Although the NFL regular season doesn't begin for another three months, there's gathering evidence that 2016 will be the Year of the AFC North.
The division's hometown teams are already on quite a roll.
Earlier this month, Pittsburgh's National Hockey League team, the Penguins, captured the Stanley Cup. And then on Sunday night Cleveland's National Basketball Association team, the Cavaliers, gave their city its first major pro sports championship since 1964 with a stirring victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
I would like to suggest that the trend inescapably points to the Orioles winning their first World Series since 1983 later this year – can I get an amen on that? But I guess it actually means either the Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians or Cincinnati Reds are due to prevail. None have captured baseball's Fall Classic since 1990. (FYI, the Orioles and Indians lead their divisions, the Pirates are miles behind the Chicago Cubs and the Reds are rebuilding.)
And of course, a fitting culmination to the Year of the AFC North would be a Super Bowl triumph for one of the division's teams -- technically in 2017 but attached to the 2016 season. That actually wouldn't be shocking. Since the NFL realigned into its current eight-division format in 2002, the AFC North and AFC East are tied for the most Super Bowl victories. The New England Patriots won three for the AFC East, while the Ravens won one and Pittsburgh Steelers won two to give the AFC North its three.
The Cleveland Browns haven't contributed to THAT total, of course. The Browns have never played in a Super Bowl – not when Art Modell owned them for more than three decades, and not since the new Browns began playing several years after Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore and rechristened it the Ravens in 1996.
The Browns' ongoing struggles and the success the Ravens have enjoyed, with those two Super Bowl victories and 10 playoff appearances, only added to the heartache Cleveland's sports fans continually experienced until LeBron James and the Cavaliers finally gave them a reason to celebrate Sunday night.
Full disclosure: I found myself pulling for them and their team as I watched that Game 7. In my prior life as a Baltimore Sun columnist, I had been an eyewitness to several of the most painful moments of Cleveland's 52-year title drought, and well, enough was enough.
You've heard of The Drive, that iconic John Elway-led march into the teeth of the Dawg Pound that helped the Denver Broncos beat the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship Game? I was on the field in Cleveland for that, having come down from the Municipal Stadium press box to make it easier to get to the locker rooms for post-game interviews. On some of NFL Films' sideline shots from that drive, you'll catch glimpses of me (with more hair) standing near Pat Bowlen, Denver's owner, who wore a full-length mink coat.
Then I was on hand for another close call in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series between the Indians and Florida Marlins in South Florida. The Indians had a one-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning and gave the ball to their All-Star closer, Josa Mesa, a former Oriole fondly remembered as Joe Table. Cleveland was three outs away from a celebration, but Mesa blew the save and the Marlins wound up winning in extra innings.
I also was in Cleveland throughout the last weeks of the 1995 NFL season after Modell announced he was relocating to Baltimore. It was a wrenching time. Modell left the Browns' colors and history in Cleveland, unlike Robert Irsay when he moved Baltimore's Colts to Indianapolis in 1983, but Modell did NOT leave former Browns great Ozzie Newsome behind, and that powerfully impacted the football destinies of both cities. Newsome became a title-building GM in Baltimore.
Cleveland was certainly overdue for a dose of the right fortune, which James and his crew delivered with their epic road win over a team that went 73-9 during the regular season. Books will be written, the preceding chronicle of Cleveland's misery retold, with Baltimore playing a role. But now a new question looms: Can divisional success really be contagious?