NFL season previews: AFC North

By Emile Avanessian

AFC North's best players, teams, stats & stories ahead of NFL 2021

Published: 15:15, 3 September 2021 | Updated: 21:24, 23 September 2021

Heading into the 2021 season, the AFC North offers up just about everything that fascinates us about the NFL.

The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, We’re here to make sure you’re prepared.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this, our first installment, we take a look at what should be the league’s most intriguing division.

Three of the four teams have genuine playoff aspirations. Each of the four starting quarterbacks – three young, another not so much – has a distinct narrative. Two defenses are sure to rank among the NFL’s elite, and a third, extremely talented unit could join them. An ascendant coach trying to build a culture of winning where one’s not existed, while one of the best of his era could be nearing the end of the road.

Heading into the 2021 season, the AFC North offers up just about everything that fascinates us about the NFL.

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Baltimore Ravens

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 11-5, divisional loss to Buffalo Bills
  • Head Coach: John Harbaugh
  • Starting Quarterback: Lamar Jackson
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 11-12 wins, a division title, and one of the AFC’s final four (or two) – but not Super Bowl bound

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson

Development in sports rarely sticks to a schedule. For instance, Lamar Jackson’s incredible 2019 MVP campaign arrived sooner than expected. Such surprises do have their downsides – they completely realign expectations. In Jackson’s case, a previously unprecedented, almost unthinkable 2,750-yard, 26-TD, 1000-rushing-yard, 7-TD 2020 season that yielded a division title and a playoff victory felt a bit “ho hum”.

Entering his fourth NFL season, Jackson is under pressure to lift the Ravens to new heights. The loss of offensive tackle Orlando Brown (via trade) is a problem. However, it’s one that the Ravens hope to offset with free agent signings of Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler, and third-round draft choice Ben Cleveland. As long as Jackson – who, just 46 games into his career, is already among the most frequent and prolific running quarterbacks of all time – is healthy, the Ravens’ running game will remain a strength.

Marked improvement in the passing game presents more of a challenge. The Ravens don’t need Drew Brees-level accuracy from Jackson, whose 64% career completion rate is the same as Tom Brady’s. They just need a bit more consistency. To this end, providing Jackson with more reliable weapons wouldn’t hurt. The Ravens have tried to bolster an unspectacular receiver group through free agency, by signing Sammy Watkins, and the draft, with the first-round selection of Rashod Bateman. Whether this duo, along with 2020s leading receivers Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews is enough to keep defenses honest remains to be seen. Given Jackson’s productivity as a runner, not all that much is required from this group. 

On defense, gone are edge defenders Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency, whose losses will be felt. However, the Ravens, characteristically, did a solid job of filling the gaps, selecting a potential star pass rusher – Penn State’s Odafe Oweh – in the first round of the draft, and signing veteran defensive end Justin Houston.

Helping out the pass rush is a perennial strength: a strong secondary. In Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Tavon Young, the Ravens boast one of the NFL’s best cornerback groups. With this trio in man coverage, defensive coordinator Don Martindale can once again take an aggressive approach toward pressuring the quarterback. The biggest question facing the defense is at linebacker, where second-year man Patrick Queen will be counted on to show progress, particularly against the pass. Early indicators suggest he’s taken a step forward. If this is the case, expect yet another top-ten defense in Baltimore.

The Bottom Line: That Lamar Jackson – winner of over 80% of his regular-season starts – is under as much pressure as he is, seems a tad unfair.

However, despite that fantastic regular season form, the Ravens have lost three of four playoff games with Jackson under centre. Plus, Jackson, who is vocally non-committal about getting the COVID vaccine, recently completed a second stint on the league’s COVID list. This has raised questions about his reliability as a leader. On top of all of that, he’s seeking a contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid players in the league. Jackson is one of the NFL’s best QBs and most electrifying players, but it’s not entirely unfair that he’s facing some scrutiny.

Success in Baltimore will come down to the postseason. Provided the team (Jackson most of all) stays healthy, anything short of a trip to the AFC championship game will be a disappointment.

Cleveland Browns

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 11-5, divisional loss to Kansas City Chiefs
  • Head Coach: Kevin Stefanski
  • Starting Quarterback: Baker Mayfield
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 10-11 wins, a playoff appearance, and likely another appearance in the Divisional round

Since their reincarnation in 1999, almost without exception, the Browns have been a punchline. While such futility is a collaborative effort, the main culprit has been incoherent decision-making as it pertains to selecting quarterbacks, and hiring coaches. For the first time in a long time, the Browns have both a coherent plan and the personnel to execute it.

In 2020, a year after disastrously passing on Kevin Stefanski to hire Freddie Kitchens as head coach, the Browns were given a second chance. Fortunately, Stefanski had not been snapped up by another team and this time they made no mistake.

The Browns’ 2020 season was a massive success. After a season-opening loss in Baltimore, they won four straight games and five of seven before the bye week. They came out of the break with another four-game win streak that secured their third winning season in 22 years. Two more wins locked up the Browns’ best regular season record since 1994. In their first playoff game in 18 years, the Browns proceeded to blow out the Steelers, in Pittsburgh. A week later, they put a genuine scare into the Kansas City Chiefs. For his trouble, Stefanski was deservedly named the NFL’s Coach of the Year.

They head into the 2021 season with an unfamiliar objective: keep the party going. The key to doing so lies with quarterback Baker Mayfield.

A brutal second season tempered the optimism surrounding Mayfield after an excellent rookie campaign. However, 2018’s #1 overall pick bounced back in 2020, completing nearly 63% of his passes, throwing 26 TDs and, most importantly, cutting down his interceptions, from a ghastly 21, to just eight – fourth fewest among QBs who started all 16 games. Although Mayfield is not yet a superstar, with the talent surrounding him on both sides of the ball and on the sideline, “very good” could be “good enough”.

Joining Mayfield in the backfield is the NFL’s best running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. In 2020, the pair combined for 1,908 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, plus another 454 yards and five receiving TDs. The trio will line up behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, which returns all five starters from a year ago.

Mayfield will be throwing to a receiving corps that, with some luck, will be a strength. Jarvis Landry (72 catches, 840 yards in 2020) is as reliable a possession receiver as there is, and Austin Hooper (46 catches, 32 first downs) leads a deep group of tight ends. On the outside, Rashard Higgins, second-year man Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie speedster Anthony Schwartz will vie for big-play duties. For a team that’s built around a strong running game, a solid crew like this is enough. Add an extra spark, and the results could be special. Here’s where that luck comes in.

It’s been five years since Odell Beckham Jr. last operated at the peak of his powers – and he’s returning from an ACL injury that cost him much of last season. There’s a growing sense that if it doesn’t happen this, his eighth NFL season, his days as a superstar may be over. Now, in his pre-injury 2018 and 2019 seasons, Beckham averaged 75.5 catches, 1,044 yards and 5 TDs – not the stuff of legend, but enough to elevate a passing attack. If the Browns can count on that, and hope for a return to the top tier – early chatter is encouraging – the offense will excel.

Defensively, the Browns ranked in the league’s bottom third in 2020. There’s a case to be made that this was misleading. Not only was this the NFL’s sixth unluckiest defense in terms of injuries, the unit was hit where it hurts most: Myles Garrett – the NFL’s best defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald – who missed time due to COVID, and looked like a shell of himself after returning to the lineup; and cornerback Denzel Ward.

In addition to simply hoping for better injury luck, has Cleveland bolstered its defense, adding cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft, and then adding safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and defensive ends Takk McKinley and Jadeveon Clowney in free agency.

Assuming a retooled secondary can provide stability in defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ zone-heavy scheme, the pass rush will have every opportunity to tee off on opposing QBs. If they (especially Garrett) stay healthy, this could be the NFL’s most improved defense.

The Bottom Line: According to the advanced statistics, last season’s record was quite flattering. Per Football Outsiders, the 2020 Browns were closer to an 8-8 team than an 11-5 outfit. After all, they were outscored by 11 points and had unsustainably strong records in close games (7-2 in games decided by 7 or less; 4-0 in games decided by 3 or less). While there are tactics and approaches that can tilt the odds in a side’s favor, there’s an unavoidable element of luck that ultimately levels out.

However, there are areas in which this team had no luck which ought to regress positively: On offense, Beckham is back. Even if he’s not 2014-16 OBJ, with Mayfield having turned a corner, and an elite offensive line and running game, the ceiling is high.

On defense, Denzel Ward is back at full strength, as is Myles Garrett, who should be back to his old, dominant self. On top of that, the unit has been stacked with depth and top-end talent.

This is a roster that’s been assembled with Super Bowl contention in mind. Whether that fully comes together in 2021 remains to be seen, but one thing is undeniable: the Cleveland Browns are no longer chasing one-off successes and moral victories. This team is built to contend.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 12-4, wild-card loss to Cleveland Browns
  • Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
  • Starting Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 8 wins, and without a spot in the playoffs

On one hand, there’s quite a bit to say about the 2021 Steelers and yet, the fate of their season hinges on a few rather straightforward questions.

First and foremost: What can the Steelers reasonably expect from Ben Roethlisberger? 

Six-time Pro-Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion, franchise talisman… seventeen seasons in, 39 years old, a year removed from surgery to reconstruct his elbow.

Last season, as Pittsburgh charged out to an 11-0 record, Roethlisberger – who’d had surgery to reattach three tendons in his elbow prior to the season – looked like a Brady-esque ageless wonder. By December, he was an eminently mortal 38-year-old, struggling to get power on his throws. Unsurprisingly, the Steelers dropped four of five to close out the regular season, and were then blown out in the playoffs, at home, by the Browns.

Big Ben is back for what many presume will be his last season. He returns to a standout receiving corps of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, and welcomes first-round draft pick, star University of Alabama running back Najee Harris.

So far, so good.

Next up: How much protection will a fully-turned-over offensive line provide?

Quality and continuity along the offensive line have long been hallmarks of Steelers football. Last season, the line – perennially a top-ten unit – fell to #17 in Pro Football Focus’ O-line rankings. Largely to blame here was putrid run-blocking, which generated the fewest yards per run play (3.6) in the NFL. Clearly, tweaks were needed. Swapping out essentially the entire unit (while also welcoming a new offensive coordinator) probably isn’t what the team had in mind.

Guard Matt Feiler and tackle Alejandro Villanueva left as free agents, while future Hall-of-Fame centre Maurkice Pouncey retired, as did (seemingly) six-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, following his release in June. That there was work to be done up front was undeniable. Now, however, the Steelers are hoping not only for an upgrade in quality, but also for a baseline level of chemistry that’s vital to any offensive line, of any quality.

Finally: Is this the end of the line for head coach Mike Tomlin?

Fourteen seasons, 14 winning records, a 65% regular season winning percentage, two Super Bowl appearances, and one championship. Mike Tomlin is a Hall of Fame coach. However, 2021 will mark the 13th season since the Steelers’ last Super Bowl win, and the eleventh since their last appearance. In the past decade, the Steelers have missed the playoffs four times, and reached the AFC Championship Game just once (a blowout loss to the Patriots in 2016).

None of this detracts from Tomlin’s body of work. Again, the man’s resume is unimpeachable. Unfortunately, even the best working relationships eventually goes a bit stale. And 14 years in the same job is, well, a lot. This isn’t to say that a coaching change should take place – but it wouldn’t be crazy if it did.

You’ll notice that we didn’t really touch on the defense. There’s a simple explanation there. The defence in the Steel City is not a question mark. A foundation of Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt, All-Pros at safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick) and defensive tackle (Cameron Heyward), quality veterans like Stephon Tuitt and Joe Haden, and a future star in safety Terrell Edmunds is no cause for concern.

The Bottom Line: Last season’s incredible start cast this team as a contender that, frankly, it wasn’t. That being said, the offensive skill talent, combined with the near-certainty of a top-ten (if not top-five) defense all but ensures that the Steelers will be no worse than “decent”.

However, counting on a 39-year-old QB with a reconstructed elbow to turn back the clock, behind an offensive line whose members only recently met, is a dicey proposition. This is, at best, a wild card playoff team whose deficiencies are too great to overcome top competition in a must-win environment.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • 2020 regular-season finish: 4-11-1, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Zac Taylor
  • Starting Quarterback: Joe Burrow
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 5 extremely enjoyable wins, and another top-ten draft pick

The entire season in Cincinnati hinges on a single question:

How is Joe Burrow’s knee? 

That’s it. The defense, which was not good a year ago, doesn’t figure to improve dramatically. The offensive line, subpar a year ago, may improve marginally. There’s still an arsenal of offensive weapons – running back Joe Mixon and wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd – to which the top prospect Ja’Marr Chase has been added. 

If Joe Burrow is not healthy none of it will matter. If he is, however, he and those weapons should make up one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. In nine-and-a-half games as a rookie before tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee, Burrow had 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Prior to the injury, Burrow, though inexperienced, looked like a potential superstar.

That the offensive line is once again likely to be subpar is not ideal. The Bengals did add to the line through the draft, but are unlikely to get immediate contributions from their fourth- and sixth-round picks. What the Bengals did not do is take the draft’s top offensive lineman, Oregon’s Penei Sewell, to protect their prized young QB. With the fifth overall pick, they opted to select Chase, an awesome talent with whom Burrow formed a devastating combination in college. That decision will be debated for some time, though if Chase fulfills his potential, there won’t be any regrets.  

The Bottom Line: This is a season to hope and dream on. The obvious hope is that Joe Burrow is back at full strength. We may not have an answer immediately, as players often need time to get back up to speed after an injury like Burrow’s. If he is fully healthy, he and an impressive lineup of skill talent on offense should be a blast to watch. 

The Bengals are still very much rebuilding and will be for a while to come. But they are accumulating talent, and the potential is here for a fun season.

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