Write these down. You can laugh at me later…
AFC North – Baltimore Ravens
2019 Record: 14-2 Division Champions
Baltimore was an absolute steamroller last season after that week four blowout home loss to Cleveland, winning twelve-straight to finish the season. In the process, the AFC North’s bullies posted an ungodly +249 point differential while putting up a league-high 531 points. No one else was even close. I’m telling you that, just so I can tell you this…
Bold Prediction: The Ravens will be better in 2020.
Cool. But here’s the deal. Baltimore had six, count them, six picks in the first three rounds of the draft. They added an absolute monster tackler in linebacker Patrick Queen from LSU. Remember that name: he’s more than likely the next great Raven defender. He’s an immediate impact player on a team that didn’t allow many points last season. Improving the league’s third-stingiest defense will make Baltimore nearly unstoppable.
But that’s not all.
They also added depth at running back and along the offensive line in the draft while free agency was more about maintaining consistency. This was an excellent team in 2019, but the 2020 Ravens are primed for an even more dominant season and a title run. Big Truss.
AFC North – Cincinnati Bengals
2019 Record: 2-14
Everything that the Ravens were in 2019, the Bengals weren’t. Cincinnati just couldn’t get out of their own way last year, posting a league-worst 2-14 record after a woeful 0-11 start to the season. That’s terrible, but maybe it wasn’t all bad, the Bengals did compete, with eight of their losses coming by one score or less, including close games with three playoff teams (Seattle, Baltimore and Buffalo). Translation: they could have been much, much worse.
Bold Prediction: Joe Burrow will struggle to adjust to the NFL, but eventually get it together. First things first, the lack of a preseason is a nightmare for teams hoping to install a new quarterback, but teams that are relying on a rookie…yikes. We all know what Burrow might become, but can he evolve into a top tier NFL quarterback in this hostile environment, on a pretty bad team, with no preseason to get out the jitters? It’s a recipe for a slow start for the anointed rookie.
The good news for Burrow is that the Bengals have no plan B. Burrow is it for the next few seasons, so no matter what, he’s going to have the chance to learn and grow in game. My guess is that Burrow will start to look more comfortable around the mid-point of the season, let’s say week seven. It will probably be too late for the Bengals to make a real playoff push but will provide a tantalizing whiff of possibility for Cincinnati.
AFC North -Cleveland Browns
2019 Record: 6-10
Last season was a stark reminder to Browns fans and all of us that fantasy football is just that: a fantasy. The Browns constructed a roster that looked like a winner based solely on the skill positions but couldn’t compete with mediocre teams when (literally) push came to shove. Every game that the Browns lost, they lost because they got bullied at the line of scrimmage. What’s interesting is that for the first time in forever, the Browns did something about it.
Bold Prediction: The Browns will improve greatly in 2020 and compete for a wildcard slot.
The question for me is whether Baker Mayfield will be the QB that gets them in the mix now that Case Keenum is in town. Honestly, it might not matter. Cleveland did some very smart things in the offseason, bringing in help along the offensive line in free agency (Jack Conklin, from the Titans) and in the draft (Jedrick Wills, tenth pick overall from Alabama) as well as grabbing former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper to add some physicality to the receiving corps. Then they went ahead and drafted heavily on defense, adding safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Jacob Phillips, both defenders from that national champion LSU Tigers squad.
All in all, the Browns were able to identify the primary flaw in their roster and made moves to improve. They still have the scintillating core of talent with Nick Chubb, OBJ and Jarvis Landry, and now they have some bodies to compete at the line of scrimmage. For Browns fans, I like where this is headed.
AFC North – Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 Record: 8-8
Last year was a rough ride for Steeler fans. The early loss of Big Ben during week two spelled doom for the perennial contenders as inexperienced quarterback play hampered the offense. Despite that, a better-than-expected defensive run, in part due to the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, kept the Steelers in play for a wildcard slot most of the season. Hopes blossomed, then collapsed with a tough three-game slide to end the year.
Despite the heartbreak, Mike Tomlin probably should have won Coach of the Year for his amazing work in 2019. It’s hard to argue with John Harbaugh’s 14-2 record, but come on, Tomlin was leading a skeleton crew that would have gone 3-13 under most guys. Can 2020 be better in Steel-town with Big Ben back under center?
Bold Prediction: Big Ben is back, but it won’t matter much. At age 38, Ben won’t be the guy we remember from before the injury. Reminder, dude’s been in the league since 2004 and he absorbs a ton of hits, but he isn’t exactly Tom Brady in the offseason.
I’ve worried about his potential without the two guys who really moved the needle in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and now, coming off injuries, one year older, I just don’t know what we’ll see. His completion percentage plummeted to 56% last year in the games he did play, so that doesn’t bode well. Add that to a much tougher AFC North than they’ve needed to navigate for the past decade and the Steelers will struggle to string together wins again in 2020. I’m not saying they’ll fall off a cliff, just that Roethlisberger isn’t likely to add four in the win column.
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: AP Images