Eisenberg: A Startling AFC North Disparity

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We're under the impression the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals run neck-and-neck-and-neck in the AFC North. The standings usually suggest it, as do most games between the teams.

The division is known as one of the NFL's most hotly contested, with minimal differences separating the contenders.

But while the teams are evenly matched from September through December, that's not true in January, at least not lately. The opening weekend of this year's playoffs underscored a startling disparity between the Ravens and their rivals that has developed in the postseason. 

The Bengals lost in Indianapolis on Sunday, dropping their playoff record to 0-4 over the past four years. The Steelers also lost, absorbing a 30-17 licking from the Ravens at Heinz Field Saturday night. Pittsburgh is now 0-2 in the playoffs over the last four years, having also lost a wild-card-round game in 2011.

The AFC North earned one-fourth of the slots in this year's Super Bowl tournament, but quickly, the Ravens are the only ones left. And that's typical. While the Bengals and Steelers have combined to go 0-6 in the postseason since 2011, the Ravens have gone 6-1 and won a Super Bowl.

It can't just be happenstance, so many twists of fate. Why are the Ravens so vastly superior in January lately?

It's not home cooking. The Ravens have contested just one playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in those four years. They're so used to the road that it won't faze them to face the Patriots in New England this Saturday. It's happened three times in the past four postseasons.

Their playoff superiority isn't injury-related, either. Yes, the Steelers and Bengals sorely missed Le'Veon Bell, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham over the weekend, but with 19 players on injured reserve and their offensive line and secondary staggered by losses, the Ravens have also dealt with injuries. I would credit the Ravens' front office, headed by GM Ozzie Newsome, for the playoff superiority, except the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati front offices also have found good players and built winning teams. They've won six of the past eight AFC North titles between them.

One major factor that does explain the January disparity is the caliber of quarterbacking the Ravens have received from Joe Flacco. His playoff numbers rate with the greatest in history, while Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton's playoff numbers are abysmal and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has just been so-so lately. In a league where quarterback play determines so much, that's huge.

But Flacco is one of just a few starters left from the Baltimore teams that lost the AFC title game in 2011 and won the Super Bowl in 2012. Newsome has turned over a large chunk of the roster in a rebuild-on-the-run project. Other than Flacco, the main constant is Head Coach John Harbaugh.

His style clearly works. I'm not saying Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin or Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis fall short by comparison. That's absurd. Tomlin has taken two teams to Super Bowls and won one. Lewis is a winning coach. But with a 10-4 career playoff record, Harbaugh obviously has a knack for producing bold, tough, nerveless postseason performances such as Saturday night's in Pittsburgh.

At this point, the Ravens totally believe in their ability to win playoff games, having done so repeatedly. But that confidence had to start somewhere, and it traces to Harbaugh, whose core message – stay focused, do your job, stay together and keep believing – is a natural fit for January's pressure-cooker setting.

The Ravens are well-coached, period. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees has cleverly mixed schemes and coverages to hold his unit together in the face of a run of injuries this year, while Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak has impressively turned his unit around.  But Harbaugh leads the operation with a strong hand.

The fact that the Ravens are back in the Elite Eight of the Super Bowl tournament (for the third time in four years) can't qualify as his finest hour because he's won a Super Bowl, but it has to rank near the top. This year, the Ravens dealt with the Ray Rice scandal, key injuries, Haloti Ngata's suspension and several tough losses, but they persisted, made the playoffs, and flattened the Steelers. It's a testament to Harbaugh's stay-the-course, look-straight-ahead philosophy.

This team is less experienced than his prior playoff qualifiers, with new leaders running the locker room, so the tone set at the top is crucial. Harbaugh kept the players coolly on point through the ups and downs, in position to make another January run if things came together.

In the brew of qualities that has produced the Ravens' playoff success, Flacco obviously is a key ingredient, but the head coach is just as vital.

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