The AFC North is becoming one of the toughest divisions in the entire NFL as each team is making strides towards becoming a consistent winner.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have dominated much of the last decade while the Cincinnati Bengals have struggled to maintain consistency and the Cleveland Browns attempted to maintain relevance.
The following is a breakdown and preview for every AFC North team heading into 2011. At the end is predictions for the following season as well as predictions for who will be the breakout stars for the entire AFC North.
First, the Cincinnati Bengals...
After Sweeping the AFC North in 2009, the Bengals entered 2010 with playoffs and a potential Super Bowl appearance at the very top of their things to do list.
Terrell Owens signed with the team weeks before the opening of the regular season and was supposed to be the missing piece that Carson Palmer and the rest of the Bengals offense needed in order to put them over the top.
The Bengals started 2010 on the right foot as they defeated the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers and entered week 4 against the Cleveland Browns with a record of 2-1.
Even at 0-3, Cleveland utilized Peyton Hillis and timely defense as they found a way to defeat the Bengals and sent them on a 10-game losing streak.
The Bengals finally found their way back to the winning column when they met Cleveland for the second time on December 19th. They would beat the San Diego Chargers the following week before losing to the Baltimore Ravens and ending their season at 4-12.
The Bengals ranked 13th in the NFL in passing yards in 2010 but were near the bottom of the league at 27th in rushing offense.
The defense was slightly more effective as it ranked near the middle in all categories except for points allowed, which was ranked 24th.
The state of the Cincinnati Bengals franchise seems very uncertain as the 2011 off-season is heading into its second month.
Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer has stated that he either wants to be traded or will consider retirement.
The Bengals also have to make a decision on their group of wide receivers as the team seemed to play much better at the end of 2010 when Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco were out of the starting lineup.
Both of these issues will have to be addressed after the team decides to hire a new offensive coordinator. Former offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, was fired by the team earlier this week after his 10th season at the helm of the Bengals offense.
There has been no significant news on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals during the 2011 off-season to date.
It is suspected that the team may look to build defense through the 2011 NFL draft but that will be based off of the developments on the offensive side of the ball.
The Cincinnati Bengals have many holes to fill as the team will more than likely enter a slight rebuilding phase for the next couple of seasons.
Da’Quan Bowers is a a physical monster on the defensive line and would fit in nicely where other Bengals linemen could not. Rushing the passer has been a major issue for the Bengals for the last two seasons and it does not seem like it will get any better until the team acquires a new player.
Some other options at the fourth overall pick for Cincinnati could include Georgia wide receiver, A.J Green, or Marcell Dareus from Alabama.
Dareus and Bowers are considered two of the best linemen in the 2011 draft class and A.J. Green may be the best NFL-ready player to come out of the first round.
The Bengals could also look quarterback if Carson Palmer is dealt but it would be more likely that the team would look to acquire someone with more experience such as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Kevin Kolb or former Seattle Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck.
The Bengals will more than likely look like a completely different team as they enter the 2011 season.
Current Bengals runningback, Cedric Benson, is currently up for free agency and nobody seems to have any idea on what the plans of the other offensive players may be.
As stated earlier, expect the Bengals to go through some growing pains if they send Carson Palmer away and acquire someone new.
If Palmer happens to remain with the team, Bengals fans have reason to be optimistic as he played very well at the end of 2010-2011 with an injured roster.
No matter who the quarterback is for Cincinnati there will be a new playbook for the offense to memorize and a division to play against that is only getting tougher every passing season.
The Baltimore Ravens entered their 15th season in franchise history looking to improve on a 9-7 record from 2009. The Ravens accomplished that task by going 12-4 and taking the first AFC Wild Card position heading into the 2010-11 playoffs.
Baltimore successfully ran through and over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round with a 30-7 victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Steelers sat in wait as Baltimore would be forced to win in Pittsburgh if they wished to continue their playoff hopes.
Baltimore entered the game with a split series against Pittsburgh on the year at 1-1. The Steelers jumped out to an early lead with a rushing touchdown but failed to score again the first half as Baltimore rattled off 21 unanswered points and took a 21-7 lead heading into halftime.
Pittsburgh would outscore the Ravens 24-3 in the second half to take the game by a final score of 31-24 and end Baltimore's season.
Baltimore's off-season has been relatively quiet when you look at some of the other things that have been happening around the AFC North.
Quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn, interviewed with several teams for coaching vacancies yet nothing transpired and he is still with the team.
It is believed that Baltimore will use this off-season to try to get more youth worked into their defensive schemes and maybe even rebuild the wide receiver position around Anquan Boldin.
Although nothing much has transpired yet there is still quite a bit of time before draft day and training camp. Don't expect the Ravens off-season to be completely quiet.
The Baltimore Ravens draft needs are going to be scrutinized and debated up until they make their selection at 26th overall.
J.J. Watt would be perfect for the Baltimore Ravens defensive schemes and would fit in nicely along a 3-4 line that needs great pass rushing from the outside.
in 2010, Watt had 62 tackles and seven sacks playing for a Wisconson Badger defense that had quality talent at nearly every position.
The Ravens could possibly go with a wide receiver with their first pick in the draft as many mock drafts around the league have Titus Young available near the end of the first round.
Titus Young's stock has risen significantly since the Senior Bowl and many believe that he will be a steal for whatever team picks him up late.
Young had 71 receptions for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns for the Boise State Broncos in 2010.
The Ravens 2011 season is going to define the direction that the franchise will be headed for seasons to come. Another year later means another year older for many players on the Ravens defense and soon enough younger talent will have to be forced into the mix.
The Ravens offense should have no foreseeable setbacks as the core of Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, and Anquan Boldin should all be returning.
Flacco finally had some significant post-season success in 2010 and will look to build on his experience to take the team even deeper into the playoffs.
It is also worthy to note that 2010 draft pick, Sergio Kindle, could possibly debut in the NFL next season for the Ravens defense.
It is a little tough to review the Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 season because it still has one game remaining, Super Bowl XLV,
Pittsburgh is seeking it's third Super Bowl in six seasons as the team will take on the Green Bay Packers this Sunday.
So how did they get there?
Ben Roethlisberger was suspended the first four games of 2010 after receiving his punishment for an alleged sexual assault incident in Millersville, Georgia (violation of NFL conduct policy). In his time of absence, the Steelers pulled together and posted a 3-1 record including victories over the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons.
Upon Roethlisberger's return, the Steelers only lost three games throughout the rest of the regular season capped off by a 41-9 beatdown of the Cleveland Browns in the final week to clinch the AFC North title.
The Steelers had their toughest task of the post-season against the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Championship game (explained in more detail in Baltimore's season review). Then, finally, Pittsburgh squeaked by the New York Jets en route to yet another Super Bowl appearance.
The Steelers' off-season has not yet begun but many people believe there will be two main areas that the team will focus on throughout the months away from football.
The offensive line and cornerback positions were decimated by injuries and sometimes just overall lack of skill.
Pittsburgh enters the Super Bowl with five different offensive linemen out for the game including former All-Pro Flozell Adams and rookie superstar, Maurkice Pouncey.
The Steelers will more than likely look towards the offensive line with either the 31st pick or final pick in the first round (depending on Super Bowl outcome).
Mike Pouncey has been the single name mentioned in nearly every mock draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers and it seems like he would be the perfect fit.
Pouncey is the brother of current Steelers center, Maurkice Pouncey.
Mike Pouncey has blocked for some of the best offenses in college football including Tim Tebow's Gator offense that set numerous NCAA records.
There is really no reason to believe that the Pittsburgh Steelers won't continue to be a dominating force in 2011.
Everything other than the offensive line is functioning very well and the defense is stronger than ever with a reasonably healthy Troy Polamalu at the safety position and a number of healthy well-qualified linebackers underneath him.
Pittsburgh seems to find a way of finding quality talent in nearly every draft class and has relied on many of those drafted players to take them deep into the playoffs every season.
Every team will look to improve in the AFC North but for now the road to the division title goes through Pittsburgh.
The Cleveland Browns entered 2010 with a sense of optimism as the team closed out 2009 with four consecutive victories.
Unfortunately for Browns fans the team reverted back to their losing ways and closed out 2010 with their second consecutive 5-11 season and a sickening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland.
2010 marked a changing of the guard for the Cleveland Browns. Mike Holmgren took over the team presidency and new players took over roles as hero's for the Browns' faithful.
Entering 2010, many people did not know much about Peyton Hillis and did not expect Colt McCoy to take a snap in the NFL during his first season.
By the end of the year, McCoy was the Browns' permanent starter and Peyton Hillis had a Pro Bowl caliber year with over 1,000 yards rushing and more rushing touchdowns than any other Browns player since Kevin Mack.
Although new faces emerged the fact remains that Cleveland did not have a very good season.
The Browns consistently struggled to put up points and the coaching staff refused to take chances even when the team's record was clearly dismal.
Cleveland was forced to enter the 2011 off-season with more change on the mind.
The Cleveland Browns fired Eric Mangini the following morning after an embarrassing 41-9 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After an extensive search by Holmgren and Tom Heckert, Pat Shurmur was selected as head coach of the Browns for the upcoming season.
Shurmur worked with Heckert in the Philadelphia Eagles organization and also served as the offensive coordinator for the St.Louis Rams in 2010.
Shurmur and the rest of the Browns organization decided on Dick Jauron to be the head of the defensive side of the ball in 2011.
Jauron was the head coach of the Detroit Lions (interim), Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills throughout his career and will more than likely be switching the Browns defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the coming seasons.
The Cleveland Browns own the sixth pick in the NFL Draft and have been predicted to go in a thousand different directions.
It is obvious that the team needs a threat at wide receiver for Colt McCoy to target and also new players to fit into Dick Jauron's new 4-3 defense.
A.J. Green is the top receiver available in the draft and it almost seems certain that the Browns will acquire him if he is available at number six.
If Green happens to go before Cleveland is on the clock, the organization will have a decision to make. Does the team trade down or do they take someone else?
If Cleveland stays put at number six there should be a quality defensive lineman available for them to choose. Da'Quan Bowers, Robert Quinn, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus are all listed as potential top 10 picks.
The Browns may also have the option to take a cornerback if Patrick Peterson is still on the board but it is unlikely as many draft experts have him taken in the top three.
2011 will be a season of optimism for the Browns.
Colt McCoy should enter his first season as a starter and will get his first training camp with the starting offense rather than as a third stringer.
New coaches will begin to put their stamp on what the new Browns organization will look like for the coming years and there may even be new starting players on both sides of the ball.
Peyton Hillis will also return for his second season as the bruising tailback had one of the best seasons for a Browns runner in the last two decades.
Browns fans all over the nation will watch in hopes that the team will finally turn the corner and make its second post-season run since 1999.
Until results say otherwise, the AFC North is run through the cities of Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Ravens and Steelers have dominated the division (With the exception of the 2009 Bengals) throughout most of the 2000's and the teams from Ohio will be forced to knock them off before they can become elite.
For 2011, the predictions are as follows.
1. Baltimore: 12-4 (Division Champion)
2. Pittsburgh: 11-5 (AFC Wild Card)
3. Cleveland: 7-9
4. Cincinnati: 6-10
AFC North MVP: Ben Roethlisberger
Most Improved Player: Jordan Shipley
Rushing Leader: Ray Rice
Receiving leaders: PIT: Mike Wallace, CIN: Chad Ochocinco, CLE: Mohammed Massaqoui,
BAL: Anquan Boldin