(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North last year, only to face the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round. The Browns, making the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years, dispensed with the Steelers at home. Then they almost toppled the Kansas City Chiefs the next week. The Baltimore Ravens also won their Wild Card game, only to get handled by the Buffalo Bills. The division may very well end up with three playoff teams again, but expect the order to be a little different.
Cleveland is the early favorite to win the AFC North, as CBS Pittsburgh sports anchor Bob Pompeani sees it. “…they’ve really fortified themselves and they’ve stayed away from substantial injury. The Steelers have a lot of things they are dealing with from the injury point of view, as they head into Week 1, and Baltimore same way. Cincinnati is a team that’s up and coming. But I don’t think they have enough yet. So I would think Cleveland, this is their division to lose.”READ MORE: Man Held Without Bond In Killing Of Baby, Babysitter In Coral Springs
“They are stacked,” Pompeani continued, “and they are ready to take the next step after they came to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers last year.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield improved on his first two seasons, and he has the players around him to make another jump. The offensive line is among the best in the league. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for over 1,900 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. After an injury-shortened season, Odell Beckham will once again line up opposite Jarvis Landry.
The Browns defense was a middling unit last season, despite the presence of Myles Garrett. But offseason additions may elevate it enough to make them a perennial contender. The team was active in free agency, bringing in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker, and safety John Johnson. The NFL Draft also yielded cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. A loaded defense should help them contain the quarterback talent they will face within the division alone.
That starts with Ben Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career. He has the weapons to put up numbers, including a trio of talented wide receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool for first-round selection Najee Harris. But it’s unclear if he will have the blocking to execute.
“With the Steelers, the question is offensive line,” Pompeani pointed out. “Just today, Zach Banner went on IR. He’s a tackle. They’ve shifted guys around. They have a rookie starting at left tackle. That’s never easy in a division that has a lot of guys who can get to the quarterback. And Ben Roethlisberger, at 39, can be successful, but that line will dictate how successful he will be or not.”
The Steelers defense has led the NFL in sacks with over 50 for four years running. And last year T.J. Watt had 15 of them, good enough to lead the NFL among players. The runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year appears close to getting a contract extension, which would make him the League’s highest-paid defensive player. The team lost a host of contributors this past offseason, including linebackers Bud Dupree and Vince Williams and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. But it still lines up lineman Cameron Heyward, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and cornerback Joe Haden.READ MORE: Report: South Florida Counties Have High COVID Levels, Despite CDC Numbers
The Ravens line up behind Lamar Jackson, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL today. And their success will depend on his success. But he’ll need the pieces around him to win games, and injuries have already started to affect the team.
“As far as Baltimore, Lamar Jackson is an MVP,” Pompeani notes. “But last year the numbers dropped off. I think the league may be catching up to him. And they lost J.K. Dobbins, and others on their defense. So Gus Edwards will be a man who will be looked at very, very seriously as a guy who can tote the ball. Can he do it as a regular featured back?”
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing last season, with Jackson topping 1,000 yards on his own. Edwards will have to pick up the slack, along with Justice Hill and Ty’Son Williams. The Ravens’ passing offense was last in the NFL last season. Jackson has plenty of weapons, however, including tight end Mark Andrews. Injuries have been an issue here too. Receiver Marquise Brown saw limited action in training camp, and plenty of other receivers also missed time. Sammy Watkins, signed this past offseason from the Kansas City Chiefs, should be able to stretch the field with his speed, if he’s healthy.
The Ravens defense, which was top 10 against the run and pass last season, remains one of the NFL’s better units. They added linebacker Justin Houston, who has a strong history of getting to the quarterback, as well as linebacker Odafe Oweh late in the first round. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are both among the NFL’s best. Linebacker Patrick Queen and is improving, and tackle Justin Madubuike has looked good in the preseason. In fact, the whole defense has impressed in the preseason (for what it’s worth), allowing under a touchdown per game in the preseason.
The Bengals remain far behind their division rivals, though they are making progress. Welcoming back Joe Burrow is a big step forward for them. He’ll have wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase to throw to once again, after the Bengals drafted him in the first round. Guard Jackson Carman, taken in the second round, will help keep Burrow upright. Additional changes along the offensive line could help protect Burrow, though it’s unclear how effective they will be.
“In Cincinnati, it’s all about Joe Burrow, his health coming back from his injury and surgery,” says Pompeani. “They’re still awhile away from being a competitive team, but how he goes will dictate how they go. And if he has a good year bouncing back from that surgery — and that’s never easy — then you can look to them, maybe, next year as a team that is close to being a playoff team, but not this year.”
The Bengals defense struggled last season, especially against the run, where they gave up 148 yards per game. They should improve somewhat this season with the addition of defensive end Trey Hendrickson from the New Orleans Saints and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi from the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals also drafted defensive end Joseph Ossai in the third round, but he will miss the season with a knee injury. Ex-Dallas Cowboy Chidobe Awuzie takes over one of the corner spots.MORE NEWS: COVID-19 Testing Site Finder
The AFC North kicks off the season in the spotlight as the Browns face the Chiefs in CBS’s Week 1 Game of the Week