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Thursday, June 12
Updated: June 13, 12:26 PM ET
 
Pittsburgh still favored, but foes closing ground

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Call it the AFC Central or AFC North, but the roll call always begins in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers may not have the consecutive division-winning streak of the Atlanta Braves, but they aren't too far off. From 1992-97, the Steelers won six of seven AFC Central titles. After a three-year hiatus, the Steelers are back on top. They won the AFC Central with a 13-3 record in 2001 and followed last season by winning the new AFC North with a 10-5-1 mark.

Realignment removed the Jaguars and Titans, but left the Browns, Ravens and Bengals in the usual mode of trying to catch the Steelers. Though the Steelers clearly are the favorites to win the division, the question in the AFC North is how long will it take the other three teams to catch them.

The Steelers like Tommy Maddox as starter because he keeps them from getting in early holes caused by mistakes.
The biggest noise is being made in Cincinnati where the Bengals are finally turning around their fortunes under the direction of Marvin Lewis. For Mike Brown, Lewis was the perfect coach to hire to bring the franchise into the 21st century. He's bright. He's successful. He has a plan to weed out slackers and replace them with players. More than anything, though, Lewis knows the division having been an assistant coordinator in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Lewis knows that any team playing in the Steelers' division must stock their roster to counter Pittsburgh. That's what the Jaguars, Titans and Ravens did in the late 1990s.

"You have to build to stop the run," Lewis began. "You have to have a back to pound the football. You have to have the ability to make big plays downfield."

To put all of those parts together takes time, but the process escalated during this offseason. For one, the AFC North quarterback position is undergoing an amazing transformation. While the Steelers are secure with Tommy Maddox bringing a more conventional passing offense to Pittsburgh, the other three teams are using the next two years to make their adjustments at the positions. The Bengals drafted Carson Palmer with the idea of getting him ready for the 2004 season. The Ravens traded next year's No. 1 to acquire Kyle Boller with the hope that their quarterback of the future can be the quarterback of the present by beating out Chris Redman.

And the best quarterback battle is in Cleveland where Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb are in a dead heat that won't be sorted out until the third week of the exhibition season.

For now, the unsettling nature of the quarterback positions gives the Steelers a huge edge. The Bengals, Browns and Ravens finished between 18th and 26th on offense. The Bengals could jump higher by staying with veteran quarterback Jon Kitna, and the Browns could improve from 23rd if the offense rallies behind either Holcomb or Couch. The Ravens might need the full season to sort out their quarterback situation.

But within a year, all three teams should be strong at that position.

Capwise, the Steelers may have another two or three year run at being one of the AFC elite teams. The Steelers locked up most of their best young players over the past two years. Solid drafts have given them one of the league's best front sevens and an offense loaded with talented receivers -- Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El.

Knowing that Maddox, thanks to his Arena League days, is a quick, accurate thrower, coach Bill Cowher is incorporating a few more three-receiver plays to take advantage of Randle El's skills. He even picked up a pass-catching tight end, Jay Riemersma from Buffalo.

What was needed on defense was help in the secondary. The drafting of safety Troy Polamalu and the extra use of safety Mike Logan should help resolve some of the inside coverage problems of a year ago. On paper, the Steelers have an 11- or 12-win team capable of going to the Super Bowl. Of course, that was the expectation of a year ago, and the Steelers struggled against better teams and won only 10.

The Browns are the most interesting challenger in the AFC North. Four seasons after expansion, the Browns put on a late-season run and earned a wild-card spot at 9-7. Unfortunately, years of drafting at the top of the first round combined with high-priced free agency failures put Butch Davis in salary cap prison. Instead of adding on to his successes, Davis had to make some cuts.

This division is getting better. Cincinnati has improved under Marvin Lewis. The Browns can come at you now with four receivers and with William Green in the backfield and give you problems. The Steelers are good. We're so young, we will have to see what we can do.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome

He cut the teams top three linebackers -- Dwayne Rudd, Earl Holmes and Jamir Miller. He cut two more starters and leaders -- center Dave Wohlabaugh and cornerback Corey Fuller. With a tight cap, Davis only had the room to bring in one veteran -- linebacker Barry Gardner.

The question facing the Browns is whether a fifth-year expansion team has enough depth to replace six starters along with dealing with a quarterback controversy. It's not out of the question for the Browns to take a step back this season.

If they do, the Ravens will be there to move head. General manager Ozzie Newsome and coach Brian Billick set salary cap history a year ago. They gutted the roster that produced a Super Bowl and another playoff season because of the salary cap. The Ravens went young, focused their rebuilding around Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden and Jamal Lewis and shocked the NFL by winning seven games last year.

Their playoff run might be another year away, but they are a better team than a year ago. Boller or Redman has a decent stable of pass-catchers -- tight end Todd Heap and wide receivers Travis Taylor, Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson. Jamal Lewis is healthy and among the league's elite power backs. And the defense, led by a healthy Ray Lewis leads a restocked defense that has Peter Boulware, Terrell Suggs and one of the league's best young secondaries.

"This division is getting better," Newsome said. "Cincinnati has improved under Marvin Lewis. The Browns can come at you now with four receivers and with William Green in the backfield and give you problems. The Steelers are good. We're so young, we will have to see what we can do."

What division teams counted on, though, was the consistent bungling of the Bengals. No more. The Bengals haven't been to the playoffs since 1990 and they may not make it this year. But Marvin Lewis has made more impact on this franchise than any of the five new coaches this season.

For one, he talked owner Mike Brown into spending more than $19 million to bring leaders and better players on defense. The defensive line was helped by adding defensive ends Carl Powel and Duane Clemons and defensive tackle John Thornton. Kevin Hardy starts at middle linebacker. Tory James gives the Bengals a legitimate man-to-man coverage cornerback.

Lewis is using the Pittsburgh model to rebuild, but unlike the Steelers, Lewis has to deal with more than a decade of failures in Cincinnati.

"The formula we were using is to assemble a group of guys who don't have to worry about the past," Lewis said. "The players we brought in have been on winning problems. They bring leadership and good work ethics."

The Steelers still control the AFC North, but footsteps of threats are being heard in the three other cities.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





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