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Believe it or not, the AFC North is a division on the rise

With the Cleveland Browns apparently ready to field a professional football team, the AFC North might actually become a four-team division again.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

I was speaking with a family friend from Chicago at a birthday party recently when the discussion inevitably switched to professional football.

Naturally, he proclaimed to be a lifelong Chicago Bears fan. He lamented about the team’s recent struggles and how long it had been since the team felt like a real contender in the NFC North. I countered with what a great player Walter Payton had been and said the fans would always have memories of that dominant 1985 Bears Super Bowl Championship team.

I reminded him that this year’s team might be much improved with impressive young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the two-headed monster tandem in the backfield that the Steelers witnessed up close and personal last season, plus an improved receiving corps.

He thanked me for the encouragement and then he made a hilarious statement that really stuck with me. “At least we aren’t the Cleveland Browns!” he said with a chuckle.

His wife, who happened to be standing nearby and overheard our conversation, chimed in with “Ain’t that the truth. They are the worst team in the league. What a joke. They didn’t even win a game last year.”

When they asked me where my allegiance resides, I proudly professed that I bleed black-and-gold. He immediately acknowledged what an outstanding team and organization the Steelers are and then mentioned the AFC North is the most vicious division in the NFL.

That got me thinking — he’s absolutely correct about the division. Of course, we already knew that, but I have a feeling it’s about to get much worse.

Nothing builds contempt for an opponent like familiarity. Especially that familiar feeling of getting your rear end handed to you on a regular basis. That’s why I feel there are three distinct levels of contempt for each divisional rival here in Steelers Nation.

First you have the Baltimore Ravens. Ever since the original Cleveland Browns escaped to Baltimore in hopes of starting over in 1996, they’ve been a thorn in the Steelers’ side. Like the Oakland Raiders in the 70’s during the Steel Curtain era, the Steelers and the Ravens go to war each and every time they line up across from each other. You can be sure that even the winning team from one of these epic confrontations will head into the following week’s game shorthanded, battered, and bruised.

The players and fans truly despise one another. In the modern age of free agency this isn’t always the case but, if you ever doubt the legitimacy of this contempt, just Google Terrell Suggs or Ed Reed discussing their feelings towards our very own Hines Ward.

Despite the loathing that exists between the teams, there’s also a profound mutual respect between the franchises. A respect and admiration that can only be achieved by lining up and testing your mettle against an opponent at the highest level for 60 minutes. Modern-day gladiators leaving blood, sweat and tears on the field of battle. True respect has to be earned.

Which brings us to the Cincinnati Bengals. They want to join this mythical fraternity but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for membership. To earn respect, you must first be willing to compete with honor, both on and off the field. This is where the Bengals as an organization and as a fan base have been so woefully lacking.

On the field, look no further than the cheap-shot artist Vontaze ‘karma knocked me out’ Burfict and Pacman Jones. Their disrespectful and childish attitude permeates the entire team and has hindered the Bengals organization’s attempt to climb back to respectability during the past decade. It wasn’t too long ago when the Bengals were like the present-day Browns, a perennial favorite in preseason to be the worst team in the league.

Off of the field, multiple legal issues and player arrests have continued to plague the franchise. Also, I feel the conduct of some the Bengals fans has been particularly disturbing. For example, I remember that the comment boards lit up with prayers and well wishes for Ben Roethlisberger right after his motorcycle accident in 2006. There were “get well” messages by fans from every NFL team in the league, including the Ravens and Browns. Sadly, I recall several messages from Bengals fans that said stuff like “I hope he dies” or “Serves him right.” I was shocked to say the least.

I might add, I’ve got friends who are Bengals fans who would never think about doing something so heartless, but that memory has always stuck with me.

What would cause such hatred between the franchises? I believe the answer is twofold.

First, the fact that the Steelers have owned the Bengals pretty much since Ben came into the league in 2004. And because Ben is an Ohio native, you begin to fill in the blanks.

Secondly, some Bengals fans still believe that Kimo Von Oelhoffen's hit to Carson Palmer's knee was intentional. You could understand their disdain if true, but I still believe it was accidental.

That leaves us with the Cleveland Browns — the worst team in the league for more than a decade. Ben is basically the hometown boy who torments the Browns’ faithful after they passed on him in the draft. That’s akin to having a big bag of flaming dog poop on your doorstep — a constant reminder twice per season of your own personal ineptitude as an organization.

But it appears things might finally be a changing in Cleveland. This off-season, the team realized they’d never lure the impactful free agents required to turn their franchise around, no matter how far under the cap they were. So they went out and traded for an impressive stable of offensive talent to add to their talented, young defense.

These off-season additions may very well prove to be the foundation for a football revival in Cleveland. They already have a faithful and rabid fan base. Suddenly, the Browns appear determined to bring professional football back to the Dawg Pound.

If so, those two additional bye-weeks the Steelers enjoyed each season may be coming to an end and the AFC North will once again become survival of the fittest.