AFC North Preview

The AFC North is the top division in the NFL simply because every team has a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs. Last season the Bengals went 12-4 thanks to an eight-game winning streak to close the season. The Ravens also made the playoffs after a 10-7 campaign. Pittsburgh finished a game above .500 and although the Browns won only seven, they were competitive in most games.

Taking a look at this season and the Bengals have to be the favorites. Joe Burrow suffered a calf strain early in training camp but has been practicing and shouldn’t hinder him long term. Last season he threw for 4475 yards and 35 touchdowns. Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyler Boyd will be a nightmare for opposing defenses after combining for over 200 catches, nearly 3000 yards, and 21 touchdowns last season. On the ground, Joe Mixon is solid, although not spectacular. Clearly the offense will go through Burrow and the passing game.

Defensively, the Bengals allowed a tick over 20 points per game last season. They were very good against the run last season and allowed only 17 touchdown passes through the air. Sam Hubbard led a relatively mediocre pass rush with 6.5 sacks. The strength of the defense was in the secondary where both Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III intercepted four passes. The problems is that both have departed, which puts pressure on the new safety duo of Dax Hill and Nick Scott. Evan McPherson returns for his third season as the kicker. He hit 24-of-29, including all five from beyond 50 yards last season.

The Ravens have a shot at overtaking the Bengals in the division. They are implementing a more pass-heavy scheme, which would force Lamar Jackson to take his game to a new level. Last season Jackson missed five games and threw for 2242 yards and an additional 764 on the ground. The addition of Odell Beckham Jr will add to a passing attack that includes Rashod Bateman, Zay Flowers, and all-pro tight end Mark Andrews. Running back J.K. Dobbins looks for a bounce back season after appearing in only eight games in 2022.

Always a strength, the Ravens defense allowed only 18.5 points per game last season and were particularly tough against the run. The defensive line consists of Justin Madubuike, Michael Pierce, Broderick Washington, and Odafe Oweh. Last year’s leading sacker, Justin Houston, is now with the Panthers. The Ravens will expect a team effort to make up for his 9.5 sacks. Marcus Williams leads the secondary after four interceptions last season. The kicking game is anchored by the world’s best, Justin Tucker, who has converted over 90 percent of his career field goal attempts.

In Pittsburgh, all the talk is around second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, who is expected to make strides this season. As a rookie, he threw for 2404 yards but has a poor 7-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Top receiver Diontae Johnson caught 86 passes but failed to reach the end zone. That must change this season, as well as more production from George Pickens, and tight end Pat Freiermuth. On the ground, Najee Harris scored seven touchdowns, but needs to improve upon his 3.8 yards per carry to take some heat off Pickett.

A strength last season for the Steelers was their pass defense, allowing only 222 yards per game with 20 interceptions. Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick anchored the secondary and intercepted six passes, returning one for a touchdown. Alex Highsmith, Cameron Heyward, and T.J. Watt provided 30 of the team’s 40 sacks last season. That number could increase if Watt stays healthy for the entire season. Kicker Chris Boswell needs to regroup after hitting only 20-of-28 field goal attempts last season, including 12-of-19 from beyond 40 yards.

The Browns are likely to bring up the rear in the division, but they still have plenty of talent left from the team that made the playoffs in 2020. They will be led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who appeared in only six games last season. Top receiver Amari Cooper found the end zone nine times last season on 78 receptions. His numbers could skyrocket with Watson under center for a full season. Elijah Moore and Donovan Peoples-Jones add to the receiving corps. Nick Chubb is the main threat on the offense after rushing for 1525 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has plenty to work with. The Browns allowed under 200 yards per games last season through the air and just over 22 points per game. Myles Garrett leads the pass rush, coming off a 16-sack season. Strong safety Grant Delpit is a big hitter, recording 105 tackles last season and led the team with four interceptions. Dustin Hopkins is the kicker, replacing Cade York, who is now with the Titans. Hopkins hit 9-of-10 attempts in five games with the Chargers last season.

Expect the Bengals to win the division and advance to the AFC championship game. The Ravens should be playoff bound with the Steelers and Browns in close pursuit. Don’t be surprised if all teams finish above .500 and if the Steelers or Browns sneak as the last wild card team in the conference.