In celebration of Thanksgiving, here are several reasons every AFC North team and its fans should be thankful this week.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-3)
Great start: The Bengals are off to a tremendous start and likely will make their first playoff appearance since 2005. Despite last week’s letdown, Cincinnati is 7-3 and one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year. There has been a lot of suffering this time of year in Cincinnati, but this is one year the team in the Queen City will give its fans a lot to cheer about. It will be interesting to see how dangerous this group will be in the postseason.
Palmer's health: A major reason the Bengals are likely heading to the playoffs is because of the health of quarterback Carson Palmer. There were a lot of questions surrounding his elbow this offseason, but Palmer has showed no ill effects from the ailment that sidelined him 12 games last year. Cincinnati even caught a lucky break when Palmer hurt his thumb on his left, non-throwing hand, which means he didn’t miss any games.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)
Different from 2006: Yes, the Steelers aren’t running roughshod through the league in defense of their world title, but at least this year isn’t like 2006. Pittsburgh got off to a 2-6 start that season and had no shot of going back-to-back. This year, the team is 6-4 and at least still in position to get into the playoffs. In fact, since this is the time to be very optimistic, Steelers fans may view this season a lot like 2005, where Pittsburgh dealt with a ton of injuries at quarterback, barely got to the playoffs and got hot at the end by winning all of its road playoff games. Could that happen this year? Who knows? But be thankful, Steelers fans, that your team at least has the opportunity.
Mendenhall's development: In a season filled with injuries for Pittsburgh, one of the biggest bright spots on the roster has been the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall. He went from Mike Tomlin’s doghouse -- being benched on offense in the first meeting against Cincinnati -- to the penthouse in becoming Pittsburgh’s leading rusher this year. This is key for Pittsburgh as veteran tailback Willie Parker will become a free agent next year. The Steelers needed to know who their tailback of the future is, and Mendenhall is proving to be that guy.
Baltimore Ravens (5-5)
Playoffs are still possible: Most teams that lose 5 of 7 games in October and November are usually thinking about next season. But the Ravens are very fortunate that a 3-0 start, combined with a relatively weak AFC wild-card field, still has them in playoff contention. With six teams in the five- to six-win range, the magic number to qualify for the postseason could be 10. If that’s the case, the Ravens would have to go 5-1 in these last six games. But Baltimore should be thankful it still has the opportunity despite its inconsistent play all year.
Defense is back: Despite Baltimore’s recent slump, the Ravens’ defense has improved in the second half of the season. In the past four games, Baltimore is holding opponents to just 10.25 points per contest. It’s an indictment of the team’s sputtering offense that the Ravens are just 2-2 in that span. Baltimore also had a defensive touchdown in Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland Browns (1-9)
New GM: Help is on the way for the Browns in the form of a new general manager/head of football operations. Who that person is remains to be seen, but it's a void that needs to be filled. My educated guess is that it will be former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who would be a solid choice for Cleveland with plenty of experience. George Kokinis has a solid reputation in the NFL as a diligent worker, but for several reasons he just wasn't a good fit as GM in Cleveland.
Lots of draft choices: Cleveland fans are suffering now, but next April the Browns will be the center of the NFL universe with a whopping 11 picks in the 2010 NFL draft. With the way Cleveland is playing, there’s a good chance the Browns will land the coveted No. 1 overall pick. There is a lot of potential there for Cleveland to add talent to a thin roster. But the front office and scouting staff will have to make the right selections.