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Is the AFC North becoming as competitive as the Jim Harbaugh-era NFC West?

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The NFC West was an NFL powerhouse from 2012-2014. Does the AFC North currently have the firepower to compete at the level the NFC West once did?

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals-Steelers rivalry is one of the most brutal rivalries in sports right now. After the two teams battled it out in a heated Wild Card matchup under the lights in January, the rivalry has risen to new heights, as many fans believe it to be the most ruthless matchup in the sport. Over the course of the past two seasons, both teams have lost starting quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers for at least a week after matching up. But the two teams do more than just beat each other up; they're two of the most dominant teams in football.

With the Ravens presumably trending upward after injuries depleted their roster last season, the AFC North is the best division in football. Though the AFC North has sent three teams to the playoffs in past two years, the division is seemingly as competitive as ever, especially considering how the Bengals have slowly developed into an NFL powerhouse since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green entered the league. Today's AFC North is very reminiscent of the Jim Harbaugh era NFC West, so the question must be asked: Is today's AFC North capable of competing at the level the NFC West briefly competed at?

There will always be debate as to which team is the division's best, but regardless of who is best, it's very likely the AFC North sends at least two teams to the playoffs this season. And if history has indicated anything, it's that the Bengals will be one of those teams. Despite Le'Veon Bell's injury issues and the suspension to Martavis Bryant, the Steelers still figure to be dominant in 2016, and the Bengals should also be able to compete despite losing several key players and coaches over the offseason.

Harbaugh's 49ers won 36 regular season games and five postseason contests over three seasons from 2011-13. They reached the NFC Championship in three straight seasons, which was a major accomplishment for a team that posted losing records in eight straight seasons before the hiring of Harbaugh. Pete Carroll's Seahawks didn't emerge as contenders until 2012, but they quickly won a Super Bowl in 2013. The 49ers and Seahawks met nine times while Harbaugh was in San Francisco. The 49ers dominated the rivalry early, but the Seahawks bounced back, taking a 5-4 series lead before Harbaugh was eventually fired.

The NFL hasn't seen a division quite like the 2012-2013 NFC West, in which the 49ers and Seahawks won 47 games in two seasons, averaging 11.875 wins per season when factoring in the 49ers' tie in 2012. Additionally, the two teams won four playoff games apiece, appearing in two Super Bowls and winning one. The NFC West sent a team to the Super Bowl in three straight seasons from 2012-2014, which is insanely impressive considering how the two teams faced each other at least two times each season. The NFC West has sent a team to the NFC Conference Championship in every year since Harbaugh became a coach in 2011. And despite the Cardinals and Rams occasionally presenting challenges to the 49ers and Seahawks, it has been the Seahawks and/or 49ers who have appeared in the division's three Super Bowls and five conference championships in that span.

The AFC North appears as though it's on track to become a powerhouse division to the degree of the 2012-2013 NFC West, but it will take playoff success in order to do so. The Bengals have been dominant in the regular season, but they've yet to win a playoff game in Marvin Lewis' tenure. The Steelers have won two Super Bowls with Ben Roethlisberger manning the quarterback position, but they haven't been able to advance deep into the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl in 2010--before Andy Dalton was a member of the Bengals.

2015 looked like a year in which the Bengals and Steelers could've competed in the playoffs, but the two teams tore each other apart in the Wild Card matchup and before that, Dalton was lost for the season in the second matchup of the season between the two teams. It would've been difficult for either team to advance deep into the playoffs, whether the Bengals or Steelers won. Had the two teams not matched up in the first round, however, it's not wild to imagine the two teams could've potentially met in the AFC Championship.

It will take playoff success from the Bengals and Steelers, as well as competition from the Ravens and Browns, for the AFC North to take the next step as the NFL's premier division. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will need to also stay healthy, which is easier said than done when seemingly half of each team's rosters gets injured when the two teams face each other. If the two clubs are able to stay relatively healthy, however, the present day AFC North could be as competitive as the 2012-2013 NFC West. Both the Bengals and Steelers have the talent and coaching to make a deep playoff run, so it's now up to the two clubs to show what they're made of in 2016 and beyond.