2023 AFC North preview

September 5, 2023

AP/Danny Karnik

Ravens 12-5

Lamar Jackson won’t be throwing for 6,000 yards but he will have a brilliant first season in Todd Monken’s offense. The key will be still finding ways for Jackson to impact the game with his running ability while slinging it to new weapons Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Zay Flowers. I think that balance will be attained and Jackson — who has always been underrated as a passer — will be an MVP-caliber quarterback again, if he stays healthy.

The defense comes with questions, as it finished third in points allowed in 2022 but couldn’t keep a fourth-quarter lead in multiple games. This unit relies on a younger batch of talent in the front seven, and while the addition of former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is a nice compliment to Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo on the edge, it needs to be exactly that — not a bailout for the young rushers not performing.

With a healthy Jackson last year, this team was 8-3 and in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the AFC. This year, if Baltimore wins the NFL’s best division don’t be surprised if they finish the job.

Steelers 12-5

Pittsburgh is a tough team to pin down — this could be a last place team or they could stun everyone and win a division everyone assumes belongs to Cincinnati.

Maybe it’s Kenny Pickett’s near-perfect preseason, but the second-year quarterback seems poised for a big year connecting with George Pickens and the Steelers’ underrated receiving corps. The defense is a different beast with a healthy T.J. Watt (Pittsburgh was 6-2 when he played last year), and all Mike Tomlin does is coach winners (you know, like Mike Singletary always wanted). That record streak will extend to 17 straight seasons and Pittsburgh will be a surprise contender.

Bengals 11-6

After back to back trips to the AFC Championship Game, I have Cincinnati taking a step back.

The Bengals defense figures to be good, even though it lost its starting safeties in free agency. Orlando Brown Jr. is an upgrade watching Joe Burrow’s blindside.

But this division — and conference — is unforgiving. Joe Burrow’s injured calf seems like something that will hover over the Bengals for enough of the season that a couple games go the other way and have them settling for a wild card race instead of the division battle.

Browns 9-8

Make no mistake: Cleveland’s hopes all hinge on whether we see a much-improved Deshaun Watson.

The Browns went all in on Watson despite the off-field issues that basically sidelined him for two seasons. If he looks like he did in 2020, Cleveland is a playoff team. But then again, his epic exploits got Houston a 4-12 record.

The Browns, however, have a better supporting cast. Jim Schwartz takes over as defensive coordinator of a unit that added Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith to the line. If Cleveland played in the NFC, I’d be confident this is a playoff team (hell, they’d be a favorite to win at least two divisions). But as Browns luck would have it, an improved team with a legit QB still gets the short end of the stick.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Playoffs | Awards

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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