Posted: 8:45 p.m.
After the Bengals won with grit on the road, the Ravens won with tradition on the road, and the Steelers won with Charlie Batch at home, the AFC North just might have emerged from the openers as the NFL's best division.
Only the NFC West won three games last weekend and it had to because Arizona beat San Francisco. But no division had a shutout (Ravens), a near shutout (Bengals), and a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver like the Steelers did with Willie Parker and Heath Miller.
Each of the trio has won the division title the last three seasons. Each either has a Super Bowl or Pro Bowl quarterback. Each has head coaches who have won the Super Bowl either as a head man or coordinator. Each have kept their marquee units intact.
The Bengals start division play Sunday against Cleveland and Romeo Crennel, a man who has coached on more Super Bowl teams than his division peers combined. Here is a look at the newest crucial matchups the Bengals face from their North foes:
CLEVELAND BROWNS (at PBS Sept. 18, at Cleveland Nov. 26); BIGGEST ADDITIONS: C LeCharles Bentley; OT Kevin Shaffer; P Dave Zastudil; WR Joe Jurevicius; DT Ted Washington; LB Willie McGinest. BIGGEST LOSSES: WR Antonio Bryant; QB Trent Dilfer; OT L.J. Shelton; TE Aaron Shea.
They underwent the biggest facelift in the North in order to beef up their offensive and defensive lines and took a hit right away when Bentley ripped up his knee. Their best pickups are off the injured list with tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
LT Kevin Schaffer vs. Bengals DEs Justin Smith and Robert Geathers: After signing for about $35 million to come over from the Falcons, where he protected Michael Vick's front side, Schaffer has looked more like a right tackle. He's not particularly big at 290 pounds and got a hold on the first play of the season as well as contributed to the Saints' five-sack day while Smith and Geathers combined for five sacks.
RB Reuben Droughns vs. Bengals DT Sam Adams: The Browns are going to have to run the ball to take heat off their pass protection. Droughns is a bruiser and so is Adams.
NT Ted Washington vs. Bengals C Rich Braham: There is a lot of history here. Like 73 years and 461 NFL games. Crennel is looking for Washington to do what the Bengals want Adams to do and that's stop the run and steady the ship with Super Bowl experience.
CB Ralph Brown vs. Bengals WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Daylon McCutcheon is hurt, '05 fourth-rounder Antonio Perkins has been a disappointment, and Brown, on his third team, has been whisked off the street to play the nickel.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (Sept. 24 at Pittsburgh; Dec. 31 at PBS); BIGGEST ADDITIONS: S Ryan Clark. * BIGGEST LOSSES:* WR Antwaan Randle El; RB Jerome Bettis, DE Kimo von Oelhoffen.
That's why these guys are always good. Those two categories are always short and sweet. The Super Bowl champions have plenty of continuity. How about a Bengals offense that has no new starters against a Steelers defense that has two?
RE Brett Keisel vs. LT Levi Jones: This is a classic case where the Steelers go into their AutoZone of a draft room and pluck one of those ready-made parts to fill a hole. Keisel has been watching and learning from von Oelhoffen for four years while serving as a special teams maven. Now he gets the call with von Oelhoffen defecting to the Jets and while the 285-pounder isn't the run stuffer that Kimo is, he'll give Jones a harder, more athletic test on the pass rush.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (Nov. 5 at Baltimore; Nov. 30 at PBS); BIGGEST ADDITIONS: QB Steve McNair; DE Trevor Pryce; RB Mike Anderson; DT Justin Bannan, OT Orlando Brown. BIGGEST LOSSES: S Will Demps; DT Maake Kemoeatu; DE Anthony Weaver; RB Chester Taylor; LB Tommy Polley.
The Ravens did less than the Browns and more than the Steelers but they had the most productive offseason. They finally secured the services of an accomplished quarterback with the biggest question if the offensive line has enough gas left for one last roundup.
The Bengals know all about the defense with the return from the injury list of future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis at middle linebacker and Ed Reed at safety, and the ridiculous 1-2 pass-rushing combo of Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas.
How about the last two times McNair and Mason hooked up against the Bengals as Titans? Mason caught nine balls for 186 yards in the last game of the 2001 season and in 2002 he caught seven for 98.
DE Trevor Pryce vs. RT Willie Anderson: Pryce brings his four Pro Bowl berths and 63 career sacks from Denver against Anderson's three Pro Bowls. How good has the Bengals pass protection been against the Ravens? Last year Thomas and Suggs combined for 17 sacks, and one came against the Bengals. In '04, the Baltimore defense led the AFC in holding quarterbacks to a 68 rating in a year Carson Palmer put a 127.1 on them in that 24-point fourth quarter.
DT Haloti Ngata vs. Bengals Gs Bobbie Williams and Eric Steinbach: Ngata, the 12th pick in the draft, is as advertised. A 340-pound piece of slate that is extremely difficult to move flopping to either side of nose tackle Kelly Gregg. The Ravens are no fun to try and run on. In this decade the Bengals have had only three 100-yard games against them and Ngata won't make it any easier.
FYI: That was 26 yards rushing Ngata and the Ravens let the Bucs have in the opener.