The AFC is undoubtedly the dominant conference in the NFL as fourteen teams are making a legitimate playoff push this season with only seven playoff spots to spare. The AFC North, meanwhile, is viewed as arguably the best and most talented division in all of football. Each team within the AFC North legitimately improved this past offseason to make themselves more of a threat to the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl Champions. There is a possible world where every AFC North team finishes above .500, but only two get into the playoffs. Let’s now look to see how each team has a chance to win the division.
Baltimore Ravens (Second Place in AFC North, 2022)
Key Additions: WR Odell Beckham Jr, CB Rock Ya-Sin, WR Zay Flowers
Key Departures: DL Calais Campbell, G Ben Powers, TE Josh Oliver
The Baltimore Ravens are coming off a 10-7 season with a 24-17 Wild Card loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. This past offseason, the Ravens were able to sign their franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson to a five-year contract worth up to $260 million, with $185 million in total guarantees. Baltimore also bolstered their wide receiver room to give Jackson more complementary targets other than star tight end Mark Andrews. Veteran wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., a major signing made by the Ravens, is coming off a long ACL tear recovery but still can offer dynamic playmaking ability as he’s been showing flashes throughout training camp.
The addition that Jackson will love the most is wide receiver Zay Flowers out of Florida State University. Flowers is an electric player in open space with big play run-after-catch ability. He has a smaller frame at 5’9” and 182 lbs, but Flowers still offers versatility from outside and in the slot. While his route running is superb, Flowers’ main issue is not having consistent hands. If that issue is solved, he can be a star in this league as early as his rookie season.
Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin had a career year last season with the Las Vegas Raiders until suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 13. Ya-Sin posted 7 Pass Breakups, 60.9% Completion Percentage Allowed, and a career-best 82.6 Passer Rating Allowed in 11 games played. He’ll offer the Ravens a lot of versatility in their secondary to go along with stars Marlon Humphrey, Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams.
Baltimore finished last season third in Points Allowed Per Game (18.6), tied for fifth in Total Receiving TDs Allowed (20) and 3rd in Rush Yards Allowed Per Game (92.1). The Ravens will no doubt again have a dominant defense in 2023, but their season will rely on one main factor, whether or not Jackson stays healthy.
Jackson has a 45-16 record as a starter, was the NFL’s unanimous MVP in 2019 and is undoubtedly a top-five quarterback when healthy. For the past two seasons, Baltimore has gone for long stretches without Jackson due to injuries (Ankle in 2021, PCL in 2022). Before those injuries, the Ravens were 8-4 and first in the division in both years. The Ravens are 4-8 in games Jackson does not play and has had no chance of making a legitimate playoff run since the 2020-21 season. If Jackson can go a full season without missing significant time, there is no reason for this team not to win 11-13 games and compete for AFC dominance.
Cincinnati Bengals (First Place, 2022)
Key Additions: OT Orlando Brown Jr, S Nick Scott, DE Myles Murphy
Key Departures: S Jessie Bates III, S Von Bell, RB Samaje Perine
The Cincinnati Bengals finished the 2022 season 12-4 with an AFC Title game appearance. They fell short of going to the Super Bowl in back-to-back years after a 23-20 loss to the Chiefs, which ended with a 45-yard game-winning field goal by Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker. The biggest reason for the Bengals almost returning to the Super Bowl was quarterback Joe Burrow. Despite two costly interceptions, Burrow was still trying to make winning plays and kept Cincinnati in the game against Kansas City. While he couldn’t pull off the win, Burrow has cemented himself as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in little time.
Coming off an ACL tear during his rookie season, Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl, winning Comeback Player of the Year in 2021. Through 42 career games, Burrow has put up 11,774 passing yards, 82 touchdowns, 31 interceptions and a 5-2 playoff record. There’s zero doubt Burrow is the real deal after a legendary college career. But it does help that Cincinnati is loaded with weapons on offense to support their superstar signal caller.
Heading into the 2023 season, the Bengals have the best-receiving trio with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. All three receivers can put up 80+ receptions, 1,000+ yards and 7+ touchdowns individually. Last season, Cincinnati finished the 2022 season 8th in Yards Per Game (360.5), 7th in Points Per Game (26.1), and 5th in Passing Yards Per Game (265.0) The Bengals addressing their biggest need this past offseason by signing four-time Pro Bowler Orland Brown Jr. to a 4-year contract to shore up their offensive line will undoubtedly give Cincinnati the best passing attack in the AFC, and the NFL, once again.
Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, after losing star safety Jessie Bates III in free agency to the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati replaced him by signing Super Bowl LVI champion safety Nick Scott, one of the more underrated signings made this past offseason. Scott offers versatility in the secondary by matching up well in man coverage, patrolling the middle of the field and playing up in the box. He hasn’t reached his full potential yet and is due for a breakout year, especially on a talented Bengals defense. Cincinnati also selected defensive end Myles Murphy in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft to bolster an already strong defensive front. Murphy has the tools and skillset to be a great edge rusher in this league. He always gave consistent production during his college career with Clemson, racking up 17.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss in 38 games.
High-quality production on both sides of the ball makes this team one of the best in the league. The back-to-back AFC North champions are the betting favorites for this upcoming season and there should be no surprise if they win the division crown for a third straight year.
Cleveland Browns (Fouth Place, 2022)
Key Additions: WR Elijah Moore, S Juan Thornhill, DE Za’Darius Smith, DT Dalvin Tomlison
Key Departures: DE Jadeveon Clowney, S John Johnson III
The Cleveland Browns are coming off a once again disappointing season after finishing 7-10 in 2022. The season was dysfunctional from the start, with inconsistent play on the defensive side of the ball and switching starting quarterbacks eleven games into the season.
The acquisition of quarterback Deshaun Watson was the talk of the offseason in 2022, mainly because of a looming suspension from the NFL due to off-the-field issues. When Cleveland acquired Watson, he was a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback and was one of the most electrifying quarterbacks the NFL had seen. After requesting a trade out of Houston, Watson sat out the entire 2021 season and was ultimately suspended eleven games in 2022.
When Deshaun returned for the 2022 season, he looked rusty with inconsistent play but showed flashes of being capable of playing at a superstar level as he did before. The Browns committed their future to Watson after giving him a fully guaranteed five-year $230 million contract extension. With Watson, Nick Chubb, David Njoku, and Amari Cooper, Cleveland’s foundations exist for offensive success. But they still needed help to reach the level of an AFC contender.
Early into the offseason, the Browns added disgruntled wide receiver Elijah Moore who was unhappy with his role in New York. Moore is an explosive playmaker with some of the best route-running skills in the NFL. Moore’s versatility is intriguing because, throughout training camp, he has been used not only on the outside and in the slot but also in the backfield.
Adding Moore is something for both Watson and Browns fans to be excited about. Moore’s speed gives Cleveland speed to take the top off of opposing defenses and will unlock their passing attack. The adding passing edge will allow Chubb, one of the best running backs in the NFL, plenty of opportunities to work.
The Browns didn’t need much tinkering on offense since it wasn’t their most significant liability last season. That unfortunate honor instead goes to their disappointing defense. Cleveland hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles on defense during their incredible Super Bowl Championship run, to fix their defense and make the Browns one of the NFL’s most balanced teams.
To give Schwartz the keys to succeed, Cleveland general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry went all out this past off-season on the defensive side of the ball. The Browns added three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Za’Darius Smith, two-time Super Bowl champion-winning safety Juan Thornhill, veteran defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlison and champion defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
The injection of talent helped fill some glaring needs on defense for Cleveland. But things are still a work in progress and they’ll have to look internally to address it. Sure, while the Browns still lack depth at defensive tackle, getting healthy at linebacker will alleviate some of the strain. After Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips all missed significant time last season, getting them back on the field should make Cleveland one of the NFL’s premiere defensive units.
On paper, the Browns are undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the AFC and the NFL. A lot of it hinges on Schwartz molding the defense to his vision. The other is Watson, who needs to shake off his rust and return to form. Thankfully, an entire offseason with the team will help Watson’s focus, but the production needs to be there when the regular season begins.
If everything falls into place, the Browns should win 11 games minimum and contend for the AFC North.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Third Place, 2022)
Key Additions: G Isaac Seumalo, WR Allen Robinson, CB Patrick Peterson, OT Broderick Jones
Key Departures: DT Tyson Alualu, S Terrell Edmonds, CB Cameron Sutton
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a modest 9-8 season. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett started twelve games this season while playing in thirteen for the Steelers. Thanks to their new additions, they should be much more productive on both sides of the ball and once again have a top-ten defense if everyone stays healthy.
With their work improving their offensive line, the Steelers shouldn’t have to worry about Pickett’s health. Pittsburgh signed offensive guard Isaac Seumalo, one of the league’s best offensive linemen, to a three-year contract. The Steelers also made a quality depth signing in offensive lineman Nate Herbig, who only has twelve career penalties through four years played. Meanwhile, in the 2023 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh selected behemoth offensive tackle Broderick Jones out of Georgia, considered the best offensive tackle in the draft by multiple scouts.
Again, the bolstered offensive line will help keep Pickett upright and clean in the pocket. But it should also help Najee Harris bounce back from a disappointing 2022 campaign. Sure, Harris put up similar numbers to his rookie year, but he didn’t entirely take the leap many were hoping for. Harris is entering his third NFL season, and could this be his breakout year? If so, Pittsburgh would have one of the best-supporting casts in the NFL.
With Harris possibly dominating on the ground, Pickett can throw to a receiving group of Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens, Allen Robinson II and Diontae Johnson, which has the potential to pick apart opposing secondaries. Granted, much of that hinges on Pickett, who was considered the most NFL-ready quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft. It took time for him to settle in, but Pickett looks the part of at least a game manager for Pittsburgh going forward. During his last eight games of the season, Pickett threw for 1,442 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Sure, they’re not the sexiest numbers, but it’s enough to keep the Steelers in the thick of things as Pickett finds his footing in the NFL.
Thankfully for Pittsburgh, things are only partially reliant on Pickett and company. Like every season, the Steelers are a defense-first team headlined by superstar T.J. Watt, who missed time last season due to a pectoral injury. While Pittsburgh isn’t as gritty as they usually are, they should still be a top-ten defensive unit, especially after the additions of Patrick Peterson and Joey Porter Jr., son of franchise legend Joey Porter.
Ultimately, Pittsburgh’s push to an AFC North title will rely on the ability of Pickett, and the rest of the young Steelers, to grow in the right direction. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in his coaching career and this season may be no different.
Kristopher’s Right Down Euclid’s go-to intern as he begins his sports media career by studying at the University of Mount Union this fall. He’s been a lifelong fan of the Browns, Cavaliers, and Guardians and have dreamed of becoming a sports journalist since he was ten. Some of his recent stops include work with Phenom Media, and he runs @clecentral_ on Instagram.
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