Updated: Sep 10
Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
We finish our Best-Case/Worst-Case series with the AFC North, home to the defending champions of the AFC, the Bengals of Cincinnati. After a magical run to the Super Bowl, the Bengals return hungry to prove 2021 was not a fluke, but the division looks stouter than ever.
The Baltimore Ravens are currently the odds-on favorites to win the division after they suffered some of the worst injury luck imaginable last year. They lost their two best running backs before the season even started, their top two cornerbacks would go down as well, and even Lamar Jackson would miss time. Now, with a last-place schedule in their favor, the Ravens look primed to steal the division and regain their standing as one of the premier teams in the AFC.
The Steelers, meanwhile, saw the retirement of franchise icon Ben Roethlisberger in the offseason. To replace him, the Steelers signed Mitchell Trubisky, formerly of the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills, and drafted Kenny Pickett, who spent his Saturdays playing at the Steelers home stadium while attending the University of Pittsburgh. Whether Trubisky or Pickett can be an upgrade over Roethlisberger remains to be seen (they have to be better, don’t they?), but head coach Mike Tomlin returns, and his presence immediately makes any below .500 predictions feel questionable at best.
Finally, the Cleveland Browns are looking to put a tumultuous offseason behind them. They won’t have the services of Deshaun Watson for the first eleven games of the season due to a suspension, but this roster is loaded with talented players at nearly every position group. If backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is able to hold down the fort until reinforcements arrive, the Browns could be a surprise team in the AFC.
S Marcus Williams (free agent)
CB Kyle Fuller (free agent)
RT Morgan Moses (free agent)
S Kyle Hamilton (draft)
C Tyler Lindenbaum (draft)
WR Marquis Brown
CB Anthony Averett
C Bradley Bozeman
Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC North
The Ravens had a lot of injuries last year. Actually, that doesn’t quite cut it. The Ravens were ravaged by injuries the way Daenerys Targaryen ravaged King’s Landing in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. All that remained was death and destruction - well, maybe not death, but you get the idea.
Okay, back to reality and the Ravens. If things break right (or don’t break, rather), the Ravens are an obvious Super Bowl contender. Lamar Jackson returns, and the former unanimous MVP looks poised and prepared to silence his doubters and earn the record-breaking contract he seems intent on securing. Longtime head coach John Harbaugh remains in place, along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who helped architect this innovative, run-heavy, Lamar-focused offense.
One notable change the Ravens did make was moving on from defensive coordinator Wink Martindale in favor of Mike Macdonald, who held the same position at the University of Michigan under John’s brother Jim Harbaugh. Martindale was an aggressive coach who was well liked in Baltimore, but his no-holds-barred approach backfired as injuries eroded a once intimidating Baltimore secondary. Macdonald is unproven at the NFL level, but his defenses were always good at Michigan, and it was probably time for a new, fresh voice anyway.
The players play and the coaches coach, though, and the players on Baltimore’s roster are top notch. Aside from Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews and second-year wide receiver Rashod Bateman headline a passing attack that could be the Ravens’ most potent since Jackson entered the league in 2018. Andrews will get most of the attention, but Bateman, the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2021, oozes with potential. If he shines in year two, he could emerge as Jackson’s go-to downfield target and unlock a missing piece of the Ravens offense.
The rest of the offense looks solid as well. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards both return from season-ending injuries in 2021 to headline a deep and effective backfield, while left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns from a season-ending injury of his own to solidify a good Baltimore offensive line. First-round pick Tyler Linderbaum was a player I desperately wanted the Bengals to draft, but the Ravens beat them to the punch, and he looks like a great fit as a mobile lineman that can help open rushing lanes for Jackson and company.
As for the defense, as long as the injury bug can be avoided, this should be a very tough unit for opponents as well. The secondary, in particular, was upgraded significantly with the additions of first-round pick Kyle Hamilton at safety, as well as safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Kyle Fuller, who were both added as free agents. Hamilton, Williams and Fuller will team with the All Pro cornerback tandem of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters to give Baltimore one of the best groups of cover guys in the league.
The 2021 Ravens looked like the best team in the AFC midway through the season. Given all the upgrades and stud players they return from injury, there’s no reason the Ravens couldn’t return to that lofty standing. This team is a Super Bowl sleeper.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the AFC North
Lamar Jackson is great, but his contract situation isn’t. Will that affect his play in 2022? That remains to be seen, but it’s not looking good for the two sides to come to an agreement anytime soon. And with multiple reports suggesting that Jackson will not negotiate during the season, there’s a chance that this issue could linger.
If Jackson and the Ravens can’t come to an agreement on a long-term contract, things could turn south on the Ravens, especially if Jackson decides to make a few “business-decisions” in season to protect himself. The Ravens star QB missed five games last year - he can’t afford a repeat if he wants to reset the QB-contract market.
There’s also concern that the running game might struggle. Dobbins hasn’t looked like himself so far in training camp and the preseason, and if Jackson chooses to run less frequently, the Ravens’ running attack could face a massive drop off in efficiency. Former Las Vegas Raiders running back Kenyan Drake was recently added, but he’s mostly a receiving back at this stage. Jackson might be the most spectacular athlete the NFL has ever seen at the QB-position, but even he can’t support this run game by himself.
The biggest concern for the Ravens, though, has to be their situation at wide receiver. Bateman has loads of potential, but he too struggled with injuries last year and he’s yet to prove he can be a consistent option. The receivers behind Bateman have even more question marks. Devin Duvernay is speedy and is an excellent return man, but he’s accomplished almost nothing in the passing game in his first two seasons. The rest of the depth chart is even worse.
The defense should still be solid, as long as injuries don’t pile up like last year. Still, Father Time has really caught up with some of the Ravens' better front seven defenders. Calais Campbell turned 36 on September 1. Edge rusher Justin Houston turned 33 in January. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes turned 33 in August. The Ravens will be counting on each of these guys staving off age-related regression - and if they don’t, the Ravens’ pass rush and run-stopping abilities will be severely hindered.
As long as the Ravens stay healthier than last year (and remember, I’m not projecting any injuries in this series), they will be a difficult test for any team. But the AFC is as strong as it has ever been - stronger than ever, maybe. Even if the Ravens avoid the colossal avalanche of injuries that swept away their playoff dreams last year, there’s no guarantee that their record will reflect that in 2022. The Ravens could easily miss the playoffs in 2022, and it would be no fault of their own.
RT La’el Collins (free agent)
OG Alex Cappa (free agent)
C Ted Karras (free agent)
TE Hayden Hurst (free agent)
S Dax Hill (draft)
DT Larry Ogunjobi
TE C.J. Uzomah
Best-Case Scenario: 13 - 4, 1st in the AFC North
I’m waiting for someone who can tell me who can stop Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase. You can’t do it. It can’t be done.
The inevitability of Joe to Ja’Marr is eerily reminiscent of Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, and that connection led them to two Super Bowl victories - one of which was over the Boomer Esiason and the Bengals in 1989. In the best-case scenario for the Bengals, they finally get over the hump and win the whole thing, simple as that.
It all starts with the offense where Burrow looks to build upon his magnificent 2021 campaign where he led the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt. At receiver, Chase leads the way with the acrobatic Tee Higgins and dirty-work specialist Tyler Boyd to form the best trio in the NFL. The four combine to form one of the most efficient and deadly passing attacks, one that’s capable of striking the defense at every spot and at any time.
Running back Joe Mixon returns as well and gets to work behind a significantly improved offensive line. Last year, if there was a problem on offense, there was a good bet you could point to the O-line as the issue. That shouldn’t be the case in 2022.
In free agency, the Bengals broke their mold and added three players, guard Alex Cappa, tackle La’el Collins and center Ted Karras, to play significant roles. They also added a fourth new starter, fourth-round pick Cordell Volson, in the draft. With all these new pieces, the Bengals should be able to give Burrow plenty of time to find his host of offensive weapons downfield. Mixon, too, will be happy to see some of the biggest holes he’s seen in his entire Bengals career up to this point. This offense should be deadly.
The defense also returns nearly every single major contributor from 2021, including defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. The “Mad Scientist” earned his moniker after the Bengals tremendous defensive effort versus the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Anarumo still has all his toys to play with, and the Bengals should be even more stout in 2022 than the unit that finished in the middle of the pack in terms of yards allowed and points allowed during the regular season.
The AFC is stronger than ever, but so are the Bengals. This team has a head coach that’s gotten the most of his team in Zac Taylor, a QB with the cool demeanor and gutsy play to inspire his teammates in Burrow, and a supporting cast littered with ultra-talented players. This could be the Bengals year to bring home the Lombardi, Super-Bowl-loser-curse be damned.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the AFC North
So…about that Super-Bowl-loser curse. It’s a real thing, and the Bengals are going to have to deal with those effects all season. The biggest effect? The Bengals aren’t going to be surprising anyone this year.
Last year, the Bengals opened up the season as one of the longest of long-shots to reach the Super Bowl. That happened, of course, but starting in 2022, the Bengals will be the biggest game of the year for just about every opponent they face. They’ll get everyone’s best shot, and if they aren’t ready for that challenge, the Bengals could fall all the way out of the playoff picture in a crowded AFC.
Their division could also be more competitive than last year (even though last year’s division saw its fourth-place team finish the year with an 8 - 9 record). The Ravens should have much better injury luck, the Steelers finally moved on from Big Ben, and the Browns have as much talent on their roster as anyone. It wouldn’t take but a few missteps for the Bengals to tumble down the standings.
Of all the position groups on this roster, the offensive line is still cause for concern, despite all the offseason additions. Collins has struggled with injuries in the past, and if he can’t be the everyday player the Bengals need him to be, the Bengals don’t have a great option to replace him. Likewise, with Cappa, Karras and Volson. Jackson Carman was the Bengals second-round pick in 2021, but he’s looked like a bust so far and already lost his job to the rookie Volson. The margin for error is thin.
Fortunately, there’s too much talent for this team to return to its bottom-feeder ways of the past. Burrow to Chase is too great, the chemistry on this team too strong, the belief in the locker room too cemented. It would be a shame to see the Bengals fall back to Earth after their magical 2021 run, but it’s definitely a possibility.
QB Deshaun Watson (trade)
WR Amari Cooper (trade)
C Ethan Pocic (free agent)
QB Jacoby Brissett
QB Baker Mayfield
WR Jarvis Landry
TE Austin Hooper
C J.C. Tretter
Best-Case Scenario: 11 - 6, 1st in the AFC North
After a strange and unsettling offseason, the Browns will be eager to put the noise behind them in 2022. If they can rally as a team and unite under head coach Kevin Stefanski, this squad has enough juice to make a shocking playoff run.
It may be hard to believe (or remember, at this point), but the Browns are stacked with great players. Defensive end Myles Garrett is one of the best in the world and is one of the early favorites to win Defensive Player of the Year. Cornerback Denzel Ward makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks as well, and Joe Burrow knows this intimately as Ward returned one of his passes 100 yards for a touchdown last year. Guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller form the league's top guard duo. Running back Nick Chubb can kill you with speed and power.
Basically, everywhere you look, there’s a playmaker. But the most important factor to the Browns success, especially in the postseason, is new QB Deshaun Watson. After a tumultuous offseason (to say the least), Watson will miss the first eleven games of the Browns season, returning in Week 13 versus the Houston Texans. Once he returns, the Browns will be faced with a choice: turn to the ultra-talented Watson or stick with backup Jacoby Brissett. In the best-case scenario, Watson returns at full strength and gives the Browns the boost they need to make a serious postseason run.
If Watson can be the player he looked like in 2020 with the Texans, then look out NFL, because this team should be on the short-list of Super Bowl contenders. It’s likely that the Brissett-led Browns lose a game or two that they shouldn’t while Watson rides the pine, but if he can keep the Browns above water, they could be in prime position once Watson is handed the reins.
It may be hard to comprehend, but the Browns are the sleepiest of sleeper teams. There are a million ways this season could go, but there’s no denying how talented this team is. If Watson and the Browns can harness that, then we could see the Super Bowl run from this team that we were supposed to get last year.
Worst-Case Scenario: 4 - 13, 4th in the AFC North
No team in the NFL has a wider range of outcomes. This team could be a Super Bowl contender, or they could be a contender for the first pick in the draft. Even a team as talented as the Browns can be sabotaged by a miserable locker room or poor QB-play - and the Browns could be facing both in 2022.
With Watson out, the Browns are turning to Brissett at QB to start the season. Brissett, who backed up Tua Tagovailoa with the Miami Dolphins last year, looked far from competent in his eleven appearances. If he is unable to provide the Browns with steady play, then this gifted roster could be wasted.
Watson too, is not a given for immediate success. Between his suspension, the mental toll from dealing with numerous lawsuits, and the fact he hasn’t played football in almost two years suggest he probably won’t look like the superstar who lit the league on fire in 2020. There’s a good chance he’ll need the offseason to get back to his pre-everything form.
Not helping matters is a weak receiver situation that saw the departures of the steady and reliable Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper, who was released after two disappointing seasons. The Browns were able to trade for former Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper in the offseason, but he’s coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro in 2021. The 28-year-old will be counted on to be the team’s #1 WR, a role he may not be suited for at this point in his career.
Tight end David Njoku was retained via the franchise tag, but the rest of the receiver options on this team are gross. Donovan Peoples-Jones sounds like someone who should be giving TedTalks instead of catching passes. Anthony Schwartz is fast, but that’s about it. And I may be wrong, but isn’t David Bell managing the Cincinnati Reds right now? What’s he doing playing WR for the Browns?
I’m kidding, of course, but the fact remains that the Browns have one of the worst receiver situations in the NFL, along with one of the worst QB situations. That’s not a good combination. It’s not, as the kids like to say, what you want.
The defense, meanwhile, has plenty of top-end players, but that didn’t stop them from being bullied by some of the better offenses in the league. This defense feasted on bad teams, like the Chicago Bears when their head coach Matt Nagy basically left QB Justin Fields out to get killed by Garrett & Co. Inconsistency was their hallmark in 2021. 2022 might not be a different story.
When you add everything up, this team has a ton of bad vibes around it. They certainly have the talent to overcome that, but in the worst-case scenario, this team has bottom five in the NFL written everywhere. Could there be a Curse of Baker Mayfield in the making?
DT Larry Ogunjobi (free agent)
LB Myles Jack (free agent)
OG James Daniels (free agent)
CB Levi Wallace (free agent)
QB Kenny Pickett (draft)
QB Ben Roethlisberger
CB Joe Haden
OG Trai Turner
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Best-Case Scenario: 10 - 7, 2nd in the AFC North
If I've learned anything in all my years of watching the NFL is that you should never, ever, ever count the Pittsburgh Steelers out. It’s just a bad idea, and head coach Mike Tomlin and his boys are counting on everyone doing just that. Year after year, people predict the decline and year after year the Steelers just refuse to lose more games than they win. It’s uncanny.
Still, this offseason saw a major departure, even though it may end up being a net positive for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, the Hall of Fame quarterback who spent eighteen years at the helm of their offense, retired in the offseason, and Pittsburgh now has its first QB controversy since Roethlisberger’s rookie season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Roethlisberger looked…well, washed up. Like, really washed.
As his replacement, the Steelers signed Mitchell Trubisky, the former #2 pick of the Chicago Bears who was most recently Josh Allen’s backup with the Buffalo Bills. Trubisky will get the first shot to start, but first-round pick Kenny Pickett will be waiting in the wings, even if his hands are still American Girl Doll sized. It’s hard to imagine Trubisky or Pickett being worse than Big Ben was last year, and the Steelers are counting on that production giving them a lift in 2022.
Running back Najee Harris will be the biggest beneficiary of improved QB play. The second-year back looked like a future star last year, as he showed the ability to gain tough yards on the ground and be a threat in the passing game, all while shouldering a massive usage burden. He never looked worn down or defeated, despite having little room to run. If he can take his game to the next level, and if Trubisky can help ease some of the defensive pressure on the run game, Harris could be in line for an All-Pro-caliber season.
The offensive line still needs some work, even with the addition of guard James Daniels from the Bears, but the wealth of receivers on this team should mean that Trubisky or Pickett won’t need much time to find the open man. Fourth-year receiver Diontae Johnson stepped into the #1 WR role last year and had his first 1,000-yard season, and while third-year Chase Claypool regressed a little in his sophomore season, he still remains a versatile and explosive threat. Rookie George Pickens has been one of the stories of the preseason, and if he can continue his upward trajectory, he could actually end up being the best of the three.
The defense should be solid too, provided the Steelers have fixed some of the run game woes that hampered them last year. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt returns at outside linebacker along with the stalwart Cam Heyward at defensive tackle and ballhawking Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety. The addition of Myles Jack at linebacker should help, and if fellow ‘backer Devin Bush can return to the high-level play of his rookie season, the Steelers defense will be in business.
The AFC North, and the AFC as a whole, might be too tough for this Steelers team to have realistic dreams of the top seed and a first-round bye, but they’re talented and well-coached enough to make another run at a Wild Card spot. Coach Tomlin isn’t someone who tolerates losing. Don’t expect that to start this year.
Worst-Case Scenario: 6 - 11, 4th in the AFC North
It feels so wrong to predict this kind of outcome, but if we’re being honest, the Steelers are the least talented team in the division. Now, that means they’re still more talented than half the league, but unfortunately, they don’t get to pick and choose their opponents.
It may seem on the surface that the departure of Big Ben is actually a positive, but people are forgetting just how great Roethlisberger was in his prime. He was a massive, maneuverable machine that shrugged off tacklers, made gutsy plays, and ripped the hearts out of rivals over and over again. He was the ultimate gamer at QB, and that’s something that Trubisky is decidedly not. The jury is still out on Pickett but expecting him to come in and become a Roethlisberger-clone is foolish.
Can Trubisky throw the ball farther downfield than Ben? Yes. Is he a better athlete at this stage in his career? Absolutely. Do you trust him with your life? Hell to the no.
That’s the rub. Big Ben, for all of his faults, was a guy that nobody ever wanted to face in crunch time. He was tough, wily, slippery, strong, and willing to put his body on the line for a win. He was a risk-taker, but also someone who would take the check-down if he needed. Trubisky might have loads of untapped potential, but he was bounced from Chicago because he couldn’t get them over the hump. It might have been painful for Steelers fans to watch a hobbled Roethlisberger limp around and toss ducks to receivers, but the institutional knowledge and competitive fire he showed week in and week out can’t be replaced.
The offensive line also has not been fixed. Daniels is a nice player, but he won’t fix the line by himself, and the Bears didn’t seem too motivated to keep the 24-year-old, either. The rest of the line is pretty miserable, and this group could easily end up as the worst in the league.
The defense does have several high-end players, but it wasn't particularly good in 2021. Expecting massive improvement is probably unrealistic, even if they get a full season out of Watt. Heyward is getting older, the cornerback situation still looks unsettled, and Bush and Jack will need to put their declining play behind them. Without any injection of top-end-talent in the draft, the Steelers are counting on several players making big career turnarounds, and there’s a good chance that doesn’t happen.
Again, I feel stupid for even considering that the Steelers will finish with a losing record. It’s never happened in Mike Tomlin’s tenure. It’s only happened once this millennium. But facts are facts: this is the least talented team in one of the most talented divisions in possibly the strongest conference in NFL history. Someone has to be on the short end of that stick, and it’s probably going to be Pittsburgh.