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AFC Central's final year may be best


It's called a division title race. It may be the best in AFC Central history, in the final year of the AFC Central's 32-year history.

Disappointed the Jaguars are just 2-2? Ready to throw in the towel on a capped-out, old team? Rebuild? Delay that for just a while longer. We have a division title race this season that may not be decided until the final week of the season, and it appears as though all six teams could factor into the equation.

Five weeks into the season, the Jaguars find themselves in fifth place, but only a win this Thursday away from a four-way tie for second place with Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland. At 3-1, Pittsburgh holds the division lead, while 1-3 Tennessee brings up the rear.

Let's take a look at these teams.

The Steelers' 29th-ranked passing attack might make you scoff at the credibility of their division lead, but they have the league's number one rushing attack, even though they've played one game fewer than most teams. The Steelers also have the number one defense, and they've won two of their three road games. The Steelers play at Tampa this Sunday, then they begin an 11-game stretch that'll see them play at home seven times.

Baltimore is still considered to be the class of the division and the AFC, but the Ravens defense has folded twice this season on the road. They're statistical rankings are still top-notch, but Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre torched the Ravens' pass-defense yesterday and there's thought that spreading the Ravens out makes their defense somewhat ordinary.

Cincinnati just doesn't get any respect, not even after having beaten the Ravens in week two. The Bengals' 3-2 record is a fluke, right? No way. Corey Dillon is a durable, big-time back, Peter Warrick and Darnay Scott are making plays, and Jon Kitna is giving the Bengals more leadership and direction at quarterback than they've enjoyed since Boomer Esiason retired. The Bengals' weakness is run-defense, and that would be the most alarming of facts in a division that prides itself on its ability to run the ball.

Cleveland announced itself in week-three with a win in Jacksonville. Most believe the Browns will slowly fade from the ranks of division title contenders, but they have an energy this season that has earned them legitimate respect. No one in this division will take them lightly.

The Jaguars have already suffered major losses to injury, of which the loss of Tony Boselli for the season would seem to be the greatest. The return of Fred Taylor will determine the Jaguars' potential for being in contention for the division title late in the season. If Taylor puts up the numbers as he did in the second half of last season, the Jaguars will be in the hunt in December.

That brings us to Tennessee, a preseason favorite to win the division crown and more. Yesterday, the Titans scored their first win, and any chance they have of joining the division title race would seem to rest with their next two games: at Detroit and at Pittsburgh. The Titans have a tough schedule, with late-season games against Green Bay and at Oakland. They must close the gap now.

This can be the most exciting of seasons. Red-hot division title races in December can create that kind of excitement, and this might be the AFC Central's best-ever December.

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