AFC North top-heavy in '09

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

It didn’t take long to figure out the best teams in the AFC North last season.

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers established their dominance early along the way to 23 combined wins, a run through the playoffs and an eventual meeting in the AFC Championship Game.

But as we look five games into the 2009 season, a new contender has muddled things, making it unclear what's ahead for the division. Baltimore (3-2) and Pittsburgh (3-2) remain solid, but the Cincinnati Bengals (4-1) have also emerged after sweeping through the division the past three weeks to earn sole possession of first.

Let’s examine what the rest of the season holds for the division.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-1)

There was a feeling in training camp that the Bengals were tired of being ridiculed in the media and picked on by their rivals. Head coach Marvin Lewis established a motto of "Fight Back," and often this summer in camp that led to a lot of physical play and scuffles.

Cincinnati wants to have the type of mental and physical toughness it takes to compete in the AFC North. Those traits were on display as the Bengals pulled off come-from-behind wins in the final seconds against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In fact, the outcome of all five games this season have come down to the final minutes.

"We keep the faith," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of Cincinnati's mentality. "When it comes down to it, in the end we look at each other and have no doubt that somebody is going to make a play."

Cincinnati is making most of the clutch plays, but is this team built to last? There are several important signs that point to the Bengals holding firm in the division race to the very end.

First, quarterback Carson Palmer is showing no ill effects from last year's elbow injury. As long as he's healthy, the Bengals have a chance to take the AFC North. Second, Cincinnati upped its physicality on offense and defense. Cincinnati gives up 18 points a game, and tailback Cedric Benson leads the NFL in rushing with 487 yards. In Week 5, Benson broke Baltimore’s 39-game streak of keeping rushers under 100 yards, a major reason the Bengals ended a two-game skid against the Ravens.

"I think this is finally Marvin Lewis' formula," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "He was a defensive coordinator and a hit-them-in-mouth type of coach. Now he has his guys. They used a lot of high picks and resources on defense, and it’s really paying off. And they have a big, heavy offensive line and a big, heavy back."

Cincinnati proved once that it could beat all three teams in the division. So it doesn’t appear the Bengals are ready to fade anytime soon.

Baltimore Ravens (3-2)

Two weeks ago, the Ravens were the talk of the NFL after winning their first three games. Two weeks later, the team is on a losing streak and could be in trouble with a brutal upcoming schedule.

Baltimore’s next three opponents are Minnesota (5-0), Denver (5-0) and Cincinnati (4-1). The Ravens are one of the few teams with the talent and toughness to survive this brutal stretch, but the results haven’t shown on the field the past two weeks.

"The bottom line is this: We make a couple of plays we didn’t make, we’re 5-0. We don’t make a couple of plays in one other game, we’re 2-3," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. "That’s the nature of the NFL ... But no matter what happened in the last couple of weeks, we’re still the same team we would have been and everybody would be singing our praises. We’re no different."

The Ravens are fifth in the NFL in total offense and can run and pass with equal effectiveness, although many in Baltimore would like to see the run game more often. And with the exception of last week, the defense remains stout against the run.

But Baltimore isn’t getting much production from its shaky pass defense, which is ranked No. 26 in the NFL. The pass rush also has been inconsistent at times, complicating matters.

"I don’t really like their corners, and I think everybody knows those corners can be exploited," Williamson said of Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington. "Ed Reed back there is still great and people are afraid of him, no question about that. But because of the corners and because of the new coordinator [Greg Mattison], they’re not as aggressive. Rex Ryan used to really light it up and bring the heat, and his corners weren’t great either."

Until the Ravens fix one of their few weaknesses on defense, opponents will continue to test it by passing. How quickly Baltimore can solve this issue could be the difference in where it finishes in this tight division race.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2)

After a slow start, the Steelers have a chance to win their third in a row Sunday at home against the Cleveland Browns (1-4).

Pittsburgh is in a decent spot considering the circumstances. The Steelers lost Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, their best defensive player, in the first half of Week 1 to a knee injury. The Steelers' defense is ranked No. 4 in the NFL but has struggled to hold leads late in games. Expect that to change with Polamalu back this week.

"It’s obvious. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said . "You can’t quantify his impact on football games when he plays."

Pittsburgh this week lost starting defensive end Aaron Smith (shoulder) for the season, which could be a challenge. But during the course of the season, the offense has picked it up and quietly emerged as one of the hottest units in the NFL.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on pace for a career mark for completion percentage (73.8 percent), and Pittsburgh has found a balanced running game with Rashard Mendenhall. The second-year tailback has 242 rushing yards and three touchdowns in two starts.

"He’s big, fast, explosive and he gets to top speed very quickly," Williamson said. "If that can keep up, their offense is going to be top five, top 10."

Despite the different challenges, all three AFC North teams appear built for success. But there’s a very good chance only two teams from the division will make it to the playoffs.