beginning to age, they're still almost always a guaranteed top five. Last season, they were ranked No. 1 in both total defense and passing defense.
The experience and leadership of their veteran players is always in Pittsburgh's favor and will help develop many of the young players to continue the "Steel Curtain" philosophy.
The Baltimore Ravens also have an older, but very talented, defensive unit themselves. They were ranked third overall, fourth against the pass and second against the run in 2011. Ray Lewis is arguably one of the greatest middle linebackers to play the game and helps instill fear in opposing offenses.
Mike Zimmer has helped create a powerful and underrated unit in Cincinnati. The Bengals were ranked in the top 10 overall last season and top five against the run. The team is young but has played very respectably and has certainly helped turn the tide in Cincinnati's favor.
Overall, the Cleveland Browns, by far, have the weakest defense in the division. However, in key games last year, certain players stepped to the plate and made huge plays when they were needed, particularly in the secondary. This led to the Browns' second-best pass defense and the development of new shutdown corners, such as Joe Haden.
As the latter half of the season and the playoffs roll around, so do colder temperatures. This can be tough on an offense, so it can work to a team's advantage to play great defense, which helps all four AFC North teams.
Three of the four teams have enjoyed early success from their young quarterbacks. Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton have all led their teams to a winning record during their first year as a starter.
"Big Ben" stepped in for an injured Tommy Maddox in 2004 and has never looked back. He has led the Steelers to five playoff appearances and three Super Bowls under his regime. His size and toughness are very noteworthy and provide problems for all defenses around the league. Roethlisberger is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Joe Flacco is easily the best quarterback in Baltimore Ravens' history. Despite questions about his consistency and leadership, Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.
His big arm can sling the ball downfield, and his accuracy allows him to hit any spot. If he can cut down on unnecessary mistakes and level out his play, Flacco can make the jump into the "elite" category.
Andy Dalton may have been a rookie this past season, but he certainly did not play like it. He was able to quickly pick up the offense and clicked with his receivers, which led to the Bengals' relatively successful season in 2011.
He can only build off his first season play, which will increase his confidence and numbers. It will be exciting to see how the second-round pick out of TCU can follow up his rookie year.
The Cleveland Browns' quarterback situation has a lot to be desired. Colt McCoy seemed to be the answer, but he suffered a concussion that he never quite recovered from.
With the competition between McCoy and Brandon Weeden heading into 2012, it could be a very interesting season in Cleveland. The Browns have to hope whoever wins will be able to bring the team together and lead them down the winning path.
The AFC North went 25-15 against opponents outside of their division in 2011, which was the best mark for any one division.
The Ravens, Bengals and Steelers all went 3-1 against the NFC West, and all four teams had winning records against the AFC South, with the Browns picking up two of their wins in these matchups.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh also had outstanding home records, with Baltimore finishing a perfect 8-0 and Pittsburgh finishing 7-1. The atmospheres of all four stadiums, however, are arguably the toughest to play in with the AFC North's dedicated fanbase. Both the Steelers and the Bengals had winning records on the road, which is an accomplished feat in itself.
This upcoming season, the AFC North teams square off with the NFC East and the AFC West. However, both of these divisions have seemed to decline overall in the past couple of seasons while the AFC North has gotten stronger. These games will certainly be the most intriguing to watch.
A total of 14 AFC North players were voted to the 2011 Pro Bowl. Seven Ravens, five Steelers, one Bengal and one Brown participated as either a starter or backup for the AFC roster.
However, there are several AFC North stars who are consistent names on the Pro Bowl list. The likes of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed always represent the Ravens year in and year out. Ray Rice started in his first Pro Bowl this past year and certainly appears to have several more in his future.
The Steelers are also always well-represented by their defensive leaders Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Their offensive weapons, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace, are also multi-Pro Bowl visitors.
The Bengals and Browns usually have a low Pro Bowl count, but with several young stars who have great potential, look for this count to rise. Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green was voted in this year as a rookie, and after his 1,000-yard season, he appears to be on point for many more.
Cleveland's offensive tackle Joe Thomas is believed to be one of the best in the league, making five Pro Bowls already and certainly many more to come.
With the combination of wily veterans and rising stars, the AFC North will always be a staple division for sending AFC players to the Pro Bowl.
If the Browns can find a suitable coach, then this will apply to them. Until then, it only describes the AFC North's "Big Three."
When he was hired to take over for Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin knew he had big shoes to fill. Needless to say, he has done a fantastic job. Tomlin has led the Steelers to two Super Bowls in three years.
With the victory in Super Bowl XLlll, he became the youngest head coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Tomlin has certainly lived up to expectations and has continued the Steelers' longstanding, tough reputation and successful tradition.
In four years with Baltimore, John Harbaugh has led his team to the playoffs each year. There were many concerns when he first began since there was a rookie head coach and quarterback, but Harbaugh silenced all the questions.
He breathed a new life into the Ravens, and they are now looking better and fresher than ever. With his great enthusiasm and passion for the game, Harbaugh is exactly what the team and fans of Baltimore needed.
After his success in Baltimore as the defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis left to become the Bengals' head coach. His term has certainly had its ups-and-downs, and if the Bengals had not made it to the playoffs last season, he may not be around.
Lewis is an experienced coach, though, and has led Cincinnati to success, despite instability within the organization. He's a savvy coach, and with the right pieces beginning to come together, Lewis should find himself in the fast lane to more winning seasons.
The Cleveland Browns have had six different coaches since 1999, and only one led them to a playoff berth. Current coach Pat Shurmur will get another year after last season, but as usual, patience is wearing thin. If Cleveland can keep a consistent leader in the locker room, they can then begin to build chemistry and the rest of the team.
Obviously, every division has at least one team in the playoffs, but for some divisions, that's their only representation.
The AFC North had three teams in the playoffs this past season, marked by the Baltimore Ravens' run to the AFC Championship game. It's very rare for a division to provide both wild-card teams, but the AFC North did it.
The Ravens and Steelers are always in the hunt come playoff time—each team making it at least the past four seasons. Now, with the Bengals starting to gel and grow, they appear to be a team ready and able to compete with the top dogs down the stretch.
Before the Browns hit their struggling spell, they were always in contention as well. Once they get their mess cleaned up, look for them to return to the playoff picture.
Until then, the AFC will be dealing with three tough contenders out of the AFC North for six playoff spots.
All four teams play in open-air stadiums and are subject to unpredictable weather. This is certainly an advantage against opposing teams. Each team also has a dedicated fanbase electrifying the respective stadiums on game days.
Heinz Field is one of the oldest and largest stadiums in the league. The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has been around for a long time and has a history of great success, which has brought in many loyal fans. The sight of thousands waving yellow "terrible towels" is always a great one and can distract the opposition.
The Baltimore Ravens did not have a perfect home record in 2011 for nothing. The "12th Man" always lights up M&T Bank Stadium and creates havoc for visitors. Opposing teams averaged one of the highest totals of false-start penalties in Baltimore as compared to almost every other stadium. The call of the Raven and the intimidating purple and black colors can create nightmares for opponents.
Paul Brown Stadium is also one of the oldest in the league. Bengal fans have not always been faithful at times, but now that times are looking up in Cincy, these fans have certainly climbed back on board. With black and orange paws scratching at the field, Paul Brown Stadium's atmosphere is certainly one of the toughest to play in.
Cleveland Browns Stadium may not sound too scary, but once a team enters the field, they quickly find out something different. Nicknamed the "Dog Pound," Browns fans wear bulldog masks, wave bones in the air and create constant barking.
Cleveland fans are also famous for throwing bottles onto the field after a referee made a controversial call during a 2001 game. Even though the team is in a sort of a rough patch, these fans are still passionate and supportive and show up every Sunday in full form.