Looking Ahead: AFC North

Andrew RoutCorrespondent INovember 11, 2008

As we head into the second half of the 2008 NFL season, teams have emerged from the pack and are looking to clinch their divisions.

This week's focus is on the tight race atop the AFC North. Coming into the season, Pittsburgh was expected to win the division outright, with Cleveland fighting for a wild card or possibly even upsetting Pittsburgh. The expectations were low for the Ravens and Bengals due to poor performances last year and many question marks for both teams heading into training camp.

Let's take a look where we stand after Week 10's final games have been played:

1. (tie) Baltimore Ravens (6-3)

Talk about a rollercoaster year. Baltimore started off the year 2-0 with victories against Cincinnati and Cleveland, then lost three consecutive games to Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, and now are in the midst of a four-game winning streak, most recently blowing out Houston.

Now tied for first place with Pittsburgh at 6-3, the Ravens have put themselves in good position for the stretch run. But if the road to 6-3 was tough, it's about to get even tougher for this explosive Ravens team.

Over the remaining weeks of the regular season, Baltimore will be facing the New York Giants on the road, Philadelphia, Cincinnati on the road, Washington, Pittsburgh, Dallas on the road and Jacksonville in the season finale. Clearly, if Baltimore wants to win the AFC North, their work is cut out for them, having one of the toughest schedules from week 11-17 in the NFL.

Led by rookie sensation QB Joe Flacco, a powerful running attack and the NFL's best run defense, the Ravens must stay healthy, which has been a problem, in order to pull off the upset.

1. (tie) Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)

Consistency. That is what Pittsburgh will need to develop in order to fend off the charging Ravens in the AFC North race. Pittsburgh also has a tough schedule ahead of them, and with Baltimore gaining more and more momentum every week, there is no room for error.

Ben Roethlisberger has struggled at times this year, and losing Willie Parker for several weeks also hurt an offense that relies on it's ground attack and relentless defense to win games.

Pittsburgh has a crucial Week 15 road game against the Ravens. It is very likely that that game will determine the winner of this division, and Pittsburgh MUST improve from the performance against Baltimore in Week Four in which they escaped with an overtime victory. This is not the same Ravens team they faced then.

3. Cleveland Browns (3-6)

One of the season's biggest disappointments, Cleveland was expected to give Pittsburgh a serious run after adding WR Donte' Stallworth to an already high-octane offense and DT Shaun Rogers to the defensive line.

Unfortunately, QB Derek Anderson got off to a poor start, the ground game still hasn't clicked and the defense hasn't taken the expected step forward. Now, out of the race and with Brady Quinn at the helm, Cleveland is preparing for next season.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (1-8)

This Bengals team is spinning dangerously out of control. Their problems have been well documented many times throughout the course of the season, so we won't rehash them here. Cincinnati must collect themselves as a team and an organization quickly,  or else their future may be in jeopardy as well.

Predictions:

  1. Baltimore      (11-5)
  2. Pittsburgh     (10-6)
  3. Cleveland    (6-10)
  4. Cincinnati     (3-13)

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