Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It was almost fifteen months ago to the day when the Seattle Seahawks made their fateful decision to trade franchise icon Russell Wilson to the quarterback-desperate Denver Broncos in one of the highest-profile trades in NFL history. Of course, the trade ended disastrously for the Broncos. The Broncos unloaded a treasure trove of draft picks and useful players for Wilson, who turned in arguably his worst season as a pro. Rookie head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired after fifteen games and the Broncos scuffled to a pitiful 5 - 12 record, a far cry from the Super Bowl run many prognosticators expected.
But sky-high expectations went beyond just the Broncos after Wilson’s arrival. The entire AFC West, it was argued, was the greatest collection of football talent in NFL history – or so we were made to believe. And to be fair, at that moment, the AFC West did seem pretty formidable. Plus, we were told the quarterbacks in the division basically amounted to the entire AFC Pro Bowl roster. How could this division not set records?
Well, quite easily, apparently. The aforementioned Broncos stunk. The Las Vegas Raiders, piloted by Mr. Eyeliner Derek Carr at QB and new head coach Josh McDaniels and his career .378 winning percentage, also stunk. The Los Angeles Chargers… well, they didn’t stink, but they certainly disappointed – relative to their bonkers Super Bowl expectations, anyway. And then there’s the Chiefs who… we don’t need to rehash their season, do we?
But the irony of the 2022 NFL season was that a division actually did set a new record for wins by a single division in a single season – but it was sure as hell not the AFC West. Instead, it was the NFC East that became the new gold standard (kinda) with 43 wins, surpassing the 2007 AFC South’s previous high-water mark of 42 wins (though the 2007 AFC South does still hold the all-time mark for winning percentage, thanks to playing four fewer games).
In another strange twist, the NFC East had also been the NFL’s punching bag over the past decade or so. The New York Giants and Washington Commanders were both perpetual joke franchises with zero postseason expectations. The Commanders fell a bit short, but the Giants turned in one of the biggest surprises of the season with a 9 - 7 - 1 record and a Wild-Card berth. The Philadelphia Eagles were highly regarded, and there were some who even predicted the Eagles Super Bowl run, but they weren’t being mentioned in the same rarified air as the top NFL teams like the Chiefs, Bills and 49ers. As for the Cowboys… they’re always in the conversation (but the kind of conversation depends completely on who you’re talking to).
So, the 2022 NFC East now holds the distinction as the best division in NFL history (sort of), but unfortunately for those fanbases, they’ll only get to proclaim that for a little more than seven months. That’s because a new division is on the verge of setting a new mark – and not just for wins, but winning percentage too. That division is the 2023 AFC North.
And it’s not like the 2022 AFC North was too far off. The division, as a whole, finished with 38 wins on the year, just five away from the NFC East’s new record – and that’s with the Bengals losing a game due to the Damar Hamlin incident. The 2023 AFC North looks better than ever, but strangely, you don’t hear anyone hyping up this division like so many hyped up the AFC West last year. What gives?
The simple answer is those same people who loved all over the AFC West are probably a little gun-shy about predicting record-breaking things from another division after the AFC West fell so woefully short. Not to worry – I didn’t buy into the hype last year, so I have no problem setting myself up for future embarrassment.
When you look at the 2023 AFC North compared to the 2022 NFC East or even the 2022 AFC West, it’s obvious that the AFC North compares very, very favorably, especially at quarterback:
2023 AFC North QBs: Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Kenny Pickett, Deshaun Watson
2022 AFC West QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson
2022 NFC East QBs: Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott, Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz/Taylor Heinicke
And while the AFC North’s QB-situation does look pretty special, there are two significant known-unknowns that could throw a wrench in my prediction: Pickett and Watson.
Pickett was the lone QB drafted in the first-round last year, and he turned in a solid, if unspectacular, rookie season for the Steelers. He looks like a classic high-floor/low-ceiling type of prospect that could be perfect for a team like the Steelers who want to run the ball and play good defense to win. Still, the NFL continues to be dominated by high-octane passing attacks, and it’s a good bet that the Steelers aren’t going to be able to keep up if games become a shootout. Maybe they can avoid scoreboard fireworks for the entirety of the 2023 season, but that seems unlikely.
Watson, on the other hand, might have more variance than any QB in recent memory. Last time we saw Watson at his peak – almost three years ago now – he was a near-consensus top five player at his position. With top-tier athleticism, a strong, accurate arm and big-game experience from his days at Clemson, Watson was expected to remain one of the premier players in the sport until he derailed his entire career. You could tell me Watson was going to turn in an MVP campaign in 2023, and you could tell me he would be halfway out of the league by January. Both are equally believable at this point.
But, in the best-case scenario, Watson could be an absolute force of nature for a Browns team that has one of the best overall rosters in the NFL. And of course, the Steelers just refuse to go under .500 for a season under head coach Mike Tomlin. Throw in the Bengals and Ravens, two teams with clear and earned Super Bowl expectations, and it’s hard to understand why the national football media hasn’t rallied around the idea that the AFC North might be the toughest division in history.
The Bengals bring back essentially the same team that barely lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game last year. The Ravens revamped their offense and added a ton of receiving firepower in order to bring out the best in Jackson – and this was a team that was one play away from defeating the Bengals in the Wild Card Round! If they put it all together, there’s no reason the Browns shouldn’t be in the Super Bowl conversation either, and the Steelers, again, just downright refuse to suck. That’s four teams with good rosters and good recent track records, a lot more than could have been said about last year’s AFC West and NFC East.
Plus, the AFC North hit the schedule jackpot by drawing the AFC South in the schedule rotation. The AFC South was, by far, the worst division in the NFL last year, and the teams in that division appeared to make mostly lateral moves at best. The 2022 NFC East feasted on the AFC South last year, and there’s zero reason to expect this year to be any different for the AFC North.
In order to set the new record for wins and winning percentage, the 2023 AFC North will have to finish with at least 45 wins. I think they get there. The Bengals are a lock for 12+ wins, and if the new-look Ravens offense clicks, they could get into that range too. The Steelers might not have that kind of upside, but 9 - 8 feels like the absolute worst they can possibly go. Hell will freeze over before Mike Tomlin has a losing record. And then there’s the Browns, who realistically could go anywhere from 3 - 14 to 14 - 3. For the purposes of this exercise, I say they finish with 10 wins.
So there you have it. Bengals finish 14 - 3, Ravens 12 - 5, Browns 10 - 6, Steelers finish 9 - 8. That’s 45 wins and yes, I did the math, this is actually possible. Move over NFC East, it’s time for the AFC North to take back its rightful place as the toughest division in football.