The AFC North features some of the most historic rivalries in the NFL, and in 2022, the division has eyes from all over the league watching some key storylines.
The Cincinnati Bengals had a Cinderella run of sorts with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow leading the team to a late-season AFC North lead and all the way to Super Bowl 56 against the Los Angeles Rams. Not many foresaw the Bengals being the AFC Champions last season, but their talented, young offense willed them through, nearly to a championship.
The Baltimore Ravens were favored to win the division last season, and were on track at 8-3 before Lamar Jackson went down for the team’s final six games. Without Marquise Brown, can Jackson lead the Ravens back to contetion in 2022?
The Cleveland Browns made the off-season’s boldest, most controversial, highest-risk/reward move in acquiring Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans and cutting ties with Baker Mayfield, the franchise’s best quarterback in quite some time. The whole league is watching to see if and when Watson will play, and if Cleveland’s gamble will pay off on the field.
Finally, the division’s most historically successful franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, could be looking at their weakest finish in the Mike Tomlin-era following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. Pittsburgh will find a quarterback between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett, but the rest of the team could use some improvements.
How will the AFC North shake out in the 2022-23 season? Read on for my predictions, and if you’d like to debate or discuss any predictions, join the conversation with @SakSports on Twitter.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: the Baltimore Ravens were a really good team when Lamar Jackson was on the field last season. Baltimore started 8-3, with a signature win over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 2. The Ravens were atop the AFC North, despite a 41-17 loss to the eventual division champion Bengals, and were headed for a postseason berth at the very least, and at best, possibly even the top seed in the AFC.
But without one of the best quarterbacks in the game, the Ravens dropped their final six games to finish 8-9. Even then, with Tyler Huntley at quarterback, five of those six losses came by a field goal or less. Baltimore may have finished last season with some of the worst luck of all-time, losing by less than three points to the Browns, Packers, Rams, and Steelers (twice.)
Long story short, this should have been a playoff team with Jackson last season, and nearly was one even without him.
Despite dropping both head-to-head meetings with Cincinnati by a combined score of 82-38, I think Baltimore has a better team heading in to the new season and is more equipped to finish with a strong record (even if they continue to drop head-to-head matchups to the improving Bengals.)
First off, Lamar Jackson isn’t just good, he’s great. The former Louisville quarterback is 37-12 as a starter in the NFL. If he stays healthy for the majority of Baltimore’s 17 regular season games, the Ravens are a playoff team, simple as that.
Jackson did lose Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, which is definitely a blow for an already underwhelming list of names at the wide receiver position. But Jackson can make the next receivers up look great with his ability to find time and improvise when the play breaks down. Running back J.K. Dobbins should be back after missing the 2021-22 season, and Rashod Bateman and Mark Andrews remain as reliable pass-catchers for Jackson.
The Ravens didn’t make a ton of improvements in the offseason, but just getting healthy is enough for me to make them the team to beat in the AFC North once more.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-6)
It’s relatively easy to go from bad-to-good in the NFL these days, but no one saw the Cincinnati Bengals accession to AFC Champions last season coming. Joe Burrow and the Bengals stole the AFC North late in the season, and plowed through a gauntlet of opponents in the postseason, including the Chiefs, to reach Super Bowl 56. Though the Bengals fell short to the Rams, it was an incredible season for Cincinnati.
The Bengals only got better in the offseason, addressing some key needs in an attempt to run it back and reach Super Bowl 57. To shore up a porous offensive line, Cincinnati added Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins. After re-signing cornerback Eli Apple, the Bengals also bolstered their secondary in the 2022 NFL Draft, including Michigan DB Daxton Hill and Nebraska CB Cam Taylor-Britt, selected in the first and second rounds.
With more time in the pocket, Burrow will have more opportunities to feed his young, talented position players the ball. Ja’Marr Chase is a superstar in the making, and Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are great complementary receivers. Joe Mixon is already one of the league’s best running backs, rounding out an impressive offensive game.
The Bengals defense gave up 22.1 points per game, 17th in the NFL, and is probably the weakest point of the team right now. Despite improving the secondary, there’s still potential for starting cornerbacks Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie to get beat by some of the game’s more talented receivers.
Without calling last season a fluke, it certainly did take a little bit of luck to end up in the position to be playing for Super Bowl 56. The Bengals will be better in 2022, and their win total increases to reflect that. In a best case scenario, I could certainly see the Bengals competing for the best record in the entire AFC, and/or win the AFC North. As seen last season, Cincinnati also appears to have an upper hand head-to-head against the Ravens something that could help if a tiebreaker is necessary.
For now, I have the Bengals finishing a game behind the Ravens: but earning the fifth-seed, finishing with the best non-division winning record in the AFC.
3. Cleveland Browns (7-10)
The Cleveland Browns offseason has been a roller coaster, a mess, a disaster, a laughing stock, and a sideshow. Somehow, I still see the Browns finishing with a somewhat respectable record, as much as I think the franchise doesn’t deserve it for the decisions it has made.
I won’t even begin to get in to the ethics and ramifications of acquiring Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans: I just think it was a bone-headed move. Was Watson a better quarterback the last time he took the field than Baker Mayfield is right now? Sure. But the difference isn’t as monumental as Cleveland believes, and they should have left well enough alone with Mayfield at quarterback.
Remember, this is a team that had Mahomes and the Chiefs on the ropes in the postseason just two years ago. The Browns underperformed last year, and Mayfield wasn’t perfect, but he was hardly the problem. You just don’t blow up your franchise (in terms of draft capital, cap space, and prestige) for a high-risk, controversial, expensive quarterback when you’re already that close to winning a championship.
With my thoughts on the Browns brain-less decisions out of the way, I still can’t say the Browns will be terrible. Watson’s availability is up in the air, and if his six-game suspension is upped to a full season, Cleveland would probably drop a couple wins and fall in to fourth place in the AFC North. But the Browns did go out and get a very reliable back-up in Jacoby Brissett.
With Nick Chubb (my #3 running back in the NFL,) Amari Cooper (a Top 20 wide receiver,) a solid offensive line, and a stingy defense highlighted by Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Denzel Ward, and Greg Newsome II, the Browns have the tools to still win some games.
Could the Browns completely implode and finish with thee or four wins? Sure, but with this roster, and if Watson plays in 11 games as currently slated, Cleveland may not have to pay too dearly for their bad decisions just yet.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-11)
Ben Roethlisberger retiring isn’t necessarily the problem here. Big Ben wasn’t the most talented quarterback in the league last season, and somewhere between Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett, the Pittsburgh Steelers will find someone to play the position. Pittsburgh also has Najee Harris, one of the best young running backs in the league, and T.J. Watt, last season’s defensive payer of the year.
But despite a few standout players, the Steelers are a few pieces short of a complete roster. Pittsburgh lost TikTok-dancing, touchdown-catching wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Chiefs, leaving Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson as the team’s top pass-catchers.
The Steelers offensive line leaves some talent to be desired, and despite some ferocious pass-rushers, the rest of the Steelers defense has as many holes as Swiss cheese.
Additionally, Pittsburgh’s 9-7-1 record and postseason berth last season were both quite miraculous. The Steelers got Week 18 help in the form of the Jaguars upsetting the Colts, and as far as their record goes, Pittsburgh was extremely fortunate to be 9-7-1 despite being outscored by 55 points on the season.
Best-case, Pittsburgh finds its quarterback, and finishes with nine wins again, threatening for a wildcard spot. But otherwise, we’re likely looking at head coach Mike Tomlin’s first sub-.500 season.
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Header Photo (L-R): ESPN, Michael Reaves/Getty Images