NFL Predictions: AFC North

King of the North week continues as this article focuses on the AFC North. There is a TON of serious talent in this division, and it is possible 3 of these 4 teams make it to the playoffs. However that may be the case, I personally only see 2 teams making it to the postseason, as this is going to be a very close knit AFC conference this year. I’m predicting a plethora of different teams who have the potential to be in the hunt, and the difference between the 7th and 14th seeds in the AFC may only be a couple games apart.

As for the Northern division of the AFC conference, the Baltimore Ravens have reloaded themselves for another huge year after ending last season in disappointing fashion (depending on who you ask). The Steelers have Big Ben back, and if he can stay healthy this season, this can be a VERY dangerous squad this year. The Browns may have one of the most exciting rosters in the league, but they have an entirely new coaching staff, which could prevent them from reaching full potential. Lastly, the Cincinnati Bengals believe they have the key to their future with rookie QB Joe Burrow, they may not be the most successful team this season, but Cincy is set up for future success down the road.

AFC King of the North

Baltimore Ravens

There isn’t much I can say that you probably don’t already know. The Flock has an incredibly stacked roster, and look to repeat their high flying performance from a year ago. Hopefully for them, they can make it further in the playoffs next year, and with Lamar Jackson entering his 3rd season of his career, the added experience should only mold him into an even better player. Vegas has them winning 11-12 games, just like the Kansas City Chiefs.

Last year, Lamar Jackson ended the season winning the MVP trophy, and aims to do it again in 2020. The Ravens also finished in the league as the most prolific offense in the regular season, and somehow, this squad got even better during the offseason. Baltimore has one of the better O-lines in the league, and possibly the most dangerous rushing attack in the NFL. Lamar Jackson had competing numbers with the top RBs in the league last year, and Mark Ingram played as an excellent side kick for Jackson. The front office stole rookie RB JK Dobbins in the draft, which means the Ravens have ANOTHER weapon to utilize in the run game. Between Jackson, Ingram, and Dobbins, these 3 amigos are going to cause absolute mayhem on opposing defenses. Having said that, don’t forget about the passing game. Jackson still has room to improve throwing in the pocket, and hopefully he gets better at that particular skill set. Hollywood Brown returns for his 2nd year in the league, and he’s matched up with Willie Snead and rookie WR Devin Duvernay. This offense is all about the speed, and the Ravens should be scoring touchdowns at a high pace again.

During this offseason, the front office traded for DE Calais Campbell, who is one of the best D-lineman in the league. The Ravens lost in the playoffs mainly because they had a tough time stopping the run, so the front office attacked that issue head on after signing veteran DE Derek Wolfe, who is a guy that vastly improves the run defense. Don’t forget about that secondary either. Earl Thomas is likely a future Hall of Famer at the Safety position, and Marcus Peters has been an extremely reliable CB since his arrival in the league in 2015. Baltimore will potentially have 2 rookies starting at ILB this year, as Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison will compete for starting spots on the roster. This is going to be a weak area on the Ravens defense that opponents will try to exploit. Luckily for them, this team has veteran leadership on the D-line and the secondary, which helps the young LB core as they play throughout the year.

On paper, the Baltimore Ravens look like they’re poised for a deep playoff run, and will be aiming for the coveted number 1 seed overall in the AFC for a 2nd year in a row. Ravens are my obvious favorite to win the AFC North, and I believe they have the talent necessary to earn the number 1 seed in the postseason this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers

I have the Steelers finishing in 2nd place in the AFC North, and they have the potential to actually be the 4th best team in the conference. Pittsburgh should be making playoffs this year as a 5 or 6 seed, as Vegas has them winning 9 games in 2020.

The Steelers offense was a mess last year, and HC Mike Tomlin still somehow kept them competitive. He had my vote for Coach of the Year last season, as Pittsburgh desperately needed better QB play, and still nearly made it to the postseason. Big Ben comes back, which should give this offense the boost they need to win more games. It’s important to keep an eye on Ben Roethlisberger though, as the veteran QB is 38 years old. He’s the same age as Philip Rivers, who we all watched him play his worst season of his career in 2019. Considering Big Ben is coming back from a serious elbow injury, and is getting up there in age, there’s a possibility we see a different version of Roethlisberger than we’re used to. Despite all that, I feel rather confident in saying that Big Ben will play at near full potential next season, as the roster around him is completely solid throughout. Juju Smith-Schuster should be making another step in the right direction, as the Steelers didn’t have that WR1 they needed. If Juju can become that WR1, the Steelers offense will be back to normal before the Antonio Brown blow up. This O-line is stout throughout, and include James Connor and Jaylen Samuels rotating in and out of the lineup, this Pittsburgh offense is ready to make some noise.

Most of the attention of the Steelers is on the offense and the return of Big Ben, but this defense should be gaining more attention than it is. This unit was the main reason this team was even competitive last year, as TJ Watt went on an absolute tear. Pittsburgh also stole Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick away from the Dolphins, who is an absolute beast. Factor in Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Devin Bush Jr., Bud Dupree, and Joe Haden… This Steelers defense almost looks like the Steel Curtain of the 1970s.

Although this team looks incredibly strong in every aspect, they still don’t have the fire power to take down the Ravens in the AFC North. The Steelers should finish 2nd in their division, but will be a very strong 5 seed I would not want to face during Wild Card Weekend.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have been the laughing stock of the league for what seems like a century. But hope is on the horizon for this organization, as the roster has phenomenal talent throughout. There’s one thing missing though, and that’s familiarity, as the Browns have a new GM, HC, OC, and DC heading into the 2020 season. No matter how good a roster looks on paper, it’s hard to win games when your front office plays musical chairs with the coaching staff. Despite that fact, the Browns have the talent to take over the league, but they likely won’t do that this year. The Browns have brighter days ahead of them, but this season Vegas has them winning 8 games.

Cleveland has one of the best WR groups in the game. Odell Beckham Jr., is a premiere aerial threat, as even on his down year in 2020, he still put up over 1000 yards receiving. He’s a guy that almost always has to be double teamed, otherwise, he’s going to torch you all day long. They also have WR Jarvis Landry, and Rishard Higgins, who are both capable of running short and deep routes with the best in the league. Not to mention, the front office signed free agent TE Austin Hooper, who emerged as a reliable top 10 TE last year in Atlanta. Additionally, Nick Chubb is one of the best RBs in the league, and Kareem Hunt is available to play this year after serving a suspension. I mean, this team even got better on the O-line, which should help them improve too. There are SO many viable options for this Browns offense to score, but it all relies on the play of QB Baker Mayfield. The former number 1 overall pick is entering his 3rd season in the league, and Browns fans are hopeful this is the year he starts putting the pieces together. The odds are against him though, as QBs who face multiple changes in the coaching staff tend to struggle throughout their careers until they find some familiarity. I love the way this offense looks on paper, but will another coaching staff change prevent this squad from hitting their full potential?

The Browns got better on the defensive side of the ball too, as rookie prospects Jacob Phillips and Grant Delpit look to make an impact as soon as possible. Despite what people say about Myles Garrett, the guy is an absolute beast on the D-line, and gives the Browns a chance to win games any time he’s on the field. Cleveland has a pretty deep defense this season, as they also have guys like Olivier Vernon, and Sheldon Richardson, who have been phenomenal options for this defensive roster. However, this defense is in the same position as the offense, as the Browns hired a new Defensive Coordinator during the offseason.

Typically, when there are brand new changes to the coaching staff, it takes some time for the roster to adjust (Philly is the team that comes to mind where that wasn’t the case). Also factor in how tough Baltimore and Pittsburgh are likely going to be, it’s hard to imagine the Browns beating out either one of those franchises for a playoff spot. I don’t have Cleveland making the postseason this year, but they’ll be a tough team to play against, and will likely be in the playoff hunt.

Cincinnati Bengals

2020 is likely not going to be the year of the Bengals, but Cincinnati fans have plenty to be excited about for the future. There’s some great young talent that has potential to turn into something special, but due to how young this squad is, we should be seeing a lot of growing pains through the span of next season. Additionally, Vegas has the Bengals only winning 5-6 games this year, which is tied with the Panthers for 3rd worst in the NFL.

The Bengals drafted rookie QB Joe Burrow with the 1st overall pick of the 2020 draft. This kid was electric to say the least last year at LSU, after winning the Heisman trophy, and the National Championship. Burrow has phenomenal potential, and was the most NFL ready QB prospect in the draft this year. He has future NFL superstar written all over him. However, he’s only in his rookie year, which means he’ll be making rookie mistakes, just like we’ve seen all the greats do as well. My expectations are not high for this season, as Burrow’s rookie year is going to be more focused on developing him into that future superstar than anything else. Joe Burrow is an early Rookie of the Year candidate, as he has a nice group of WRs at his reach. Even though he’s faced injuries the last few years, WR, AJ Green is still a top wideout when he’s on the field. Tyler Boyd has shown to be a fantastic WR2, and the Bengals front office drafted rookie WR Tee Higgins. This is a WR group a handful of teams in the league wish they had, and Burrow is going to be just fine slinging it through the air this season. This offense also has Joe Mixon, who has been a rather reliable RB in the league throughout his young career for this franchise. The offense may not be stacked, but it’s good enough for Bengals fans to enjoy to watch on Sundays next season.

The defense is a completely different story, as the Bengals may have the worst defense in the NFL. The D-line is going to be nice though, as Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and new addition DJ Reader, should do a great job for Cincinnati on the D-line. But outside of those three, the rest of the defense is mediocre at best. I predict Cincy allowing a TON of yards through the air this year, and if RBs can make it to the 2nd level, there’s not much the LBs and secondary groups are going to do to stop the run. Opposing offenses should have field days when facing the Bengals, which means it’s likely going to be a long 17 weeks for Cincinnati fans.

Overall, this team has good talent on offense that will make some exciting plays, and the defense has their D-line set up, which is the first step of a rebuild. Considering they’re in a stacked division, Cincinnati has almost no chance of making the playoffs this year. But be patient Bengals fans, the future of your franchise is in the hands of Joe Burrow, and you should feel confident in his abilities to help turn this franchise around.

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