2021 AFC North Preview

September 6, 2021

Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

For the overall 2021 NFL Preview click here, and see the links below for the rest of the divisional previews.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Overview | Playoffs | Awards

Browns 12-5

The last time Cleveland won a division title, they played in the AFC Central. So yeah, it’s been a minute.

But 32 years later, the Browns are one of the most talented teams in the NFL and feeling themselves after snapping a playoff drought that lasted nearly two full decades.

Of course, Baker Mayfield is always feeling himself — and I expect that swagger to help him take another positive step forward in reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski’s offense.

Odell Beckham Jr. is back from a knee injury that cut short his 2020 season, and even though there were allegations to the contrary, that should be a good thing for an offense that ranked toward the middle of the pack in scoring and yardage last season.

A more explosive passing attack to complement the one-two rushing punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should take this offense into elite status.

The Browns defense also ranked toward the middle of the pack in 2020, but Cleveland spent gobs of money to upgrade it, adding pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley to line up opposite the dominant Miles Garrett, and DBs John Johnson and Troy Hill to gobble up picks if the D-line performs as expected. I was concerned about their linebacking corps until I saw the Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah pick — the second-rounder could have immediate impact.

I’m not ready to call Cleveland a Super Bowl team — yet. But a trip to the AFC Championship Game shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Ravens 10-7

Last year, I picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl. This year, not so much.

It’s not that I don’t like the Ravens — this run game is the most consistently dominant force we’ve seen in years and the defense promises to remain a top-5 unit in 2021.

But the passing game remains Baltimore’s Achilles’ heel; the receiving corps ranked dead last in the league the last two seasons, and first round rookie Rashod Bateman begins the season on injured reserve, along with fellow receiver Miles Boykin. Many of the Ravens receivers were hurt during training camp, so relying on Sammy Watkins to bolster this lackluster group on his own is a tough ask (all the more reason why I thought they should have dealt for Julio Jones).

With running back J.K. Dobbins out for the season, the run game at a minimum lost depth, if not effectiveness. Lamar Jackson will have to regain his MVP form to overcome this.

On defense, this could be the swan song for 35-year-old Calais Campbell, and he wasn’t exactly dominant in 2020. Last year’s top edge rushers Matt Judon and former Terp and D.C.-native Yannick Ngakoue are playing elsewhere so rookie Odafe Oweh will have to be good right away and 32-year-old Justin Houston will have to squeeze out one more good season to keep pressure on opposing QBs.

I expect Baltimore to weather a challenging regular season to earn a wild card berth — and considering the Ravens won both of their Super Bowl appearances as a wild card, that might just play into their favor.

Steelers 9-8

Good luck getting a beat on these Steelers.

Mike Tomlin is, for my money, the best coach in the NFL not named Bill Belichick — and has a case for being better considering Tomlin has an NFL record-tying 14 straight non-losing seasons. But if he’s going to stand alone at 15, he’s going to have to overcome quite a bit.

Ben Roethlisberger rebounded nicely from his 2019 season-ending elbow injury but he’s 39 years old. The bottom could fall out from under him at any time. Plus, four of his five starting offensive lineman from last year — including perennial Pro Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro — are gone and the Steelers used their first round pick on running back Najee Harris, which isn’t necessarily a bad pick but it’s probably not the best use of a first-rounder either.

With Big Ben on this last legs (legs that are tipping plays, apparently) the Steelers offense has the potential to struggle mightily.

But, as usual, Pittsburgh is led by its defense, a unit that ranked third in scoring and yardage in 2020 and Football Outsiders ranked the best. T.J. Watt should have been the Defensive Player of the Year and will probably be a man possessed this year as recompense (if his contract demands are met, of course).

It’s odd to say this about a franchise historically great at moving on from key players a year early as opposed to a year late — but it just feels like the Steelers brought the band back together for one more run because they don’t have any other options, not because this is a Super Bowl contender. I think this team is closer to the one that ended the season losing five of its final six games than the one that went 11-0 to start the year.

I expect them to hover around .500 but do just enough to keep Tomlin’s incredible streak alive.

Bengals 2-15

Cincinnati’s playoff drought is older than most basic technology and I don’t expect it to end before iPhone 14 drops.

Joe Burrow is back from his devastating knee injury suffered at FedEx Field, and he’s reunited with former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase in the pros after the Bengals took him fifth overall. That chemistry is great and all, but Cincinnati may regret not instead taking Penei Sewell to protect Burrow and improve a lackluster offense. Burrow’s health should be the priority and not doing so may cost Cincy a year and a half of his progression.

The defense lost its best corner (William Jackson III to Washington), pass rusher (Carl Lawson to the Jets) and lineman (Geno Atkins to free agency) and figures to have more than its fair share of struggles — especially playing in a division with Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and the fumes of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger.

Head coach Zac Taylor has won only six games in his first two seasons and has a worse career record than even Hue Jackson. If Taylor doesn’t reach six wins this season, he may not get another season to better his putrid record.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

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