Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:
DENVER -- The AFC North flopped in wild-card weekend because a strength of the division turned into a weakness. The defenses of the Steelers and Bengals, both of whom spent time atop the NFL, failed to deliver in the postseason.
In a 31-10 loss at Houston, the Bengals gave up 188 yards rushing when the league's seventh-ranked defense allowed an average of 104.7 yards on the ground in the regular season. In the 29-23 overtime loss at Denver, the Steelers surrendered 316 yards passing when the NFL's top-ranked defense yielded 172 yards through the air in the regular season.
The fortunes of these defenses may have changed if a defensive back didn't flinch under pressure. For the Bengals, safety Chris Crocker dropped an interception that could have been returned for a touchdown in the third quarter and got ran over by Arian Foster on a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. For the Steelers, cornerback Ike Taylor allowed catches of 51 and 58 yards before giving up the 80-yard game-winner on the first play in overtime.
The AFC North could boast last week when it was the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. Now, the pride of the division rests on the Baltimore Ravens, who play host to the Texans in Sunday's divisional round.
Here is what the local columnists are saying:
BENGALS: The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty believes the Bengals' playoff appearance was a gift. "It might be patronizing to pat the Bengals on their collective helmet and thank them for a season well played," Daugherty wrote. "That doesn't mean it's wrong. This season amounted to a 17-game dress rehearsal for better days."
BROWNS: The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw says he doesn't want team president Mike Holmgren to blow up the team. He just wants him to step it up. "As the Browns' top executive, his team is 9-23 in his first two seasons," Shaw wrote. "The Browns blundered badly time and again, and raised more questions than they answered about the head coach, quarterback and feature running back."
RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck thinks the Ravens won't be out of whack after a week off work. Unlike Baltimore's last first-round playoff bye in 2006, the Ravens had a few days of practice this past week. "Funny, but if memory serves, there were some veterans who thought Harbaugh had a little too much drill sergeant in him when he showed up here for the 2008 season," Schmuck wrote. "Now, you've got the team leaders fully on board with the program, which has been proven out by four straight appearances in the postseason."
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook suggests not putting all of the blame on Taylor, saying the Steelers didn't do enough to stop the run and didn't sack Tim Tebow. "One by one, Steelers front-office people, coaches and players stopped by to console cornerback Ike Taylor," Cook wrote. "Too bad the players didn't do more to support Taylor on the field. If they had, maybe the Steelers still would be in the AFC playoffs instead of home this morning trying to figure out how they lost to the Denver Broncos."