2021 AFC North Preview

Trying to predict the future is sort of what my blog is all about. I have spent more time this year keeping up with the NFL action than any time before, whether it’s watching The Pat Mcafee Show, listening to the PFF Podcast, or just scanning Twitter for the day-to-day minutia.

I did this exercise last season — the one where I gave a few paragraphs to every team and tried to guess whether they would go over or under their projected win total. I enjoyed it, so I’m doing it again. Being a typical American and working five days a week makes me appreciate the time I have to myself, and I can’t help but spend the overwhelming majority of that time following the sports I love. Everything that follows is the culmination of how I have spent my February (since the Super Bowl) through June (a couple weeks before training camp starts), at least as it relates to my free time.

With that being said, I imagine it will be pretty easy to tell which teams I paid more attention to and which teams I didn’t have much to say about. I also imagine I’ll have a few instant regrets once I get done posting all the divisions, since that’s the nature of betting over/under props — theoretical coin flips — and since the NFL is so unpredictable. For purposes of this, two-plus months before the actual season starts, I consider it to be more of a snapshot of what I feel right this second. So take it all with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: All over/under win totals are provided courtesy of Bovada.

Part I: NFC East

Part II: NFC North

Part III: NFC South

Part IV: NFC West

Part V: AFC East

Part VI: AFC North

Common opponents: AFC West (Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders), NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings

My AFC North record last year: 4 wins, 0 losses

1. Baltimore Ravens

2020 record: 11-5
2021 over (-105)/under (-125): 11 wins

Considering how much of a letdown the 2020 season felt like for the Ravens, they did end up winning 11 games — falling just half a win short of their expectation. The negative sentiments surrounding them have to do with, in no particular order, (1) failing to reach the AFC Championship for a second straight year, (2) losing to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for a third straight year, and (3) there seeming to be no real improvement with Lamar Jackson in the passing game.

In reality this is still an upper echelon team in the NFL. It’s very likely they will be among the league’s best at rushing the ball, it is likely they will continue to feast on teams they are expected to beat, and it’s likely they will win double digit games and be right there in the discussion when the postseason starts.

The problem is, unless the Ravens really commit to passing the ball, there is probably a lid on how far they can go. The analytics are out — they’ve been out — and (surprise, surprise) they say that passing offenses are more efficient than running offenses. To their credit, Baltimore went signed WR Sammy Watkins via free agency, and used their first round pick on WR Rashod Bateman. So they are at least trying.

Do those additions necessarily mean they will start passing the ball more? It’s hard to say. Since they have already established an identity rushing, and basically built an offense around the idea that Lamar Jackson can just scramble whenever he wants to, I don’t know what their inducement is to throw more. Especially given that the recipe they’ve generated has led them to records of 14-2 and 11-5 the last two years, respectively.

One big thing: If they can improve their passing attack, they are a Super Bowl contender. If they can’t, they’ll be stuck as one of those teams that has well above average regular seasons and lets everyone down when the playoffs start. I love Lamar Jackson, but I don’t really don’t think he’s built to drop back and throw the ball in the crunch time. I lean under 11 wins, but I do think the Ravens will compete for top dog in the AFC North and ultimately make the playoffs.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

2020 record: 4-11-1
2021 over/under: 6.5 wins (per Vegas Insider)

I have very little feel for the Bengals, mainly because I don’t know how good Joe Burrow is going to be coming off his devastating leg injury last year. (And the fact that they are off the board on Bovada indicates that betting markets don’t know what to make of him, either.) I’m still a big Burrow believer, but a lot like Zach Wilson with the Jets I’m not sure if his situation in Cincinnati just makes him, in the end, doomed to fail. We are talking about a bottom-five organization with a bottom-five head coach. How high can they really go?

Another thing that doesn’t help them is playing in arguably the toughest division in the NFL. Just spitballing here, but I would wager that the Bengals will be underdogs in all six of their AFC North games. And I’d probably be willing to lay even money that they ultimately end up 0-6 against Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I can love Joe Burrow and hate the situation he’s in at the same time.

They did improve their offensive line, and they added the top WR prospect with the #5 pick in the draft. There’s a chance the offense takes some real strides in 2021. I just don’t know if their head coach and demoralizing intra-division slate make the Bengals a worthwhile team to bet on.

One big thing: Can Joe Burrow make this offense a top-8 unit in the NFL? If he can there’s faint hope for this squad to make it to 7 (or more) wins. I’m going to bet on history, however, and say that the Bengals are primed for a regime change in the head coaching department, and we’ll all be having the same conversation next year after they draft another stud in the top 5.

3. Cleveland Browns

2020 record: 11-5
2021 over (-110)/under (-120): 10.5 wins

In all honestly, I liked the Browns a lot more when they were perennial losers. I’m still adjusting to this world where they are expected to be above-average. With one of the best rosters in the NFL and an offseason almost universally considered one of the best in the league, there is legitimate reason to like the Browns to win the AFC North.

QB Baker Mayfield is in something of a prove-it season, mainly because he’s in the 4th year of his rookie contract and the rest of the team is so good that you could probably throw a dozen quarterbacks into his situation and expect to have success. They might have the best power running game out there, they have Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the outside and Austin Hooper being his consistent self at tight end. The Browns should most days be able to dictate the terms on offense.

The real transformation of this team comes on the defensive end. They completely re-hauled their secondary this offseason by adding safety John Johnson III, corner Troy Hill, and drafting CB Greg Newsome with their first round pick. Along with spending on EDGE Jadaveon Clowney, this defense has the potential of being a force. Even if they improve from being the 20-something ranked defense to league average it’s an upgrade. But there’s a chance they come out swinging and end up in the upper third of the NFL.

One big thing: How good can the defense really get? Offensively I consider the Browns a high-floor, low-ceiling team. I don’t think the Chiefs are in any danger of getting surpassed as the most explosive offense in the NFL, but I also believe there’s more security betting on the Browns to be above-average than teams like the Bills or Ravens — who have bigger boom and bust swings. If the Cleveland defense can be legit, however, then we might not be talking about a team that can win a division, and we might have to start talking about a club that can compete for a Super Bowl. I like the Browns to go over 10.5 wins, and I’d even sprinkle some money on them to win the AFC.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 record: 12-4
2021 over (+120)/under (-160): 8.5 wins

Think about how far the Steelers have fallen. This team started the 2020 season with 11 wins and no losses. Since then they lost 5 out of 6 games (including a Wild Card drubbing to division rival Cleveland), and they have sunk so far to have an over/under win total of a mere 8.5 wins in 2021. Is that right? I mean, does that feel right?

According to everyone Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness heading into the offseason was their offensive line, and they lost center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement, and tackles Alejandro Villanueva (Ravens) and Matt Feiler (Chargers) in free agency. Guard David DeCastro just retired. To exacerbate the situation they used their first round pick on a running back, Najee Harris, despite it being the most anti-analytic position available to them. In other words, the new school doesn’t care too much for the Steelers offseason.

And honestly, I headed into the offseason fully expecting to short Pittsburgh’s stock in 2021. Regardless of their offensive line I saw a team with an over-the-hill quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and that was all I needed to know. It might be a simplistic way of viewing the NFL universe — gauging future success exclusively by who is under center — but at the end of the day isn’t that all that matters? In most cases I think the answer is yes.

One big thing: Head coach Mike Tomlin is a winner. In all his time with the Steelers he has yet to have a team that finished below .500. I get that the AFC North has some stiff competition with the Ravens and Browns. I get that Big Ben is well past his prime. But I’m also looking at a team that is still above average on defense. I see a team that has playmakers at receiver and running back. And with all the chatter about how they are finished — I mean, only 8.5 wins for crying out loud — I’m betting that they will be a team with a major chip on their shoulder. Give me the over on 8.5, and don’t be surprised if they find a way to throw a monkey wrench into Cleveland and Baltimore’s plans.

NFC North Prediction

  1. Browns: 12-5
  2. Ravens: 11-6
  3. Steelers: 10-7
  4. Bengals: 5-12

2 thoughts on “2021 AFC North Preview

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