The time for speculating will soon be over, with the NFL season of 2021 just around the corner. As the season approaches, we’re analyzing all four teams in the AFC North, from crucial players to significant acquisitions and the best NFL rookies. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the reigning Super Bowl winners, will face the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, September 9.
Three of the four AFC North teams were positioned well in the standings coming out of the 2020 season. In the Wild Card weekend, the Browns and Steelers battled it out, only for the Browns to fall to the eventual AFC Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens are still looking for a title after a dismal playoff game against the Bills. So here’s a brief look at the AFC North Division in 2021!
Baltimore finished 11-5 and second in the division behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, having won five of their first six games (besides a defeat to the superior Chiefs) before losing four of their final five.
The Ravens sealed a postseason berth with five consecutive victories, including a 47-42 thriller over the Cleveland Browns in Week 14. Then, after leading the franchise to its first postseason win since 2014-15 and his first-ever, Jackson was intercepted in the end zone and forced off with a concussion in their 17-3 Divisional Round defeat to the Buffalo Bills.
For as long as he’s there, the Ravens’ offence will be led by Lamar Jackson, who led the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack with 1,005 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020 and improved as a pocket passer in Greg Roman’s scheme before finally shaking the playoff monkey off his back with his first career postseason victory.
The team will rely on the experience of 34-year-old Calais Campbell and 32-year-old Justin Houston to set the tone off the edge now that pass rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are gone. Second-year linebacker Patrick Queen, on the other hand, has more considerable expectations.
The injury bug has already wreaked havoc. The most devastating blow for this team was the loss of running back J.K. Dobbins, who tore his ACL and will miss the entire season. Dobbins’ injury will exacerbate the absence of Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin in the first half of 2021.
Once again, Cincinnati fans were put to the test as Zac Taylor’s team finished 4-11-1 and fourth in the division, extending the franchise’s playoff absence to five seasons. Burrow’s devastating injury came after a stellar start to his NFL career, which saw star and now-departed defensive tackle Geno Atkins miss all but one game due to injury, starting left tackle Jonah Williams limited to 10 games due to injury, running back Joe Mixon’s season end after six games, and wantaway edge rusher Carlos Dunlap traded to the Seahawks after seven games.
It isn’t easy to focus on one area of need when your team has suffered in many places, as the Bengals did in 2020. However, Mission No. 1 this off-season was plain clear: improve the poor offensive line to keep Burrow on the field after taking 32 sacks in 10 games as a rookie in 2020. While the Bengals did rebuild the front five, it’s difficult to determine if the new group is truly an upgrade.
Because of the division’s strength, a postseason berth appears out of reach for the time being, primarily while Burrow works his way back into the lineup after a lengthy layoff. Of course, it would be wrong if not every head coach and player set the goal as high as the playoffs. Still, it’s all about growth for Taylor and the Bengals, and sticking around the seven or eight-win level would likely be a step in the right direction.
It was finally the season they had been waiting for. Cleveland finished 11-5 and third in the division to secure their first playoff berth since 2002, despite risking ‘Brownsing’ it up in Week 16 when they were defeated by the New York Jets, leaving them with a win against the Steelers on the final day of the regular season to cement the deal.
They followed that up with a 48-37 triumph over Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round, their first playoff win since 1994, after coasting to a 35-10 halftime lead thanks to three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions. A 22-17 Divisional Round loss to the Chiefs ended their run. The defending Super Bowl champions survived the loss of Patrick Mahomes to a concussion to win a thrilling conclusion behind backup Chad Henne.
On the offensive side, not much has changed, which is probably the best news of all. Odell Beckham Jr. is back, which is one of the most significant changes to this group of offensive starters. Finally, with the return of 2020 coach of the year Kevin Stefanski, Baker Mayfield and this youthful core will have something they haven’t had in Cleveland before: stability.
Last year’s poor defence now has plenty of reinforcements, especially in the secondary, thanks to GM Andrew Berry’s wise, targeted approach in free agency and the draft, which resulted in multiple upgrades. Former Rams Johnson and Hill bring established leadership to this young team right away, paving the way for versatile youngsters like Grant Delpit (who missed his rookie year due to an Achilles injury) and rookies Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah to succeed.
The Steelers had a perfect start to the season, going 11-0 behind a stifling defence and a resurgent Big Ben after an injury layoff in 2019. However, their run ended in Week 13 when they squandered a 14-0 lead against Washington. It started a three-game losing streak, as they lost four of their last five games as division winners, with the season-ending ACL injuries to Bush in Week 6 and Dupree in Week 12 proving massive blows.
Their postseason run ended in the first quarter of their Wild Card battle against the Browns when they went behind 28-0 after a blown snap gave Stefanski’s team a touchdown on the game’s opening play. As a result, the Steelers lost 48-37 at home to Cleveland for the first time since 2003.
This season could be exceptionally long — and we’re not only talking about the NFL’s decision to expand the schedule to 17 games. With a combined 2020 record of 155-115-2 and a win percentage of .574, the Steelers’ strength of schedule in 2021 is the best in the NFL. They’re one of only two teams in the NFL that face a cumulative win record of over .550, along with the Ravens. In this case, there isn’t much room for error. When you put a 39-year-old quarterback in, an inadequate offensive line in front of him, and two unproven backups behind him, you can expect some mistakes.