With no sports and nothing but time, due to the global pandemic we’ve been living through, I have tried to figure out how to approach the 2020 NFL season. A part of me thought about ranking every team from 1-32, another wanted to rank each team per conference, but since we’re here I might as well just do every division in the league.
Part VI: AFC North
1. Baltimore Ravens
2019 record: 14-2
2020 over/under win total: 11.5
Football fans were robbed in January when the Tennessee Titans pulled off the upset of all upsets and handed the top-seeded Ravens a loss in the Divisional Round, altering the course of what everyone assumed was an inevitable Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship. Baltimore had the NFL’s best record in 2019 — 14-2 — and MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson continued to expand the boundaries of what is possible at his position.
Last season was the year of the Ravens, as they finished third in the NFL in yards per play (6.1) and in the upper-third in yards allowed per play (5.2). They led the NFL in points per game (33.1) and were third in points allowed per game (17.6), culminating in a historically good +249 point differential. They were 10-point favorites in their loss in the Divisional Round against the Titans, and would have been 3- or 3.5-point favorites against the Chiefs had they met in the AFC Title, and probably another 3-point favorite had everything worked out and they met the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
They had a great season, basically. But that was 2019. That was before NFL coaches and front offices had an entire offseason to prepare for an offense that last year they didn’t see coming. The Titans exposed Lamar Jackson with a strategy that seemed too obvious to have actually worked: they stacked the box with 8 and 9 defenders and forced Lamar Jackson to beat them with his arm rather than his legs.
Baltimore knows this is what to expect during the 2020 season, so they are going to spend their time working on how to beat it. Lamar has a set of legs that’s probably even more terrifying than Michael Vick — who was the first of his kind at QB — but beating teams while relying on his arm has yet to be proven. I won’t say he can’t do it; I’m just saying I don’t expect this team to duplicate their 2019 success and win 14 games again.
That’s an easy bet, because winning even 10 games is a struggle in the NFL. The fact that Baltimore bulked up on the defensive side of the ball signals to me that they are preparing to score fewer points in 2020, meaning the defense is going to be more valuable. They added future Hall of Fame DT Calais Campbell and former Broncos DT Derek Wolff to beef up the defensive line, and used their first round pick on LSU linebacker Patrick Queen (who I really wanted to fall to Kansas City). Along with Marcus Peters and Earl Thomas in the secondary, it should be a mighty defensive unit.
Based on my feeling that I think the offense will take a sizable step back, along with the idea that I expect both Cleveland and Pittsburgh to be much improved in 2020, I see the Ravens as a 10- or 11-win team and will be in a dogfight to win what should be a difficult AFC North.
2. Cleveland Browns
2019 record: 6-10
2020 over/under: 8.5
The Browns are my AFC equivalent to what I wrote about the Falcons: for whatever reason I like them to exceed expectations every year. They never do — obviously — but I still hold out hope that Cleveland will for once find themselves a winner.
How did this team possibly only win 6 games last year? Just look at who they have on offense: Baker Mayfield at QB; Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at RB; Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at WR; that’s a lot of weapons for a team that didn’t even sniff playoff contention.
This year they added tight end Austin Hooper (coincidentally from the Falcons) and offensive tackle Jack Conklin (from the Titans) in free agency, and used the #10 overall pick on monster Alabama offensive lineman Jedrick Willis. That figures to give them three upgrades on the offensive side of the ball at positions of extreme need.
Unfortunately their main area of need, now, is on defense, as the Browns still figure to allow about a million points per game. I do think Cleveland has enough firepower on offense to keep up with just about anyone, but they are going to have to assuming their defense remains in the lower-middle of the pack in 2020. I see them going over 8.5 wins, but by how much will depend on if the defense is average or severely below.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
2019 record: 2-14
2020 over/under: 5.5
Last year the Bengals were breaking in a new coach, one of their leaders (WR AJ Green) missed the whole season, and everyone knew QB Andy Dalton was on his way out. Nothing excuses a 2-14 season, but it’s hard to argue that no one saw it coming.
Their reward was getting the number one pick, and they turned that pick into Joe Burrow, a guy who had one of the best college football seasons in history. Several months ago I was at my dad’s place talking to him — he was a big LSU fan last year, but I think he just likes winners — and I told him I would buy stock in whichever team drafted Burrow.
My mind has yet to catch up to my original instinct as far as that goes, because the Bengals are a project and Burrow has very little to work with. To his credit I think he’s a leader of men and I don’t envision any problems assimilating to an NFL locker room. That’s big. But on the flip side of that the only real talent around him are running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Joe Ross III. AJ Green is in his 30’s so his production is anyone’s guess, and they have no tight end talent and an offensive line that’s a work in progress.
Last year they had one of the worst offenses and one of the worst defenses in the NFL, so it makes sense why they were so bad. Their over/under of 5.5 reflects a roster that has too many holes for Joe Burrow to fill. I think a successful season would be one where they surpass 5.5 wins, but a far more likely scenario is they struggle in a loaded AFC North and are once again selecting in the top 5 of the draft.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 record: 8-8
2020 over/under: 9
The Steelers were one of the surprise teams last year, which isn’t something you usually say about a team that finished .500. Once Ben Roethlisberger got hurt and lost for the season most people expected Pittsburgh to go in the tank and try to draft one of the elite quarterbacks in the draft.
Instead, they did the opposite. They traded their first round pick to the Dolphins for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and with a few no-name QBs they rallied their way to win 7 of their next 8 contests before closing the year with three straight losses. Adding Roethlisberger back into the mix figures to give this team a boost, which is another way of saying even if he is only 80% of his old self it will be lightyears better than Mason Rudolph.
The Steelers are going to be tough in 2020, because the Steelers are a defense-first team. There aren’t going to be many games they are out of, since there is a good chance they are only going to allow 17-20 points most of the time. I like Pittsburgh not only to go over 9 wins, but to challenge the Ravens in the AFC North and give the AFC as a whole a run for their money come playoff time.
- Ravens: 10-6
- Steelers: 10-6
- Browns: 9-7
- Bengals: 4-12