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The AFC North division is one of the most competitive and entertaining in the NFL from top to bottom. Every team has a fierce rivalry with each other. Every game is played with 100% intensity and effort, making watching these games an incredible experience for fans. For a while now Baltimore and Pittsburgh have been the clear frontrunners here. That being said, Cincinnati is perennially a tough team to beat, and usually on the verge of the playoffs come the later weeks in the season. Also Cleveland, who had been at the bottom of the barrel for a while now, has injected some new young talent, and is looking to start their turnaround. The 2011 season could see an even more balanced AFC North than fans have seen in years.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns are at a crossroads. They have a quarterback in Colt McCoy who seems as though he’s ready to lead this team. McCoy has shown both the skill and the intangibles to be a very solid quarterback immediately, and maybe more in the future. I remember watching their game against the Jets last season, seeing Colt drive the ball down field with ease using both his arm and his legs to shred one of the better defenses in the NFL. At that moment I knew that this team was on their way up. McCoy isn’t alone either. He has a stud in the backfield in Peyton Hillis who had an absolute breakout season last year. Hillis racked up 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns, not to mention countless highlights of him leaping over one defender and running over the next. With Rob Ryan running the defense, this team is only a few weapons and some experience away from being a serious contender in this division.
Cincinnati Bengals: Inconsistency is the word. From the playoffs in 2009 to a four win season in 2010, there was a serious drop-off in Cincinnati. The Carson Palmer era seems to be over, and the Andy Dalton years are just beginning. Rumor has it that the starting job is already his. That being said, something about this franchise just screams under-performance. Ochocinco apparently wants out and nobody knows if Terrell Owens will be able to come back from off-season surgery and perform at a high level. If Dalton is relying on Jordan Shipley to be his number one target, there will undoubtedly be another rough season. Even off the field this team can’t win. Every time fans turn around their beloved Bengals are back in the news shining a negative light on the franchise for one thing or another. Maybe new leadership under center will turn things around, but it will take some time. Prepare for some rebuilding years Cinci fans.
Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin came on the scene in 2010 and made a serious impact on this offense. Joe Flacco added a serious weapon to his already bolstering arsenal, and immediately showed good chemistry with Boldin, connecting down-field game after game. I’m shocking myself in writing about a Ravens offense first, but it’s catching up to their powerhouse defense that we have known and loved for years. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed might have some mileage on them, but nobody’s worried, they’re still some of the best in the league at their positions. There really aren’t very many weak links in this Raven’s team, they’re ready now. Year after year Flacco gets better, and fans are just waiting for the year where they can overthrow the Steelers. Could 2011 be the year? I’ll leave it at a maybe, but it’s going to take some big game performances to get the deal done. Their time will come as long as they can get it done before they lose their veteran leaders to retirement. Expect to see them back in the playoffs, and from there you never know.
Pittsburgh Steelers: What’s to say here? Sure, they lost in the Super Bowl, but they were beaten by an excellent team that was on an incredible roll. Mike Tomlin has a resume at 39 that most coaches never will have in their entire career. Big Ben is one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league no matter how ugly his stats or mechanics may be. The defense is back to the days of the “Steel Curtain.” I could probably go through every single player on the defensive side of the ball and rave about them, but I’ll spare readers the extra words and just tell you they’re all really, really good. They’ve got youth, they’ve got offense, defense, special teams, veterans, coaching, experience, rings…they’ve got it all. I refuse to believe I’ve seen the last of Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu in the Super Bowl. When it’s all said and done, this team might rival some of the great Pittsburgh teams of the past.
The Steelers are going to be tough to overcome for a long time, but getting out of this division might be their hardest task. Fans better believe that they will be given a run for their money as this division begins to balance out. Hard hits and clutch plays are the name of the game in the AFC North. If you haven’t been watching these divisional games in the past few years, start. Great football, great players, great moments. Whoever is able to come out of this division on top will surely be ready for anyone that gets the tough task of meeting them in the postseason. Be ready for some battles.