If you've ever wondered why it is Pittsburgh is pretty much a rival to every team in the AFC North, the answer is simple.
Three of the teams have connecting histories. Cincinnati and Cleveland were founded by Paul Brown, while the Baltimore Ravens and the city of Cleveland 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 AFC that does not contain a charter team from the original American Football League.
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 over the last decade, the two have combined to go 240-143-1 SU and 209-166-5 ATS (55.7%) this millennium.
On the flip side, the Bengals and Browns are 134-220-1 SU and 162-183-10 (46.5%) collectively over the same span.
And, for all intents and purposes, 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 33-38 SU and 36-19-6 ATS as road dogs of three or less points since 2000.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine, with various addendums included after the NFL Lockout was lifted. Designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
TEAM THEME: HIP DUO
The AFC's version of Atlanta's dynamic duo of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, Baltimore's terrific twosome of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have been joined at the hip the last three years. And like the former, John and Joe have been busy winning games and making dough for their backers en route to three straight playoff appearances. Initial concern this season would normally be last year's declining numbers where the offense and defense performed like the economy when they both fell off on both sides of the ball clear across the board. However, the combination of a soft schedule (the league's 2nd easiest, with opponents combining for a 117-139 record last year) and decent draft (backup QB Tyrod Taylor at No. 6 was a steal) should keep the Black Birds resting on their perch for another season. And speaking of this year's agenda, the Ravens' road slate finds them taking on only two foes with winning records last season. That fits like a cape and mask with Harbaugh's gaudy 21-1 SU and 17-5 ATS mark in games against losing teams.
PLAY ON: home vs. Pittsburgh (9/11)
FAST FACT: The Ravens are 5-0 SU and ATS home off a win vs. an opponent off a loss under Harbaugh.
TEAM THEME: BUCKLE UP
The roller coaster ride at King's Island Amusement Park outside Cincinnati has nothing on the ups and downs of this team. From last-to-first-to-last place finishes in the AFC North Division each of the last three seasons, the Bengals have added more grey onto the head of Marvin Lewis than jugs of Just For Men could ever handle. Still, a promising offensive draft has transformed this team as it prepares for life after Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. As a result Lewis believes quarterback Andy Dalton, the team's second-round pick, has a good chance of starting at the beginning of the season. Especially Palmer's trade me-or-else edict delivered during the off-season. "I feel really good about Dalton," Lewis said. "If he ends up being the starter as a rookie, I think he can do that." New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has raved about Dalton and his strengths. "What impresses me is the location of the throws. He gives his guy a chance to run after the catch," said Gruden. Fortunately the new young cast will face easiest non-division opponent schedule in the league this year as last year's foes were 63-97. Let the ride begin.
PLAY ON: as a dog at home vs. Baltimore (1/1)
FAST FACT: The Bengals are 2-13-1 ATS as HF's under Marvin Lewis after allowing 20 > points.
TEAM THEME: ON THE FRITZ
When Cleveland GM, and former NFL head coach Mike Holmgren, pink-slipped Eric Mangini in favor of Pat Shurmur he had a plan. Along with himself, and with former head coach Dick Jauron added as the new defensive coordinator, Holmgren surrounded Shurmur, the nephew of former Green Bay Packer defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, with as much experience as a rookie head coach could possibly be afforded. Shurmur, a four-year letterman at Michigan State and co-captain of the 1988 winning Rose Bowl team, brings 12 years of NFL coaching experience, including the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams last year in their offensive renaissance. That's the good news. The bad news is the NFL lockout could prove especially harmful to promising young quarterback Colt McCoy, of whom Shurmur feels has it. "He's a leader. He's a guy that I think can be the guy to lead our organization, so I'm looking forward to getting to work with him." To no one's surprise Jauron added massive defensive tackle Phil Taylor and pass-rushing end Jabaal Sheard. Three straight 1-5 division finishes look to be a thing of the past, sooner than later.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Oakland (10/16)
FAST FACT: Cleveland is 1-37 SU off a loss vs. greater than .666 opponents since returning to the NFL.
TEAM THEME: THE COLOR OF MONEY
Remaining true to their colors, the Steelers selected defensive players with four of their first five picks in this year's NFL draft. It's been the benchmark of this team dating back to the 70's and the Steel Curtain defense. Many agree the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers were the greatest team in NFL history. They didn't just dominate, they'd intimidate. They went 17-2 that year when they allowed 9.3 PPG during the regular season, with the losses by a total of 10 points. It's by design that Pittsburgh has allowed an average 282 YPG and 17.7 PPG this millennium. And it's also why they've managed to capture three Super Bowls last six years. Like the Steelers of yesteryear, Mike Tomlin's team plays a punishing brand of football. That's evidenced by the fact that teams in the league are a wobbly 28-33 SU and 22-39 ATS in games after squaring off against Tomlin's teams. Sure, they'll carry the moniker of Super Bowl loser this season and we'll play accordingly as these teams rarely make it back to the playoffs the following year, let alone prosper, going just 38-70-2 ATS as favorites since 2000. Ouch.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Tennessee (10/9)
FAST FACT: Ben Roethlisberger is 20-1 SU and 18-3 ATS vs. greater than .666 division opponents.