With the east complete, the focus now shifts to the north. The AFC North remains one of the toughest divisions in football. Since the Browns started their flurry of off-season moves before the 2018 season, they’ve become the media darlings of the NFL. The beginning of Cleveland’s return to relevance has been one of the biggest stories in the sport, and after a 2018 season that showed some promise, the lights are burning brighter than ever on the city. The Steelers however, who have historically dominated the division, don’t seem ready to give up the reigns and although they’ll look very different offensively this year – return a lot of the roster. The Ravens aren’t the mighty force they once were, but they still play defense and are conducting one of the more interesting experiments in the league with their offensive philosophy (Georgia Tech on steroids). The Bengals are well, the Bengals… but even Cincinnati has something to be excited about with new HC Zac Taylor starting his tenure.
Cleveland Browns (Over/Under: 9)
From zero to hero. Emerging from the ashes of losing season after losing season, the Browns are here – and many are predicting huge success. Freddy Kitchens will be in his first full season as head coach trying to build on a 7-9 campaign from 2018 that has many near Lake Eerie excited. QB Baker Mayfield will no longer be a rookie, and the team made the biggest splash of the off-season acquiring Odell Beckham from the Giants to go along with his college teammate Jarvis Landry on the outside. The offensive line has also emerged as a fine unit, only giving up 5 sacks from week 9 on last year, and the backs are stellar too. On the defensive side of the ball they are just as scary with Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon up front, anchored by Denzel Ward and Morgan Burnett on the back end. The only question with this team is a completely unproven coach, and how big of a step will Mayfield take in just his second season? On paper the team is one of the best in the league – but coaching and QB play are two of the most important things in the NFL and if the Browns are to succeed, Kitchens and Mayfield must be a big part of the equation.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Over/Under: 9)
For the first time in a long time, things are different up in Pittsburgh. Star wide out Antonio Brown was traded to Oakland in the off-season and RB Le’Veon Bell signed with the Jets after sitting out an entire season over a contract dispute. Because of the star power lost, the Steelers missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2013, and the upstart Browns challenging for the division, many are down on the black and yellow this year – but I’m personally not one of them. A lot of the problems in the organization stemmed from locker room issues, and the two main culprits are now on different rosters. Hometown hero James Conner isn’t Le’Veon Bell, but the offense didn’t skip a beat when he entered the lineup. Similarly, Smith-Schuster looks to be next in what’s been a long line of successful receivers for the Steelers. They also have James Washington who will be entering his second season and likely taking on a starting role for the first time. They should be better on defense too, finally drafting someone to fill in the middle when they traded up for LB Devin Bush in the first round this spring. The Steelers have struck a nice roster balance and ultimately should be right there at the end contending for another division title this fall.
Baltimore Ravens (Over/Under: 8)
When’s the last time the Ravens were projected for less wins than the Browns, and coming off a season in which they made the playoffs at that? It certainly shows Vegas thinks the success Baltimore had the second half of last year was a mirage, and I tend to agree. A lot of the second-half success was predicated on a brand-new offensive philosophy they rolled out in the middle of the year when Lamar Jackson took over and defenses had no way to truly prepare. When the Ravens were forced to throw in the playoffs, they were dominated by the Chargers, and I’d anticipate more of that is on the horizon. If Jackson comes out week one and suddenly is an effective passer, all bets are off. But the fact remains Baltimore is running an offense not only predicated on running the ball, but reliant on it – and in a league that has never valued passing and quarterback play more, the battle feels uphill. While the philosophy may be puzzling, the roster should be solid once again. The Ravens still have a solid defense and while they certainly lost plenty, they made some key acquisitions as well. They nabbed Shane Ray, previously of the Broncos and most notably safety Earl Thomas. Thomas’ health will be a question mark but combined with players already on the roster like Matthew Judon and Jimmy Smith, the Ravens should be able to keep that stingy edge defensively. The eight-win over/under feels like a good way to sum up the Ravens this fall. They have outstanding talent at certain points on the roster, but with their liabilities offensively and at the quarterback position specifically, it feels like Baltimore has a ceiling for success in 2019.
Cincinnati Bengals (Over/Under: 6)
Where do you begin with the Cincinnati Bengals? Another franchise that just hasn’t historically been on the same level as the rest of the NFL financially or on the field. Marvin Lewis came around and really changed that and although he certainly deserved to be fired, the first half of his tenure as head coach was remarkable. Now former Rams QB coach Zac Taylor takes over, and he has a big job ahead of him. The Bengals had a lot of success for a little stretch there with Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert, but those days are in the rear-view mirror and the roster since then has deteriorated. To make matters worse, their best offensive player AJ Green is already injured and the skill players apart from Joe Mixon haven’t shown much. The Bengals do have talent in the secondary, as Jessie Bates and William Jackson have been standouts to compliment a pair of former first rounders, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard (2012 & 2014). Cincinnati doesn’t have much in the front-7 though, and they’ll need much more than Geno Atkins if they hope to have any amount of success. If Zac Taylor turns out to be the next Sean McVay, which is highly unlikely, anything is possible. But at this point 8-8 would be a huge win as would finishing in anything but last place in the North.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Cleveland Browns (10-6)
Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
Baltimore Ravens (5-11)