The Cincinnati Bengals and Marvin Lewis have the melancholy distinction of sharing the AFC North with defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), and the team they beat in the AFC title game—the Baltimore Ravens (11-5).
As the Bengals struggle for respect and a winning season, they are caught in a division that has little mercy on the weak. The strength of the AFC North is a major problem for the Bengals, starting with their backyard rival—the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers remain the best of the best and the AFC North crown will run through Pittsburgh, common occurrence. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has another year of seasoning, another Super Bowl ring, and is one more step closer to a Hall of Fame portfolio.
Sack specialist and Super Bowl hero, James Harrison was locked up as a life long Steeler after signing a long term contract. There is little argument Pittsburgh will open the 2009-2010 season as the hunted, with the rest of the division playing the role of the hunter.
The Baltimore Ravens burst back on the scene with an 11-5 season, falling just one game short of the Super Bowl losing to Pittsburgh 26-13 in the AFC title game. The Ravens are not only the Steelers' biggest divisional threat, but they might be the biggest threat to wrestle away the AFC title.
Joe Flacco had a nearly flawless rookie season and will only improve on his numbers. Ray Lewis, after flirting with free agency, was brought back and remains the emotional spark plug on defense.
There is one shining light radiating from the North and that is the Cleveland Browns (4-12). The Bengals Ohio co-inhabitants have been stuck in a net of mediocrity since their NFL return in 1999.
The Browns lack of success and new coaching staff sets up two very winnable games for the Bengals; a welcomed break from physical wars offered by the Steelers and Ravens.
As for the Bengals, they are counting on a renewed sense of dedication and a healthy season from franchise quarterback Carson Palmer. There are numerous changes in Bengal land, including the loss of T.J. Houshmendzadeh, who signed with Seattle. That brings troubled wide receiver Chris Henry into the spotlight as Houshmendzadeh’s replacement.
The Bengals are keeping their fingers crossed that Henry has matured, betting that his off the field behavior will be as stellar as his on the field performance. The other major change is a feeling that this team finally belongs to Palmer. The former No. 1 pick was on the verge of super-stardom until injuries derailed his progress.
Now healthy, Palmer is the center of the offense and the center of the team.
Even with the changes and the seemingly new attitude, the challenges of the AFC North remain stronger than ever. In a division containing two of the NFL’s premiere teams and another intra-state rival, the task for this Bengals team looms large.
The North Division is divided into the haves, the Steelers and Ravens and the have nots, the Browns and Bengals.
Cincinnati’s playoff hopes are centered around the four games with the division’s haves. Getting swept would leave the Bengals with four losses, just one shy of the five suffered by New England last season, who missed the playoffs at 11-5 last season.
That is unlikely to be repeated, but it’s probable that anything less than 10-6 will keep a team home.
A playoff trip hinges on at least holding serve against the Steelers and Ravens, winning the games at Cincinnati. Even that seems a daunting task on paper, but as the classic sports cliché proclaims, to be the best, you have to beat the best.