We’re on the cusp of the 2021 NFL Season. Before we get there, it’s time to prepare by looking at each of these divisions and the prospects for the season. Next up is the AFC North, where a trio of teams made the playoffs in 2020 and will be in contention again in 2021.
In 2020 the AFC North was a fierce battle. The Pittsburgh Steelers started strong but struggled down the stretch. The Baltimore Ravens started off on a sluggish note but managed to close strong. And the Cleveland Browns finally delivered on years of promise to make the playoffs. The Bengals also play in the AFC North… now it’s time to see how the teams fare in 2021.
2020 Record: 11-5
Key Additions: John Johnson, S, Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Malik Jackson, DT, Greg Newsome II, CB, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB
Key Departures: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Olivier Vernon, DE, Karl Joseph, S
Key Question: How far can the Browns go?
For the past few years, expectations have been high for the Browns. While the team fell short in 2018 and 2019, new Head Coach Kevin Stefanski got them there in 2020. The team went 11-5, made the playoffs, and even dusted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. The team was tantalizingly close to winning in Kansas City in the Divisional Round, too. Coming back this year, the Browns’ offense is intact and figures to grow in year two in the system, while the team invested heavily in improving its defense. Will it be enough to get them further in the AFC? Only time will tell.
2020 Record: 11-5
Key Additions: Sammy Watkins, WR, Rashod Bateman, WR, Justin Houston, DE, Ju’Wuan James, OT, Alejandro Villenueva, LT
Key Departures: Mark Ingram, RB, Willie Snead, WR, Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Matthew Judon, LB
Key Question: Can Lamar Jackson step up as a passer?
The Ravens struggled at the mid-point in 2020. The team was 6-5 after 11 games, and it looked like they might slide out of the playoff picture. The Ravens won five straight to close the season, making the playoff field, beating the Tennessee Titans before falling to the Bills in the Divisional Round. They did it with Jackson rushing for more than 1,000 yards again. The Ravens invested in the passing game this off-season to push the pass offense to shoulder more of the load. That becomes even more key after the Ravens let Mark Ingram go in free agency and lost J.K. Dobbins to a torn ACL, leaving the team thin at running back. With Marquise Brown in year three, Mark Andrews holding it down at the tight end, and the additions of Watkins and Bateman, the pieces are in place for Jackson to up his passing volume and efficiency. Can he make the leap? The answer to that question will likely determine how far the Ravens can go in 2021.
2020 Record: 12-4
Key Additions: Najee Harris, RB, Pat Freiermuth, TE, Trai Turner, G, Melvin Ingram, LB
Key Departures: James Conner, RB, Bud Dupree, LB, Alejandro Villenueva, LT
Key Question: Can the Steelers find balance on offense?
When Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense was at its best, it was tearing it up on the ground and in the air. Since Le’Veon Bell left the offense following the 2017 season, things haven’t been the same. James Conner put up decent numbers in 2018, but the past two injury-marred seasons have left the offense feeling more than a little one-dimensional. Enter rookie Najee Harris, the top running back taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Harris rushed for 3,843 yards and 46 touchdowns at Alabama and instantly gave the Steelers a lead back in the backfield. The team hopes he can get 1,000 yards in 2021 and give some much-needed balance to a Steelers’ offense that returns receivers Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Juju Smith-Schuster.
2020 Record: 4-11-1
Key Additions: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Riley Reiff, LT, Jackson Carman, OT
Key Departures: Giovanni Bernard, RB, A.J. Green, WR, John Ross, WR, William Jackson, CB
Key Question: Can the Bengals take a step forward with Joe Burrow in year 2?
The Bengals found their QB of the future in Joe Burrow, taken first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Burrow was cruising along well until Week 10, when a knee injury cut his season short. Before his injury, Burrow threw for 2,688 yards and 13 TDs and gave fans some hope for the future. The Bengals shed some veterans this off-season while spending the No. 5 overall pick on Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s college teammate at LSU. In 2019, when the Tigers won the National Championship, Chase caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 TDs. He gives Burrow a weapon along with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, but it’s fair to wonder if the Bengals should have solidified the offensive line instead. Reports from Training Camp and performance in pre-season have been mixed. Still, the Bengals are betting a lot on Burrow recovering from injury and developing the chemistry necessary with these receivers to help the Bengals continue a turnaround.
AFC North Prediction:
The North produced three playoff teams in 2020, and I think the division has three teams over .500 vying for a playoff spot again in 2021. I like what the Browns did in 2020 and think they have a chance to take another step forward. The Ravens are still fierce competitors, but it’s the Steelers who are the biggest questions for me. I think they’re still a decent team, and I like the Harris pick a lot, but I’m not sold they make the playoffs. The Bengals, meanwhile, should be run to watch at times but probably need another year and a few more improvements to challenge for a playoff berth.
Cleveland Browns: 12-5
Baltimore Ravens: 10-7
Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-8
Cincinnati Bengals: 6-11
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.