NFL: AFC North – Is This the Year of the Browns?

It appeared as if the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to win the AFC North last season after getting off to a 7-2-1 start. They hit a monster road bump and it caused them to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The Baltimore Ravens started 4-5 last season and Baltimore won the division at 10-6 after they switched from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson.

This was the first time since the 2012 season that the Ravens won the AFC North and that was also the last time they won the Super Bowl. Could they win the AFC North again this season or will there be hype surrounding another team?

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1. Cleveland Browns (11-5)

This team finished 0-16 two years ago. The Cleveland Browns showed massive improvements after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired last season. Baker Mayfield showed a ton of potential during his rookie year last season. He is a vocal leader and Mayfield is also tough on his wide receivers. He will have a ton of weapons around him this season. Cleveland traded for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason from the New York Giants. They also signed running back Kareem Hunt. He will be suspended for the first eight games, but Hunt will provide a spark for the offense in the backfield immediately. Nick Chubb is primed to have a breakout year this season. He only started eight games last season and almost rushed for 1,000 yards.

The defense is very underrated because they get after the quarterback and force turnovers. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are the catalysts on that defense. Freddie Kitchens will be the head coach. He was the interim offensive coordinator near the end of the 2018 season. The Browns have a ton of talent and they should win the AFC North. Cleveland could very well finish third or fourth in the AFC, but a number one or two seed isn’t out of the question either.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

The Pittsburgh Steelers will not have any more distractions inside the locker room now that wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell are gone with different teams. Brown still continues to make noise with his new team and I am sure Pittsburgh does not miss that anymore. It is obvious that Ben Roethlisberger was not the problem with the Steelers last season. JuJu Smith-Schuster is primed to be the number one wide receiver after having a breakout year last season. James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson are both primed to have break out years at the wide receiver position. James Conner was solid at the running back position last season, but Pittsburgh will also have Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. in the backfield. This could be one of their best running back combinations in years.

The front seven will be very good. T.J. Watt was a beast at outside linebacker. Devin Bush will be a beast at inside linebacker. They traded up for him in the NFL Draft. The secondary will be the biggest concern once again. The Steelers could either win the division, be a wild card team, or just miss the playoffs again. They have not missed the playoffs in two straight seasons since 2012 and 2013.

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3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Baltimore Ravens will be one of the most interesting teams in football and the AFC North this season. Lamar Jackson is now the full time starting quarterback. Joe Flacco was traded in the offseason to the Denver Broncos. Baltimore will run the ball a lot. It is going to be interesting to see whether or not Lamar Jackson has improved on his throwing. If he didn’t improve his passing game, it could potentially be a very long season for the Ravens. They will run the football a lot. Mark Ingram will be the starting tailback this season. Baltimore also uses a running back by committee system as well. Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and rookie Justice Hill will most likely be on the roster. Rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown has a ton of speed. Miles Boykin is also a rookie and he could potentially breakout as well.

They always have a respectable defense. Signing safety Earl Thomas in the offseason was pivotal for this defense. The Ravens lost C.J. Mosley at the linebacker position this offseason to the New York Jets. He was a leader and they will miss his presence. This team will most likely not win the division, but Baltimore could contend for a wild card spot. I could see them being worse than 8-8.

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4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)

The Cincinnati Bengals will enshrine a new era of football the AFC North this season with Zac Taylor as head coach. He was the quarterback’s coach with the Los Angeles Rams last season. Cincinnati desperately needed a new voice inside the locker room. Marvin Lewis was with the Bengals for too long. Cincinnati does have talent on both sides of the ball. They have not made it to the playoffs since 2015 and that was the last time they won the AFC North. Taylor hopes to bring a winning culture to the Cincinnati Bengals. It will take time for this team to develop together. It is going to be interesting to see how Andy Dalton will respond this season at the quarterback position with a new coach at the helm.

Rookie Ryan Finley will be the backup quarterback and I wonder if he is going to be the quarterback of the future. Finely has played well in the preseason up to this point, but they are going to develop him and not rush him. He was taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Ryan Finley played his college ball at North Carolina State. Not having A.J. Green to start the year at the wide receiver position will hurt. He is one of the best wide receivers in the game. Tyler Boyd has been a beast and will continue to be one. At the end of the day, the division will be too tough for them. They will be a competitive team this season but Cincinnati will committee some crucial mistakes in games.

How do you have the AFC North finishing? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Glenn on Twitter @glennkaplan13.

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