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AFC North: A Two Horse Race

Preston NeillContributor IMay 26, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  The Pittsburgh Steelers line up for a successful 42-yard field goal attempt by kicker Jeff Reed in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Defense is the buzz word of the AFC North.

Either your team has an elite one (Ravens and Steelers), your team has begun to find one (Bengals), or the front office will need one at the end of the year (Browns).

So, how will the AFC North shake out this year?

I think it's safe to say the Cleveland Browns will be the last place team.  New coach Eric Mangini will have his hands full trying to fix his quarterback situation after a lackluster year by incumbent Derek Anderson.  

This may provide third year pro Brady Quinn with his chance to snag the starting position.  

However, the Cleveland Browns just lack the overall talent needed to hang with the other teams in this tough division.

The Cincinnati Bengals will be happy to regain quarterback Carson Palmer, but may be dismayed to find the receiving corps has changed drastically in the past year.  T.J. Housmandzadeh left in free agency to the Seattle Seahawks, and the Bengals replaced him with Laveranues Coles.

Bengals fans will also hope that Chad Ochocinco will return to Pro Bowl form because behind Coles and Ochocinco, six other receivers on roster have a year or less of experience.

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While there are some questions about how the offense will come together, there is no doubt that Cincinnati has improved on defense.  After being a laughing stock in the NFL, the Bengals quietly improved to the 12th ranked offense in the league last year.

This defense will keep the Bengals in a lot more games this year and will make them a possible wild card candidate.

But the real class of the AFC North are the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In many ways these teams are mirror images of each other. Both teams play excellent defense, they love to run the ball, and they are disciplined and won't make mistakes.

Almost assuredly, both of these teams will make the playoffs.  

But who will walk away with the division title?

Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in both regular season matchups by a combined seven points, and won the AFC Championship matchup by nine.  Also, the Steelers are the reigning NFL champions and have the easiest schedule in the NFL this year.

With two proven receivers in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes and the addition of Rashard Mendenhall to the backfield, it looks like the Steeler offense will pick up where it left off last year.

So even though Baltimore has an elite defense and a brilliant young quarterback, it looks like Pittsburgh will be the class of the AFC North.  But this two horse race will have a photo finish.

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