The AFC North ranks as one of the toughest divisions in all of football. Perhaps it’s the proximity of the four teams, maybe it’s the similarities between them, and just maybe it’s due to a genuine mix of hatred and respect shown for one another.
The division plays host to one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries at the moment; the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Pittsburgh swept the Ravens in all three games played between the teams between 2008 and 2009 by a grand total of 16 points, including a win in the conference championship game en route to a record sixth Super Bowl victory.
These two AFC North rivals are built from the same mold. They both boast stout defenses, with the Steelers having the No. 1 overall defense and the Ravens the No. 2 as of the conclusion of last season.
Both teams are primarily known as "run first" teams on the offensive side of the ball, advocating the phrase "use the run to set up the pass."
This, of course, leads to the play-action pass and its effectiveness against opposing defenses, who are so intent on stopping the run that they move everyone closer to the line, leaving various passing patterns open.
Baltimore has no shortage of playmakers including one of the best ball-hawking safeties to put on an NFL uniform in Ed Reed and a future first ballot Hall Of Fame linebacker—Ray Lewis.
On offense, they boast what many consider to be the best offensive line in the AFC North and a Ben Roethlisberger-like quarterback in Joe Flacco.
They’re currently in search of a playmaking wide receiver, to give the young Flacco a big time passing target.
This division is also home to one of the most storied rivalries in the NFL; The Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers and Browns played their first game in October 1950, and have played a grand total of 114 times since that day. The rivalry is fifth in all-time games and first in the parity of the games, with the Steelers barely edging the Browns 59-55.
The Steelers currently hold an 11 game win streak over the hapless Browns, dating back to 2003. That year, Pittsburgh knocked the Browns out of the playoffs with a 36-33 win. The date also marks the last time the Browns made the playoffs.
To be fair to Cleveland, they did have a remarkable 2007 season, led by quarterback Derek Anderson, offensive tackle Joe Thomas, and wide receiver Braylon Edwards. They finished the season in second place in the AFC North, trailing only the rival Steelers, with a 10-6 overall record.
They also had six players named to the Pro Bowl, their most since 1995, and it was the first time since Jamir Miller in 2001 that a Browns player played in the game.
The Browns seem to be a hot and cold tea. When the team is clicking together they can really be a dangerous foe, but when even one cog isn’t working properly they seem to fall apart in the blink of an eye.
The Cincinnati Bengals seem to be the odd man out in the division, differing from the first trio in their basic game-plan.
They prefer the pass first style offense—and with good reason. With one of the NFL’s most prolific passers, in USC product Carson Palmer, and a Pro Bowl caliber wide receiver, in Chad Johnson, you can’t blame them for wanting to air it out and change the pace of the game.
The Bengals defense quietly finished ranked 13th in the NFL last season—quite an accomplishment considering the amount of time they spent on the field due to an injury that sidelined Palmer and thrust Ryan Fitzpatrick into the starting quarterback role.
They seem to be in a re-building state at the moment and should pose no real threat for the divisional crown.
It’s a safe assumption to say that the AFC North is the Steelers' division to lose, though the Ravens, providing Flacco doesn’t have a "sophomore slump," will put some serious pressure on them and more than likely make a late season run for the division once again.
The Browns are one of the hardest teams to judge, but getting rid of their best offensive weapon, in Kellen Winslow Jr, isn’t the best way to go about winning the AFC North, especially not with two stellar defenses and a really good one in Cincinnati.
The Bengals could very well make a run at the division as well, with Palmer being the x-factor.
The North is, and probably always will be, an incredibly intense and difficult division to win and I see none of the four teams easily winning it, either now or in the future. The competition is just too fierce, the rivalries too big, and the passion of every team far too great for that to happen.
At the end of the day though, the Steelers are still the Super Bowl champions and returning all but one starter on the No. 1 defense in the league.
Be it by winning the division outright or being edged out by Baltimore and getting a wild card spot, the Steelers will easily make the playoffs with utter ease in 2009.
And that will instill every Steelers fan with faith and hope of winning an NFL record seventh Lombardi Trophy.