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Old 08-01-2006, 10:57 PM   #1
CantStop85
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Default Steelers and Bengals the Hunted in AFC North

http://www.profootballweekly.com/PFW...kening2104.htm
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Steelers and Bengals the hunted in AFC North
By Mike Wilkening (mwilkening@pfwmedia.com)
Aug. 1, 2006

They hate each other. The Bengals and Steelers really hate each other.

Woohoo!

This can be such a dreadfully bland league. It?s tedious listening to coaches reeling off clich?s about how much they respect the other coaching staff and players blah-blah-blahing about how ?those guys in the other locker room, they?re not going to lie down on Sunday.? I am not quoting anyone; I am quoting everyone. I get tired writing it; the readers get tired of reading it. And you know what? I suspect some of the quoted wish they went off-script a little more.

So, it was a delight to see Bengals QB Carson Palmer, 1-4 all-time vs. the Steelers and rehabilitating an injured knee courtesy of a low hit from former Pittsburgh DE Kimo von Oelhoffen, tell Sports Illustrated he hated the Steelers.

But you know what was better? Steelers LB Larry Foote getting matter-of-fact about Palmer?s problem with Pittsburgh.

?Carson Palmer only beat us one time, so he should hate us,? he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. ?I?d hate a team, too, if I only beat them one time and (lost) in the playoffs.?

For the record, the teams play Sept. 24 at Pittsburgh and on New Year?s Eve in Cincinnati.

If we?re lucky, there will be a rematch in the playoffs.

If they?re lucky, both will have a shot at the postseason in that season finale on Dec. 31. The competition within the AFC North might be too fierce for two teams to survive into January. The Browns look improved, and the Ravens are a threat now that they have added former Titans QB Steve McNair.

The Bengals won five out of six division games a season ago, losing to only ? yep ? Pittsburgh. The Steelers went 4-2 in AFC North play, falling to the Bengals and the Ravens. There was a clear class difference between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and their North brethren.

The Bengals won with offensive might, with Palmer slinging on-the-mark passes to open receivers and the running game chewing up defenses stuck on the field for too long. The Ravens, in particular, had no answer for Cincinnati; it was jarring to watch that proud defense get chewed up by the Bengals.

Well, here is a chance for the Ravens to get even. The teams play twice within 25 days in November. Palmer should be back in the lineup by that point, but whether his form will be what he or the Bengals expect remains to be seen.

Of course, you wonder in what sort of shape the Ravens will be by midseason. The team?s veteran core didn?t perform up to expectations a season ago, putting head coach Brian Billick in the firing line if Baltimore flops again.

That?s why the Ravens had to have McNair, who?s still capable of picking apart a weak secondary. He will present some problems for the Bengals, who are still a player or two short at cornerback and safety. The Ravens already have proven they can fight the Steelers tooth-and-nail.

We can?t say the same about the Browns, who played as if they ?didn?t believe they belonged on the same field as Pittsburgh in a pair of losses last season.

So Cleveland tried to import toughness in free agency and in the draft. Tired of Steelers NT Casey Hampton dominating the line of scrimmage, the Browns signed Saints C-OG LeCharles Bentley, who is known for his Pro Bowl skills at both positions but also his nastiness. Unfortunately, Bentley tore the patellar tendon in his left knee in practice last week and has been lost for the entire season ? a huge blow for the Browns. General manager Phil Savage also added NT Ted Washington and OLB Willie McGinest, veterans who understand the 3-4 defense and won?t suffer fools.

The Browns aren?t close to competing with the Steelers for a division title, but they ought to be able to defend their home turf with more confidence. Cleveland already matched up well enough with Cincinnati to consider at least a season split a reasonable goal.

Why make this big a deal about the Browns and Ravens when all we want to see is Bengals-Steelers, right now, and preferably in the Octagon? Because taking care of business within the division is a must for any playoff contender. Since the 2002 realignment, no team that has finished below .500 within its division has made the playoffs. Five teams have gone 3-3 in division play and made the playoffs ? four alone in 2004 ? but none has advanced beyond the divisional-playoff round.

The need for the Steelers and Bengals to rack up the wins in the North is made even more urgent by their tough out-of-division slates. Both teams play each of the four NFC South teams, a factor that could very well make the AFC North a one-bid division. Remember that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati fattened up on the NFC North a season ago, notching a combined 8-0 mark vs. the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings.

Other challenges loom, especially for the Bengals, who must visit Kansas City, Indianapolis and Denver and host the Patriots and Chargers. The Steelers don?t get a free pass, either, traveling to the Jaguars and Chargers and hosting the Dolphins, Chiefs and Broncos.

All this talk about schedules won?t hold up if the Bengals and Steelers are even better than a season ago, or if the Ravens and Browns don?t fire up and spend the season fighting for third place. Both the Ravens and Browns are volatile, especially Baltimore. I won?t be surprised if the Ravens win five games and Billick gets fired, and I won?t raise an eyebrow if they embrace the role of forgotten long shot and win the division in a photo finish.

But the Steelers and Bengals remain the chalk, parrying combatants who expect to be playing in January. I expect it, too, which is why I?m still chuckling at Larry Foote, historian.

I like me a good rivalry.

Especially when there may be only one playoff spot for the two teams to fight over.
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