Is the AFC North outdated?

February, 11, 2010
2/11/10
2:09
PM ET
Cedric Benson/Rashard Mendenhall/Ray RiceUS PresswireCedric Benson, Rashard Mendenhall and Ray Rice all rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2009, but their teams failed to win more than 10 games and make a deep postseason run.
If you look at various rule changes over the years and the two teams playing in Super Bowl XLIV, one thing is clear:

The NFL wants offense and scoring -- and plenty of it.

So what does this mean for the future of the AFC North?

It's one of the few divisions which, from top to bottom, continues to try to win championships with great defense and a strong running game. Last season, three of the four teams in the AFC North had 1,000-yard rushers and top-five defenses. Yet none of those teams finished with more than 10 wins or got within striking distance of capturing this year's Super Bowl title.

The Baltimore Ravens were the only team to advance past the wild-card round. Then they were dominated by the Indianapolis Colts, 20-3, the following week.

Want more evidence that the NFL is a pass-happy league?

Consider that 27 out of 32 teams passed the football more than they ran in 2009. Of the five teams that ran the football 50 percent or more, only the New York Jets won in the playoffs.

"I certainly think it's a quarterback-driven league and it's a pass-first league," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "You need to be able to do those things very well."

Steelers ahead of the curve

When it comes to the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers, directly or indirectly, were ahead of the curve.

Despite their lengthy history of ground-and-pound football, the Steelers began passing the ball more often than running it the past two seasons. That included most of their title run in 2008 when the fate of the season rested on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's arm down to the last drive in Super Bowl XLIII.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pittsburgh had the highest pass percentage in the division this past season by a sizable margin. The Steelers threw the football 57.8 percent of the time and ran just 42.2 percent of time.

As a result, Roethlisberger became Pittsburgh's first 4,000-yard quarterback, and Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes also gained more than 1,000 yards receiving.

Many have criticized offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for gradually changing Pittsburgh's longstanding identity. But the Steelers are adjusting with the times and remain ahead of the curve in the AFC North in terms of putting together a high-powered offense. Pittsburgh was ranked seventh offensively in the NFL last season.

"That Steeler offense is a handful for anyone, and they will probably be better than ever next year," Williamson said. "They can throw with most teams, and I think they can run."

Baltimore had the second-highest pass percentage in the AFC North at 53.8. But that number was heavily influenced by a ton of passing in the first half of the season.

The Ravens eventually reverted back to what they do best and became a run-dominant team the rest of the year. They even ran the football an astounding 52 times in a postseason win over the Patriots.

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco made good strides in his second year, but the Ravens' passing game still needs a lot of work to become elite. The inability to keep up with Peyton Manning and the Colts cost Baltimore in the divisional round.

"We've got to get better, because if we ever get involved in a shootout, I want to win the shootout," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said during the team's season-ending news conference. "We don't want to have the Pro Bowl game, but if we ever get involved in that, I want to be able to win a game like that. And I want to be able to win a 6-0 game, too. That's my goal."

The two Ohio teams were among the most run-heavy clubs in the NFL last season. The Cleveland Browns had the second-highest percentage (51.3) of running plays called in the league, and the Cincinnati Bengals were fourth (50 percent).

Cleveland's quarterback situation is in flux. It clearly is the worst in the division. Brady Quinn and former Pro Bowler Derek Anderson went back and forth as Cleveland's starter. New team president Mike Holmgren hasn't committed to either player for the 2010 season. The Browns reportedly are kicking tires around the league to see if they can strengthen the position.

The Bengals captured the division and had the most regular-season wins (10) but were one-and-done in the playoffs. Cincinnati struggled passing last season and didn't have any reliable receiver outside of Chad Ochocinco.

There is a debate in Cincinnati about how much blame can be placed upon Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. But with no receiver or tight end depth, and an offensive line that struggled to pass protect, the Bengals' passing game was limited on many levels.

"In the end, it was their downfall," Williamson said of the Bengals. "Their passing game was such a liability this past year, and that's what held them back from being a true contender."

QB play is key

The AFC North currently is competing in one of the NFL's golden ages for quarterbacks.

In 2009 alone, there were at least four sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterbacks leading their respective teams to the postseason.

Manning with the Colts, Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings and Tom Brady for New England are first-ballot Hall of Famers. Also, Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals has the potential for an early entry into Canton.

In addition, star quarterbacks such as Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb all littered the playoff field.

There were 10 quarterbacks who threw for more than 4,000 yards last season. That makes it extremely tough for AFC North teams to shut down every opponent defensively over the course of a 16-game season and three or four additional games in the playoffs. At some point, teams in the division will have to air it out and put points on the board in order to win a championship.

"I know this: It's very, very important to have your quarterback play well to be successful," Holmgren said recently. "I think if you looked around the league everyone knows that."

In a division usually focused on defense, look for a majority of moves in free agency, with trades and the NFL draft to be geared toward improving offenses in the AFC North.

No one wants to be left behind.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD