Pickwatch 2021 AFC North Predictions
How will the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns perform in 2021?
Before the start of the NFL season, we’re going to go division-by-division for some more in-depth looks at the teams we previously called shots on in our preseason power rankings.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
Before anyone from the Steel City hops on my Twitter feed and threatens bodily harm for this No. 4 divisional ranking, take a look at the predicted win-loss record. This is the toughest division in football, and while I’m predicting a down season for the Steelers, the “margin of error” here is big enough that they are almost certainly going to be in the hunt for both division championship and Wild Card entry into the playoffs right up until the end of the season.
How to reach those higher heights? Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada has to be everything advertised and then some. He’ll need to cater to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s strengths and (quickly deteriorating) weaknesses. The offensive line and defensive backfield will also both need to step up and punch above their weight.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
How comfortable am I in the prediction that the Bengals will win 10 games (six more than in 2020) and be better than the Steelers in the AFC North? I am not comfortable even a little bit...like, furniture made during the Great Depression levels of not comfortable. I’ve maintained that the pick of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was the right move and that the offensive line would be OK, but I’m willing to admit I may have been wrong there—at least for what it means in 2021.
QB Joe Burrow is going to be on the run quite a bit this season. The line has looked atrocious both in camp and in preseason action, and as exciting as the wide receiver corps can be, they’re going to spend a lot of games in tight and with two back sets to help the line with protections. If Burrow stays healthy, though, both his return and offseason investments on defense should put this team back on the straight and narrow.
Cleveland Browns (13-4)
One of the more misplaced maxims around the NFL is that the Browns are only as good as QB Baker Mayfield will allow them to be. It makes sense, of course. Last season, Mayfield cut down his interceptions—from 21 in 2019 to only 8 last season—and the team had its best season since 1994 when *checks notes* Bill Belichick was the head coach and Vinny Testaverde was the QB. Yet, this team is more than just its young passer.
The Browns have claim to one of the best running backs in the NFL in Nick Chubb. Their defense, similarly, is stacked with top-notch young talent. That only improved in the offseason with the additions of cornerback Greg Newsome, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and more. In free agency, they added a number of defensive starters as well, including a couple of defensive backs from the Los Angeles Rams—safety John Johnson and nickelback Troy Hill. This team is poised to take the reins in the AFC North, except...
Baltimore Ravens (14-3)
Yeah, the Ravens are still the Ravens.
Has the NFL commentariat ever had such an insane whiplash as it has in the past few years in regards to QB Lamar Jackson? The dude fell to the end of the first round because (in addition to other quibbles) “skinny knees.” Then, just two years later, he was a unanimous MVP selection. Now, he’s apparently washed again. What?!
The Ravens are, in many ways, the same team they’ve been for the last decade-plus under John Harbaugh. Their floor is somewhere around 10 wins thanks to a beefed-up offensive line (yes, even in the wake of losing tackle Orlando Brown Jr.) and the defense which only allowed 18.9 points per game last season (second in the league). Their ceiling? A Super Bowl trophy.
Can Jackson get them right back to the mountaintop? It’s possible, maybe even likely based on past performance. I’m picking it to happen here...but even if he struggles, this team has more than enough to carry them into the playoffs.