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NFL Kickoff: The 2020 AFC North

The Ravens have their eyes set on the SuperBowl, Big Ben returns for the Steelers, and the Bengals boast the Number 1 overall pick. Who will be ‘Kings In The North’ come January?

Baltimore Ravens Lamar Jackson - Cincinnati Bengals Michael Johnson by Jack Kurzenknabe is in the Public Domain.

NFL Kickoff: The 2020 AFC North

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

The status of the 2020 NFL Season seemed to hang in the air, drifting wide of the uprights for months. As we all watched with bated breath as the league hurdled towards disaster, the league sat back and came up with a plan of changes to ensure that players and coaches remain safe and healthy.

The NFL miraculously split the uprights and now we’re playing football in 2020.

So we’re looking at each of the NFL divisions and diving into how they fit into the new NFL landscape and how they’ve spent the offseason prepping for a run at the Lombardi trophy this season.

Let’s dive right in and talk about the AFC North.

The Cincinnati Bengals – 2-14 in 2019

Simply put the Bengals have almost nowhere to go but up in the AFC North. The Joe Burrow era is set to begin in Cincinnati and the number 1 overall pick will have options in the passing game. A healthy AJ Green is set to return after missing all the 2019 campaign due to injury. Tyler Boyd was able to turn in a 1,000 yard performance in 2019. Joe Mixon is a versatile back that should see plenty of production this year as well.

Given all the Bengals’ woes last year, their biggest issue was on defense, which was putrid. They allowed over 26 points per game and an average of 393 yards per game. The organization has done a good job of addressing the need to revamp their defense by adding DT DJ Reader and CB Trae Waynes in free agency.

Joe Burrow should make an instant impact in Cincinnati this year and the free agent spending on the defensive side of the ball will prove worth the investment. However, Burrow isn’t stepping into a team laden with talent. Sure there is some around him and I think he’ll show some Kyler Murray level ability to manage a game. All in all, this will be a growing year for Cincy as they look to build a team around what they expect to be their franchise quarterback.

3rd in the North. Finish the season 7-9

The Cleveland Browns – 6-10 in 2019

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Cleveland Browns draft a 1st round Quarterback, he has a few good games one year, looks to be the next big thing, EXCITEMENT IN CLEVELAND, and then the team slips back into mediocrity the next season. I give you the 2018-2019 Cleveland Browns. Freddie Kitchens looked in over his head for much of 2019 as the Browns Head Coach.

The Browns were 22nd in both points scored and yards gained in 2019. Taking over at Head Coach this year is Kevin Stefanski, fresh of his 1-year stint as the Minnesota Vikings OC. Baker Mayfield stepped, jumped, and did a cannonball right into a sophomore slump tossing picks in 13 of 16 games. His first game with more than one passing touchdown didn’t come until the 2nd week of November.

Let’s talk about what the Browns did right (after finding Stefanski and booting Kitchens). They signed Tight End stand out Austin Hooper, a guy who’s improved in each season when he was with the Falcons. Nick Chubb is still a dangerous featured back. Despite defensive improvements made the last few years they still haven’t been able to crack the top half of the league. With teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh and 2020’s 1st overall pick making up 6 games on their schedule, I think the Browns will find themselves in the AFC North basement in 2020. An all too familiar place.

4rd in the North. Finish the season 5-11

The Pittsburgh Steelers – 8-8 in 2019

In 2020 the Pittsburgh Steelers will try and avoid something that hasn’t happened to them in twenty years; missing the postseason for a third consecutive year. Their season starts and ends with Ben Roethlisberger. If he remains healthy and shows he still has a little left in the tank the Steelers will make the postseason. If he gets injured again, failure to address the backup QB position will see the Steelers on the outside looking in on the AFC Playoff picture.

The Steelers defense got back to form and broke out as a Top 5 unit in 2019. Truthfully it’s what kept them at an 8-8 record with a lackluster offense. TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick led the way, 2 of the 7 former first round draft picks the Steelers D will be fielding on week 1. The Steelers led the league in both sacks and takeaways in 2019.

Two issues the team faces in 2020 will be the health of their franchise quarterback and their failure to also address the running game. James Conner leads a crowded backfield of a lot of ‘shot in the dark’ candidates at running back. Conner also has a history of injuries. This and what I perceive to be a missed opportunity to draft JK Dobbins in the 2nd round leaves the Steeler backfield average at best, which will make Roethlisberger even more important. As of writing this, Leonard Fournette is a free agent and would be worth a look. Big Ben is the key to this season, if he stays healthy this is a playoff team. If he gets injured we’ll see a repeat of 2019.

2rd in the North. Finish the season 10-6

The Baltimore Ravens – 14-2 in 2019

Coming off the best regular season in franchise history and boasting the reigning league MVP, will the Ravens rise to meet expectations? With 3000+ yards and 36 TDs to just 6 INTs you have to imagine some regression is due for Lamar Jackson, but I wouldn’t count on a lot. Jackson will remain a top 5 Quarterback this season. One thing the 2019 Ravens couldn’t accomplish though was winning a playoff game. They were held to just 12 points in their only playoff appearance in a loss to the Titans.

The Ravens enter into the season favored to win the AFC North and a potential favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Ravens added to their defense this off season by trading for DE Calais Campbell and signing DE Derek Wolfe in free agency. Mark Ingram had a stellar year, and they added JK Dobbins in the 2nd round. Mark Andrews emerged as a threat at TE as well.

Let’s quickly look at Jackson’s numbers. 36 passing TDs and 7 Rushing TDs to go along with 1,206 rushing yards. Those numbers worry me, and here is why. Passing wise Lamar is amazing, no receiver on the team amassed over 1,000 yards through the air which shows he spreads the field. But Jackson also rushed for more yards than any back on the team. That’s concerning because with Jackson always comes the threat of the explosive run plays. If opposing defenses can take away his lanes and make him move sideline to sideline rather than upfield, like the Titans did in the playoffs, you might be able to contain him.

Luckily Baltimore has a fairly easy schedule

1st in the North. Finish the season 11-5

Division Winner: Baltimore Ravens

Outside of an explosive return from Ben Roethlisberger, I don’t see anyone challenging the Ravens for the AFC North crown this year. Certainly not the Browns or Bengals. I have the Steelers pegged as a fringe wildcard team. I will say, I hate rushing quarterbacks in the NFL. More often than not they end up like RG3, who would be the backup should Lamar Jackson go down with any type of injury. NFL defenses are too strong, and rushing QB’s are usually defenseless in open field. They’d be wise to use the rush sparingly.

Opposing defenses should be watching tape of how the Titans managed to marginalize Jackson in the playoffs. Any inability to stop him will result in tears.

Christian is husband, father and video editor working in New York City. Originally from the Greater Pittsburgh Area he is a life long fan The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates as well as Professional Wrestling.

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