The two best divisions in the NFL this year will be the NFC West and AFC North.
Last year in a pandemic season, the league announced that there would become one additional Wild Card playoff team in each conference. That worked in the Browns’ favor as they slid into one of those final spots as the sixth seed after an impressive 11-5-0 season which tied the final records with three other clubs.
But for the AFC North, three teams made the playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and the Browns. That was only the eighth time in the 100-year history of the NFL that three franchises from the same division had made the playoffs so the event was quite an achievement for the division.
And now, here comes the 2021 season. Last year the Steelers jumped out to an 11-0-0 start. Baltimore is always an exceptional team. On paper, Cleveland appears to be able to not only make the playoffs again, but should make a deep run and finally has a championship roster.
The Browns are considered a second-tier team until they can prove otherwise. Currently the AFC Royalty consists of the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens. To get to the Super Bowl, these are the guys you will have to beat first.
To become a member of the elite, you also have to win your division. That should be the Browns very first goal this year: capture the AFC North crown.
So for a history lesson, here are the AFC North Division winners from the past 15 years:
Baltimore – 2019, 2018, 2012, 2011, 2006
Cincinnati – 2015, 2013, 2009
Pittsburgh – 2020, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2010, 2008, 2007
The Browns have never won the AFC North and have not placed higher than second place. The precursor was the AFC Central which Cleveland captured six times: 1971, 1980, 1985-1987 and 1989. The majority of those squads were smack in the middle of the Marty Schotteheimer era.
What about this year?
The Browns’ offense is poised to run the ball and has built a very lethal offensive attack. QB Baker Mayfield finally has the same head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach two seasons in a row with the same playbook and scheme. The offensive line is arguably the best in the league with added depth this year. The wide receiver room is stacked with talent as are the tight ends. And Nick Chubb is one of the best running backs in the NFL and has finished in the Top-10 of rushers the past three years. His backfield mate Kareem Hunt won the NFL rushing title in 2017.
The defense will be the tipping point. A ton of focus and attention has been garnered towards making this a better unit and could see nine new starters come opening day.
Special teams has gotten several more prodigious tacklers while long snapper Charley Hughlett is one of the best in the league. Punter Jamie Gillan has proven to be an exceptional athlete and a valued roster member. The kicking game will need to be watched carefully and hopefully some stud returners will emerge.
But the question looms: who will win the AFC North? Our experts dive into each team in the division and discuss what each club will need to do to capture the North crown, their strengths and weaknesses, and the probabilities to come out on top.
The Baltimore Ravens head into the 2021 season as the presumptive favorite — or at least the co-favorite — to win the AFC North Division.
The Ravens still have one of the league’s best defenses, especially in the secondary where league officials allow cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Tavon Young to play a type of extremely aggressive brand of football that is normally not seen in the modern NFL. Baltimore also worked on the pass rush by signing Justin Houston in free agency and selecting Odafe Oweh in the draft to make up for losing Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency.
That may or may not be enough, but it is probably not wise to bet against defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who has coached the Baltimore defense to a Top-10 ranking for the past three seasons.
On offense, the Ravens needed to do something to try and improve on the league’s worst passing attack, so they added wide receivers in both the draft (Rashod Bateman) and free agency (Sammy Watkins) to try and give quarterback Lamar Jackson some weapons. Bateman is out until the start of the season, however, after undergoing surgery on his groin, and Watkins has not come close to repeating his lone 1,000-yard receiving season in 2015, so it is “wait and see” on the passing attack.
It is the running game the makes Baltimore’s offense go, of course, as Jackson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Even if the passing game leaves something to be desired, Jackson has still completed 65.3 percent of his passes with 62 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions over the past two seasons, so opposing defenses still need to respect the passing offense.
One final reason why the Ravens will be favored to win the division is that they win in the division. Baltimore is a combined 9-3 over the past two seasons in division games, and have won three in a row (and 11-of-14) against the Browns. Beating up on the other teams in the division certainly makes it a lot easier to claim the division title than if you are consistently going 2-4 every season.
Still, the game plan is out there to beat the Ravens as everyone has seen in the playoffs. Baltimore is just 1-3 in the postseason with Jackson at quarterback, and he has completed just 55.9 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns, five interceptions and 19 sacks in four career playoff games, so this is not an unbeatable team by any stretch.
The Bengals have not been very good in the past few years. In just six years ago, they were division winners and had put together some very good seasons but just couldn’t get it done in the off-season.
Now, they have QB Joe Burrow who was quietly having an excellent season last year before he was injured and lost for the duration of the schedule. Cincinnati’s offense is loaded with talent. The receivers are going to be almost impossible to cover before they drafted Ja’Marr Chase this year in the first-round who is crazy good with a long wingspan and runs a 4.38. Browns DC Joe Woods will need five and six pass defenders on the field at all times against this offense. RB Joe Mixon is now a Bengal for a long time as he recently had his contract extended. He is a pretty good pass receiver as well and is very shifty.
The defense is surprisingly getting much better. That has been their issue these past few years as they just could not cover the pass with their Achilles heel the tight end position. This year they have done a good job of bringing in seasoned veterans to make this unit much better.
Last year, the Bengals lost five games by five points or less. They have been in games that perhaps a penalty here and a pass completion there would have made the difference. Remember the second game last year when Cincinnati scored with almost nothing left in the game and QB Baker Mayfield drove the offense and found DPJ for the touchdown for the win? That is a perfect example of how the Bengals need to find a way to “finish.”
If their defense can improve this year, their offense will be explosive and I can see this club seriously winning eight or maybe even nine games and could conceivably end up in third place in the division ahead of the Steelers. Last season they allowed the fourth most rushing yards. So, they brought in the amazing DE Trey Hendrickson from the New Orleans Saints and also inked former Browns DT Larry Ogunjobi to help fill some holes plus drafted four defensive linemen including Joseph Ossai of Texas in the third-round.
Do not look at the Browns schedule and pencil in two “W’s” and roll out for the next game. Cincinnati won’t come close to winning the division this year, but expect a much improved roster and finally some competitiveness. They cannot be considered an natural “W” when you see them on the schedule. This roster is going to impress and surprise a lot of folks.
President: Browns Backers with a Twist
The Cleveland Browns and Homer Simpson have been farcing around on our television sets every Sunday in the fall since 1989. However, in 2021 the Cleveland Browns will stop the buffoonery and end the longest division title drought. Winning their first division title since 1989 will rely on their health, speed, and consistency.
The Browns are blessed with a lot of talent on both sides of the football for the 2021 season. The front office added a lot of depth to key position groups and the Browns have players returning from season-ending injuries. The health of this team will be pivotal in winning the division title.
Although the division will not be lost with any one injury on this team, the season can go south with multiple injuries to a position group as we saw last year with the defensive backfield and the wide receiver group in the game vs. the Jets. This is true for any team in the National Football League, but the Browns will have to remain healthier than their division rivals.
Baker Mayfield has proven to be tough at the quarterback position by not missing a start in his almost three full seasons under center. With Lamar Jackson catching COVID-19 as much as he runs around on the field, Ben Roethlisberger’s arm giving out halfway through last season, and Joe Burrow’s past injury, Mayfield’s chances to take ownership of the AFC North begins this year.
The Browns added speed to their team through the draft with wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, linebacker hybrid Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, cornerback Greg Newsome II and the off-season acquisition of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The Browns should emulate the Chiefs on how they utilize getting the football into their fastest player’s hands as quickly as possible.
Defensively, the Browns will have to stop their opposition from getting to the edge and behind the defensive line and linebackers. Speed will be a big factor in how the Browns produce against their division rivals. Baltimore’s Jackson is elusive and fast at the quarterback position, but can be neutralized when forced to throw from the pocket. Myles Garrett, Clowney and the linebacker group’s speed will be essential in keeping Jackson contained.
Pittsburgh will be the most physical games of the season and the Browns can counteract their physicality with speed. Cincinnati has speed at receiver and it will be important to keep their top three receivers from breaking away on end-around plays and go-routes.
Last season the Browns offense went through some doldrums in the three bad weather games, leading to a loss versus Las Vegas. They also lost heavily to rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Last season the defense would be lights out in one half of football, but not the other. You can blame scheme and the scoreboard for some of the defense’s collapses, but in order to win this division the Browns will need to slam the door shut once it is opened.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski preaches consistency and hard work all season and for good reason. Both the Ravens and Steelers have been the model for consistency since the Browns returned in 1999. Mayfield played great in the second half of the season last year, but he will need a complete great season this year. It would be essential for Mayfield to be consistent with distributing the ball and hitting the open man.
Should a player unfortunately be lost to injury, then it cannot affect the Browns like it did last year. Cleveland’s rushing attack was not as lethal when RG Wyatt Teller was not playing. The defense has to be consistent with how they play and scheme. Too many times last year there were opponents running open due to a miscommunication. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will approach every game like they have the past so many years and it will be time for the Browns to step up and adopt that mentality.
Cleveland has emphasized health by carefully resting their players in training camp and holding meetings over Zoom, similar to last year. The front office has added the speed required to keep up with their division foes, and with Stefanski leading the way, the Browns will be as consistent in their play as their rivals. When the Browns stay healthy, use their speed, and approach the game consistently then we will be watching the Simpsons’ characters in Springfield on Sundays continue with their shenanigans while the Cleveland Browns end theirs on their way to the 2021 AFC North Division title.
First, I feel gross for writing this but hey somebody has to do it.
Can the Steelers win the division? Sure. They have a veteran QB and a good defense. Sometimes it’s that simple. If Big Ben Roethlisberger is healthy he can be dangerous. The Steelers had the best record in the NFL last year deep into the season so they have talent. The offensive line will need to be figured out - and quickly - but rookie RB Najee Harris should help finally give the Steelers some semblance of a ground game. The addition of former Brown Joe Schobert will give the Steelers a LB that can defend the pass, something they needed in the middle.
Can the Steelers win the division? If they fix the OL and Big Ben is right, they can.
What say you? Be honest, who will win the AFC North this year?
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