Teams and Division Championships All-Time (Last 10 Years):
- Pittsburgh Steelers: 23 (4)
- Cincinnati Bengals: 10 (3)
- Cleveland Browns: 6 (0)
- Baltimore Ravens: 5 (3)
Every year, things change in the NFL. There may not be a division where more is changing currently than the AFC North. The Steelers have been in control of this division for a few years, mainly due to their star power on offense, with only a couple of interruptions from the Cincinnati Bengals. Ever since the Ravens won the 2012 Super Bowl, they’ve been on a downhill trend, and the Browns were historically terrible for about 15 years. In the past season though, the division suddenly took on an entirely different look. The Steelers were taken down by internal conflict and missed the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. The Ravens benched former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and rode Lamar Jackson to the top spot in the division. The Bengals maintained their general boringness but finally fired their mediocre Head Coach, and the Cleveland Browns began to look competitive. This is a fun one to predict.
Why not? With the division wide open for the first time in a while, the Browns are the team that just about everyone in the country would love to see win it this year. After their midseason turnaround where they finally fired the worst coach in the league and began starting First-Overall Pick Baker Mayfield, they became one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. Mayfield looks to be the best passer in the division aside from an aging Big Ben, and his GM John Dorsey has done a great job of acquiring talent to help him out on offense. Most notably, they traded for top 3 Wide Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason. Between the two of them, in just under a full season, they convinced everybody that Cleveland is the place to go if you want to build up a winning franchise. That’s insane, considering that, again, this team was historically terrible for about 15 years. With young talent all over the roster, on both sides of the ball, expect the Browns to have a great year. Maybe I’m being too optimistic predicting a division win already, but expect at least one over the next few seasons.
To go more in depth about the talent on their roster, the offense features (aside from Beckham and Mayfield), star running backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, Miami’s former all-star slot receiver Jarvis Landry, and emerging recent draft picks CB Denzel Ward, TE David Njoku, and DE Myles Garrett. Considering how many players they have on rookie contracts, they still have cap space to sign heavy hitters in free agency as well. In the Odell trade they did give up Jabrill Peppers, an exciting Safety who I wish was still with the team, but it was a small price to pay for one of the best players in the league. Overall the new dynasty in Cleveland of HC Freddie Kitchens and QB Baker Mayfield looks like it could be here to stay, giving the city some consistency in its football team for the first time in a very long time.
Projected Record: 10-6
I wish I could put another team here, but I don’t think I can. Pittsburgh missed playoffs last year but, as mentioned before, much of the problem seemed to be internal, and might have been named Antonio Brown. With Brown and Le’Veon Bell gone, this team should suffer, but they somehow already have solid replacements for both of them. Running back James Conner proved his ability to be an every down back last year out of absolutely nowhere. Wide Receiver Juju Smith-Schuster is more than capable of stepping up to fill the #1 option spot, already being a dominant player in just his second year. With those two players holding down the spots of the two biggest losses for Pittsburgh, everything else should fall into place relatively well. As much as Mike Tomlin tends to make mistakes, he’s an extremely talented coach with a lot of experience in the league. His team might slide a little bit, and I could see him being on the hot seat depending on how far that slide is, so I don’t think they could fall further than a second place finish.
The x-factor for the Steelers this year, as usual, will be Ben Roethlisberger. He’s getting older, his leading skills have been called into question more than once, and he doesn’t seem like the best human being, but the guy can still throw a football very very well. He broke 5000 passing yards in 2018 for surprisingly the first time in his career, so he’s still as much of a problem as ever for opposing defenses. Despite his age, he can still take hits and deliver accurate passes regardless of the schemes drawn up against him. Along with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, he is one of the last QBs from the early 2000s who has remained elite throughout his entire career. His offensive line could be slightly more suspect than it has been in the past, and the Steelers defense has holes, especially at linebacker, so he won’t carry this team to a Super Bowl. That being said, elite quarterbacks typically don’t finish the season with losing records.
Projected Record: 9-7
The Ravens saw extreme success with a unique strategy at the end of last season, winning the division with a late push after benching Joe Flacco. Unfortunately, they were exposed in their first playoff game, and I think that will become a trend in the upcoming season. They ran an offense that nearly resembled the Wildcat with how often quarterback Lamar Jackson attempted to move the ball by himself. There’s two factors to this: firstly, Lamar Jackson currently lacks the passing skills necessary to have success in a typical offensive scheme, and secondly, the Ravens have no one for the poor guy to throw to. Regardless, coach John Harbaugh needs to be credited for finding something that worked with the roster that he had. As unsustainable as it seems, it’ll be interesting to see if they adjust or roll with mostly the same gameplan next season. I’m fully confident that Jackson will develop into a solid passer, and the team seems to be as well, considering Joe Flacco was traded to Denver in the offseason.
Like I said above, Harbaugh deserves a lot of credit for how him and his team operated down the stretch. Hopefully he gets enough credit that the owner doesn’t fire him after a poor 2019 campaign. There’s always going to be growing pains with a young QB, and the Ravens are in an especially strange spot due to most of their team being older players. Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle, all cornerstones of the defense, were not re-signed for the upcoming season. Meanwhile their strength lies in a pretty good offensive line that made the strangest backfield in the league (Alex Collins-Gus Edwards-Buck Allen) look pretty good at times. They’ve signed a real running back for this season in Mark Ingram, and the acquisition of FS Earl Thomas was a good one. Maybe the Ravens make it close depending on who else they pick up, but for now I see regression until they solidify every other position.
Projected Record: 7-9
No matter how I drew up this division, it made me sad, and this is why. I have nothing against the Cincinnati Bengals; I actually would like to see them succeed. Out of all of my rankings, this one is the one I could see being most incorrect as well. Cincinnati is not all that far removed from a 2015 season where they put a chokehold on this division, and were hailed as having the best roster in football. With a new head coach, and an offensive coordinator that has only improved the situation since he arrived, it doesn’t seem right to project a downward trend for this team. Their strength of schedule in 2019 is one of the easiest in the league as well, so all I can really predict here is inexperience out of their new coach Zac Taylor and regression from the defense.
While recent draft efforts have focused on helping out the offense, it could certainly culminate in a bad season from the defense here. This is compounded by the fact that the Bengals’ defensive coordinator is not the best part of their coaching staff. The true key in how good or bad this season will be, however, is quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s taken several steps forward in the past few years after being consistently mediocre through his first seven or eight seasons, and for the Bengals to finish last in this division he would need to return to his old consistently inconsistent ways. If this happens, and maybe even if it doesn’t, the team would likely look to move on from him in the future. I could easily see the Bengals passing the Ravens in the standings, if nothing else.
Projected Record: 7-9