Arguably the toughest division in football, the AFC North—aka the Heisman Division—can lay claim to three potential playoff teams—and two legit Super Bowl contenders—in the form of the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns—Below is my AFC North divisional preview!
Cincinnati Bengals — Don’t laugh now, because you may cry later in sleeping on the Cincinnati Bengals. One year removed from a season-ending ACL injury, second-year franchise QB and 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow is fully healed, a year wiser and gets a LSU reunion with former Tigers teammate Ja’Marr Chase, taken sixth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. While the Bengals should have taken an offensive lineman—such as former Oregon OL Penei Sewell—the Bengals suddenly have a scary offense with Burrow, Chase, Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon.
Watch out! You’ve’ been warned!
Projected record: 7-10
Pittsburgh Steelers — It’s not too often that a defending division champion with a Canton-bound two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback is overlooked by many. However, in the case of the six-time champion Pittsburgh Steelers, that is the case.
Ben Roethlisberger, 39 is coming off of arguably one of his best seasons ever as quarterback for the Black and Gold in leading them to a 11-0 start, before sputtering down the stretch, and losing to longtime foil, Cleveland in the last game of the season and in the AFC Wild Card game at home.
This season, Roethlisberger gets a much-needed weapon in the backfield in former Alabama Crimson Tide tailback, Najee Harris. Like the Bengals above, Pittsburgh had a greater need upfront on the line, thanks to the defection of LT Alejandro Villanueva to the hated Baltimore Ravens, G David DeCastro leaving in free agency and the retirement of veteran center Maurkice Pouncey.
While Pittsburgh addressed the losses up front in signing Trai Turner, Zach Banner, JC Hassenauer to rebuild their line, this unit will provide a clear clue as to where the Steelers—who are still a very dangerous team at the skill positions thanks to WR’s Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and TE Eric Ebron under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and on defense thanks to T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Heyward, Devin Bush, Joe Haden—and newly added LB Joe Schobert—and the Steelers could be better than people think.
As with all things in the Steel City, the Steelers will go as far Big Ben goes.
Projected record: 11-6
Cleveland Browns — One season after finally breaking through against their longtime archrivals from Pittsburgh and coming within a controversial no-helmet call vs. the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Dawgs from Cleveland are ready to bark.
Unlike the much-hyped 2018 squad, this 2021 team is more mature and seems ready to emerge as arguably the toughest threat to Patrick Mahomes and company—sorry Buffalo! In Cleveland, you have a seasoned and now-experienced in the former 2017 Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma in QB Baker Mayfield, a fully-healthy Odell Beckham Jr., arguably the NFL’s best RB duo in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb and the best offensively line to run behind and protect Mayfield.
What’s even scarier is the upgraded defense that signed former top overall pick, DE Jadeveon Clowney to pair opposite Myles Garrett, DB’s John Johnson III and Troy Hill via the Los Angeles Rams, Anthony Walker Jr. from the Indianapolis Colts and former Atlanta Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley.
And let’s not even get started on their draft, where the Browns nabbed one of the draft’s top corners in Greg Newsome out of Northwestern and possibly the draft’s biggest steal in Jeremiah Owusu-Koamoah out of Notre Dame.
That being said, Cleveland is loaded on both sides of the ball and ready to challenge Kansas City, the afore-mentioned Bills and their divisional nemesis in Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.
If Mayfield and the Browns can solve their Baltimore problem and show that they can play with the big boys of the AFC, then Cleveland may find themselves playing out in Sofi.
Projected record: 13-4
Baltimore Ravens — BALTI-MOREEEEE!!!! The kings of the AFC North with perhaps the NFL’s best quarterback not named Patrick Mahomes, in 2019 NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson, the Ravens are a class above all in the division.
Despite losing to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional Round, the Ravens could very well be THE TEAM to beat not only in the conference, but the entire league. Yes, yes! I am aware of the defending Super Bowl champs down in Tampa, Aaron Rodgers in Title Town, Big Ben down in Pittsburgh and upstarts such as Justin Herbert out in LA and rival Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, but when Lamar is on, he is ON!
While all the shine is being given to Mayfield, Herbert, Tua, Burrow, etc, fans and haters have seemingly forgotten that Jackson THREW for 26 touchdowns, 2,757 yards and rushed for another 1,005 yards on the ground and seven TD’s.
Yes! While I am a Browns fan, even I have to tip my hat to the former Louisville star and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner in admitting that he is must-see whenever he is on the field. There aren’t many players that strike fear into the heart’s of opposing fans the way that Jackson does whenever he runs, then it’s game over!
While he completed 64.4 percent of his passes, Jackson still needs to show that he is more than an athlete trying to play QB and develop into a more consistent pocket passer. While he will never be confused for having a big arm like his fellow rivals in Mayfield and Big Ben, Jackson’s ability to make unscripted plays is second only to Mahomes. Fact.
If Jackson can continue to evolve and develop into a consistent passer downfield, which thanks to the additions of WR Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashad Bateman out of Minnesota, then there may be another couple of trophies that Jackson may sound add to his growing legend.
Projected record: 14-3