After a campaign in which the mighty AFC North sent three of it’s number to the Playoffs, what will 2021 bring? Will the Ravens bludgeon their way to a division crown, or will the Browns continue their ascent? Do the Steelers have one more run in them, and where do the Bengals fit into it all?
For the first time since 2014, the AFC North sent three of it’s residents to the Playoffs, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns each winning eleven or more games. Despite winning the division, Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch and were utterly embarrassed by their bitter rival, Cleveland, on Wild Card Weekend, with the previously hapless Browns besting them in a 48-37 shootout. Now with COVID-19 all but behind them and all four teams appearing stronger after a full offseason of bolstering their ranks, what can we expect from arguably the deepest division in the National Football League? Will Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ merciless rushing attack pave the way for a Super Bowl run? Will the ascending Browns prove that last year was indeed no fluke and become a postseason mainstay? Does Big Ben Roethlisberger have enough left in the tank to lead the Steelers on one more voyage into the Playoffs? And where do the young Bengals fit into it all, as they look to make progress in Year Three of what has been an arduous rebuilding project? Let’s attempt to answer those questions as we take a jaunt throughout what looks to be nothing short of another competitive season within the AFC’s version of the Black & Blue Division…
The Favorite: Baltimore Ravens
After winning back-to-back AFC North titles in 2018 and 2019, last season was nothing short of a struggle for the Ravens, who despite posting a stellar 11-5 record were forced to deal with a litany of issues due to COVID-19. Indeed, no team in the NFL was effected more adversely due to the pandemic than Baltimore, who saw a number of their games rescheduled to accommodate a roster that featured a myriad of individuals test positive for the virus, none more notable than (2019 MVP) Lamar Jackson. Following a watershed campaign in which he led the league with thirty-six touchdown passes, while rushing for 1,206 yards (a record for a Quarterback), Jackson came back down to Earth a bit in 2020, particularly as a passer; he completed 64.4% of his attempts for 2,757 yards, twenty-six touchdowns and nine interceptions, while fumbling ten times. With that said, following a midseason swoon he and his teammates managed to get healthy and wreck havoc down the stretch, winning their final five games of the Regular Season, before enacting revenge against the Tennessee Titans on Wild Card Weekend. Unfortunately, (Head Coach) John Harbaugh’s charges would see their march come to an end in Buffalo a week later, but nonetheless stand poised for a serious run heading into 2021. A healthy Jackson, coupled with an emerging (Sophomore Tailback) J.K. Dobbins and (steady rusher) Gus Edwards should guarantee that the Ravens will continue to plow through their opposition on the ground, but the lingering question is if this Offense can become dynamic enough through air; simply put this is a team that needs to get more production out of it’s Receiving Corps after a year in which that particular position group accounted for just over 108 yards per game, which was the lowest such figure in the AFC. Baltimore added more weapons in the Offseason, acquiring (former Chiefs Wideout) Sammy Watkins and drafting Rashod Bateman twenty-seventh overall this past Spring. The Defense also faces some concerns in regards to the pass-rush, and replacing the production of (Edge-Rusher) Matt Judon, who left via Free Agency. With that said, Harbaugh and his Staff have routinely done a solid job of developing replacements on that particular side of the football, where they remain a nasty, intimidating side; keeping with their reputation, Baltimore allowed the second-fewest points in the league last season (18.9) and forced twenty-two turnovers to boot (10th Overall). In a division littered with bullies, this team remains the baddest of the bunch, but if they can manage to incorporate just a bit more balance in their attack then they can absolutely count themselves as a serious threat to hoist this year’s Lombardi Trophy.
The Contender: Cleveland Browns
For the first time since 2002, and only the second time since the franchise returned to the city of Cleveland, the Browns advanced to the Playoffs, where as we stated earlier they kicked in the door and embarrassed their hated rivals, the Steelers, running them off Heinz Field in a 48-37 triumph on Wild Card Weekend. Though their run would come to an end the following week at Kansas City, there is nothing but good vibes coming out of the ‘Land, which is the first time that we can confidently say that in decades. After years of shuffling through General Managers and Head Coaches, the franchise finally struck gold in the form of (GM) Andrew Berry and (HC) Kevin Stefanski, with the latter earning Coach of the Year honors for guiding this long downtrodden team to an 11-5 finish. The 39-year old found success in streamlining an attack that despite being flush with talent, struggled mightily to become greater than the sum of their parts prior to his arrival; Stefanski doubled down on a ground game that churned out 148.4 yards (3rd Overall) on 4.8 yards per carry (5th Overall) with (Tailbacks) Nick Chubb (1,067 YDS, 12 TD) and Kareem Hunt (841 YDS, 6 TD) routinely breaking long runs. This made life much easier for (former No. One Overall Pick) Baker Mayfield, who in his third year as the starter authored his most efficient campaign with twenty-six touchdowns opposed to a career-low eight interceptions, while taking just twenty-six sacks, which was a steep decline from the forty suffered in 2019. Oh, and did we mention that he managed this largely without the services of (All-Pro Wideout) Odell Beckham Jr? The dynamic Receiver has struggled to make much of an impact in his two seasons in Cleveland, relegated to just seven games last year due to injuries, and though he was certainly shopped around during the Offseason, the potential of what he could do within the confines of Stefanski’s scheme appears to be an opportunity too good to pass up. If they continue to run the ball with the success that they did in 2020 (and there is no reason to think that they won’t), then there should be a wealth of opportunities for Mayfield to find Beckham downfield. With that said, if Cleveland is going to prove that they have some staying power towards the top of the AFC then they’re going to have to get better defensively, where talent doesn’t appear to be much of an issue either; (All-Pro Defensive End) Myles Garrett (12.0 Sacks) is joined by another former No. One Overall Pick in the form of Jadeveon Clowney, as the 28-year old looks to get his once promising career back on track, while (Second Round Pick) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah brings a wealth of athleticism to the second level at Linebacker. Everything is in place for the Browns to make another leap, though going from being a bad team to a good one is the easy part, whereas becoming a great one is far more difficult.
The Wild Card: Pittsburgh Steelers
In most cases coming off a 12-4 season culminating in a fourth division title in seven years would make a franchise such as the Steelers the favorites to repeat, but that simply isn’t the case heading into 2021, where one of the most consistently stable franchises in the NFL is very much a question mark. That’s because after getting off to an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh collapsed down the stretch, dropping four of their final five games of the Regular Season before getting absolutely blasted in that aforementioned defeat to the Browns on Wild Card Weekend. The writing was on the wall for (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin’s charges going into that particular contest, with a predictably one-dimensional Offense showing signs of breaking down weeks beforehand. After another Offseason spent mulling retirement, (six-time Pro Bowl Quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger (3,803 YDS, 33 TD, 10 INT) returns to pilot what the franchise hopes will be a more balanced attack; the Steelers ranked dead-last in the league in rushing (84.4) and yards per carry (3.6), surpassing 100 yards on only one occasion after Week Six. At 39-years old, it’s not ideal for Big Ben to be throwing the football over forty times per game, which is why Pittsburgh went to work in the Offseason to bolster a ground game that was toothless in 2020. Granted, this wasn’t easy to do given they suffered from one of the worst salary cap situations in the league this past Spring, which led them to part ways with a number of veteran Offensive Linemen. Tomlin will be relying upon a younger group up front to protect Roethlisberger and open alleyways for (First Round Pick) Najee Harris, who should bring some punch to the Backfield following his performance for (National Champion) Alabama last season. If the Offense continues to struggle moving the chains, they’ll at least have one of the nastiest defensive units in the NFL at their back; the Steelers were borderline dominant once again on this side of the rock, yielding just 19.5 points (3rd Overall) on 305.8 total yards (3rd Overall), while manufacturing a slew of big plays with fifty-six sacks (1st Overall) and twenty-seven turnovers (2nd Overall). Don’t expect that to change given the talent that Tomlin has on Defense, with Pro-Bowlers at every level, including (Defensive End) Cameron Heyward (4.0 Sacks), (Edge-Rusher) T.J. Watt (15.0 Sacks), and (Defensive Back) Minkah Fitzpatrick (4 INT, 11 PD). The pieces are in place to return to the Playoffs, but then again you can say that about both the Ravens and Browns, so if the Steelers wish to avoid another disappointing finish and maximize the twilight of Roethlisberger’s career, then that young Line is going to have to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in the trenches, which is an aspect of the game that their competition has clearly surpassed them in.
The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals
Bringing up the rear in the AFC North are the Bengals, who find themselves in the unenviable position of being the lone rebuilding team within a division where each of their neighbors are of postseason caliber. Progress has been slow for (Head Coach) Zac Taylor, who in his two years in Cincinnati has managed a miserable 6-25-1 record, though last season his charges did show signs of improvement as they doubled their total of wins from 2019, winning four. Granted, Ownership may be growing impatient for this is a team that must start making some significant strides or the winds of change could begin blowing once more in the Queen City. With that said, there is reason for some optimism; prior to suffering a torn ACL which ended his rookie campaign in Week 10, (last year’s No. One Overall Pick) Joe Burrow showed signs of being the Franchise Quarterback that the Bengals desperately need, completing an efficient 65.3% of his attempts while limiting his mistakes (13 TD, 5 INT), all behind an Offensive Line that routinely left him susceptible to crushing hits. This past Offseason, Cincinnati continued to add weapons around him, tabbing (former LSU teammate) Ja’Marr Chase at Fifth Overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, bolstering a Receiving Corps that should be a strength for an Offense that ranked twenty-ninth in both points (19.4) and total yards (341.4). The Line, which was among the league’s worst in 2020, should show marked improvement, with the addition of (veteran Tackle) Riley Reiff in Free Agency coupled with the healthy return of (versatile Lineman) Jonah Williams, whom after missing the entirety of his rookie campaign due to injuries in 2019, missed another six last season. Protecting Burrow (32 sacks in ten games) and his surgically-repaired knee will be the mandate for this group, while also opening holes for (versatile Tailback) Joe Mixon (556 Yards from Scrimmage, 4 TD). With that said, the Defense must show considerable growth too, though unlike the Offense there aren’t many blue chip talents to rely upon; (Safety) Jessie Bates (3 INT, 15 PD) was a real find in the Second Round of the 2018 Draft, but apart from that it’s difficult to find playmakers on a unit that ranked dead-last in sacks (17) and twenty-seventh in takeaways (17). The 24-year old is entering a contract year, and the Bengals simply can’t afford to let another talented defender leave town for Free Agency, which was the case with (former Cornerback) William Jackson, who signed with the Washington Football Team in Free Agency. Cincinnati acquired (former Browns Defensive Tackle) Larry Ogunjobi (2.5 Sacks, 5 Tackles for Loss) in Free Agency, but it’s hard to fathom the 27-year old transforming this unit overnight. With a healthy Burrow under Center and a full Offseason to grow and get more acclimated to his teammates and Taylor’s Staff, the Bengals should continue to develop this season, though unfortunately for them they reside in a division where any growth will be glacial, which means that Management is going to have continue being patient.