2020 NFL season preview: AFC North

It is likely a worn-out saying at this point, as fans of every team say it about every division, but it definitely holds true for this one in particular. 

The AFC North will be a bloodbath this season. 

At the top of the spectrum, you have a Super Bowl contender. At the bottom, you have a team with a brand-new franchise quarterback looking to play spoiler. Then, you have interesting storylines all in-between. 

With what looks to be an exciting division from start to finish, here is a preview of the AFC North with the predicted finish of each team. 

1. Baltimore Ravens (2019 record: 14-2)

If you want a potential usurper to the Lombardi Trophy-winning Kansas City Chiefs, well, look no further than Baltimore. A dominant offense that averaged over 30 points a game, coupled with a sturdy defense that allowed less than 18, returns this season with the majority of the core still intact. A strong draft reinforced several areas of strength, as the additions of Patrick Queen, J.K. Dobbins and Devin Duvernay injected additional life in the front seven, rushing attack and wide receiver depth charts.

The sky is the limit for the Ravens. Even with a deeper division, the team should still be able to hold on just enough to claim another division title. While matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and their own division rivals will be good indicators of how this team will perform during the regular season, Baltimore fans want more than regular-season success – they want Super Bowl success. To get there, Jackson (who has a 68.3 Quarterback Rating in two career postseason starts) will need to take his game to the next level. Can he do it? The time is now. 

2. Cleveland Browns (2019 record: 6-10)

The failed Freddie Kitchens experiment led to yet another head coaching change for Cleveland. Enter, Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski, who hailed from the Minnesota Vikings (where he served in a variety of offense-oriented roles for over a decade), will look to end Cleveland’s 17-season playoff drought. Luckily for Stefanski, he will have weapons to work with, as Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Austin Hooper and David Njoku, among others will give quarterback Baker Mayfield an array of options to help rebound from a forgettable sophomore campaign. A revamped offensive line with Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. added to the fold should also give Mayfield more protection to maintain pocket presence or scramble on designed plays.  

The x-factor for Cleveland (as it has been for years) will be the quarterback. If the quarterback performs well, the Browns will go far. Cleveland fans have heard it year in and year out, but it is that simple. Luckily for Cleveland fans, the team is as poised as it has looked in years. The expanded playoff format should help the team pick up its first postseason berth since 2002. Their strength of schedule of .461, per CBS Sports, is also the fourth easiest in the entire NFL. Cleveland fans should feel comfortable, but then again, they have read this story before. They are ready to see legitimate results.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (2019 record: 8-8)

Pittsburgh is a fascinating team. Despite a notorious injury spell last season, the Steelers were still able to churn out an 8-8 record. If the expanded playoff format was in effect last season, they would have made it in. Regardless, the team will look to rebound in a huge way this season, as Ben Roethlisberger, James Connor and Juju Smith-Schuster will all look to play the majority (if not all) games slated on the schedule. The addition of tight end Eric Ebron (free agency) and Chase Claypool (draft) should only give Big Ben more chances to put his elbow issues behind him. And, to think – Minkah Fitzpatrick is still a factor at defensive back. 

Pittsburgh’s placement in this ranking might seem low, but they are such a wild card (no pun intended). They could shoot for the division crown, but they could also scuffle, get bit with the injury bug again and fall off a cliff. A finish somewhere in the middle of those possibilities seems likely, and that just might be enough to garner a postseason bid under the expanded playoff format. Health, health and health. What more can you say?

4. Cincinnati Bengals (2019 record: 2-14)

The Bengals picked up their future franchise quarterback via the draft in Joe Burrow from LSU. Tee Higgins, who was on the losing side in the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship, was also drafted in the second round. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon should also help ease Burrow’s transition from college to the NFL. Slowly but surely, the rebuild is starting to bear positive fruit for “The Jungle.” 

Despite excitement brewing, the Bengals still have a way to go until they can make a legitimate playoff push. The offensive line still needs some work, as does the secondary. However, while the “rebuild” hat is still being worn, the “spoiler” hat is as well. Health-permitting, the team, under Burrow, should score points. A lot of them. Perhaps it will be enough to keep the Dallas Cowboys, Steelers, Houston Texans and Ravens on edge. After all, those are the final four opponents Cincinnati will face in the regular season. Cincinnati might have a year or two more left in the rebuild, but do not sleep on them. They will pounce when you least expect it.

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