By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
If you’ve ever wondered why the Pittsburgh Steelers are particularly disliked by foes in the AFC North, the answer is simple.
The three other teams in the division all have connecting histories.
Cincinnati and Cleveland are in-state rivals founded by Paul Brown. And as you’re well aware, the Baltimore Ravens and the Browns have their own unique relationship. Only the Steelers, who are older than the original Browns, have no direct history involving Paul Brown.
The AFC North is also the only division in the American Football Conference that does not contain a charter team from the original American Football League. They were the only division in the NFL to claim three berths in the playoffs last season.
While tons of history and pedigree abound in this division, it’s been the Ravens and Steelers that have dominated of late. With only four losing seasons between the dynamic duo since 2000, the two have combined to go 265-153-1 SU and 225-184-10 ATS (55.0%) this new millennium.
On the flip side, the Bengals and Browns are 147-240-1-1 SU and 178-197-13 (47.4%) collectively over the same span.
And, despite Cincinnati’s appearance in the postseason last year, it appears there is no changing of the guard looming in the near future.
A word to the wise: teams from this division travel exceptionally well in competitive games, going 35-31 SU and 39-21-6 ATS as road underdogs of three or less points since its inception. When seeking revenge in these games they zoom to 22-10 SU and 23-7-2 ATS, including a mind-boggling 16-3-1 SU and 17-1-1 ATS if they own a .500 or greater record.
For teams residing in the chilly AFC North, those are some nice numbers to warm up to.
Note: Team writeups by this author were excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
Team Theme: PREYING FOR MORE
En route to sweeping the division for the first time in franchise history last year, the Black Birds fell only a chip-shot field goal (Billy Cundiff), or a dropped touchdown pass (Lee Evans), short of taking on the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI last year. Some might find solace in the fact that Baltimore is the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game each of the last four years. Not the Ravens. Not for a team that ranked 1st in the league in red-zone defense and 2nd in third-down defense. The loss of LB Terrell Suggs, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to an Achilles injury hurts more for the moment. That puts the onus squarely on OLB Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens’ top pick in the draft, (a 2nd round steal) from Alabama. With MLB Ray Lewis beginning to show his age it’s imperative the defense steps up this season. Meanwhile, star RB Ray Rice, who led the NFL in all-purpose yards with 2,068 last season, joins under-appreciated QB Joe Flacco to lead the offense.
PLAY ON: vs. New England (9/23)
Stat You Will Like: Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs each of his first four years.
IN THE STATS: The Ravens held four foes to season-low yards in 2011.
Team Theme: TWO’S COMPANY
Little did the Bengals realize when they drafted WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton with their top two picks in the 2011 draft that both would rewrite NFL history by becoming the first rookie wide receiver-quarterback tandem to make the Pro Bowl. Dalton also became the first quarterback not drafted in the 1st round to start all 16 games and take his team to the playoffs as a rookie. Anxious to improve on last year’s playoff success, Cincinnati went to work in the offseason signing seven free agents and re-signing seven players. A rock-solid draft, including five players on both sides of the ball, garnered high grades as well. The key to returning to the playoffs this season will be two-fold: (1) avoidance of sophomoric blues by Dalton and Green and (2) continued improvement from a defense that has finished in the league’s Top 10 each of the last two seasons. Surprisingly, the Bengals surrendered more than 24 points only twice during the regular season last year. A repeat performance will go a long way toward usurping the stat below.
PLAY ON: at Baltimore (9/10)
Stat You Will Like: The Bengals have not had back-to-back playoff appearances since the 1981-82 seasons.
IN THE STATS: The Bengals were 0-6 ‘ITS’ in their final 6 games of the season last year.
Team Theme: NO ORDINARY JOE
When the Browns acquired the services of Alabama RB Trent Richardson with the 3rd pick in this year’s draft, a lot of eyebrows were raised. Not over his potential to be a star in the league, but rather the fact they traded three later-round picks in order to move up ONE SLOT in the first round to insure his services. For the record, Cleveland had a bevy of late round picks but were more interested in Richardson than whatever the slugs had to offer. More important, Hall of Fame RB Jimmy Brown went on to label Richardson just ‘ordinary’. Motivation cemented. New offensive coordinator Brad Childress, former Vikings head coach, worked with Browns head coach Pat Shurmur when the two were on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia. New defensive coordinator Dick Jauron brings 26 years of NFL coaching experience, including 10 as a head coach, to form a savvy coordinator tandem. If co-1st round pick Brandon Weeden is able to bring the best out of either himself or incumbent QB Colt McCoy, Richardson will not go down as an ordinary back. Book it, Jimmy.
PLAY ON: at Cincinnati (9/16)
Stat You Will Like: The Browns are 1-41 SU off a loss versus greater than .666 opponents since returning to the NFL in 1999.
IN THE STATS: The Browns scored more than 20 points in only one game last season
Team Theme: CURTAINS FOR THE AFC
Were it not for a last-second loss to the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers would have been the AFC’s top-seed in the playoffs last year and, as a result, would have avoided another Tebow-miracle. Behind a creaky offensive line, Big Ben had his bell rung over and over last season. Despite injuries to his ankle, shoulder and thumb, Roethlisberger somehow managed to toss for more than 4,000 yards, mostly to a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. A monster draft included OG David DeCastro and OT Mike Adams as they filled out their biggest needs with a pair of mainstays. LB Sean Spence, DT Alameda Ta’amu and RB Chris Rainey completed a draft coup. The purge of aging players (Hines Ward and James Farrior) for younger replacements is not only on, but having a major impact. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley welcomes all the help, and he got plenty. Coupled with the top-ranked defense in the loop last year, the Steelers have another Super Bowl glow about them.
PLAY ON: vs. Baltimore (11/18)
Stat You Will Like: Teams who are favored in games after facing Mike Tomlin’s Steelers are 10-28 ATS.
IN THE STATS: The Steelers are 41-11 ‘ITS’ in all games since 2009.