As tradition bound as the NFC North may be, as competitive as the four teams are with each other in the NFC East, or as un-inspirational as the supposed rivalries in the AFC West are, no other division in the NFL has as incestuous a set of lineages and such deep rooted rivalries and dislike for each other as the AFC North.
You couldn't find a more dysfunctional family of personalities if you merged Dr. Phil's weirdest patients with Jerry Springer's trashiest guests.
The Steelers face Baltimore this Sunday, with the Ravens and their fans feeling cocky about their chances for a second straight sweep of the Steelers and potential second straight divisional crown. The Steelers lead the overall series of regular season games 21-15 (8-8 in Baltimore, 13-7 in Pittsburgh). While the Ravens have been in the playoffs the past four twice in that span they have faced and lost games to the Steelers, including the 2008 AFC Conference championship game.
Four teams sharing histories with either playoff hopes on the line, or nothing to play for to salvage a season but bragging rights in defeating a hated rival:
The Favored Son: The Pittsburgh Steelers are the oldest team in the division, being the first of the group to be part of the National Football League, and by far the most popular (bandwagon fans notwithstanding). With a difficult childhood long behind them, the Steelers have matured over the last 42 years into the most successful team in the entire league since the merger.
The Jealous Second Child: The Cleveland Browns are the second oldest franchise in the division (aided by an NFL act of reincarnation and the legal right to the original version's records and history) having been formed in the 1940's. Stereotypically in large families the second child grows up with numerous issues and is commonly the source of much of the strife between siblings. Just as a second child can harbor resentment and jealousy towards its more successful elder rival and shows a propensity to self destruct as it seeks its own identity, they've had 14 head coaches in the past 42 years, the Browns are certainly the source of most of the internecine issues embroiling the division. Its fan base has yet to come to grips with the loss of the original Browns, and the lingering resentment and depression pervades all of its public utterances.
The Quiet One: The Cincinnati Bengals are often overlooked in the division, usually because of their bland, wall-flower like performance on the field. The team exists in part because of an internal struggle inside the first incarnation of the Cleveland Browns, the by-product of which was the team's head coach Paul Brown (after whom the Cleveland team was named), being fired after 16 years by the new owner of the Browns, Art Modell in 1963. Three years later, Brown led an investment group to form the Bengals. More often than not, it's the quiet ones you have to watch the most, as the Bengals proved in 2009 and are proving to be in challenging the Steelers this season.
The Resentful Little Brother: The youngest team in the division the Baltimore Ravens are the second incarnation of the Cleveland Browns, having been relocated from the shores of Lake Erie to a waterside tourist trap in Baltimore in 1996 by the late Art Modell. Treated with indifference by the NFL much like a child of divorce, the Ravens were given "expansion team" status as a means to resolve the legal and ethical morass created by Modell upon his split up with the City of Cleveland. The Ravens' departure from Cleveland left the team under a dark cloud and except for one moment of success since arriving in Baltimore, the Ravens have spent the better part of its 16 years seeking approbations from its more successful rival and role model, the Steelers.
Since the league's realignment in 2002 which created the AFC North, the Steelers have won the divisional title five times, the Ravens three and the Bengals twice. The Browns last won a divisional crown in 1989 and the memory of that achievement is fading away, much like the legitimacy of its four AAFC titles which the NFL refuses to recognize.
The Browns have a miserable 68-141record since their re-birth in 1999. The Browns and their fans appear to resent everyone and everything not born or made in Cleveland. They resent the NFL for not recognizing four of its championships from antiquity; for allowing Modell to relocate the real Browns to Baltimore. They hate and resent anything and everyone associated with Pittsburgh or the Steelers; the Steelers for their continuing success, and the city of Pittsburgh for being the face of the industrial northeast (you never hear of Cleveland being called the Arsenal of Democracy, do you?). They hate the Ravens with a passion for being wrenched from their city, and they probably resent the Bengals for trying to co-exist in the same state, although Paul Brown was beloved as a coach during his 16 years with the Browns. But most of all, the Browns fans hate Art Modell, so much so that the public outcry at the team's suggestion of a moment of silence commemorating Modell's passing forced the team to cancel its plans.
The Bengals may reignite a rivalry with their elder brother in the division, as they prepare for a show down in Week 15 which could determine who claims one of the wild card playoff slots, but they haven't been successful enough on a consistent enough basis to raise the ire of the Steelers. The Bengals and their fans still harbor resentment towards the Steelers for its 2005 playoff loss, their first appearance in the post season in 15 years and the injury to its quarterback Carson Palmer on the second play of the game. While they see the Ravens as a rival to surpass, there isn't much bad blood between these two teams.
The Ravens however, are a different story. As younger brothers often feel, the Ravens resent the success the Steelers have enjoyed since much of it comes at their expense. They'll do everything possible to bring down big brother, from wearing away jerseys at their 2004 home opener, to hiring outside consultants to teach them how to be more like the Steelers in order to defeat them.
The Ravens represent a foster child, forced to live with distant relatives with kids of their own. Such a tragic founding can't help but lay heavy on the subconscious of the Ravens fan base; to receive a team in as unfair a manner as theirs was lost?
Just as in Shakespeare's Richard III the main character laments his un-natural birth "...Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform'd, unfinished, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,...", so must the deliverance of its current team warp Baltimore's unconscious perception of itself. What else would explain the delirious joy the Ravens get out of defeating the Steelers in a regular season game as they did in their home opener last year; defeating the Steelers in what was ultimately an insignificant game, since both teams still made the playoffs.
Baltimore, having focused so much on beating the Steelers, and claiming the divisional crown, must go to sleep at night after defeating the Steelers with the soliloquy Shakespeare wrote for Richard in their dreams:
"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths..."
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even though the Ravens struggle to imitate the Steelers success, their bratty little brother attitude and lack of dignity show them to be the upstart imposters they are. Just as Richard undergoes changes in character throughout the play, from an engaging and witty raconteur in Act I, to the universally despised scheming perpetrator of regicide in Act VI who is ultimately overthrown himself, the Ravens insistence on being shown the respect and admiration the Steelers enjoy, which they and their quarterback Joe Flacco have yet to earn, will only fuel the fires of their rivalry with Pittsburgh, and could ultimately backfire on the Ravens as such behavior backfired on King Richard.