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AFC North: A Sunday Drive

If the AFC North were a car, it would be an old Buick sedan; nothing flashy, but big enough to survive any accident. It’d be a little rusted and would have torn seat cushions. Pittsburgh always drives and Baltimore usually sits shotgun. The younger twin siblings, the Browns and Bengals, fight it out in the back seat every year. Little has changed.

Pittsburgh’s formula of power mixed with deception has resulted in yet another Super Bowl, and defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, lives on in his campaign to rid, first the division and then the world, of serviceable offenses.

New to the diabolical genius’ scheme is first-round defensive tackle, Evander Hood. While not a stay-puff fat guy like Casey Hampton, Hood still weighs in just over 300 lbs. and could find a home as an end in LaBeau’s harebrained 3-4 defensive set. The Steelers also added depth to their secondary drafting a pair of cornerbacks; Keenan Lewis in the third round, and Joe Burnett in the fifth.

Offensively, the Steelers will enjoy the return of Rashard Mendenhall who will team with Willie Parker in Pittsburgh’s perennially effective running game. With the wily Roethlisburger at the helm, two quality running backs, and the same offensive line as last season, the Steelers don’t have many holes to exploit on offense either.

Baltimore has no secrets. They’re big and rugged and will punch you in the face when they see you. It seems that every year pundits line up to say how old the Ravens are on defense or how the offense still lacks a play-making receiver, and every year it seems those pundits are quickly silenced. If it weren’t for the Steelers regularly outsmarting Baltimore, the Ravens would be Super Bowl champs.

They seem to have an assembly line in Baltimore where young players are molded into Pro-Bowlers and once they hit the free-market and become too expensive, general manager Ozzie Newsome reloads with another infusion of talented youth. Bart Scott and Chris McCalister have been replaced by rookie Paul Kruger and free-agent Chris Carr.

On offense, Jason Brown and Willie Anderson are replaced with veteran Matt Birk and first-round pick Michael Oher. It all works out for the Ravens because they have a very scripted, very public blueprint of how they want their team to operate and dares the world to stop them if they can. Sadly for the Ravens, the Steelers are still driving the Buick.

As for that squabbling coming from the backseat, Cleveland and Cincinnati continue to scratch and claw at one another while Baltimore laughs and Pittsburgh threatens to stop the car if they don’t behave. While each has had a brief moment in the sun in the past five years, neither has found much footing within the black-and-blue AFC North.

On paper, Cleveland looks disastrous. If the Browns have any brains at all, they will finally euthanize the Derek Anderson experiment and write off any of his past success as a mirage. Brady Quinn, a marketable yet unproven quarterback, remains the most logical candidate to start the ‘09 season. With a battered and tired old workhorse like Jamal Lewis in the backfield, some semblance of a decent passing game seems required if the Browns expect any offensive production at all this year.

Too bad for the Brownies, they have a moody superstar who drops passes and a former quarterback who hasn’t impressed anyone as a receiver. The Cleveland front office did address the passing game concerns in the draft by selecting two receivers in the second round. They took center Eric Wood with their first selection, strengthening a talented, but inconsistent offensive line.

Defensively, they also have lots of problems, and the free-agent signings of Eric Barton and Cory Ivy are wet band-aids at best. Don’t expect the Browns to improve their run defense much which finished 28th in 2008. I expect Mangini to take some lumps on the head in the AFC North before he can get the franchise headed in any forward direction.

The Bengals have experienced their best off-season under Marvin Lewis, and the result will be finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack in the AFC North. They’ve taken care of a lot of needs that indicate that they might have turned a corner in regards to staying competitive.

So as the Buick cris-crosses Ohio and Pennsylvania (and a bit of Maryland) this season, when it finally comes to a stop, the seating chart should remain intact. Perhaps in the near future, the Bengals will get another shot at seeing the world from the front seat. Until then, they have to put up with their bratty twin sibling, Cleveland, poking them in the ribs and not staying on their own side.

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