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Franchise Turning Points: AFC North

A look at how each AFC North franchise got to where it is today

Alex Hickey

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The Talking Heads posed the question “Well, how did I get here?” in the 1980 song “Once In A Lifetime.”

It’s applicable to anyone, of course, with football fans and their respective favorite teams being no exception. Football Insiders is taking a division-by-division look at the turning point in each franchise’s recent history that can answer that very question.

We began with the AFC East. Now, it’s on to Cincinnati… and the rest of the AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Turning Point: Drafting Ben Roethlisberger

The Steelers have had multiple eras as the cream of the AFC Central/North crop, but the most recent was born when Pittsburgh selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Just as it did when it won a coin flip to get Terry Bradshaw in the 1970 Draft, Pittsburgh had a bit of luck in watching Big Ben fall into its hands. Multiple teams still wandering in the QB Wilderness took a pass, including the Raiders, who took “can’t miss” offensive tackle Robert Gallery and tabbed Kerry Collins as their ’04 starter. The Browns skipped on the Ohio Boy for tight end Kellen Winslow II. And Houston, still holding out hope that David Carr could turn into something, went with cornerback Dunta Robinson.

And thus the Steelers found their replacement for former XFL MVP Tommy Maddox.

Outside of the occasional legal charge it’s been a pretty good ride, with Big Ben leading the Steelers to three AFC titles and the fifth and sixth Lombardi Trophies in franchise history. A place in Canton likely awaits when his career is through, proving his legacy will last a long time in northern Ohio even if he couldn’t get drafted there.

Baltimore Ravens
Turning Point: Hiring John Harbaugh

The NFL franchise smart enough to keep its Harbaugh around will continue to reap the benefits.

Since Harbaugh took over Baltimore in 2008, the Ravens have engaged in a battle royale with Pittsburgh for control of the division. Only once in his seven-season tenure have the Ravens failed to make the playoffs, and winning a Super Bowl the year before probably softened that blow. Baltimore only had three playoff appearances in the 11 seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival.

Harbaugh’s true magic is done in the postseason, where he has yet to have a one-and-done appearance. The Ravens have one at least one playoff game in their six appearances under Harbaugh.

Harbaugh’s reign has also coincided with the career of quarterback Joe Flacco, which theoretically creates a chicken-and-egg scenario of “who made whom?” You are fooling yourself if you’re actually asking that question, though, but in an effort to give some props to Mr. Flacco we’ll just say “both sides make each other better.”

Cincinnati Bengals
Turning Point: Drafting Andy Dalton

It’s a match made in “meh” – the ultimate barely above-average quarterback with the ultimate barely above-average franchise. For better and for worse, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals are married to each other.

As much as we like to dump on both, it’s hard to forget just how hapless Cincinnati was before the Red Rocket’s arrival. The Bengals have made the playoffs all four years of Dalton’s career. Cincinnati’s previous four playoff appearances took place over a span of time that dated from 1988-2009.

In regards to sustained success, this is the most successful era in Bengals history. But every time the playoffs come around, we wonder if the team and quarterback have both reached their ceiling.

Andy Dalton is the reason the Bengals are here. Will he continue to be the reason that remains the place where they are stuck?

Cleveland Browns
Turning Point: The Move

The traumatic moments in Browns history can be summed up in two-word sentences. The Drive. The Fumble. The Move.

All have been jarring blows, but none compare to losing the original, competently run Browns organization to Baltimore. As much as Clevelanders continue to hate Art Modell to the grave, he remains the last person to run the team with any semblance of football knowledge.

Original Brown Ozzie Newsome has been the Ravens’ general manager since 2002, a time period that has seen Browns 2.0 revolve through six GMs. The organization that left Cleveland is a model of stability, while the one that replaced it remains the NFL’s most unfortunate joke.

Until the Browns organization can become even remotely respectable, the sting of The Move will never go away – because Browns fans recognize that the team challenging Pittsburgh for AFC North supremacy should be their own.

Alex Hickey can vividly recall most significant NFL events going back to Walter Payton's final game in 1987, including the ones that didn't make him cry. Since 2008, his full-time job has been covering college football, specifically McNeese State, for the Lake Charles (La.) American Press. Free time is spent informing, amusing or annoying you for Football Insiders.

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