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AFC North Year in Review

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

What a season in the AFC North!

There is still a lot of football left to play with two division teams in the playoffs. But in the final blog entry of 2008, let's look back at the year that was in the AFC North.

TOP FIVE Q&As

5. Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas discusses fishing and the league's toughest defense. (Aug. 1)

4. Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Willie Anderson talks about leaving the Cincinnati Bengals after 12 seasons. (Dec. 12)

3. Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh gives yours truly a hard time about ESPN.com's preseason predictions. (Sept. 2)

2. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith describes the gory details of his biceps injury. (Aug. 11)

1. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Bart Scott explains why he's the "Mad Backer." (Aug. 7)

TOP FIVE STORIES

5. Chad Ocho Cinco

Why: Whether it was trade demands, legally changing his name, or being sent home for conduct detrimental to the team before the second Steelers game, Ocho Cinco found a way to create headlines. With both Ocho Cinco and the team struggling, it was more difficult to stay in the spotlight. But his antics merely became bolder in 2008, still making Ocho Cinco hard to ignore.

4. Brady Quinn era begins in Cleveland

Why: Many expected this to happen at some point. But Derek Anderson's benching came at an odd time because he was just beginning to play decent football. Also, former head coach Romeo Crennel publicly deemed Anderson the starter then changed his mind less than 24 hours later, leaving questions of who really made this call? The change didn't work out as planned as Quinn took over the job, was inconsistent and broke his finger.

3. Steelers-Ravens rivalry

Why: Pittsburgh and Baltimore produced a pair of classic games this season (see below). These two teams also made for great story lines, with talk of bounties and trash-talking text messages. These teams always play each other tough regardless of the records. But the rivalry is at its best when both teams are good, which was the case this season.

2. Browns fire Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage

Why: This was expected to be the power tandem four years ago. Crennel came from the New England Patriots and Savage arrived from the Baltimore Ravens -- two winning programs. Yet both couldn't make it work and now the Browns are in the same spot they were back in 2005.

1. Joe Flacco's emergence

Why: The Ravens had no reservations of taking a rookie quarterback from the University of Delaware, and now the NFL knows why. Flacco took over the job in the first game and put together a great rookie season, throwing for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In just one year, Flacco may already be on the fast track to become the best quarterback in Ravens history. His competition isn't very stiff.

TOP FIVE DIVISIONAL GAMES

5. Bengals at Ravens I, Sept. 7

Why: This was an important starting point for the Bengals and Ravens. Both teams entered this game with insecurities. The Ravens had a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback making their debuts, while the Bengals were a team in transition hoping to put together one more run. It turned out Baltimore was better on this day with a 17-10 win at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens proved to be the better team throughout the course of the season as well.

4. Steelers at Browns I, Sept. 14

Why: Similar to game No. 5, the first meeting between Pittsburgh and Cleveland created all the separation needed between these two teams. In a prime-time matchup, the Steelers won their 10th consecutive game against Cleveland with a 10-6 road win to improve to 2-0. The Browns dropped to 0-2 and never recovered on their way to an abysmal 4-12 finish.

3. Ravens at Browns II, Nov. 2

Why: The Steelers put the Browns on shaky ground early, but the Ravens completely ruined Cleveland's chances this year with this 37-27 come-from-behind victory. The Browns were cruising with a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before Baltimore ran off 24 unanswered points. It was the first of two home games Cleveland blew double-digit leads in the fourth quarter.

2. Ravens at Steelers I, Sept. 29

Why: AFC North football was on display during this hard-hitting matchup on "Monday Night Football." Pittsburgh won 23-20 at home in overtime, but it was a game that proved Balt
imore was a legitimate threat in the division. It was also a major coming-of-age moment for Flacco, who led Baltimore to a game-tying score in regulation to force the extra period. This early-season classic set the stage for a great rematch later in the season, which brings us to ...

1. Steelers at Ravens II, Dec. 14

Why: Was it a touchdown? Was it not a touchdown? Would Pittsburgh have gone for it on fourth down? So many questions in this game when the stakes were at its highest. The Steelers won 13-9 and captured the division and a No. 2 seed in the postseason. It was another great display of AFC North football at its best. Now that both teams are in separate brackets, the Ravens and Steelers can beat up on someone else for a change.

Surely, 2009 will get off with a bang during wild-card weekend.

I want to send a personal thanks to all the great AFC North fans for taking this wild ride along with me. Let's do the same next year.

-JW