The Browns’ emergence last year shifted an already competitive division into an even higher gear, upending the power structure that had defined the AFC North since the early 2000s, especially over the last five seasons.
The standard had been that the Ravens and Steelers battled for supremacy, while down below the Bengals fielded flawed squads and the Browns squandered their enviable draft capital and cap space. It seemed that Cleveland’s main role in the league was to feed better-run teams the players they couldn’t figure out how to use.
That changed when chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, hired in 2016, was finally able to assemble a staff that shared a vision, a first for the franchise since the end of the Cold War. General manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski, both brought on in ’20, worked in tandem rather than at cross purposes, as happened within previous regimes. And, with a raft of stars in their athletic prime, such as defensive end Myles Garrett, RB Nick Chubb, free safety John Johnson, guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, center JC Tretter and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns are now a threat to go deep in the playoffs. Their defeat of the Steelers in last season’s wild-card round seemed as if it was 20 years in the making.
Even though Cleveland looks to be on track at long last, the path to its first division title since 1989 is rocky and rooted. For the first time in the Lamar Jackson era, the Ravens have a formidable wide receiver group, featuring Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins and first-round pick Rashod Bateman, who was viewed as a consensus top-15 choice before complications due to a symptomatic case of COVID-19 sidetracked his final season at Minnesota. Baltimore’s offense could expand beyond the downhill running attack that took advantage of defenses who were thrown off by the triple-option-type concepts that were so different than what they saw from other opponents.
The Steelers, too, can contend behind their stout defense and a good-enough offense. Though this may be the last ride for 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he has a creative new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada. Canada was Pittsburgh’s QB coach last year but came from the college ranks, where his imaginative ideas had already influenced NFL offenses. Expect the Steelers to have playmakers such as WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, and first-round RB Najee Harris lined up all over the field and featured in backfield theatrics designed to confuse defenses.
In the division’s cellar, once again, are the Bengals. Coach Zac Taylor, in his third season, has acquired enough pieces to run his offense properly. That said, his biggest challenge this year will be contending with somewhat outsized expectations. Cincinnati drafted a franchise quarterback last year in Joe Burrow and a top receiver in Burrow’s former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase this year. Now, after having won six games the last two seasons, Taylor will need to show significant improvement. That won’t be easy, given that Burrow is coming back after tearing his left ACL and MCL in Week 11. He will have to reacclimate to game speed, and do so behind a Cincinnati offensive line that is still a work in progress.
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. BROWNS (12–5)
Best Case: The Browns, who have the highest ceiling in the division, compete with the Chiefs for the conference title. QB Baker Mayfield, who bounced back from sophomore struggles to throw 26 TDs and only eight interceptions last year, is even better in his second season under Stefanski’s lead.
Worst Case: The offensive line gets dinged up and the run game struggles in divisional matchups against the stout Ravens and Steelers. Top draft picks CB Greg Newsome II of Northwestern and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Notre Dame don’t develop quickly enough
to help this year.
2. RAVENS (11–6, Wild-Card)
Best Case: The Ravens introduce new wrinkles to an offense that surprised the league in 2019. Jackson successfully challenges opponents vertically, and especially down the sidelines, where he has historically shied from attempting high-risk throws.
Worst Case: The Ravens still lean on the run, and the risk finally catches up with them. As injuries mount, Baltimore suffers from a lack of depth at running back and at tight end. LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and TE Nick Boyle (knee, leg) struggle to regain form as they return from season-ending injuries from 2020.
3. STEELERS (9–8)
Best Case: Roethlisberger’s signs of decline last year turn out to have been merely a hangover from the surgeries he underwent going into 2020. An offense that connected on relatively few deep shots last season (only seven pass completions of 40 yards or more) makes those plays work this year.
Worst Case: As Roethlisberger struggles, it becomes obvious that the Steelers waited too long to find his successor. With the pass game defanged, the rookie season of Harris from Alabama disappoints because he faces eight defenders near the line of scrimmage
4. BENGALS (3–14)
Best Case: Taylor’s offense finally clicks. While this doesn’t lift the Bengals that much in the loaded AFC North, they play their division foes with encouraging toughness and nab a few surprising wins during the season. Burrow and Chase display the chemistry that helped them win a national title at LSU.
Worst Case: The Bengals’ inability to protect Burrow continues into 2021, and real concern develops over whether they have the right coaches and personnel to help the 2020 No. 1 pick prosper. Cincinnati regrets not drafting one of the top tackles who were available when it selected Chase at No. 5.
More Division Previews:
AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best