Northern Exposure: When Seeking NFL's Best Division, Look at AFC North

Jon GalloContributor IMay 13, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Players from the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate with the Vince Lombardi trophy after their 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Two Super Bowl titles, six playoff appearances, nine postseason victories, and the league’s two best defenses.

The AFC North’s accomplishments the past four years are unmatched by any division - and it’s not even close considering the 2008 AFC Championship Game was the third meeting between the Steelers and Ravens last season.

The NFC South? It’s impressive that all four teams finished at least 8-8 last year, but how did the playoffs turn out for the Falcons and Panthers?

The NFC North? Until Jay Cutler’s arrival in Chicago, the Big 12 had better quarterback play than the Vikings, Bears, and Lions.

The AFC South? Its two playoff teams had two quick exits.

The AFC East? How long has it been since the Bills, Dolphins, or Jets won a playoff game?

And the AFC West? I’m surprised the Raiders’ mascot doesn’t wear two eye patches to avoid seeing his team's appalling play, and with the way the Broncos and Chiefs play defense, the league should ban them from national television.


But as the AFC North, largely behind the play of the Steelers and Ravens, has separated itself from the rest of the NFL, the competitiveness within the division has made it much harder for each team to make the playoffs.

It comes down to simple math: The easiest way for a team to make the playoffs is by winning its division, which means each team has a 25 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.

Each division is constructed as a hierarchy; the difference in the AFC North is there’s more space separating the squads. Last year, the Steelers won 12 games in the regular season and the Ravens posted 11. Meanwhile, Cleveland and Cincinnati each had four victories.

The Ravens’ 11 victories would have been good enough to claim the AFC East or West, yet because they are grouped with the league’s best team (Pittsburgh), they were at a disadvantage. As soon as the Ravens lost to the Steelers in Week 15, it was clear they were only going to make the postseason as a wild card.

"Hate is a strong word. I think it is more a respect thing," said Ravens safety Ed Reed when asked his feelings of the Steelers. "They know we play hard, and we know they play hard. It would be something if one of those guys or one of us said we didn’t respect them, because it would be a lie. At the end of the day, I believe that both teams are true fans of football and know that in our conference, we’re going to play football regardless of anything."


But what happened in 2008 doesn’t necessarily indicate what will happen in 2009. The additions by the division’s teams has strengthened the group, making it tougher for each to achieve separation. Let's take a look at the future for each of these franchises:


Pittsburgh Steelers

At 27, Ben Roethlisberger is the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls and has the luxury of the league’s top-ranked defense (237 yards allowed per game), which features linebacker James Harrison, the reigning Defensive Most Valuable Player, linebacker James Farrior and safety Troy Polamalu.

The running game should receive a boost with the return of Rashard Mendenhall, a first-round pick in 2008 who broke his shoulder against the Ravens in Week Four, causing him to spend the rest of the season on injured reserve.


Cleveland Browns

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A coach by the name of Eric Mangini takes over a struggling team and voila! He gets them into the postseason in his first season. Don’t be surprised if the same magic Mangini used on the Jets in 2006 works in Cleveland.

After all, Cleveland was expected to win the division last year after soaring to 10 wins in 2007 before a series of injuries decimated the depth chart. One of the team’s best defensive players, end Robaire Smith, was sidelined 14 games. Quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn each suffered injuries that forced Ken Dorsey into the starting lineup. Now, Cleveland has one of the best quarterback tandems in the league.

And what about Braylon Edwards? He can’t possibly be as bad this fall after dropping a league-leading 16 passes last season.


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals’ 2008 season can be summarized by one number: 84. That’s how many games were missed by injured starters in a league in which the average was 39. The Bengals’ number easily surpassed that of Cleveland (43), Pittsburgh (53) and Baltimore (64).

Quarterback Carson Palmer missed 12 games, which was a major reason why the team went 4-11-1 and scored a league-low 204 points. But a healthy Palmer should thrive against a schedule which features just six games against teams that made the playoffs last year.

Carson will need to find a new favorite target after T.J. Houshmandzadeh (904 yards, 4 TDs) signed with Seattle, but he still has (at least at this moment) Chad Johnson (504 yards, 4 TD).

The signing of free agent defensive lineman Tank Johnson from Dallas and the drafting of standout Southern Cal linebacker Ray Malaga and Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson should improve a defensive unit that allowed 22 points per game last year.


Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens didn’t sign a top-flight receiver or a big-name defensive player to complement the re-signing of Ray Lewis ($44.5 million over seven years) or compensate for the loss of Bart Scott ($48 million over six years) to the Jets in free agency. They didn’t even offer a contract Matt Stover, one of the best kickers in NFL history.

But the Ravens made three key additions that could be the difference from contending for a wild card or supplanting the Steelers, who went 3-0 against Baltimore last year.

The Ravens acquired center Matt Birk ($12 million over three years), a six-time Pro Bowler, from the Vikings to replace Jason Brown, who, along with quarterback Kyle Boller, signed with the Rams.

The arrival of Birk, along with first-round pick Michael Oher, is integral to the growth of quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco played well as rookie, but he often was hurried into making poor throws, as his starting offensive line gave up 17 sacks (6.5 by right guard Ben Grubbs alone).

The signing of free agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth solidifies a weakness at the spot once manned by Chris McAlister or Frank Walker.

"When you see the moves, whether it’s Birk to Foxworth, it excites you," Lewis said. "Whatever it is, if you bring in one or two pieces, that makes us better."