What the Cincinnati Bengals have accomplished thus far in 2011 has been surprising to say the least. Written off by many for dead in a major rebuilding year, Marvin Lewis has guided his team to a winning record and stands one victory on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens from securing a playoff berth.
While many have questioned the quality of Cincinnati's wins, one only needs to look as far as the success of their division to see the significance of what the Bengals have accomplished. A victory on Sunday would also secure Cincinnati a .500 record in the most competitive division in pro football.
No other division in pro football comes close to having the competitive balance in the AFC North, not even the big market NFC East that gets the lion's share of media attention with the Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh might not have the glamor of those markets, but their teams more than make up for it on the field.
A Bengals win Sunday would mean that three of the four teams from the AFC North would qualify for the playoffs. Additionally, all three teams would have at least 10 wins. Only the Browns at 4-11 would have a losing record and five of their losses have come within the division and seven have been by 10 points or less.
AFC North teams have defeated division champs New England, Houston and San Francisco. Denver squeaked out a home win in week two against Cincinnati and Oakland won at home by a touchdown against Cleveland. They haven't played anyone else in the AFC North.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic about the AFC North is the defensive prowess of the teams. Four of the NFL's top 10 defenses reside within the AFC North. This statistic has been reinforced by the battles that have been fought within the division this year. Only Baltimore's week one dismantling of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh's home rout of the Bengals have been blowouts. The rest of the games have been wars.
This weekend's final showdowns promise to be no less. The Steelers visit the Browns, perhaps the nastiest of all the divisional rivalries. The Steelers need to win to have a shot at the division crown and possibly home field advantage in the playoffs. James Harrison returns for them to face the fans in Cleveland who will no doubt be in full voice after his vicious hit on Colt McCoy the last time these two played. McCoy is still questionable this week as is Ben Roethlisberger who badly injured his ankle in that game.
The Bengals-Ravens contest will be intense as well. The Bengals narrowly lost in Baltimore earlier in the year, having a Jermaine Gresham touchdown overturned and missing a red zone touchdown opportunity at the end of the game. Ray Lewis is back for the Ravens while AJ Green will suit up for Cincinnati this time around.
So there's one more set of divisional battles left for teams in the AFC North… that is unless they meet again in the playoffs, which is a distinct possibility.
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