AFC North: Toughest Division in Football?

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 35-7. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

Maybe this isn’t even a question at all. If you were to ask fans of any given AFC North team, they would most likely tell you that the division that’s home to some of the best defenses of the past decade, not to mention possibly the best rivalry in the NFL between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, is surely the most competitive division in the whole of the NFL.

For those who say that the AFCN isn’t the toughest division right now, it would be hard to argue that if it’s not the strongest now, it will be soon. The emergence of the Cincinnati Bengals this season has many wondering if this division will become a three horse race between the Ravens, the Steelers, and the Bengals… (apologies to the Cleveland Browns), and with the AFCN sending those three teams to the playoffs this year, it would be tough for anyone to say that this division race isn’t tightening up.

After the "Jump" is a breakdown of where the AFC North will be heading in the future.

Although the Ravens and Steelers are perennial contenders, the Bengals are looking to move themselves into the same ranks as those two teams, and perhaps if they can manage back to back playoff berths, maybe they’ll at least insert themselves into the conversation.

Every game between every team within the AFCN is always a closely contested, hard fought, difficult match up. Generally, no game in the NFL is a given. The old saying goes: "any given Sunday". But, in the AFCN, that phrase is especially true. More often than not, one or two plays will swing the outcome of any given game in the AFCN.

Here is a quick break-down of each team in the AFCN:

Cleveland Browns: 2011-2012 reg. season record: 4-12. 2012 NFL draft position(s), 1st round: 4th, 22nd:

The Browns have been in a perpetual state of re-building for years. From the draft to coaching gaffes, and every where on the field in-between, the organization has been a mess in all facets of football. With two good 1st round positions in the up-coming draft, the Browns should look to add some big play makers to plug in around young quarterback, Colt McCoy, if they want to maximize his potential. There will be a wide selection of top wide receivers and/or running backs to choose from and the Browns should look to improve their offense which nearly ranked last in every major category this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: 2011-2012 reg. season record: 9-7. Playoffs: 0-1. 2012 NFL draft position(s), 1st round: 17th, 21st:

Seemingly striking gold with last year’s picks of quarterback, Andy Dalton, and wide receiver, A.J. Green, the Bengals are on the up-swing. After trading former Bengals QB, Carson Palmer, to the Oakland Raiders for a heap of draft picks, the Bengals are in a prime position to continue building and improving their young roster. With a couple extra playmakers around Dalton and their steadily good defense, the Bengals are on their way to becoming a very balanced team. The only thing that might get in their way is themselves, as the Bengals don’t have an overly strong history of drafting the right players. They can be a scary team in up coming seasons if they get out of their own way and continue the drafting trend that they started last year.

Pittsburgh Steelers: 2011-2012 reg. season record: 12-4. Playoffs: 0-1. 2012 NFL draft position, 1st round: 24th:

This season the Steelers were plagued all year by injuries and they still made the playoffs. Even though heading into next season there may be some salary cap issues on the horizon for them, don’t read too much into it. Some veteran weight might have to be shed, but as long as defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, and quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, are around, the Steelers will remain competitive. With a less than par offensive line that was unable to adequately protect Roethlisberger, the Steelers should be looking to stock pile as many offensive linemen as possible in the up coming NFL draft.

Baltimore Ravens: 2011-2012 reg. season record: 12-4. Playoffs: 1-1. 2012 NFL draft position, 1st round: 29th:

Just missing out on a Super Bowl berth this year, the Ravens are still in a good position moving forward into next season looking to be contenders for the Lombardi trophy once again. With the majority of the defensive personnel set to return next year, including greats Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, young play makers like defensive backs, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, are what have this fan base buzzing. With an offense still looking to find its groove, a full off-season for quarterback Joe Flacco and his receivers to sync up should greatly improve their passing attack.

In the grand scheme of things, if the Bengals and Browns become more competitive by building smartly though the draft and free agency, it should be viewed as a good thing. An already stellar division getting better will result in a lot of great football games. Regardless of allegiance, isn’t that what we all want? Good, hard fought smack-you-in the-mouth football. The AFC North is where real football is played, and should be re-named the ‘black and blue’ division.

Here’s to hoping that these great defensive battles and traditions live on in a league that now favors high scoring, offense-comes-first football.

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