The AFC North may soon be ripe for a hostile takeover.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh have ruled the division for more than a decade, and stand first and second in the standings again this season at 5-2 and 4-3. But they have begun to show vulnerabilities.
Many of their superstars and leaders are past their prime, and injuries are the easiest way to spot age. Baltimore’s Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Casey Hampton have had their seasons, careers or productivity compromised by injury.
“Now all their great players are starting to get into Year eight, nine, 10, 11 and they’re having to replace those guys,” Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas said. “They’re kind of in that transition phase where they’re going from veteran, Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame-type guys to finding if their young guys can start to play.”
The Steelers opened 2-3, have issues on the offensive line and rank tied for 25th with 12 sacks on defense. The Ravens were hammered at Houston before the bye and the defense that hasn’t been out of the top 10 since 2002 ranks 28th.
Browns general manager Tom Heckert saw this coming at the end of last season and believed he was positioning his team to take advantage by building one of the NFL’s youngest rosters.
“Some teams are getting older, a lot older,” he said. “Some of those guys aren’t going to be around, the guys that have been around for a long time.”
The Browns host division-leading Baltimore today looking for their third straight home win. The Ravens have won nine straight in the series by a score of 226-107, including 23-16 in Week 4, and coach John
Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco are 9-0.
Yet the vibe in the Browns’ locker room this week was a mixture of excitement, optimism and defiance.
Despite a 2-6 record, many of the players talked about having a chance at the playoffs. They see an increase in talent and had their confidence boosted by two wins in the last three weeks, including over Cincinnati that broke a 12-game skid inside the division.
“We just feel like there’s no reason why we can’t keep these wins coming,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “Not to put anything past them, but everybody in the division is beatable. We just feel like our team is on the verge of being at the top.”
He isn’t discouraged by the Browns’ residence at the bottom of the standings.
“The record is completely different than how we feel as a team,” Haden said. “We know that our record could be so much better. A couple plays here, a couple plays there. We feel like we’re starting to make those and we’re starting to get over the hump. We’re starting to finally be a team that can go out and win consecutive games. Why not win three games in a row, four games in a row, just get on spurts and keep winning?”
The veterans agree with the internal scouting report and appreciate the youthful enthusiasm. But they were quick to bring a dose of reality to the notion the AFC North is theirs for the taking.
“Things always change. There was a time when Cleveland was the team that had to be beat,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “Things don’t change until people change them, though. It doesn’t matter about how young we are or anything until we go out there and we do it.”
The Browns haven’t beaten Baltimore since 2007. They beat Pittsburgh in 2009 but have lost 16 of 17.
Since the North was formed in 2002, the Browns are 15-48. They are 4-23 since 2008. A 3-3 record is the best they could muster in a season.
On the flip side, the Ravens have won an NFL-best 10 straight in the division.
Veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown didn’t bite on the suggestion Cleveland had closed the gap on Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
“Until you prove it, no,” he said. “Because the bottom line is quarterback play in the league is critical and their quarterback play right now is phenomenal. So you have to do more than become younger to change the guard.”
But Brown feels his team is headed in the right direction and has the quarterback to compete with Flacco and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
“I think this quarterback’s going to be phenomenal for this organization, this team, in this division,” Brown said of rookie Brandon Weeden. “But with that being said, there are still other quarterbacks in this division. You got the young kid in (Cincinnati’s Andy) Dalton, too. You surround these guys and you try to keep the group together to change the guard.”
Cleveland’s only winning season since the 29-year-old Weeden was old enough to buy a beer came in 2007 with a 10-6 record. It’s no coincidence that’s when quarterback Derek Anderson’s deal with the devil paid off with a Pro Bowl season.
The Browns have faced a wide talent gap across the roster compared to the Ravens and Steelers, but the largest deficiency has been at quarterback. Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings, and Flacco posted an NFL-record 44 regular-season wins and made four playoff trips in his first four seasons.
At the same time, the Browns have gone through a stream of quarterbacks that couldn’t compete. Harbaugh said Weeden changes that dynamic.
“It looks like he’s really smart, he’s got a nice arm and he’s got good poise back there,” he said. “I’m very impressed with him. There are four really good quarterbacks in this division and that makes it a tough division.”
“You’ve got Joe playing at an extremely high level and Ben has won the Super Bowl so it’s … I don’t know if I’m there yet,” Weeden said. “I think he’s giving me a little too much. I’ve got to win some more games and I need to do some better things to help this team out before I get there.
“But for him to say that, I’m very appreciative. That’s saying a lot considering how good these other three quarterbacks are.”
According to research by ESPN.com, Weeden is the only quarterback in the division who had a losing record and a completion percentage (55.2) below 61 percent through eight NFL starts. But his 1,912 yards were 216 more than anyone else.
He leads NFL rookies with 165 completions and leads AFC rookies with nine touchdown passes. He threw for 320 yards against the Ravens in Week 4 — the most by a Brown in the rivalry — and overcame a pick-six to have a shot at the tying touchdown on the final play.
“He’s just as good as any quarterback as there is out there,” running back Trent Richardson said. “Brandon makes wise decisions. He’s being confident back there. The one thing you learn about
Brandon when you watch him on film, he’s going to stand in the pocket and he ain’t scared to take a hit.”
The emergence of Weeden renewed hope in the locker room. A victory today would be tangible proof of the progress, and a true sign that the gap is closing in the North.
“You can always say that we played them well and hard-fought, but the real test is taking advantage of our opportunities by winning, not by coming close,” special teamer Joshua Cribbs said. “Because a win is a win.”
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• WHO: Cleveland vs. Baltimore
• TIME: 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM