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AFC North Preview: How The Browns' Competition Stacks Up

End result should be the same, but progress will be made.

I don't think anyone is expecting Cleveland's new plan to bring a flame to this team immediately, but this will be a year of transition and adjustment with some descent talent on the field. These types of seasons are never easy, especially for a core unit of inexperienced youngsters. But given time, these recent draftees will get to know the systems of Eric Mangini and Mike Holmgren, which will become the way they know how to play football at the professional level. Assuming the Brown's core is left in tact, they could have something; in a few years.

The three other teams in the AFC North division have a few things going for them right now.

The AFC North is like a chameleon adapting to its surroundings; it changes its color constantly, and this division the Browns find themselves in modifies its winner on almost a yearly basis. Every team, except for the Browns, has won the division title at least once in the past four years. In the past five years, one of the two wild-card spots has come from this division as well. The competition is fierce, so expect nothing less this season.

The Cincinnati Bengals surprised everyone last year when their defensive secondary became one of the best in the AFC. Normally having a reputation for a good aerial attack and solid running game, the Bengals promptly altered their identity to help themselves out. Corners Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall had career years, and were the driving force to this thriving defense. The dynamic duo had six interceptions each and combined for a stunning 44 passes defended.

This year, the Bengals defense is looking for more balance. A second year triumph for linebacker Ray Maualuga could be in store, plus they get Antwan Odom back, who recorded eight sacks in six games in 2009. But will their defense be a one-year wonder? It's quite possible.

The 2009 season was uncharacteristically different for the Bengals offense. While healthy, quarterback Carson Palmer averaged under 200 passing yards per contest for the first time in his career since his rookie season. But then again, with newly revived halfback Cedric Benson leading the way, Palmer was not asked to do much. Benson scampered for 1,251 yards and was no doubt the wheel that made the Bengals turn.

But what could be a surprisingly good offense, if not possibly the best in the division is the Ravens. Yes, the Ravens. They aren't notorious for scoring a lot of points, but newly acquired wide receiver Anquan Boldin adds a whole other dimension for third year quarterback Joe Flacco. Boldin is the ideal receiver for the dirty birds; hard nosed, elusive and tough to tackle. He even took a shot to the helmet when he got sandwiched between two safeties in a Jets game a while back, and astonishingly, returned to the field the same season. Perhaps the sole reason Baltimore pursued him was to help the Ravens defeat Pittsburgh. Running back Ray Rice is also becoming one of the elites backs in the game.

We know what the Ravens will bring defensively, as long as No. 52 is patrolling the field. No matter who he has as teammates, Ray Lewis will make positively sure that intimidation will be a factor. The team has lost stud players on defense before, and has flourished at the same time. I fear that this team is the team to beat in the AFC.

Although they managed to win games they shouldn't have won and go 9-7 without arguably the best defensive player in the game, I don't see Pittsburgh being on top in 2010. The whole Ben Roethlisberger situation could prove to be detrimental to this ball club's chemistry. He should consider himself lucky that he wasn't dealt like former fellow receiver Santonio Holmes. Then again, who would be crazy enough to deal their franchise quarterback?

Pittsburgh did not do well on the road last year, coming in at only 3-5. The Pittsburgh Steelers of old were better away from Heinz Field rather then at home. Sure, Troy Polamalu will anchor the most physical defense in the NFL, but they need to score too. Can Byron Leftwich really be the guy that can help the Steelers the same way that Ben did? Ben has been one of the healthiest quarterbacks in terms of not missing time from the game. Despite all of his off-field situations, he hasn't missed more then two games in a season since 2005. This will be a tough adjustment for Pittsburgh to make.

The Browns have a few things going their way at the moment, but don't expect them to contend with the big boys. One of my theories is that in order for a bottom-dwelling team to get to the top, or at least improve, then someone else needs to get worse. The Browns need a little help from their competition, but they likely won't be getting it any time soon. All three teams, the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers have all made their own improvements, which could cancel out the ones the Browns made.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.