The AFC North is one of the most physically tough divisions in the NFL. The physicality of divisional games late in the season in cold temperatures just feels like the essence of what football was meant to be. Over the years, the division has been dominated by the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Cleveland Browns have effectively ascended from the cellar of the division and are legitimate contenders now. Driving the competition are young quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Joe Burrow. Let’s look at how the 2021 season could unfold.
The Bengals boast a supremely talented franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. He was playing outstanding football until a devastating knee injury ended his 2020 season prematurely. Now that Cincinnati has solved the QB position, protecting Burrow at all costs and surrounding him with weapons has to be their primary concern. Much too often in 2020, Burrow was under duress—he was sacked 32 times. However, he managed to throw for 2,688 yards, had 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions while completing 65% of his passes in only 10 games. The Bengals passed on Penei Sewell to select Ja’Marr Chase, who had an underwhelming preseason. Still, protecting Burrow and keeping him clean will be key to their success. However, my prediction is they place last in the division and Zac Taylor gets fired at season’s end. Prediction: Fourth Place
The Steelers have enjoyed a substantial amount of success in the 14 years that Mike Tomlin has been their head coach. However, his impressive run of never having a losing season will certainly be challenged this season. After losing Alejandro Villanueva and David DeCastro, and now Zach Banner being placed on the injured reserve, the Steelers will rely on their new faces to answer questions regarding the offensive line. Rookie fourth-rounder Dan Moore looks to step in at left tackle to protect an aging Ben Roethlisberger, who could be playing his final season in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, they’ll try to run the football and rely on their stellar defense to keep them in games. Ultimately, I believe they hover around .500 and miss the playoffs. Prediction: Third Place
The Ravens have the most dangerous quarterback in the division. Losing J.K. Dobbins for the year will be a blow to a team that prides itself on running the football. Because of Lamar Jackson’s dynamic ability, the Ravens led the NFL in rushing—Jackson became the first quarterback in NFL history to have two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. However, their passing attack ranked last, leaving questions about Jackson’s ability to “win” from the pocket when defenses play coverage against him. They upgraded the wide receiver room by drafting Rashod Batemen and Tylan Wallace while also adding Sammy Watkins, and still boast “race cars” Devin Duvernay and Marquise Brown. Defensively, they brought in Justin Houston who’s as pure of a pass rusher as there is in the NFL, recording at least 8 sacks every season since 2016. His presence should force offensive lines to “slide protect” to him, freeing up the freakishly athletic Odafe Oweh. The question still remains: Can Jackson consistently win from the pocket when defenses play coverage? Prediction: Second Place (Wild-Card)
The Browns have slowly and methodically built one of the best rosters in the NFL. Because they play in the physical AFC North, they have built this team from the inside out. They arguably have the best offensive line in the NFL. With a nice blend of nasty maulers in Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, and Jack Conklin, they also have what appears to be a future star in left tackle Jedrick Wills. Nick Chubb is one of the best rushers in the NFL and his ability to move the chains should help Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. see single coverage on the outside. Kevin Stefanski has seemingly found a way to take the pressure off Baker Mayfield, but this team will go as far as the defense takes them. New EDGE Jadeveon Clowney could see an uptick in sack production playing opposite of DPOY candidate Myles Garrett. It’s been nearly 20 years since the Browns have won the division, but all streaks eventually come to an end. Prediction: Division Winner