The AFC North is set to be one of the best divisions in the NFL for the 2021-22 season. Last year, the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers all finished 11-5 or better, all qualifying for the postseason. The Steelers started 11-0 and were a contender for the best team in football over the course of the regular season. The Ravens posses one of the most talented players in the league in Lamar Jackson. And the Browns finished strong and nearly upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Needless to say, the race for the AFC North title should be a fun and exciting one in the upcoming season. With three wildcard positions available once again in the AFC, all three teams will have a chance to make the playoffs once again.

Storylines to follow in the AFC North include:

  • Can the Cincinnati Bengals make strides in Joe Burrow’s second year in the league?
  • Can Ben Roethlisberger play at a high level at 39 years old?
  • Will the Ravens offseason additions put them back on top of the divison?
  • What can we expect from a high-powered Browns offense with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr.?

Read on for Sak Sports Blog’s preview and record prediction for each team in the AFC North, and be sure to check out my predictions for other divisions as they become available.

More Predictions

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-4)

The Baltimore Ravens shuffled their roster a bit in the offseason, but as long as Lamar Jackson is the quarterback, the Ravens have a great chance of finishing with a strong regular season record once again.

Baltimore lost defensive stud Yannick Ngakoue, wide receiver Willie Snead, running back Mark Ingram, and a few offensive lineman in the offseason, as well as backup quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Ravens re-tooled by acquiring guard Kevin Zeitler, NFL veteran and literal Army veteran Alejandro Villaneuva, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and defensive ends Chris Smith and Justin Houston.

The Ravens are a talented team, the only question is how they’ll match up with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns head-to-head. In my prediction, the Ravens go 13-4, second in the AFC, and win three out of four matchups with the Steelers and Browns. However, if they slip up against their AFC North rivals, the Ravens could quickly see themselves become a 10-7 team, in the thick of the conference’s wildcard race.

Lamar Jackson is 30-7 a starter in the regular season, including an 11-4 mark last season. Jackson won 13 of 15 starts in an MVP campaign in 2019, and Baltimore should be able to match that win total this season, especially with the advent of the 17th game.

2. Cleveland Browns (11-6)

For the past two seasons, the Cleveland Browns have been a dark horse team to make some noise with Baker Mayfield under center. Cleveland lived up to the hype last season, finishing 11-5, beating the Steelers in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs, and even nearly upsetting Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round. While the Browns have historically played from an underdog role, they won’t be able to take the league by surprise this season: Cleveland is a top contender to compete for and win Super Bowl 56.

With an already explosive offense, and the anticipated return of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns spent the offseason shoring up their defense. While Cleveland saw defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Vincent Taylor depart, the additions outweighed the subtractions. Defensive star and former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney headlines the pack, with cornerback Troy Hill, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, safety John Johnson III, and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. all lined up to bolster Cleveland’s defense. The Browns also went defensive in the draft, taking corner Greg Newsome II in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round.

With so many positives going for them, why don’t the Browns finish with more wins than last season? Their schedule is tough, with visits to Kansas City, Green Bay, and New England, in addition to tough matchups with the Steelers and Ravens. Additionally, I think the Browns over-performed their way to 11-5 last season. Eleven wins once again, even with an additional game on the schedule, seems just about right for Cleveland. In a best-case scenario, Mayfield and the Browns could leap-frog the Ravens and claim the AFC North at 12-5 or 13-4.

The Browns are my pick to win the AFC’s top wildcard spot, and one of the safest bets in the conference to make the playoffs in some capacity.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)

NFL: Steelers overcome rust, short-handed Ravens to move to 11-0 - Los  Angeles Times
Photo: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press

Throughout my weekly NFL Power Ranking last season, I was consistently hesitant to crown the Pittsburgh Steelers as an elite team even as they willed their way to an 11-0 start. My reservations felt even more warranted as Pittsburgh sputtered to a 12-4 finish and lost to the Browns in the opening round of last season’s playoffs.

Needless to say, I don’t see the Steelers returning to their undefeated form in the 2021-22 NFL season. Pittsburgh is a good team, but they’ll take a step back this season. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger at the quarterback position. The Steelers lost running back James Conner in free agency, and while they addressed the position with first round pick Najee Harris, the move is lateral at best and a regression at worst.

Most importantly, the Steelers lost some key defensive players, and a stout defense was the biggest reason Pittsburgh was able to get to 11-0. Linebackers Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi, cornerback Mike Hilton, and safety Sean Davis all left in free agency, along with offensive lineman Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villaneuva (to the Ravens, no less) on the other side of the ball.

Pittsburgh will be a competitive team this season. They’re probably not getting blown out by many teams, but they also won’t win as many games as last season. The Steelers will compete for a wildcard berth, but in my prediction, they finish one game out of a playoff spot.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (5-12)

Photo: Chris Szagola/AP

When handing out wins around the league, with 272 to go around between the 32 teams, it was hard to give the Cincinnati Bengals more than a handful of victories. Quarterback Joe Burrow should be back in action, but last year’s first overall pick went just 2-7-1 over ten games as a starter last season. The Bengals even went 2-4 in his absence: a better winning percentage without the quarterback than with him.

I think Burrow will improve as an NFL passer in his second season, but it won’t be enough to make a big dent in the wins column. Cincinnati might not win a single AFC North matchup.

The Bengals did make roster improvements, drafting Burrow’s former wideout Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick, adding three offensive lineman through the draft and free agency to help keep Burrow upright, and signing defensive end Trey Hendrickson as well as cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Eli Apple on the defensive side of the ball.

Still, the Bengals have some time remaining before they can compete in a loaded AFC North. They won’t be the worst team in the league, but I also don’t see them finishing with more than five or six wins.

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