The Pittsburgh Steelers rode an 11-0 start to the 2020 regular season to their first division title since 2017, having missed the playoffs entirely during the intervening years. Unfortunately for them, they would finish the regular season on a 1-4 slide, and were essentially blown out during the Wildcard Round by the Cleveland Browns.
Among other factors, that hardly leaves one surprised that so many analysts view Pittsburgh as one of the most vulnerable teams in the league this year to be unable to maintain their level of success from the previous season. Gil Brandt recently listed them as the second-most vulnerable defending division champion, behind only the New Orleans Saints.
We saw a precursor to the changing of the guard taking place in this division in the playoffs, when the Browns rolled to a stunning 48-37 victory over a Steelers team that crumbled following an 11-0 start to the 2020 season. Cleveland returns the majority of a team (with some key additions on defense) that looks like a bona fide Super Bowl contender, led by reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski. And let’s not forget about the Ravens, who continue to enjoy superpower status under Lamar Jackson and could look even more imposing in 2021, with pass catchers Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman rounding out the offense. As for Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger still has good football left in him at age 39 — but I worry about that offensive line (which returns only one proven starter, David DeCastro) and a defense with suspect depth.
The rising strength of the AFC North as a whole certainly greatly increases the Steelers’ chances of being unable to defend their crown, though not admittedly as much as Tom Brady’s presence with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a Drew Brees-less Saints roster.
The Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 just two years ago, and frankly could have done better last year than they actually did. There’s still more meat on that bone, and they just upgraded their wide receivers. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns came close last year, and have stacked their defense in free agency and the draft.
The Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks are listed third and fourth, with Carson Wentz’ arrival for the Indianapolis Colts cited as the former’s biggest threat. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers just added Trey Lance at quarterback, and are getting key defenders like Nick Bosa back from injury.
Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, the Kansas City Chiefs remain the safest bet to repeat as division champions, having been in the Super Bowl in each of the past two years and in the conference finals three years running. Justin Herbert is going to be good for the Los Angeles Chargers, but they still have work to do to get anywhere near the Chiefs’ level, who addressed their offensive line issues this offseason.