AFC North Season Preview

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks in the NFL, giving sports fans some excitement and something to look forward to in a world of uncertainty. There was the NFL Draft, followed by the run on undrafted free agents. On Thursday, the NFL schedule was released, giving teams and fans an idea of when they were going to face the opponents that they were already aware of and giving clarity to their schedule. With that said, we can start taking a look at how we think the divisions will pan out in 2020. We turn our focus to the AFC North, which was a runaway last season. Only one team made the playoffs a year ago and the division hopes to return to form in 2020.

1) Baltimore Ravens

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks in the NFL, giving sports fans some excitement and something to look forward to in a world of uncertainty. There was the NFL Draft, followed by the run on undrafted free agents. On Thursday, the NFL schedule was released, giving teams and fans an idea of when they were going to face the opponents that they were already aware of and giving clarity to their schedule. With that said, we can start taking a look at how we think the divisions will pan out in 2020. We turn our focus to the AFC North, which was a runaway last season. Only one team made the playoffs a year ago and the division hopes to return to form in 2020.

Baltimore was electric in their first season with Lamar Jackson running the offense full-time. After a tough September saw them start the year 2-2, including a whipping at the hands of Cleveland at home, the Ravens reeled off 12 straight wins to close the regular season, earning the top record in the league and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Things didn’t go as planned in the postseason as perhaps the meaningless week 17 game and the bye week dulled their razor-sharp edge. Will Baltimore build off their regular season success or be buried in their postseason failure?

2019 Record: 14-2 (1st in AFC North lost 20-12 at home to Tennessee in AFC Divisional Round)

Odds to Win Super Bowl: 13/2

Odds to Win AFC Championship: 13/4

Odds to Win AFC North: 5/4

Key Additions: DT Calais Campbell (trade, Jaguars), DE/DT Derek Wolfe (Broncos), LB Jake Ryan (Jaguars), T D.J. Fluker (Seahawks)

Draft Picks: LB Patrick Queen, RB J.K. Dobbins, DT Justin Madubuike. WR Devin Duvernay, LB Malik Harrison, T/G Tyre Phillips, G Ben Bredeson, DT Broderick Washington, WR James Proche, S Geno Stone

Key Losses: TE Hayden Hurst (trade, Falcons), DE/DT Chris Wormley (trade, Steelers), G Marshall Yanda (retired), DT Michael Pierce (Vikings), LB Josh Bynes (Bengals), WR Seth Roberts (Panthers), LB Patrick Onwuasor (Jets)

Baltimore got more than they likely expected from Jackson in his first full season as the starter. The former Heisman Trophy winner completed 66.1 percent of his throws for 3,127 yards with 36 touchdowns and six interceptions while adding a league-record 1,206 yards plus seven scores on the ground. As a result of his efforts, he earned MVP honors. Robert Griffin III is still around as the backup and the team added Tyler Huntley to be in the mix as well. He has tight end Mark Andrews (team-high 64 receptions, 852 yards, 10 TD) and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (46 receptions, 584 yards, seven TD) leading the way.

Beyond Jackson, the Ravens got plenty of production in the ground game. Mark Ingram II contributed 202 carries for 1,018 yards and 10 scores while Gus Edwards chipped in 133 carries for 711 yards and two scores. Both of those guys are back this season and Dobbins will be worked into the mix as well. All told, the Ravens averaged a punishing 206 yards per game on the ground and 21 scores while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Replacing Yanda on the offensive line will be a task but their other four starters on the offensive line from a season ago are intact. Having Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. as the bookends of the line is a solid foundation.

Defensively, Baltimore was third in scoring defense, fourth in total defense, sixth in passing defense and fifth in rushing defense on the year. The Ravens forced 25 takeaways, ending up with a +10 takeaway/giveaway ratio. On the year, Baltimore gave up just 15 touchdown passes, tied for second-fewest in the league, and did so without a dominating pass rush. Matthew Judon (54 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 33 QB hits, four forced fumbles) led the team with 9.5 sacks. Rather than run the risk of him slipping away, the Ravens franchised him. He was the only player with more than five sacks last season. Adding Campbell and Wolfe on the defensive line will help both in stopping the run and adding pressure on the quarterback.

Queen and Harrison could slot into two of the three linebacker spots in the Ravens’ 3-4 system, flanked by Judon and DE/LB Jaylon Ferguson (31 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, fumble recovery) in the front seven. Baltimore’s secondary has Marlon Humphrey (65 tackles, four tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two TD, three INT) and Marcus Peters (39 tackles, 10 pass defenses, three INT, two TD) at the corners with Jimmy Smith or Anthony Averette manning the nickel spot. The safeties are in good hands with Earl Thomas (49 tackles, four pass defenses, forced fumble, fumble recovery, two INT) and Chuck Clark (73 tackles, sack, nine pass defenses, two forced fumbles, INT) leading the way. The kicking game is one of the best in the league as Justin Tucker is nearly automatic when he comes on the field. He drilled 57 of 59 extra points and 28 of 29 field goal attempts last season.

Baltimore was extremely tough last season and they patched up some of the glaring weaknesses they had a season ago. Bolstering the defensive line was a major boost and the Ravens are one of the league’s top teams when it comes to drafting. While Jackson may not be as explosive as he was last season, Baltimore has plenty of weapons and they have enough to take the AFC North again.

Projected Record: 12-4, 1st in AFC North

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season didn’t pan out the way the Pittsburgh Steelers would have hoped. For the previous several seasons, the team relied on the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown to lead their offense. By the time the 2019 campaign began, two of those guys weren’t even on the roster and the third was done for the year after week two. That led to a ton of shuffling and looking for capable playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Ultimately, they were unable to generate enough offense in critical late-season games and it led to them missing the postseason by a single game.

2019 Record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC North, missed postseason)

Odds to Win Super Bowl: 25/1

Odds to Win AFC Championship: 12/1

Odds to Win AFC North: 11/4

Key Additions: DE/DT Chris Wormley (trade, Ravens), TE Eric Ebron (Colts), C/G Stefen Wisniewski (Chiefs), FB Derek Watt (Chargers), CB Breon Borders (Redskins)

Draft Picks: WR Chase Claypool, DE Alex Highsmith Jr., RB Anthony McFarland Jr., G Kevin Dotson, LB/S Antone Dotson, DT Carlos Davis

Key Losses: G Ramon Foster (retired), NT Javon Hargrave (Eagles), C B.J. Finney (Seahawks), TE Nick Vannett (Broncos), S Sean Davis (Redskins), LB Tyler Matakevich (Bills), CB Artie Burns (Bears), FB Roosevelt Nix (Colts), LB Mark Barron

Pittsburgh had too many issues to work through and it ended up leaving them a middle of the pack team when push came to shove. The Steelers were a dismal 27th in the league in scoring offense with 18.1 points per game but after scoring at least 20 points in seven of their first eight games, they reached that mark just twice in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh scored 10 points in each of their final three games, all losses, that dropped them from 8-5 to 8-8 and out of the postseason. Ben Roethlisberger was 35 of 62 for 351 yards and an interception before going down in week 2 with a torn elbow ligament. As a result, the Steelers had to turn to Mason Rudolph (176 of 283, 1765 yards, 13 TD, nine INT) and Devlin “Duck’ Hodges (100 of 160, 1063 yards, five TD, eight INT) for the rest of the season. Diontae Johnson (59 catches, 680 yards, five TD) was the team’s leading receiver. He, along with JuJu Smith-Schuster (42 grabs, 552 yards, three TD) and James Washington (44 catches, 735 yards, three TD) are going to have to contribute to get the Steelers going offensively.

The run game sputtered last season as James Conner led the team with 116 carries for 464 yards and four scores. He also missed six games with injuries. That pushed Benny Snell Jr. (108 carries, 426 yards, two TD) and Jaylen Samuels (66 carries, 175 yards, TD, 47 receptions, 305 yards, TD) into the mix in the backfield. Replacing Foster on the line is going to be something to watch for the Steelers. Adding Watt to the fold reunites him with his brother T.J., giving the Steelers the power in the battle of the Watts. Hopefully, he can help open some holes as the Steelers were 29th in the league in rushing offense last season.

Defensively, Pittsburgh was strong as they were fifth in scoring defense (18.9 ppg) and fifth in total defense in 2019. The Steelers led the league with a staggering 38 takeaways, including 18 fumble recoveries, and ranked second in interceptions with 20. Pittsburgh was third in pass defense and allowed a league-low seven rushing scores to offset that they were 14th in rush defense. Cameron Heyward (83 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, nine sacks, six pass defenses, forced fumble, fumble recovery) and Bud Dupree (68 tackles, 11.5 sacks, three pass defenses, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) are the anchors of the pass rush. T.J. Watt (55 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, eight pass defenses, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two INT) is as good a linebacker as there is in the league.

The secondary for Pittsburgh is anchored by a pair of hard-hitting safeties that are playmakers. Minkah Fitzpatrick (57 tackles, nine pass defenses, forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, five interceptions, two touchdowns) and Terrell Edmunds (105 tackles, two tackles for loss, three pass defenses) wreak havoc on opposing receivers. Steven Nelson (61 tackles, eight pass defenses, fumble recovery, INT) and Joe Haden (65 tackles, three tackles for loss, 17 pass defenses, fumble recovery, forced fumble, five interceptions) handle the cornerback duties. Chris Boswell connected on all 28 extra point attempts and 29 of 31 field goal tries last season in a solid campaign.

All told, the Steelers should be better than last season, based solely on health. Pittsburgh faded down the stretch due to an inability of their quarterbacks to do the job offensively. With Roethlisberger back under center, the Steelers offense should be much better than they were last season. If Pittsburgh’s offense cuts down on turnovers (30 last season) and does their part to help out a terrific defense, the Steelers should be back in the playoff picture in 2020.

Predicted Record: 9-7, 2nd in AFC North

3) Cleveland Browns

To say 2019 was a disappointment for the Browns may be an understatement. After finishing 2018 7-8-1 and with some momentum, Cleveland struggled in 2019 as they never really seemed to put things together when all was said and done. Cleveland regressed under Freddie Kitchens, starting the year 2-6 and even after three straight wins to push back into the fringes of the playoff race, they couldn’t maintain that momentum. The Browns dropped four of their final five games to end up on the outside of the playoffs. Their last season swoon cost Kitchens his job so it will be former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski taking over the reins.

2019 Record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC North, missed postseason)

Odds to Win Super Bowl: 40/1

Odds to Win AFC Championship: 20/1

Odds to Win AFC North: 5/1

Key Additions: T Jack Conklin (Titans), TE Austin Hooper (Falcons), DT Andrew Billings (Bengals), DE Adrian Clayborn (Falcons), CB Kevin Johnson (Bills), QB Case Keenum (Redskins), LB B.J. Goodson (Packers), S Karl Joseph (Raiders), S Andrew Sendejo (Vikings), WR Jojo Natson (Rams), FB Andy Janovich (trade, Broncos)

Draft Picks: T Jedrick Wills, S Grant Delpit, DT Jordan Elliott, LB Jacob Phillips, TE Harrison Bryant, C Nick Harris, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

Key Losses: LB Joe Schobert (Jaguars), S Damarious Randall (Raiders), S Juston Burris (Panthers), LB Christian Kirksey (Packers), G Justin McCray (Falcons), CB T.J. Carrie (Colts), S Eric Murray (Texans), G Eric Kush (Raiders), TE Demetrius Harris (Bears), TE Ricky Seals-Jones (Chiefs), DE Brian Cox Jr. (Bills), S Morgan Burnett, T Greg Robinson

Cleveland has a new coaching staff and it will be interesting to see if Stefanski can get more out of the offense than Kitchens did last season. The Browns were 22nd in the league by scoring 20.9 points per game, scoring 19 points or less in half of their games. Cleveland was also 22nd in total offense and passing offense while turning the ball over 28 times on the year. The Browns had extended stretches where they were unable to put the ball in the end zone and there may be no better showing of their ineptitude than this eight-play sequence where they failed to put the ball in the end zone from the one-yard line.

Baker Mayfield struggled most of the year as he completed 59.4 percent of his throws for 3,827 yards with 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. He has to be more consistent, especially given the quality of receivers that he has to work with. Odell Beckham Jr. (74 catches, 1035 yards, four TD) was up and down in his first season with the Browns but being paired with Jarvis Landry (83 receptions, 1174 yards, six TD) and new tight end Hooper (75 receptions, 787 yards, six TD with Atlanta) to give a trio of reliable options should help. Bringing in Conklin via free agency and drafting Wills in the first round gives the Browns two new tackles to fix the offensive line.

Cleveland’s run game was solid as it was led by Nick Chubb, who was a force on the ground. He ran the ball 298 times for 1,494 yards and eight scores while adding 36 receptions for 278 yards. Kareem Hunt, who played the second half of the season after serving his suspension for off-field incidents, had 43 carries for 179 yards and two scores while contributing 37 catches for 285 yards and a score as a safety valve. Hunt signed his restricted free-agent tender so that duo should be back again this season to do damage.

The Browns had some defensive issues last year, ranking 20th in the league in scoring defense (24.6 ppg) on the season. Cleveland was 22nd in total defense and was gashed on the ground, ranking 30th in rushing defense to offset that they were seventh in pass defense. The Browns hope to have Myles Garrett (29 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles) for a full season instead of only 10 games. He was suspended down the stretch after swinging his helmet at the Steelers’ Mason Rudolph in a brawl in the closing seconds. Olivier Vernon (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is going to need to do more and stay healthy as well. Cleveland needs a better pass rush as beyond Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi (50 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) was next in line with 5.5 sacks.

Losing Schobert and Kirksey will lead to an overhaul of the linebacker spots and it means that rookie Phillips could slot into a spot. Sione Takataki (21 tackles in 15 games, one start) is the leader to replace Schobert in the middle. Mack Wilson (82 tackles, four tackles for loss, sack, seven pass defenses, forced fumble) stepped in as a rookie fifth-round pick last season and will be the leader of the linebacker group. Denzel Ward (44 tackles, 11 pass defenses, fumble recovery, two INT, TD) and Greedy Williams (47 tackles, two tackles for loss, two pass defenses) gives the team a pair of solid corners but the safeties will be new this season. Delpit likely takes over the free safety spot as a rookie while Joseph steps in at strong safety. Austin Seibert handles the kicking duties after he hit 30 of 35 extra point attempts and 25 of 29 field goal tries last season.

The Browns have some capable weapons and they altered their offensive line in order to try and make things better to protect Mayfield. Cleveland’s problem is that their defense is going to be overhauled. Losing Schobert, who was a do-everything kind of guy last season, in the middle is going to present a challenge. Having two new safeties will put pressure on the corners early and without a consistent pass rush, it could be tough. It’s an uphill climb for the Browns, especially in this division. Cleveland may improve slightly but the postseason may be out of reach once again.

Projected Record: 8-8, 3rd in AFC North

4) Cincinnati Bengals

It was a rough season in 2019 for the Bengals and it seems like 2020 will be a changing of the guard of sorts. Zac Taylor had a dismal first campaign as a NFL head coach as the team was lacking playmakers on either side of the ball and the results proved that out. Cincinnati posted the league’s worst record and failed to make critical plays in key situations that ended up costing them several games. The Bengals ended up with the first overall pick and they hope that the young players they picked up in the draft can help bring the team back to respectability. That may be a longer road than they may have expected at this stage.

2019 Record: 2-14 (4th in AFC North, missed postseason)

Odds to Win Super Bowl: 200/1

Odds to Win AFC Championship: 100/1

Odds to Win AFC North: 30/1

Key Additions: CB LeShaun Sims (Titans), DT D.J. Reader (Texans), CB Trae Waynes (Vikings), S Vonn Bell (Saints), G Xavier Su’a-Filo (Cowboys), CB Mackensie Alexander (Vikings), LB Josh Bynes (Ravens), WR Mike Thomas (Rams)

Draft Picks: QB Joe Burrow, WR Tee Higgins, LB Logan Wilson, LB Akeem Davis-Gaither, DE Khaleed Kareem, G Hakeem Adeniji, LB Markus Bailey

Key Losses: QB Andy Dalton (released, signed with Cowboys), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (released), TE Tyler Eifert (Jaguars), S Clayton Fejedelem (Dolphins), G John Miller (Panthers), DT Andrew Billings (Browns), LB Nick Vigil (Chargers), T Cordy Glenn, CB Darqueze Dennard, G Clint Boling (retired)

Cincinnati struggled in all facets last season and that’s not unexpected when you finish the year 2-14. The Bengals were a dismal 30th in scoring offense (17.4 points per game), scoring 17 points or less in 10 of their 16 games. On the plus side, they scored 68 points in their final two games of the season but Dalton won’t be under center at this stage. Instead, it will be Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy last season in addition to a national title at LSU. He’ll have some targets to work with as A.J. Green, who missed all of last year with a foot injury, is back and hopefully healthy. So is the blazing fast but injury prone John Ross (28 grabs, 506 yards, three TD), who is playing for his next contract. Auden Tate (40 receptions, 575 yards, TD) and Tyler Boyd (90 catches, 1046 yards, five TD) are in the mix as well, which makes the Higgins pick a bit of a surprise.

The run game will be the same as last year with Joe Mixon leading the way. He ran the ball 278 times for 1,137 yards and five scores. He added 35 receptions for 287 yards plus three scores. Giovani Bernard has to be better than he was a year ago, when he ran the ball 53 times for 170 yards while chipping in 30 catches for 234 yards. The offensive line is going to be a shifting thing with Boling retired, Glenn not re-signed and Miller leaving via free agency. Cincinnati hopes to have Jonah Williams back after he missed all of last season. Bringing in Su’a-Filo is a boost to the interior offensive line and Williams should slot in to play left tackle. It will be something that will bear monitoring.

Defensively, the Bengals were 25th in scoring defense as they allowed an average of 26.3 points per game. Cincinnati was 29th in the league in total defense and they were only 28th in takeaways with 16, leading to the team holding a -14 mark in the takeaway/giveaway ratio. The Bengals were dead last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 148.5 yards per game. That’s something that they are going to have to shore up this season. The addition of the massive Reader to play alongside Geno Atkins (47 tackles, four tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) should help at the point of attack. Carlos Dunlap (63 tackles, eight pass defenses, 13 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two forced fumbles) and Sam Hubbard (46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three pass defenses, 8.5 sacks, forced fumble) provide the pass rush from the outside.

With Vigil and Preston Brown gone at the linebacker spot, the Bengals have to shift some things around. Germaine Pratt (76 tackles, four tackles for loss) is in line to start at one spot while Jordan Evans (12 tackles) is the frontrunner for the other spot. The secondary is in a state of flux as Kirkpatrick and Dennard are gone. Former Vikings teammates Waynes and Alexander could take over at one corner and a nickel spot in the Bengals 4-2-5 front. William Jackson III (37 tackles, three pass defenses, INT) is back at one corner spot. The safeties are intact from last season, which means Shawn Williams (114 tackles, five tackles for loss, three pass defenses, INT) and Jessie Bates (100 tackles, nine pass defenses, three INT, forced fumble, fumble recovery) will be the back line of defense. Randy Bullock connected on 24 of 25 extra point attempts and 27 of 31 field goal tries last season. He should be back to handle the kicking duties again.

The Bengals have some nice components on offense but it’s going to be a challenge for Burrow to drastically turn around a team that was 2-14 last season. Cincinnati’s offensive line has some issues and the new secondary is going to have to step up and make plays. Finishing drives is going to be a point of emphasis offensively as well. Burrow will help make the Bengals better than they were last season but they still are comfortably in the cellar of the AFC North once again.

Projected Record: 4-12, 4th in AFC North

Author Profile
Chris King

Chris King has been immersed in the world of professional and collegiate sports for more than three decades. Whether it's playing pickup games or being involved in organized sports to being a fan, he's checked all the boxes. From the NFL to arena football, the NHL to the KHL, the NBA to the WNBA to college hoops, and even MLB to the KBO. If it's out there, he's covered it and bet on it as well, as Chris has been an expert bettor in his career. Before joining Winners and Whiners back in 2015, his work appeared around the internet and in print. He's written books for Ruckus Books about college basketball, the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, golf, and the World Cup. If you're looking for the inside track on hitting a winner, do yourself a favor and read what Chris has to say.