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NFL, AFC North

Why the AFC North is the toughest division in the NFL

For the last decade, the AFC North has been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have all dealt with high expectations and have worked hard to meet them.

Any of these teams could possibly win the AFC North this year. The Baltimore Ravens are and should be the favorites to repeat as the division’s champion. However, the Ravens’ 5-1 record within the AFC North may take a hit in the 2020 season.

The offseason has been exciting for all four AFC North teams. Expectations are again high and all four teams have playoff aspirations. Let’s examine each team and their chances for success in the upcoming season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The above tweet might be the best thing Steelers fans have seen all offseason. Their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is once again throwing a football after suffering an elbow injury last season that landed him on Injured Reserve.

With Roethlisberger’s return to the field the Steelers offense should be more prolific. Roethlisberger only played one game last season before falling injured, and his 276 passing yards that week was the most passing yards in a game by any Steelers quarterback in the 2019 season.

Despite playing with backup quarterbacks all season, the Steelers defense can be credited to their year ending with an 8-8 record. The Steelers were top five in both total yards and passing yards allowed. Not to mention, they were also sixth in points allowed per game. Individually, the Steelers had two players tied for fourth in interceptions. Meanwhile, T.J. Watt was fourth in sacks, and tied for first in forced fumbles.

During the offseason the NFL implemented a new playoff format. Now, seven teams will make the playoffs and only one team gets a first-round bye. If this would have been implemented in 2019, Pittsburgh would have been the seventh seed and made the playoffs.

In years prior it was the Steelers defense that was their downfall. Now with the defense one of the league’s best, and Roethlisberger returning to control the offense, Pittsburgh has the tools to be a contender in the AFC.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are coming off an historic season. With a 14-2 record, the Ravens had their best year in franchise history. They were led by a great rushing attack, led by both their running backs and league MVP Lamar Jackson. The Ravens set a NFL rushing yardage record, with 3,296 yards.

A great regular season didn’t translate to postseason success, however, as Baltimore lost against the Tennessee Titans. Unfortunately, this is the second straight season the Ravens have been one-and-done in the playoffs. Coming off his MVP year, Jackson will be under pressure to now deliver in the playoffs when it matters most.

Approaching the season, the Ravens should be favored not only to win the AFC North but the AFC as a whole. The top offense from last season didn’t lose any key players this offseason. In fact, via the draft they added to their rushing attack by selecting J.K Dobbins from Ohio State.

On defense the Ravens bolstered a front seven which gave up over 200 yards to Derrick Henry in their playoff loss. They did so by trading for pro bowler Calais Campbell and using their first round pick on linebacker Patrick Queen from LSU.

Baltimore should win at least 10 games this season and be in contention for a first-round bye in the playoffs. If all goes well for Baltimore, we could get the Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes AFC Championship fans were expecting last season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Last season the Bengals tied their franchise low with just two wins. The Bengals weren’t getting blown out, as eight of their 14 losses were by one score. Having the worst record allowed the Bengals to acquire the No. 1 pick in the draft. They selected Heisman Trophy winner, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.

With Burrow, the Bengals are hoping to rejuvenate their offense. Last year, the Bengals were 30th in points per game, averaging just 17.4 points. They also only ranked 26th in total yards last season. Coming into Cincinnati, Burrow already has a talented supporting cast.

The Bengals franchise-tagged receiver AJ Green, who when healthy is still a top-10 receiver in the NFL. Tyler Boyd made up for Green’s absence with his first 1,000-yard season. John Ross finally showed some of his potential last season after being a first-round pick in 2017. Ross had back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 7 and 8 following an early-season shoulder injury. Ultimately, the offense revolved around Joe Mixon who had over a thousand yards rushing last season.

Cincinnati’s offensive trouble caused their defense to suffer as well. Due to the fact they were always trailing, the Bengals allowed 149 rushing yards per game, the worst in the NFL. In addition, the Bengals ranked 29th in yards allowed per game, at 393.

If Burrow lives up to his potential, the Bengals offense has the tools to be explosive in both the rushing and passing game. The Bengals are hoping Burrow is their franchise quarterback and that he could lead them to their first playoff berth since 2015.

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Brown might have been the biggest disappointment in the NFL last season. Prior to the start of the season, the Browns were favored to be Super Bowl contenders. But after the season the Browns fired their head coach Freddy Kitchens and had another top 10 draft pick — not quite what anyone had initially expected.

On paper, the Browns are far too talented to go 6-10. In fact, on paper the Browns are one of the most talented teams in the league. But if last season showed anything, success in the NFL is more than just having talent.

Cleveland comes into the season with a new head coach, Kevin Stefanski, and general manager Andrew Berry. With these two in control the Browns hope this is the duo that stabilizes the franchise.

Ultimately, the success of the Browns this season is dependent on the play of quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former No. 1 pick had a subpar year, with 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. With offensive personnel like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and David Njoku the Browns must rank higher than 22nd in points per game and total yards this season.

Cleveland has the potential to have a top-five offense in the NFL. If they’re able to do so they should succeed in combating the elite defenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice a year. Mayfield leading one of the league’s best offenses is Cleveland’s best way to win the AFC North.