AFC North

After the controversial relocation of the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens were established as an expansion team on February 9th, 1996, using players and staff from the 1995 Browns. The Raven struggled, failing to win more than eight games per season from 1996 to 1999.

However, the 2000 Ravens finished the season at 12-4 behind a mean, nasty, and dominant defense, en route to their first Super Bowl Championship over the New York Giants. This win brought controversy since the bulk of the players on the 2000 team was built via moves while the original Cleveland Browns existed.

Players like Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden, for example, were drafted in 1996 with what would have been the Browns’ picks had they remained in Cleveland. Craig PowellRob Burnett, and Matt Stover remained from the 1995 team.

This set off a decade of dominance and fierce competition between the Ravens and their chief rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the two trading barbs, divisional titles, and even appearing in the Super Bowl on four more different occasions (Pittsburgh 2005, 2008, 2010, Baltimore 2012) throughout the decade and into the next. The two teams also combined for ten division titles (Baltimore 2003, 2006, 2011, 2012, Pittsburgh 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010).

The Ravens and Steelers also met in the postseason during this time, including the 2001, 2008, and 2010 playoffs, with the Steelers winning all three matchups. The Ravens, however, exerted revenge, defeating the Steelers in the 2014 Divisional Playoffs.

The Ravens would win their second Super Bowl in 2012 before facing instability between 2013 and 2017, making the playoffs just once in that timespan.

Upon drafting Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Ravens benched and subsequently traded longtime quarterback Joe Flacco, inserting Jackson into the starting lineup in Week 11 when the team sat at 4-5. Jackson led the Ravens to a 6-1 record during the latter half of the season, clinching their first AFC North Title in seven seasons before losing to the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC Wildcard Playoffs.

In 2019, Jackson duplicated his rookie success and led the Ravens to a 14-2 record before the Tennessee Titans knocked them out of the playoffs.

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After learning of merger talks between the AFL and NFL, Paul Brown led an ownership group and was rewarded the Cincinnati Bengals on May 23rd, 1967. The team struggled out of the gate, finishing 3-11 and 4-9-1 during its two AFL seasons.

After the merger, the Bengals were put in the AFC Central with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, two NFL teams who agreed to move to the newly created AFC at Browns owner, Art Modell’s request so his Browns could have an in-state rivalry with Paul Brown’s Bengals. Modell invited Steelers’ owner Art Rooney to join him in the AFC so their teams could continue its ongoing rivalry.

The Bengals faced an up and down decade in the 1970s, one that was ruled by their new division rival, the Steelers, however, the team did win their first AFC Central Championship in 1973 but were quickly eliminated by the Miami Dolphins. They finished 11-3 in 1975 but lost to the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs by a score of 31-28.

The team failed to reach the playoffs again in the 1970s but in 1981, their fortunes turned. The Bengals finished 12-4, won the AFC Central, and made their first of two Super Bowl appearances, both in the 1980s and in losing efforts to the San Francisco 49ers.

Their second Super Bowl appearance and loss came in 1988, after again finishing 12-4 and winning the AFC Central.

Hard times soon followed the Bengals following one final playoff appearance and AFC Central Championship in 1990. In fact, it is the last time the Bengals have won a playoff game to date, defeating the Houston Oilers by a score of 41-14.

The next decade and a half proved futile, and the team wouldn’t finish over .500 again until 2005 when they won what was now the AFC North with a record of 11-5. However, they wouldn’t go far, losing in the Wildcard Playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl Champion, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Starcrossed, which would serve as an accurate term for the Bengals, as they saw three more lean years before another AFC North Title in 2009 and another playoff loss.

From 2011 to 2015, the Bengals saw two more AFC North Championships in 2013 and 2015, along with five straight playoff appearances, all losses, marking an 0-7 playoff record since 1990.

They finished 2016, 2017, and 2018 without a winning record, firing longtime head coach Marvin Lewis in the process as the then-lowly Cleveland Browns burst out of the AFC North cellar for the first time in seven seasons, forcing the Bengals to dwell in the division’s bottomless pit.

Things may change for 2020 and beyond as the team drafted quarterback Joe Burrow with the number one pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Time will tell us whether the Bengals made the right move.

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The Cleveland Browns played their inaugural season in 1946 as members of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), the rival league to the NFL. After winning all four AAFC championships, including a perfect 14-0 season in 1948, the Browns were one of three AAFC teams (original Baltimore ColtsSan Francisco 49ers) admitted into the NFL.

The Browns continued their dominance in their inaugural NFL season, defeating defending NFL champion, the Philadelphia Eagles in their first regular-season game. They went on to win the NFL championship in 1950, 1954, and 1955, while appearing in the 1951, 1952, and 1953 NFL championship games.

The Browns saw one more NFL championship in 1964 under the leadership of head coach Blanton Collier, before appearing in the 1965, 1968, and 1969 NFL championships, the latter two being just one game away from the Super Bowl.

Throughout the 1970s, they saw their chief rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, dominate the NFL while the Browns fell into mediocrity. It would be short-lived, however, as they found their way back in league with the NFL’s elite with playoff appearances in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1989.

However, bad luck would crush the Browns’ Super Bowl aspirations in events like Red Right 88 in 1980, The Drive in 1986, and The Fumble in 1987, with the latter two coming against the Denver Broncos. The Browns went on to lose the 1989 AFC Championship Game, also to Denver, a year in which the team also won its last division championship to date.

The team hit another dead zone in the early 1990s under the leadership of new head coach, Bill Belichick before breaking out in 1994. After several sports outlets predicted the team would contend for the Super Bowl in 1995, former owner Art Modell stunned the City of Cleveland when he announced the team would move to Baltimore in 1996, setting off a controversy that saw the City of Cleveland challenge Modell, who breached his lease agreement on Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and the NFL.

A settlement was reached that kept the Browns’ name, colors, and history behind in Cleveland so a new team would continue the rich history of Cleveland Browns football in a new stadium, to begin play in 1999 through either expansion or relocation.

The ‘new’ Cleveland Browns returned in 1999 but struggled on the field over the past two decades. Since the team’s return, they have made one playoff appearance, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bottomed out with an 0-16 record in 2017.

In 2018, however, the Browns made splashes in the draft and in free agency, and after a 2-6-1 start to the season, they rallied to finish 7-8-1 under the leadership of rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield. The Browns were also mathematically in contention for both the AFC North Championship and the playoffs until Week Sixteen.

In 2019, the Browns made even more splashes, trading for Pro Bowl defensive end Olivier Vernon to pair with Second Team All-pro, Myles Garrett, and made a second trade for All-Pro wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr.

While 2019 didn’t go as planned for the Browns, they continued to build throughout the 2020 offseason, adding talents like Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin to make even further improvements in hopes of contending once more.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers had forty seasons of headaches. Seriously. From 1933 to 1972, the team saw just one playoff appearance, a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. They had seven winning seasons in that timespan, zero division titles, and had a 12-34 record against their chief rival, the Cleveland Browns.

Enter Chuck Noll in 1969, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, and Jack Ham among others.

After 40 seasons of headaches, the Steelers clinched their first playoff victory in 1972, ending the game in spectacular fashion.

Enter the Steel Curtain. Enter a dynasty.

And enter thirty-four winning seasons since 1972.

Six Super Bowl victories, the first team to reach such a milestone.

Eight AFC Championships.

Sixteen AFC Conference Championship appearances.

Twenty-three AFC Central/North Championships.

And a winning record against their divisional rivals, the Browns, Ravens, and Bengals.

A culture of winning.

Three head coaches since 1969 (Cowher 1992-2006, Tomlin 2007-Present).

And a fan culture that is hard for any team in any of the four major sports to rival.

The Steelers’ history can be summed up in a Tale of Two Eras.

But what about today, when instability plagued the franchise since a 45-42 loss at home in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Jacksonville Jaguars following a 13-3 finish in 2017?

The falling out with running back Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, both of whom left the Steel City for the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, respectively.

In 2020, there are more questions than answers surrounding the Steelers, and it’s a franchise that might just be at crossroads for the first time in five decades.

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