We’ve covered the AFC East and South so far. Now we’ll head up north to arguably the toughest division to call in the AFC side. The AFC North saw three teams make the playoffs last season and a repeat isn’t out of the question. This division oozes quality and hard nose football. None of these teams share any love for one another and should be highly entertaining. While the Bengals shouldn’t factor into the division title the other three teams will each feel they have a legitimate claim. So, let’s jump into this division’s preview.
The Browns finished third in the division last season, but earned a playoff spot which they made the most of. Not only did they win their first playoff game since 1994, but they did it against the Steelers who are their bitter rivals. A close loss to the Chiefs ended their playoff run, but there’s a lot to be excited about this season. For one star receiver Odell Beckham, will be back after a season ending injury last year. The offense is poised to be even better than last year. Of course, that all depends on Baker who faces a make-or-break year.
Defensively might actually be the better unit on the team as they have talent on all three levels. Last season you could argue that their secondary was the biggest weakness. But after this offseason the team made sure to take care of that problem. With John Johnson and Troy Hill coming over the team has plugged a hole with some high-level players. With the first shocker of these previews, I have the Browns being crowned champions of the AFC North.
Last season was the first time in three years that the Ravens didn’t win the division and they will be eager to set things right. The Ravens are led by Lamar Jackson who is coming off winning his first playoff game last season. Now the goal is to take that next step and get to the Super Bowl. To help Jackson, Baltimore has gone out and have tried to give him some weapons to work with. Drafting Rashod Bateman will certainly help with that as well as signing Sammy Watkins. Of course, the Ravens should once again be among the leaders in rushing yards this season.
Calais Campbell will lead a defense that was let down by their offense in a playoff loss to the Bills last season. That being said this unit will be looking to continue their strong play in hopes of a trip to the Super Bowl. Marcus Peters is the headline name in the secondary as they will look to shut down any attempts by air. Only the Rams defense averaged less points against last season than Baltimore. Replicating that feat will be hard and in the NFL it\’s more likely to regress than improve. That being said the defense should once again be really tough to beat. If the Browns don’t win the division, it will be because of this team. Baltimore has the talent and pedigree to win this division and even make a deep postseason run.
The Steelers raced out to an 11-0 record before losing steam at the end of the season. They however were still good enough to win the division before crashing down to earth in the playoffs. An embarrassing loss to the Browns, a team they don’t consider on their level, abruptly ended their season. There are many questions surrounding this team heading into the season. Perhaps none bigger than how well will Big Ben play after dropping off terribly late last season. It certainly won’t help that Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, two guys who’ve protected Big Ben since 2012, are no longer with the team. Drafting Najee Harris should help with the running game that disappeared, but it is a lot to ask from a rookie.
On the other side of the ball, you can bet that T.J Watt will be looking to make an impact for this team. He’s supported by guys like Devin Bush, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers have been traditionally known for their defenses throughout the years. Look for these guys to keep the tradition of the steel curtain. With an uncertain offense it’s on the defense more than ever to raise their game to elite levels. If the defense falters, it could spell a long season for the Pittsburgh faithful. A division title isn’t out of the realm of possibilities for this team, but at this point they are third favorites to the crown.
To say the Bengals season last year was rough would be a massive understatement. The team finished 4-11-1 and lost their franchise QB Joe Burrow to a season ending ACL injury. This was due to their offensive line being atrocious and allowing Burrow to take shattering hits consistently. Burrow appears on track to be healthy when the season starts which of course is good news for Cincinnati. The concern is making sure he doesn’t reinjure his knee. The Bengals did draft potential star receiver Ja’Marr Chase who gives Burrow a familiar weapon to throw to. But once again questions on the offensive line still remain and thus so does the health of Burrow moving forward.
The Bengals defense last season were among the worst in the league in defensive yards. Now some of that would have to do with the offense struggling mightily down the stretch. That being said the unit struggled with consistency throughout the season and that can’t be blamed on the offense. This is a young team and there is going to be some growing pains that come along with it. More than anything this team will look for consistent play as well as real signs of development. A division title is highly unlikely for this team as they simple don’t have the talent like the other three teams. In fact, don’t be surprised if they find themselves high on the drafting order again. Another long season awaits the Bengals, but they will be hoping to get a full season from Burrow this time around.