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Larger text Smaller text AFC North gains rugged reputation
By Joe Starkey
Monday, September 3, 2007
Quick question: How many AFC North teams have won at least one playoff game since the division was formed in 2002? Try one.
"That's very surprising, let's just say that," said Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. "Wow. I never looked at it like that."
"What about Baltimore?" said linebacker James Farrior. Nope, the Ravens haven't won a playoff game since 2001. The Cleveland Browns haven't won one since 1994, and the Cincinnati Bengals haven't won one since 1990 - back when Chuck Noll was the Steelers coach, and the Pirates were winning the first of three consecutive National League East titles.
"That's hard to believe," Farrior said. "We have a tough division, so you'd think some of the teams might get a playoff win. I'm happy for the fact we've gotten some."
The Steelers are 6-2 in playoff competition since the NFL realigned in 2002. The Ravens are 0-2. The Bengals and Browns are 0-1. The Steelers also own the division's best overall record (50-29-1) and divisional record (21-9) by a wide margin. They, along with Baltimore, have won two division titles. Cincinnati won it in 2005.
No AFC North team has successfully defended a division title - and Farrior made it clear that last year's champ, the Ravens, will have a target the size of Terrell Owens' ego on their backs.
"They pounded us pretty good in both games last year, and I'm pretty sure they did the same with the other teams in the division (the Ravens were 5-1)," Farrior said. "They're the team to beat."
Cleveland is the only team that would shock people by winning the division. The Browns have a sorry all-time divisional record of 8-22 and are coming off a 4-12 season, though they are developing some star players such as linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who had 11 sacks as a rookie.
"This year, the expectations for the defense are higher," Wimbley said. "We're feeling more confident. We have a little bit more depth, and we want to establish ourselves as one of the top defenses."
Cincinnati found out just how tough it is to defend a division title last season, when they faltered in the second half and finished 8-8, while the Ravens won going away at 13-3.
"Every year, it seems like (the division) gets tougher," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "There are a lot of the same players -- the Ray Lewises, the Troy Polamalus -- and all those young guys. In a lot of people's opinion, it's the best division in football." That is highly debatable, but it sure looks as if the division is undergoing a personality change, at least on offense. The pound-the-ball style appears to be giving way to more diverse, spread-it-out attacks that reflect an upgrade in quarterbacks and overall offensive personnel.
In 2002, the AFC North's starting quarterbacks were Tommy Maddox (Steelers), Jon Kitna (Bengals), Jeff Blake (Ravens) and Tim Couch (Browns). None ranked higher than 16th in the league in passer rating.
Last season, Palmer (sixth) and Baltimore's Steve McNair (14th) were in the top 15, and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger finished 21st after two highly successful seasons. By the end of this season, prized Cleveland rookie Brady Quinn could join those three as starters.
"When you have a franchise quarterback, sometimes it will allow you to change the scheme," Townsend said. "You might be running the ball 40 times a game and not throwing deep. Now, you have guys who can do everything at the quarterback position in our division. You have to let them do what they do best."
The Bengals have the division's highest-flying attack. The Browns have some potentially lethal weapons in Quinn, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow. The Steelers and Ravens showed a different look in training camp. Both teams will use more spread sets, with one running back and multiple receivers and/or tight ends.
Newly acquired Ravens tailback Willis McGahee likes what he sees.
"The most weapons I've ever been around," he said.
McNair feels infinitely more comfortable in his second year with the team.
"It's a 180-degree turn," he said. "I'm not rushing like I was last year, trying to fit in with this offense. Last year, I was thinking, 'Am I doing the right things?' Today, I know it. It's a big, big difference."
Farrior isn't buying the notion that the AFC North suddenly will become an aerial circus.
"It's still a tough division," he said. "Teams are going to try to pound the ball still. I really don't think it's evolved too much to the quarterbacks and passing game."
Time will tell. One thing that will remain unaltered, no matter what, is the animosity the teams feel toward each other.
"Everybody in the division hates each other," Farrior said. "That won't change."
Joe Starkey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810