AFC North Not as Clear Cut as it Seems

Geoff PeckhamContributor IJune 23, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  Edgar Jones #84 and  Tom Zbikowski #28 of the Baltimore Ravens tackle Santonio Holmes #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on a punt return during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Conventional wisdom suggests the AFC North will once again come down to the Ravens and the Steelers, considering they were the top two teams in the conference last season and both appear well-equipped to make runs in 2009.

But conventional wisdom doesn’t always have a place in the NFL.

One-year turnarounds have become commonplace in the league, as both Baltimore and Pittsburgh can attest.

They may have played each other in the AFC Championship game last season, but the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns have each taken significant steps to improve and contend with last year’s champion and conference runner-up.

For a team like Baltimore, which has taken measures itself in the offseason to hopefully elevate themselves into the elite, the pitfalls associated with overlooking a divisional opponent could be costly. This is why head coach John Harbaugh made preparing for the divisional foes a priority during the last few weeks of Organized Team Activities (OTAs).

“We have to win our division," Harbaugh emphasized during the team’s last full-team OTA. "That’s a goal for us, and those are the teams that we know we’re going to play twice.”

Though failing to beat the Steelers, Baltimore swept both Cleveland and Cincinnati in 2008, after being swept by both of them in 2007. The fluctuating standings of the AFC North from year to year are the first indicator that not all could end the way it’s being set up for the black & blue division.

Another reason not to count the Ohio teams out is the bad blood that typically exists in division play. Each team more often than not plays their best ball against the teams they are the most familiar with, and despise the most.

The Ravens and Steelers have been named the biggest rivalry in the NFL right now by FoxSports, TheSportingNews.com and other outlets, but there was once a time where Pittsburgh and Cleveland held that title.

Baltimore and Cincinnati have had battles in the past as well, and Cleveland shares a similar contempt for Baltimore.

But the largest factors to consider when evaluating the strength of the AFC North lie in what each of the Ravens’ opponents have done to get better.

The Bengals have a healthy Carson Palmer back and a seemingly re-motivated Chad Ochocino, who proclaimed that the Bengals would be going to the playoffs in 2009. Palmer showed similar confidence earlier in the offseason, saying fans would be surprised when Cincinnati began the season 6-0.

Their boasts may not be unfounded. Though the Bengals finished 2008 4-11-1, many of their losses came in one-possession games. Their defense also played well down the stretch, winning their last three match-ups.

That defense got a lift in the offseason with the addition of safety Roy Williams, defensive tackle Tank Johnson and second-round draft pick linebacker Rey Maualuga.

And despite the loss of wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the offense was bolstered with the addition of Laveranues Coles, as well as the draft picks Andre Smith and Rey Maualuga.

Cleveland is looking to reinsert itself into the hunt for the division crown as well. Under the new regime of head coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis, the Browns have rebuilt themselves from the ground up.

They signed free agents such as linebackers Eric Barton and Davin Bowens, cornerback Corey Ivy and receiver David Patten. They focused their first three draft picks on offense, bringing in center Alex Mack and wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi.

And little needs to be said about the world-champion Steelers, who bested the Ravens three times last season. They retained 20 of their 22 starters as well as the entire coaching staff.

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Head coach Mike Tomlin will likely be mindful of the passive nature the Steelers had following their last world championship, and will not let the team make that same mistake.

Regardless of how it all ends, the AFC North featured the best teams in the conference last season. All four have worked toward maintaining that standard for 2009. The Ravens know much can change from year to year. And how large an impact just one division game can have on a season.

Let alone six.

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