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AFC North Preview: It’s Going to Be a Brawl

The Ravens ran away with the division a year ago, but the Steelers and Browns are poised to challenge them while the Bengals should be far more dangerous in 2020.

Everything about the Ravens’ 2019 season seemed to augur long-term dominance. A young star emerged at quarterback. A relentless defense developed its identity. An offensive coordinator found his creative groove, pounding team after team into clock-draining submission.

So why would anyone hesitate to hand the division title right back to Baltimore in 2020?

Maybe it’s just the nature of the division itself. The AFC North, especially during the Bengals’ more capable years, has usually been a dogfight. The same can be expected this year, except with the more functional Browns replacing Cincinnati while the Bengals are in full rebuild mode, hoping to create something entirely new with coach Zac Taylor and top pick QB Joe Burrow, instead of running off the fumes of Marvin Lewis–Andy Dalton heyday.

The biggest news is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has recovered from his right elbow injury, meaning that a Steelers team that finished 8–8 with his missing 14 games but nearly backed into the playoffs on the strength of a reborn defense, is better positioned to make a run. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield will have better protection, and more two-tight-end sets will take the pressure off star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. And, while this is no reflection on Lamar Jackson’s abilities, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Ravens’ QB to replicate an MVP season in which he rushed for more than 80 yards per game while somehow staying healthy.

It’s important not to write off what Baltimore achieved in 2019 as gimmicky, or to classify the 23-year-old Jackson as a one-hit wonder if the Ravens stumble a bit this year. Their 14–2 regular season was the culmination of so many pinpoint decisions made by management, including a keen ability to identify undervalued assets—especially Jackson, snared with the last pick of the first round in 2018, and their cadre of versatile tight ends—and a commitment to building a stifling defense.

However, the Steelers bring more than their share of intrigue to the race. Roethlisberger, who got hurt in Week 2, was a top-five QB in both 2017 and ’18. Then there’s a defense that didn’t get the recognition it deserved last year because it was paired with floundering offense, but is full of rising stars such as outside linebacker T.J. Watt and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Watt methodically piled up 14 1/2 sacks last season, logging 59 total pressures and 19 quarterback knockdowns. Fitzpatrick posted an opposing QB rating of 46.0—that’s elite for his position—after coming over from the Dolphins in mid-September, and he also had five interceptions for the Steelers. Pittsburgh finished third in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average rankings, behind just the 49ers and the Patriots.

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It’s been difficult to quantify Roethlisberger’s value to the good-to-great Steeler teams of recent years, but 2020 provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. He was the one major factor absent last year while Jackson, guided by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, took over the division. What will it mean for the balance of power now that Big Ben is back?

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BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Ravens build on their success from 2019 while updating their offense to make it less predictable to opponents who have been studying last season’s film. Plenty of teams try to copy the Titans’ game plan, built around attacking the line, from their 28–12 playoff upset, but Baltimore’s coaching staff stays one step ahead.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: As happened to the Rams last year, a postseason loss provides a successful blueprint for opposing defenses. The offense relies too much on Jackson’s rare escapability, and he wears down. Jackson is a tough runner, but he had such incredible separation that his dashes rarely seemed like a high-wire act. In 2020 they do.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: A player who missed 2019 due to injury and, before that, mused about retiring, comes back in 2020 rejuvenated and explosive at age 38. Roethlisberger elevates all parts of the offense, including its group of receivers and its relatively inexperienced backfield. New TE Eric Ebron racks up the red zone touchdowns.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The Steelers’ nightmare scenario pretty much happened last year—and thanks to coach Mike Tomlin, they nearly crept into the playoffs anyway. There really is no rock bottom here—unless Roethlisberger shows meaningful signs of decline because, as was evident last year, Pittsburgh does not have a quarterback succession plan in place.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: New coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense is more streamlined and Mayfield–friendly than Freddie Kitchens’s. An improved line gives Mayfield more time in the pocket, and with new TE Austin Hooper working underneath, the field opens up for Beckham, whose performance matches the expectations that greeted his 2019 arrival.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Cleveland truly is built on some kind of cursed land, and the Browns find new ways to divide and devour themselves. This is the most talented roster Cleveland has seen since its reboot in 1999—more so than last year’s version, which was the hot pick of so many pundits—and it would be a shame to see all that talent go to waste.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Forget about the record. The Bengals can come out of this year believing that they have both the coach and QB to move forward comfortably, which is a massive win. Taylor’s unimpressive 2019 is understood as a necessary prelude to this year, when he showcases what his offense can do with healthy wideouts and the right quarterback.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Imagine if by season’s end it’s clear that Cincinnati hired the wrong Sean McVay disciple as coach last year and then selected the wrong quarterback atop a loaded class in 2020. Burrow will surely be compared with fellow first-rounders Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert for the rest of his career. What if it’s not in a good way?