By Marc Lawrence
Once an AFC division powerhouse when operating under the ‘Central' brand, the AFC North has pretty much settled into a two-team loop with Baltimore and Pittsburgh leading the charge.
Together, playing under the AFC North umbrella, the Ravens and Steelers combined to go 163-111-2 this past decade with only four losing seasons between the dynamic duo. On the flip side, Cincinnati and Cleveland paired to post a 105-153-1 ledger over the same span, with just four wining seasons combined.
While a changing of the guard does not appear imminent, the Bengals served notice last season that they are about ready to shed their losing ways. Was 2009 for real or just a brilliant disguise? Stay tuned.
A word to the wise: teams from this division could not handle the weight of double-digit favoritism, combining to go 10-20 ATS this past decade as double-digit favorites when facing an opponent with at least one win on the season. Caveat emptor.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
BALTIMORE TEAM THEME: THOSE WERE THE DAYS
One of the best lines uttered by NFL ESPN analyst Jon Gruden last season was when he said, "If the Baltimore Ravens wore their throwback uniforms they would be the Cleveland Browns." The fact of the matter is the Black Birds are a long way removed from being the Browns these days. A tough-as-nails defensive presence is back. In addition, the offense opened up in 2009, making the Ravens a difficult game on every team's itinerary. Five of the seven regular season losses were by a field goal or less and had they not been so sloppy in the late stages of many of those games, they could have matched the 13-win campaign orchestrated in John Harbaugh's rookie season in 2008. Another strong draft by GM Ozzie Newsome will go a long way in sustaining Baltimore's dominance on defense. Art Modell no longer has his stamp on this franchise. It's a good thing Newsome does.
PLAY ON: as dog at Cincinnati (9/19)
TEAM THEME: CATS AND DOGS
Snapping an inglorious skein of one winning season in 18 years, the Bengals returned to the playoffs for only the second time since 1990 last year. Making it even harder to fathom is the fact Cincinnati failed to cover the spread all eight games in which they were favored, losing four times straight-up. The Striped Cats' multiple personalities went full circle, though, when they managed no less than six straight-up underdog wins, making them hands-down the Yin and Yang award winners in 2009. A dicey schedule (4th toughest in the league) this year could prove to be a challenge. A positive sign that the Bengals have rounded the corner: Entering 2008, they were 1-27 SU and 6-20 ATS on the road against .700 or greater opposition. They went 3-2 SU and 4-1 ATS against the same last year. Still, head coach Marvin Lewis remains cautious. "We didn't stand pat this off-season. We don't get nothing for last year."
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Pittsburgh (11/8) - *KEY if Steelers off loss
CLEVELAND TEAM THEME: REVOLVING DOOR
Check out this resume: Derek Anderson, Tim Couch, Trent Dilfer, Ken Dorsey, Charlie Frye, Jeff Garcia. Bruce Gradkowski, Kelly Holcomb, Luke McCown, Doug Pedersen, Brady Quinn, Kevin Thompson and Spergon Wynn. This baker's dozen represents all the quarterbacks that have appeared under center for Cleveland this past decade. Therein explains its 67-104 record. And that's why Mike Holmgren has taken over control of the team. His first move was his biggest when he opted to keep Eric Mangini on the sidelines. Anderson and Quinn are gone with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace battling for the starting berth. Rest assured, when it's all said and done, Colt McCoy will be calling signals and Holmgren will get this mess turned around. A solid draft and crafty free agent signings have kick-started a new era. Once the QB breeze has subsided, Browns Stadium will again become the Dawg Pound we've learned to love. Chew on that for a while.
PLAY AGAINST: at Buffalo (12/12)
TEAM THEME: DRINK LIKE A CHAMPION
What's with the water in Pittsburgh these days? Three years ago two players get arrested for running juvenile prostitution and home invasion robbery. Two years ago two more players are jailed on assault charges. Former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes was arrested on trespassing and drug possession charges before finally being traded and then suspended for four games for substance abuse by the NFL. And then there's the other Super Bowl MVP, Ben Roethlisberger. After a second charge in as many years of sexual assault, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell informed Big Ben that he'd be out of action the first six weeks this season. There's no truth to the rumor that Big Ben appeared relieved when he said, "I'm pretty sure Commish was talking about me playing football." Until the suspension, the Steelers were prepared to start the season with 21 of their 22 starters back. Remember this: Pittsburgh lost six games SU as a favorite in 2009, the most of any team in the league.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. New England (11/14)