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The AFC is absolutely stacked heading into the 2023 season, and no division may be more competitive than the AFC North. With an impressive lineup of talent under center, as well as the division’s trademark bad blood, this division is going to be appointment viewing. We may see more wins as a division from this group than any other division in the NFL. The question is not whether or not the AFC North will get multiple teams into the postseason: the question is, how many?
Record in 2022: 10-7
Key Player: Middle Linebacker – Roquan Smith
Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – Zay Flowers
If the personnel changes are anything to go by, gone are the Ravens of old. With new offensive coordinator Todd Monken taking over after the departure of Greg Roman, the traditionally ground and pound Ravens are looking to take things in a vertical direction this season.
All-world tight end Mark Andrews will help in that regard, as will newly acquired Odell Beckham Jr.. But it’s rookie Zay Flowers who may be the piece that opens up this aerial attack. Teams are prepared to deal with two passing threats, but if Flowers emerges as a third, which he seems to be on a path to, this offense will soar. Lamar Jackson hasn’t had proper weapons in the past and he won an MVP anyway. With these weapons we could see a whole new side of him.
Defensively expect this team to be the stout unit it seems to always be. Roquan Smith was a huge mid-season pick up last year. Now with a full training camp under his belt, he should be the undisputed leader of this defense. The offense should be able to put up bigger numbers than they have previously during Jackson’s tenure, so the defense should have an easier task ahead of them. Prediction: 10-7
Record in 2022: 12-5
Key Player: Nose Tackle – D.J. Reader
Player To Watch: Offensive Tackle – Orlando Brown Jr.
The Bengals have made two consecutive AFC title games as well as one Super Bowl over the last two seasons. The reason is comically simple: Joe Burrow is just that good. With a tandem of wide receivers that give cornerbacks nightmares in the form of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, this Bengals’ offense has been prolific.
They did that all in spite of a substandard offensive line. They made a major upgrade by adding Orlando Brown Jr., who is a far superior pass blocker than previous players at the position. Cincinnati’s offense was already a handful, due to Burrow being cool under pressure. How cool can he be without it?
The defense merely needs to hold serve, and it all starts with Reader. A stout interior defensive lineman can make life easier for every other defender on the field (just ask the Rams, Chiefs, Giants or Jets). Reader will clog the middle, and good luck trying to beat the Bengals on the margins. Plus, they have the benefit of more offensive support than most defenses can rely on. Prediction: 12-5
Record in 2022: 7-10
Key Player: Quarterback – Deshaun Watson
Player To Watch: Defensive Tackle – Dalvin Tomlinson
Deshaun Watson only played six games under center last season, his first in Cleveland. The results were…not good to say the least. Even bearing in mind a small sample size, Watson posted a 58.2 completion percentage and a 79.1 QB rating. Both are far cries from the impressive numbers he put up in his Houston days.
The counterpoint is that due to off the field issues, Watson had spent a long time away from football and was predictably rusty. No such reasoning (or excuses, depending on your preference) exist this campaign. He’ll have elite runner Nick Chubb sharing the backfield with him, which should definitely help. But this offense will hinge on whether or not Watson returns to his pre-hiatus form, because outside of Chubb, the Browns just don’t boast the same firepower with their pass catchers as their divisional opponents. Watson and Chubb will need to electric just to keep pace.
Which means the defense will have to be stellar. Cleveland may just have the pieces to do it. They made two huge acquisitions this offseason, adding to a front seven that already had All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. Dalvin Tomlinson has been quietly terrific as an interior lineman, first for the Giants and then the Vikings. Defensive end Za’Darius Smith joined him on the trip from Minnesota. Together with Garrett, those three will need to be very disruptive against opposing quarterbacks, which will make life easier for the back end of the defense. With the other receivers in the division, they’ll need all the help they can get. Prediction: 6-11
Record in 2022: 9-8
Key Player: Quarterback – Kenny Pickett
Player To Watch: Nose Tackle – Keeanu Benton
Quarterback Kenny Pickett showed promising flashes as a rookie. Now heading into year two, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff seems happy with his progress. He’ll need to keep on the upward trajectory, because Baltimore and Cincinnati aren’t going to spot the Steelers any headway in this division.
Luckily for Pickett he has a strong group of skill position players to bolster him. Wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are an underrated tandem, and third year tight end Pat Freiermuth should turn some heads this season. Najee Harris will be a reliable chain-mover, taking pressure off the young signal caller.
But this is Pittsburgh, after all. Which means the defense will have their say in the outcome of games. Veteran Patrick Peterson joins the defensive backfield, where he will team up with top tier safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Better still, T.J. Watt is fully healthy. That will put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with Watt applying the pressure and Fitzpatrick and Peterson lurking as ballhawks. Cameron Hayward will eat up space as he always does. That opens favorable matchups for rookie Keeanu Benton. If he can capitalize, this can be one of the better units in the NFL. Prediction: 9-8