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Starkey: Who is 'team to beat' in AFC North?

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
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Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel warms up prior his preseason debut against the Detroit Lions on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan.

Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert was having a great training camp until just before dinner Thursday. That's when I asked him to identify a “team to beat” in the AFC North.

“The team to beat?” he said. “I would have to say the Cleveland Browns.”

Good one, Marcus.

Wait, he wasn't laughing.

The Cleveland Browns?

“They're stacked, looking at their defense,” he said. “They're pretty deep, and they brought in some key additions. I think it starts with them, first game of the year.”

Me: “OK, so you're saying this because they're your first game, right? Because people would be shocked if I asked you for the favorite in the division and you said Cleveland.”

To my astonishment, Gilbert stood by his statement. My eyes widened.

Me: “What about the Bengals?”

Gilbert: “The Bengals? I don't want to jump too quick on them. Obviously, they had a pretty good season last year. But I still think Cleveland is the team, the matchup for us this year.”

Me: “Wow. You're blowing my mind with this. What about the Ravens?”

Gilbert: “The Ravens, they're always going to be a tough matchup. It is what it is with the Baltimore Ravens. We don't like them. They don't like us. But, um, I still have to go with the Cleveland Browns.”

So there you have it. And the more I analyze that conversation — I assure you Gilbert was perfectly sober, by the way — the more I'm convinced it actually enhanced his stellar camp.

The man had a strong opinion and wasn't afraid to express it. The same could not be said of several teammates, who went the politically correct route in answering the same question.

Not one of them said “The Steelers,” either, which surprised me. A few sample responses:

• Lawrence Timmons: “I mean, I feel like everyone's dangerous. I feel like everyone has something they're bringing to the table. It's going to be an interesting year because you really don't know. Cleveland, we know what they can do with their new quarterback. Cincinnati is an up-and-coming powerhouse. Baltimore is Baltimore. I feel like it's the SEC. Any team can win.”

• William Gay: “I consider everybody the team to beat: Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore.”

So there is no favorite?

“No,” Gay said. “Every team, you gotta beat 'em.”

Fair enough. From this vantage point, though, I see a three-team race featuring the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens. If Josh Gordon plays, the Browns could be intriguing. They are stacked on defense. But unless LeBron James lines up at tight end, I don't see them threatening to win the division, especially not when they open with the Steelers, Saints and Ravens. Minus Gordon (whose possible suspension was pending as of press time), that smells like 0-3 to me.

The Bengals are the team to beat. They're the defending division champ and the best team on paper. But their schedule is a problem. They play the Patriots and Broncos. The Steelers and Ravens don't.

What's more, the Steelers get the Saints and Colts at Heinz Field, while the Bengals and Ravens must play both on the road.

Making predictions based on schedules can be a fool's errand. Who had Kansas City marked as an easy win last year or Houston as a probable loss? One quarterback injury, and suddenly those games against New England and Denver look a lot different. But as long as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are upright, those are the two best teams in the AFC.

I'm not making any predictions until the Steelers' rookies play a few preseason games, but I could see the division coming down to Bengals-Steelers in the season finale Dec. 28 at Heinz Field. I asked Timmons if he would welcome that scenario.

“Of course,” he said. “(It's) a possibility that we want, too.”

The Ravens, meanwhile, might have a huge advantage if they can hang around until what appears to be a soft three-game landing at the end: Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland.

Unless, of course, the Browns are as good as Gilbert expects.

Can you imagine if Johnny Football stole the division?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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