Who will win the AFC North?
By: Andy Davies
The AFC North is currently one of the league’s best divisions. Three of the four teams made the playoffs last season, the most of any division in the NFL.
All four teams have strengthened this offseason as the three teams look to take a trip back to the postseason, whilst the Cincinnati Bengals also look to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season.
Here is a preview of the AFC North in the upcoming 2021 season.
Baltimore Ravens (2020 Record: 11-5, lost in Divisional Round)
Baltimore went into the 2020 season with plenty of hype, particularly around quarterback Lamar Jackson. He was crowned MVP after his brilliant 2019 season, with many predicting their week three clash with the Kansas City Chiefs seen as a preview of the AFC Championship game. It seemed that every pundit had the Ravens v Chiefs as a foregone conclusion for this game.
However, the 2020 season didn’t pan out this way. Whilst they made the Divisional Round and were one game away from the AFC Championship, they were outclassed by the Buffalo Bills in the postseason and almost didn’t make the playoffs altogether. Jackson saw some regression, particularly when it came to passing the football. After throwing for 36 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and 3,127 yards in 2019, Jackson threw for 26 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and 2,757 yards in 2020. After a three-game losing streak, Baltimore won their last five games as they reached the playoffs at the expense of the Miami Dolphins. Can they get back to the team we saw in 2019 that earned the number one seed in the AFC?
They have addressed their biggest concern, getting help for Lamar. Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins has joined in Free Agency and Rashod Bateman was taken 27th overall by the Ravens in this years’ draft. Along with Marquise Brown, Lamar has some great options. Offensive line help had also been added, with Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva taken in Free Agency. Baltimore also selected guard Ben Cleveland in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Everyone knows Jackson’s ability to run with the ball, with 2,906 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns during his first three seasons in the NFL. If he is to succeed with the throwing of the football, the Ravens have certainly done all they can.
Baltimore’s defense finished sixth in passing yards allowed in 2020 and only the Los Angeles Rams allowed fewer overall points than the Ravens. Their defense will hope to have a similar impact in 2021 and will want to improve on their run defense, finishing eighth overall. Losing Matt Judon to the New England Patriots will be a big loss, considering he recorded 21 quarterback hits and 6 sacks. However, the Ravens defense has all the talent to atone for losing a big part of their unit.
Linebacker Patrick Queen recorded 106 total tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 10 quarterback hits, and 3 sacks during his rookie 2020 season. Tyus Bowser recorded three interceptions and cornerback Marlon Humphrey recorded 8 forced fumbles, 11 passes deflected 82 total tackles, and four quarterback hits. Head coach John Harbaugh won’t allow this defensive front to slack.
Games against the Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Browns, Green Bay Packers, and Los Angeles Rams make for some tough fixtures, but games against the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, and two games against a rebuilding Bengals side will offer the Ravens some rest bite.
Baltimore’s season hopes rest on the form of Lamar. If they get the 2019 version, then expect the Ravens to be Super Bowl contenders. If we see the Lamar of the majority of 2020, then they will make the playoffs but should expect to be playing on Wildcard Weekend.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals (2020 Record: 4-11-1, missed out on playoffs)
When the Bengals went all the way to the Super Bowl during the 1988 season, nobody would have predicted them to play in just nine further playoff games and win just once in the 33 seasons that have followed. They have been one of the league’s poorest performers over recent years. They were offered hope in the 2020 NFL Draft when LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was taken first overall. However, a season-ending knee injury midseason that included a torn ACL and MCL meant that his campaign was cut short despite a promising start that saw 13 touchdowns thrown, 5 interceptions, and 2,688 yards in ten games. This amounts to 268.8 yards, 1.3 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game.
Burrow showed a lot of promise worthy of being a number one overall pick, even earning praise from Lebron James on Twitter. Can he get back to full health and become the quarterback everyone expects him to be?
He will be reunited with his college receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who recorded 20 touchdown receptions and 1,780 receiving yards in the 2019 season that saw LSU go all the way and win the National Championship. There have been some concerns in the preseason with Chase’s dropped passes but these are teething problems and the rookie wideout may need some time to adjust to the pros.
Safety Jessie Bates is one of the more underrated in the league in his position and at just 24, he can offer many more years to this franchise. Further on the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals added defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerback Mike Hilton in Free Agency along with linebacker Joseph Ossai in the third round of the draft. Hendrickson recorded 13.5 sacks in 2020. He will want to prove he is more than just a one-season wonder who performed well on their contract year. Hilton offers depth to the Cincinnati secondary. Late pick Wyatt Hubert suffered a season-ending injury in July but he offers potential for the future, with 8.5 sacks for Kansas State in 2020 and 20 across the 34 college games he participated in.
Expect the Bengals to struggle in 2021 in what is a big year for head coach Zac Taylor. They are certainly a team to watch for the future, especially with receiving talent such as Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins as well as a running back as impressive as Joe Mixon.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North
Cleveland Browns (2020 Record: 11-5, lost in Divisional Round)
The Cleveland Browns had been starved of success, with no playoff appearance since the 2002 season. They finally ended this hoodoo by reaching the postseason, beating the Steelers 48-37 in the Wildcard Round. Their journey would end against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round despite their valiant effort. Can they go one or two steps further by reaching the AFC Championship or even the Super Bowl?
Cleveland’s first target in 2021 will be to win the division, which they last won in the 1989 season. It has been so long since they won the division, that two teams have won it more recently than the Browns who aren’t even in the division anymore. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans won the AFC North in 1999 and 2000. They have a genuine chance of winning this division. It will be a tough challenge for any of the four teams to win it but the Browns have had the best offseason and this could be a deciding factor.
Safety John Johnson was added in Free Agency as well as defensive end Jadaveon Clowney, who could be a real difference-maker to this defensive line. Fellow defensive end Myles Garrett is one of the league’s best. The 2017 first overall pick recorded 12 sacks in 2020, making it 42.5 across his four-year career. You could make the case that only Aaron Donald is more feared by opposing offenses than Garrett.
Garrett is often a victim of his success, with many teams choosing to double-team him. Adding someone in of Clowney’s quality, despite struggling with injuries and consistency, will help ease the pressure off Garrett and elevate this defense. If Garrett is double-teamed, this will open the door for Clowney to get to the quarterback.
Defensively, the Browns also added one of the best defensive prospects in the draft. Notre Dame Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah somehow fell into the second round, with Cleveland taking him 52nd overall. Alongside Sione Takitaki, who recorded 67 total tackles in 2020, this pair can help this team in the middle of the field as well as from the outside.
One of Cleveland’s best assets last season was their run game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were excellent and both combined for 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns between them. They were protected well by an offensive line that was excellent at opening up gaps for their two running backs. This was guard Wyatt Teller’s specialty and he is one of the best in the league at it. Alongside Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, and Joel Bitonio, this forms one of the league’s best offensive lines that also massively helped quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The Oklahoma QB impressed in his 2018 rookie season after being taken first overall but suffered a sophomore slump in 2019. Last year saw a massive improvement in Mayfield, with 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns. He had better numbers in previous seasons but there was a much more mature Baker, someone who came up big in important situations. He combined for 467 yards, four touchdowns, and just one interception across the two playoff games last season.
With Odell Beckham back healthy, it will be interesting to see how the season goes considering how better the team looked without him on the field. He is being backed by some for Comeback Player of the Year, but injuries have played a part in recent years and there is no guarantee that they won’t reappear in 2021. Jarvis Landry was the lead receiver but will want to improve on the three touchdowns and 841 yards he racked up in 2020. He may find this tough under a system that excels when predominantly using the run game. Head coach Kevin Stefanski won Coach of the Year last season and will look to build on what was an impressive first season as an NFL head coach. The Browns have long searched for a good head coach and they appear to have finally found this.
There is trepidation about backing the Browns. They went into the 2019 season with similar hype and ultimately disappointed, with just six wins. However, this time they arent going into the season with a new head coach. Stefanski already knows the players and it is unlikely that he has a falling out with Mayfield as we saw with Freddie Kitchens in 2019. Mayfield will become the first Browns quarterback to start in week 1 in three consecutive seasons. This level of consistency has been hard to find for a franchise that has been perennial strugglers during the Super Bowl era.
It has been dangerous to trust the Browns over the years, but this year feels different. Hello first division title in over thirty years.
Prediction: 1st in AFC North
Pittsburgh Steelers (2020 Record: 12-4, lost In Wildcard Round)
Along with the New England Patriots, the Steelers’ six Lombardi Trophies put them as the joint-most successful franchise in NFL history during the Super Bowl era. Pittsburgh is always there or thereabouts, with playoff appearances in 13 seasons since the turn of the 21st century. However, they have only won consecutive playoff games in the same season once since the conclusion of the 2011 campaign.
The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell failed to make the most of a very impressive offense. Both Bell and Brown have left, with the latter winning a ring and scoring in Super Bowl 55. Big Ben is likely to be in his last season, hoping for one last chance at a third Lombardi.
Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster recorded 9 touchdowns and 831 yards in 2020 and Chase Claypool recorded very similar numbers during his rookie season. Diontae Johnson scored seven touchdowns and racked up 923 yards in the same campaign. Despite these numbers, they are going to struggle to put up similar numbers with the arm of Big Ben regressing and on the decline.
Pittsburgh was dead last in rushing yards record in 2020 (1,351), with running backs Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook both recording more yards than the entire Steelers offense. James Conner was the Steelers’ leading rusher (721) but is now an Arizona Cardinals player. The franchise went out to address this, by taking Alabama’s Najee Harris 24th overall. He will hope to add to a run game that struggled immensely last season.
Defensively, Bud Dupree may have moved to the Tennessee Titans during Free Agency but the Steelers still have T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Joe Haden, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. All of these players are fearsome on the defensive side of the ball and will give Pittsburgh a chance to win games if the offense struggles. Combine this with the head coaching of Mike Tomlin, then the Steelers should never be written off. However, the overall strength of division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland means that the Steelers may have to prepare for missing out on the playoffs altogether.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC North