by Spencer Richardson
A year ago, the AFC North was the toast of the league.
The Ravens, led by Lamar Jackson, were only one season removed from the AFC’s top seed. The Browns were also coming off an excellent season, punctuated by a tough loss against Kansas City in the AFC Divisional round. And the Steelers still had Mike Tomilin, who, remarkably, had never (and still hasn’t) pitched a losing season at Pittsburgh’s helm. Even the Bengals figured to be improved, having drafted Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow’s return from injury imminent.
Flash forward to the present.
The Steelers squeaked into the playoffs. The Bengals nearly won the whole thing. The Ravens face at least some questions about Lamar Jackson’s future in Baltimore, and Baker Mayfield has been replaced by a signal caller that might not even suit up this season.
Generally, the AFC is a decent bet to send multiple teams to the playoffs. Between the 2020-21 season and the 2021-22 season, the division sent five teams to the playoffs. Last year, the Steelers and Bengals notched postseason berths; the season prior, the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all reached the postseason.
Could the division once again send multiple teams to the postseason? Perhaps, but not if the AFC West has any say in the matter.
Here’s an early look at the AFC North, team by team:
1. Baltimore Ravens
Despite real questions about Lamar Jackson’s future in Baltimore, the Ravens enter the summer with the best odds to win the AFC North (+160).
This offseason, the Ravens parted ways with former draft pick Marquise Brown, sending him to Arizona for the Cardinals’ first round pick. Brown was a known friend and favorite of Lamar Jackson, and the move couldn’t have made the relationship between quarterback and front office any warmer.
So far, Baltimore has failed to make any gains on a potential long-term deal for Jackson. Jackson notoriously prefers to represent himself in contract talks, so now that offseason workouts have begun, he’s more likely to focus on football rather than a contract.
That leaves Baltimore slightly hamstrung, with the former MVP set to hit free agency next summer.
Injuries caused the Ravens to sputter last season, opening up space for the Bengals to dominate. If the Ravens can stay healthy, expect one of the league’s best franchises to be right back in the playoff mix.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The second-best odds to win the AFC North are the Cincinnati Bengals, per Fanduel (+200). Though perhaps even those odds are long.
The Bengals are coming off a wildly surprising and successful season that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. Joe Burrow looked like the prospect we all thought he’d be when he was drafted first overall a few years ago. Ja’Marr Chase did his best Jerry Rice impersonation, leading an impressive receiving corps in yards.
On defense, the line found ways to keep games close. Trey Hendrickson was a force on the defensive front. Jesse Bates II was remarkable at safety. And Eli Apple, though torched in the Super Bowl, came up with a touchdown (and game)-saving stop before halftime against Kansas City.
The Bengals had one serious need heading into the offseason: protecting Joe Burrow. And they did more than slap a band aid on the wound.
Cincinnati brought in OL help in the form of vets Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins. If these new additions stay healthy and live up to their billing, Joe Burrow could have an even better 2022-23 than his most recent campaign.
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3. Cleveland Browns
Cleveland has the third-best odds to win the AFC North in next season’s playoffs (+250).
Despite those odds, a significant amount of the Browns’ success rides on factors out of their control. How well will newly acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper fit into Cleveland’s system? Will Kareem Hunt continue producing or fall off after a hamstring injury limited him to just eight appearances last season?
But by far, the biggest storyline facing the Browns (and league at large) is what happens to Deshaun Watson.
Back in March, the Browns traded three first round picks (and more) to the Houston Texans to land Watson. The team proceeded to hand Watson an unprecedented five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million deal.
That’s major money over the next half-decade.
But will Watson even play this season? That’s the question Cleveland faces, as Watson currently faces two-dozen civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. And the league office has yet to weigh in with its own punishment, which could (and should) result in a lengthy suspension for Watson.
But for as bad of a moral and ethical decision it was to bring in Watson, the trade is also a questionable football one. Watson’s deal will hamstring Cleveland’s cap space for the next five years, considerably limiting the talent and options the Browns can surround him with.
Regardless, Cleveland’s hopes unfortunately ride on a player who might not even play this season. But it’s not like quarterback is important or anything, right?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers sit a distant fourth in odds to win the AFC North (+850). It’s a strange position that Pittsburgh finds itself in.
After years of sustained excellence, winning isn’t a luxury in Pittsburgh, it’s an expectation.
But the Steelers will enter next season without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center for the first time in 18 years. In his stead, the Steelers are auditioning veterans Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky. Both players have had shots to prove their value as starters before, but neither one found much success.
In addition to Rudolph and Trubisky, the Steelers have added one of the top college football picks, Kenny Pickett, the only quarterback taken in the first round of the NFL Draft a few months back.
Pickett, a University of Pittsburgh product, separated himself from the field last season, but remains a project.
Perhaps the Steelers give Pickett a go if neither Trubisky nor Rudolph are clearly working and the team is out of playoff contention.
But with Mike Tomlin, the Steelers should never be counted out. He navigated an anemic Steelers offense to a wild card spot last season. He could very well do the same this year.
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