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It’s a division rich in success, history and fierce rivalry. Perhaps more than any other division in the league, though, it houses a collection of NFL franchises that has gone through massive changes that still shape the football landscape as we know it.
It was on May 10, 1969 that the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to join the AFL to form the 13-team American Football Conference of the NFL the following 1970 season, per NFL Research. It was also the same day in which the NFL agreed on a playoff format that introduced some crazy concept of a wild-card entrant from each conference.
It is the anniversary of the agreement that enabled the AFL-NFL merger and the creation of the AFC and NFC conferences and brought about playoff expansion. All these years later, the NFL is preparing for another postseason expansion as the 2020 playoffs will see 14 entrants for the first time with an added wild card and just one bye per conference.
These changes were very much put into motion all the way back when, as Johnny Unitas was still leading the Baltimore Colts, who finished second in the NFL Coastal Division in 1969, but became the first-ever AFC East champions in 1970. After leaving town in the mid-80s, the Colts are now in Indianapolis and the AFC South.
Back in 1969, the Browns — one of the league’s most storied franchise — were the final winners of the NFL’s Century Division and a year later took second in the AFC Central. Their runner-up finish came just behind the rival Cincinnati Bengals.
The 1970 season saw future Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw struggle through a campaign in which he threw six touchdowns and 24 interceptions. The third-place finish in the new AFC Central followed a one-win ’69 campaign in which Chuck Noll debuted as Pittsburgh’s head coach. Those ugly numbers were merely the building blocks of the Steelers becoming one of the finest franchises in the NFL.
Today’s Browns reintroduced themselves to Cleveland, but are still able to hold on to their history — begun with the great Paul Brown.
And today marks the anniversary of when three storied franchises moved from the NFL to the AFL and got things rolling in this Super Bowl era. A look ahead sees Joe Burrow bringing new hope to the Bengals, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, a returning Myles Garrett and others still aiming to revitalize the Browns, the Steelers hoping a defense stocked with first-round talent and a returning Ben Roethlisberger will carry on their terrific tradition and the Ravens running strong as division and conference favorites.
Today in NFL history, a trip down memory lane often times ends up right back in the present.