AFC North Update

Rock Spring Financial's In The Hood AFC North Update

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NFL Football is so close we can almost taste it, and it’s no secret that it’s been a hectic week out in Owings Mills. Between J.K. Dobbins‘ season ending injury in the final preseason game, and the last round of roster cut downs on Tuesday, there’s been no shortage of talking points heading into Week 1. The same can be said for the Ravens’ foes however, which brings us to the topic of this article.

All season long, in addition to the Ravens news and opinions you’re used to, we’ll be taking a look around the rest of the division to see how Baltimore’s bitter rivals are faring in their own respective seasons. The AFC North promises to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in football right up to the finish line, so keeping track of the other clubs’ progress is almost of equal importance to following the Ravens themselves. Let’s dive in, shall we?

CLEVELAND BROWNS

The Browns come into the 2021 season as the team many believe to be the outright favorite in the division. In the offseason they made several key additions to their defense via free agency, headlined by former Los Angeles Rams standout safety John Johnson III. They also bolstered that unit via the draft, in the form of Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome and Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (a player many Ravens fans were clamoring for in March-April).

Quarterback Baker Mayfield played the best football of his NFL career over the second half of last season. That was also without his former Pro Bowl #1 wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, who will return this year. In addition to Mayfield’s success, the Browns fielded one of the fiercest rushing attacks in the league thanks to the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Their season culminated in an all-time franchise moment when they marched into Pittsburgh and dominated the Steelers in the Wild Card round, and all signs point to things only going upward in Cleveland.

Browns

Ultimately though, it’s up to the Browns to prove the pundits right, and in that regard history is on the Ravens’ side. In 2019 the Browns held a similar level of preseason hype following Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield’s rookie year, and the Ravens responded by having one of the best seasons in franchise history while the Browns went 6-10. On paper, the Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. Keyword: on paper, division titles aren’t crowned before the first whistle.

Cleveland will have a chance right from the opening week to prove they’re a legitimate contender though (and avenge last year’s playoff loss), as they travel to Kansas City to take on the defending AFC champion Chiefs. If the Browns can walk into Arrowhead Stadium and do what the Ravens haven’t in the Patrick Mahomes era, it’ll be impossible not to mention them amongst the AFC’s elites.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Surprisingly, the Steelers seem to be the team everybody has been the most down on heading into the 2021 season, but it’s understandable. They lost key pieces on the defensive side of the ball such as Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, and Ben Roethlisberger is another year older after a subpar 2020. Just as we referenced with Cleveland though, history would tell us that you can never count out a Mike Tomlin led football club.

If any coach in football can motivate his team to shut out the noise and play above expectations it’s Tomlin. He’s never had a losing season as the coach of the Steelers, and you can bet that he doesn’t plan to start now. Nor do T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, or the newly signed Melvin Ingram III, all of whom plan to cause nightmares for opposing quarterbacks.

One area in which Pittsburgh stayed rock solid this off-season is the wide receiver position. The trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Juju Smith-Schuster may be the NFL’s best. The area where the Steelers were lacking most on offense was undeniably their rushing attack, and they responded by taking the best running back of this year’s draft in Najee Harris. Their offensive line still has some question marks, but there’s no denying the abundance of weapons Roethlisberger will have at his disposal in his attempt at one last championship run.

The Steelers also get thrown right into the fire week 1, with a crucial game against the powerhouse Buffalo Bills. Many have predicted the Bills to take that Super Bowl leap this season, and a victory on the road in an environment as hostile as Orchard Park would be a statement from Pittsburgh. One that says, “Don’t forget about us, we aren’t going anywhere.”

Juju Smith-Schuster doing Juju things (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

CINCINNATI BENGALS

The Bengals come into the 2021 season looking like a team who will be vying for a top 5 draft pick again in 2022. Their offseason started out promising after signing a big-name pass rusher in Trey Hendrickson, along with the aforementioned Mike Hilton from Pittsburgh. Even after the NFL Draft, where many disagreed with the selection of Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell, they still walked away with the #1 wide receiver on the board and another promising pass rusher in round 2, Joseph Ossai. Since then though, it’s been all downhill in Cincinnati.

The descent started with reports that Joe Burrow was struggling in training camp, to the point where Tyler Boyd was even quoted as saying, “I think he’s kind of a little iffy on his knee, but it’s kind of hard to tell.” Then came a substantial knee injury for Joseph Ossai which ended his rookie season before it even got started. Now, all the talk is about Ja’Marr Chase and his inability thus far to hold onto the football. Add all of these things up, and throw in the division they have to play in, and you have a not so promising outlook for 2021.

With that being said, there’s still a lot of hope for the future in Cincinnati. Chase is an undeniable talent, and once he overcomes this rocky start he’ll be part of another dominant receiver trio alongside Tee Higgins and Boyd.

Joe Burrow being hesitant after his injury was to be expected, and the more reps he gets the more his confidence will return. Coach Zac Taylor will likely rely heavily on Joe Mixon and the rushing attack early in the year, so Burrow will be able to readjust at a more manageable pace. Expect more quick passes early as well, anything to get the ball out of Burrow’s hands quickly to negate their weaknesses along the offensive line.

The Bengals open their season against the Minnesota Vikings, a game that will surely be a handful on the defensive front. Dalvin Cook and company will be looking to start their season on the right foot, and there are few teams they could’ve drawn who would give them a better opportunity to accomplish that. Overall, this feels like a throw away season for Cincinnati, one in which their biggest accomplishment will be growing together as a football team and building chemistry for the future.

Photo Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

PARTING SHOT

Despite the competitive history at the top of the AFC North, there haven’t been many seasons in which the division has been as wide open as it is now. Three teams have a legitimate chance to take home the crown, and it’s going to be a dog fight from start to finish. We’ll check back after week 1 and see how each team looked, and ultimately fared, in their opening tilts. Buckle up Ravens Flock, the race to the AFC North championship starts now!

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About Ronald Toothe

Ronald Toothe has been a supporter of the Baltimore Ravens for 20+ years, and has been covering the team since 2020. From the moment he saw a pass tip off the hands of Eddie George into the waiting arms of Ray Lewis during the 2000 playoffs, he knew he was hooked for life. Ronald began his career in sports media behind the microphone as a professional wrestling color commentator before taking a similar role during football games at his high school alma mater. While he still enjoys the occasional opportunity to pick up a headset, his biggest passion today is covering the team he loves most. More from Ronald Toothe
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