Bye-weeks have already staggered the number of games each team in the AFC North has played, so the season is only roughly a quarter over. Still, preseason hopes and expectations are gone and 2002 has taken shape. If there is any story other than the overall poor play of the AFC North, it is the likelihood that the best quarterback on each and every team started the season on the bench.

"> Bye-weeks have already staggered the number of games each team in the AFC North has played, so the season is only roughly a quarter over. Still, preseason hopes and expectations are gone and 2002 has taken shape. If there is any story other than the overall poor play of the AFC North, it is the likelihood that the best quarterback on each and every team started the season on the bench.

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AFC North Report: First Quarter

<p><font color="#000000">Bye-weeks have already staggered the number of games each team in the AFC North has played, so the season is only roughly a quarter over. Still, preseason hopes and expectations are gone and 2002 has taken shape. If there is any story other than the overall poor play of the AFC North, it is the likelihood that the best quarterback on each and every team started the season on the bench.</font></p>

Baltimore Ravens - LB Ray Lewis is the best player in the North, by far. In the last two Raven victories, Lewis has carried the Ravens on his back and led them to improbable victories. The Ravens defense is young, but it is also fast. With Lewis anchoring this unit, Baltimore clearly sports the best defense in the division. Apparently, that may be enough to win the AFC North.

The Ravens offense is still a problem. Chris Redman to Todd Heap seems to be a golden connection, but there is not much beyond that. The offensive line is still spotty, though Jamal Lewis is a legitimate running threat. Would the Ravens consider a switch to QB Jeff Blake now that they are in the hunt to win the division? The Ravens come in at third for this unit.

Baltimore started the season with poor special teams play. With such a young team, Raven fans should have been able to expect at least spirited play on this unit. The Ravens have finally delivered and their fortunes have turned on it. Baltimore sits at #2 in the division concerning special teams play and will continue to find a win or two out of it thanks to their stout defense.

SteelCity Summary - The Steelers defensive play will have to improve in order to sweep the Ravens.

p.s. S Ed Reed sure would look great in the Black and Gold right now.

Pittsburgh Steelers - Who have the Steelers beaten to deserve the #2 ranking in the AFC North? The Cleveland Browns, who've apparently beaten no one of substance in their own right. Actually, the Steelers may now sport the best offense in the division. The offensive line still has a few warts, but the running game appears to be turning around. The passing game, for certain, is in much better hands with Tommy Maddox, now the Steelers starting quarterback.

On the other hand, the Steelers special teams are awful. They would have to concede the play here even to the woeful Bengals. To endure a game without any major gaffes seems to be enough of a victory for the Steelers. Perhaps the Steelers might steal the North crown with such a deficiency, but the Super Bowl is but a distant dream.

The defense has been a disappointment in 2002 and a surprising weakness. The Steelers lack speed at the safety positions and teams have been quick to exploit their poor coverage skills. Still, they are probably Cleveland's equal, if not their superior. Both teams rank well behind Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense, but the Steelers probably match up better against the North competition.

SteelCity Summary - Forget the Super Bowl, the Steelers would be lucky to win the North.

p.s. The Steelers are the wildcard in the race for the division crown. A weakness one week could suddenly turn the corner the next and a dominant Pittsburgh team might emerge.

Cleveland Browns - The Browns special teams have been special, even compared to the entire NFL. Two recovered on-sides kicks may be enough to rest their helmets on, that is, if they can manage to keep them on. PK Phil Dawson has been the class the division and the coverage has been solid to superb. Cleveland almost stole a second game via special teams and will likely strike gold in at least another game or two.

The Browns defense has demonstrated steady improvement through each game, but still lacks the players to defense the run cutting back to the outside. Sporadic pressure on the opposing quarterback also suggests a weakness against the pass. The Browns defense should continue to be adequate, but they will hardly take over a game and thus their number 3 standing in the division.

The Browns offense is a strange mismatch. Butch Davis would like to start QB Tim Couch and RB William Green. The fact of the matter is that Cleveland is much more formidable with Kelly Holcomb in control and Jamel White in the backfield. The problem that is the offensive line won't be solved entirely this season, but what the Browns lack in talent they make up for in passionate play.

SteelCity Summary - The Browns have already lost twice in the division and the Steelers could end up in the driver's seat by sweeping North play.

p.s. The Browns will have to succeed where the Steelers have failed thanks to early season losses. Can Cleveland win in New Orleans? Losing to Baltimore at home does not bode well.

Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals showed some life on offense against the Indianapolis Colts. The running success of Corey Dillon might encourage the Steelers in their upcoming game against the Colts. Cincinnati is clearly better off not playing musical chairs at the QB position and should just hope for better luck next time. The front office will probably have to change before the Bengals finally land a competitive quarterback and get out of the offensive basement in the AFC North.

The defense flashes some big play ability, but they are still bringing up the rear of the division. As bad as the Steelers secondary is, the Bengals is worse. The upcoming draft is rich in talent at these positions and hopefully Cincinnati will land one of the marquee talents, but they may be more tempted by QBs.

The Bengals special teams are neither especially bad nor especially good. The Bengals should target the play here as a possible way to upset the Steelers. What else can the Bengals do? They are already playing for draft picks that the front office seems to mismanage year after year.

SteelCity Summary - The Bengals are spoilers and do nothing better but spoil the Steelers. Pittsburgh best beware because they will need every win against lesser opponents to sneak into the playoffs.

p.s. The Lions looked hopeless before beating the Saints, who handily beat the Steelers. The Bengals are still dangerous, at least to the Steelers.


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