The AFC North is going to be a dogfight this year. And probably for several years to come. Gone are the days of the hapless Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, “easy” wins on the schedule. The days of watching the Bengals stuck in neutral or the Browns starting “dude they pulled off the street” for a season finale (looking at you, Thad Lewis and Seneca Wallace).
The North is one of the tightest divisions and that’s reflected in CBS’ latest article, ranking the eight divisions from strongest to weakest. Jason La Canfora places the AFCN in second place, writing:
“We all know that the balance of power in this league has swung to this conference in a big way. It’s reflected in these rankings and projections. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are annual playoff contenders. Big Ben hadn’t been giving the Steelers much these last few years and Mike Tomlin still doesn’t have a losing season. That ‘D’ is legit. The Ravens can’t have a redux of their 2021 injury situation. The Bengals are looking like a model franchise with all of their young talent still on the cheap and the Browns will probably still Brown it up, but have the makings of a better defense and if Deshaun Watson plays most of the season and does so at the level he performed for the Texans, then all four of these teams have a legit postseason shot.”
As La Canfora points out, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, the Browns and Bengals now favorites while the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers are trying to compete. The Bengals enter the year as the AFC Champs, winning the division with a healthy Joe Burrow and shiny new toy in JaMarr Chase, not to mention a criminally underrated defense, especially up front. They bolstered their one true weakness this offseason, their O-line, and made several key additions to the secondary in the draft. Cincinnati swept the Steelers last year, a true changing of the guard moment.
Cleveland may have added their missing piece with QB Deshaun Watson, though a looming suspension casts doubt on if the Browns will be division champs this year. Still, their overall roster looks to be the best on paper with a great offensive line, run game, and a defense that will probably be better than where it was a year ago. An upgrade at kicker in rookie Cade York is also key.
Baltimore remains competitive, like always, and will be much healthier in 2022 after losing their entire backfield before Week 1 last year. Lamar Jackson also played hurt and missed time down the stretch, while their cornerback room needed name tags.
Pittsburgh shouldn’t be counted out either, and Mike Tomlin’s teams always find a way to overcome and rally. Last year, the AFC North champs and fourth-place were separated by just two games, 10-7 versus 8-9. The difference was AFC North play, with the Bengals going 4-2 and the Ravens 1-5. As usual, those divisional matchups define seasons and the Steelers start off their season with two such games their first three weeks – Week 1 at Cincinnati and Week 3 at Cleveland for a Thursday night tilt.
The only division CBS ranked tougher than the AFC North was the AFC West, a division that has Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, and Derek Carr starting. The NFC East was named the weakest division.