The dust has officially settled in the AFC North, and this year the crown sits atop a throne of Skyline chili. Thanks to the Browns and Ravens stumbling into the finish line, the Cincinnati Bengals will be hosting a home playoff game this week and now get bragging rights over everyone else until September. They surprisingly won’t be the only team making an appearance in the playoffs however, as the Steelers also backed their way into an unlikely postseason berth thanks to the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s been a long, strenuous season, so as two teams get ready for the ultimate tournament in American sports while the others face a long, cold offseason, let’s wrap up this year around the AFC North.
We’ll start with the team joining the Baltimore Ravens on the couch, and the interesting seven months that lie ahead for them. Reports have already surfaced that the Browns intend for Baker Mayfield to again be their starting quarterback in 2022. After a year plagued with injuries, it’s clear that the Browns would rather wait on investing money in the 4th year signal caller and risk paying more than they would at this point in time, as opposed to locking themselves in long-term now. Mayfield’s production will not only be the talk of the town in Cleveland all Spring and Summer long, but will also likely be the biggest factor in determining how far the team goes next season.
For the Browns’ sake, this year had better be a fluke for him, because almost every other part of their roster is ready to win a Super Bowl now. The front seven is loaded with talent, and despite some rocky moments from the secondary they’ve still got numerous playmakers in Denzel Ward and John Johnson III. The signing of Johnson may not have had the desired effect in year 1, but another full offseason in the system will likely help him continue to improve his game. Adding a true #2 corner and another safety will likely be high on the priority list, along with a middle linebacker and wide receiver (or two).
The receiver room in Cleveland boasts interesting young prospects like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz, but there’s no denying that they’ll be looking to upgrade the position after trading Odell Beckham Jr mid-season. Cutting veteran Jarvis Landry would also give them an extra $15 million plus to work with, so a restructure or outright parting of ways could also be in the future for him. Many early mock drafts have them selecting Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson, which would immediately give them a bonafide future #1 (one that the fans would love given his alma mater).
With cornerstones like Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett still locked in for a few more years, the Browns have to take advantage of their window now. It’s quickly closing after four years of hype, but they’ve still got a few cracks left at it with this core unit. It’s not hyperbole to say this may just be the most important offseason in Cleveland Browns history.
Thanks to a narrow victory over an injury-depleted Ravens team, and some unexpected help from the heavens, the Steelers now set their sights on a Wild Card matchup with the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs. A Chiefs team that decimated them 36-10 at Arrowhead Stadium just a few short weeks ago. As much as it’s going to pain us all to see them playing extra football this week, you have to respect how the team has rallied knowing that Ben Roethlisberger is calling it a career after this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Ray Lewis‘ last ride by any stretch, but they do deserve kudos for getting there.
With that said, the Steelers had better hope they make some noise this year, because once the lights turn out and #7 moves on to greener pastures, they have a lot of questions to answer. First and foremost, who will be the one under center when they take the field in September? Do they invest their first round pick in someone like Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis? Do they attempt a blockbuster move for somebody like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers? Thanks to the salary cap rising in 2022, they’ll likely have more money to play around with than initially expected, and at a glance it doesn’t appear they have many players they’ll be dying to re-sign outside of possibly one more prove it deal for JuJu Smith-Schuster (coming off an injury). The situation has to be intriguing for any veteran quarterback looking for a new home; it’s just a matter of if the Steelers want to invest big money in the short term, or draft a young option and use that extra money to build around him for the future.
Defensively, how will they return their secondary to the feared status they boasted in the past? Minkah Fitzpatrick felt like a ghost for the vast majority of the season, and their cornerback group leaves much to be desired. The free agent pool at the position will be full of veterans that shouldn’t break their bank, so if they don’t commit top dollar at the quarterback position it’s likely that they’ll focus heavily on that part of the defense. There are also interesting names in the draft like Sauce Gardner and Kaiir Elam should they decide to go that route. Whatever they decide, you should fully expect the Steelers to be competitive again next year and right in the thick of the AFC North race. Like the Ravens, they don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
Well, it’s time to give the champs their roses. For months now it’s been apparent that the Bengals had it together more than any other team in the division, and they were deserving of being the ones to wear the crown. Not only that, but their losing effort this week against the Browns (with no starters) actually helped their seeding in the postseason, as they now get to take on the Las Vegas Raiders instead of the New England Patriots or division rival Pittsburgh Steelers for a third time. With their quarterback of the next decade firmly in place, who’s surrounded by one of the best supporting casts in football, they’ve also got the fewest amount of questions of any team in the AFC North heading into 2022.
The dynamic duo of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins is in place for at least the next two seasons, and it would be highly surprising to see them not do everything in their power to re-sign Higgins and ensure it stays that way for even longer. Running back Joe Mixon, who’s in the midst of his best season as a pro, is also under contract until 2025. This group is only going to continue to grow in the years to come, and with a little more help along the offensive line, could be one of the Super Bowl favorites every year for the next 5+ seasons.
Defensively, the addition of Trey Hendrickson last offseason gave this unit an identity that they were not to be taken lightly. Young up-and-coming stars like Jesse Bates, and veterans like Vonn Bell and D.J. Reader, also ensure that they’ll be able to keep their team in almost every game given how explosive their offense is. They’ve still got their holes that need to be filled though, most notably at the linebacker position. A player like Devin Lloyd out of Utah paired with the rest of that unit could be just the missing piece to take them from a middle of the pack defense into the top 10. Regardless, the Cincinnati Bengals appear as if they’re here to stay for the foreseeable future, and they’ll be the ones that everyone else is looking to knock off as we head into 2022.
So, there we have it, the 2021-22 regular season is officially in the books. For the vast majority of the year this race was among the top divisional battles in the league, and as we approach the offseason it doesn’t appear as if that’s going to change any time soon. As the Ravens and Browns start to lay out their plans of reloading, and the Bengals and Steelers prepare for postseason football this week, we say thank you for following along all year! It’s been a crazy ride, but through all the ups and downs we were treated to months of excitement and an almost photo finish when it was all said and done. Don’t blink though, with free agency and the draft just around the corner, we’re only getting started.