Lots of turmoil in the AFC North, but not on top. Cincinnati appears untouchable, yet we know things are never so simple. Someone will fall hard, but who?
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Last week, we talked up the balance and talent of the AFC East. One division later, we may have found an even more balanced and talented division in the AFC North. Much like the East, all four teams in the North finished with at least seven wins in 2022. And much like the East, the odds indicate a closely contested battle between four teams who could all finish with between seven and 11 wins. Will this happen again? Unlikely.
Last year, the Baltimore Ravens battled injuries and still reached 10 wins. The Pittsburgh Steelers restarted their offense behind Kenny Pickett and still reached nine wins. In Cleveland, the Browns took a rebuilding season to let Deshaun Watson get his sea legs and still reached seven wins. It is plausible to figure that all three of these teams could perform better in 2023. And that doesn’t even mention the division favorite, the Cincinnati Bengals.
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Is everyone still on the up and up in the AFC North? Who has hit a wall and just doesn’t know it yet? Cincinnati feels untouchable, while the Ravens are coming off a rough offseason. The Browns want to believe they have a great quarterback, while Pittsburgh has no idea what their QB potential is just yet. Nothing will go as planned in the North this season.
Who Wins The AFC North?
Todd Salem: Ravens In Trouble
So if all four teams are projected to be pretty good, who falters? My best guess for a fourth-place finisher is Pittsburgh. The Steelers overachieved last year and would need a sizable improvement in year two from Pickett to prevent a backslide. The offense looks to be one or two play-makers short, with an average offensive line. That won’t be good enough unless Pickett is elite, which I don’t see happening in year two. On defense, this team still has its horses but not enough talent spread across all three levels.
Would I be surprised if Pittsburgh finished, say, second instead of last? Not really, which speaks to the balance here. In a closely bottled division, I think Baltimore actually drops to third.
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Everyone loves the Ravens in the trenches. The one drawback has always been pass catching on the outside on offense. In 2023, there feels like more questions than there used to be everywhere else. The pass catching is still a major concern, but now we also have to factor in the unpleasant relationship between Lamar Jackson and management. If having a new offensive coordinator throws things off, a strong offensive line won’t save it.
And defensively, I don’t see it. Disappointing first-round picks in the front seven, age at corner, their best positional group being the least important (safety). For the first time in quite a while, I don’t feel as though this team has enough.
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Does Cleveland have enough to move from worst to first? Talent-wise, they sure do. It will come down to Watson and execution along the lines. The skill players on offense are numerous. The offensive line is good-to-great. The defense has blue-chip pass rushing. And it is all led by a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback…if he can get back to that level.
The Bengals have a similar formula. The skill players are great, probably better than Cleveland’s. The o-line is solid, though with perhaps a lower ceiling than the Browns’. The defense lacks big names outside of Trey Hendrickson. But then it all comes back to Joe Burrow, one of the best in the game, leading the charge. An elite QB covers up a bunch of blemishes. If you want to tell me Watson gets back to that level, bringing the Browns with him, I’d have to see it first. With Cincy, we’ve seen it.
Dan Salem: Bengals Continue To Dominate
You make rather compelling arguments for some turnover in the AFC North this season, but I don’t quite see it. This is certainly a very strong division that will be uber competitive from top to bottom. That said, I see more separation here in the AFC North than will exist in the East. Unlike the East, this division will come down to quarterback play more so than defense.
We have two elite quarterbacks and two up and comers in the North. Watson and Pickett are the up and comers, because Watson hit reset on his career. What he was no longer matters. Who was Watson last season and can he build from that? Same goes for Pickett, can he build off last year? Even if both improve significantly, they won’t reach the elite levels of Burrow and Jackson. Not this season at least.
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The Bengals win the AFC North with twelve wins, because Joe Burrow is that good and his team is still excellent. Furthermore, the competition in the division is not as close to Cincinnati as they once were. I agree that Pittsburgh and Baltimore lost something and likely lose a few more games because of it. Where we truly disagree is in Cleveland. Very good players do not always equate to a very good football team.
If the Browns are going to be good with Watson under center, then it will be in 2024, not this season. They looked uncomfortable with him at QB last year and the team as a whole has gone through way too much turmoil and transition. A full season of continuity and improvement can lead to future success, but that means I cap out Cleveland at nine wins, if they get there at all. They are not going to be a playoff team just yet. Some may say I’m being too conservative, but what have you done for me lately? Plus, Pittsburgh always finishes with a winning record… somehow.
1) Cincinnati Bengals (12 wins)
2) Pittsburgh Steelers (9 wins)
3) Baltimore Ravens (8 wins, tiebreaker)
4) Cleveland Browns (8 wins)
Meet our Writers:
Dan Salem is Lead Editor, Writer, and Co-owner of BuzzChomp. He’s a published author, as well as an award winning Actor, Director and Producer. Visit M Square Productions for his film work, or get lost in his old-school comedy on Pillow Talk TV. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Todd Salem is a Staff Writer and Contributing Editor at BuzzChomp. He’s also a fantasy football and fantasy baseball Staff Writer for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter or comment below for his unfiltered opinions.
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