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AFC North Division Winners: Is It Still the Bengals’ to Lose?

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Nick Makowitz

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Now more than ever, the fantasy and betting landscapes are providing a year-round experience for fans, especially when it comes to the NFL. With the advent of best ball and growth of dynasty leagues – plus the explosion of legal sports betting options – casual fantasy players and bettors are no longer waiting until the late summer to catch up and get involved.

 

Still, summer brings with it an enhanced focus on NFL content. Talk shows, podcasts and Twitter timelines are zeroing in on the upcoming season, fantasy drafts and competitions are ubiquitous, and sportsbooks are taking bets on futures like division, conference and Super Bowl champions.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll attempt to satisfy your craving for NFL content by previewing every division. I’ll cover key division storylines, provide a breakdown for each team and give out my pick to win each division.

(Check out the division previews so far: AFC East | NFC East)

AFC North Preview

The Cincinnati Bengals followed up their 2021 AFC Championship with their second consecutive AFC North title, finishing 12-4 in the regular season and falling just four points shy of another Super Bowl appearance. The Baltimore Ravens limped into the playoffs without Lamar Jackson and nearly knocked off the Bengals on the road in the Wild Card Round. The Pittsburgh Steelers finished third in the division at 9-8, and rightfully so, considering they played painfully average football all season long. They were somehow never good but never that bad. Lastly, the Cleveland Browns stumbled into last place while Deshaun Watson looked like a shell of his old self after returning from almost two years away from football.

Entering 2023, the Bengals are favored to three-peat (+125) while the Ravens (+240), Browns (+390) and Steelers (+500) fill out what figures to be one of the deepest divisions in the NFL, with all four teams having realistic playoff hopes. So, is the AFC North still the Bengals’ to lose? Or can one of these other talented teams knock Cincinnati off the top spot and prevent a three-peat, something that has never happened since the division became the AFC North in 2002?

Cincinnati Bengals

(FanDuel Sportsbook division title odds: +125)

Last offseason, the Bengals made it a mission to protect Joe Burrow and improve the offensive line, but it didn’t work. Cincinnati’s pass blocking ranked as one of the worst in the NFL according to PFF, and their run blocking, while slightly better, still ranked in the bottom half. Luckily, Burrow’s wizardry was enough to patch up the porous offensive line as the Bengals offense rolled in the second half of the season after a slow start. During that slow start (4-4 in their first eight games), three losses came by three or fewer points, so it felt like a matter of time before the ball started bouncing Cincinnati’s way.

After a brutal 32-13 loss to the Browns, the Bengals ripped off 10 wins in a row, including two victories in the playoffs over the Ravens and Bills. Heading into 2023, the offensive line is again a point of focus, hence the addition of Pro-Bowler Orlando Brown. The offense figures to be the same dominant force it’s been over the last two seasons as long as Burrow is healthy, but the defense lost a few key pieces, most notably safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. If the defense can hold up its end of the bargain, the Bengals could very well be looking at a three-peat. If not, any of the other three teams in the division could unseat them.

Baltimore Ravens

(FanDuel odds: +240)

<img src="https://d2y4ihze0bzr5g.cloudfront.net/source/2020/Mark_Andrews_Lamar_Jackson.jpg" alt="

Another year, another batch of season-altering injuries for the Ravens. This time, it was driven by quarterback Lamar Jackson’s knee injury, which drew a lot of speculation because of his since-resolved contract situation. That said, the 2019 MVP is healthy and paid, and he sounds excited about Baltimore’s offense under their new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken.

The Ravens did lose a couple of veteran players on defense like Marcus Peters and Justin Houston, but this unit still looks like the best in the division on paper, led by stud safety Kyle Hamilton and last year’s midseason acquisition Roquan Smith. The biggest difference between this season and last season will come on offense, particularly in the wide receiver room. Rashod Bateman should start off the year healthy, and he’ll be joined by Odell Beckham and electric rookie Zay Flowers. This is definitely a top-two skill group that Lamar Jackson has ever had, so it’s realistic to expect the offense to keep up with the defense. If that’s the case, they could win the division and compete for a Super Bowl. They just have to avoid the injury bug.

Cleveland Browns

(FanDuel odds: +390)

Year one of the Deshaun Watson experiment was an abject failure, but that was more or less expected considering the former Texans QB hadn’t played in almost two years. Outside of Watson, the Cleveland defense was also a massive disappointment as they were historically bad at stopping the run. The Browns added Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith to help the front-seven, although both players are better pass rushers than run stoppers. 

On offense, year two of Deshaun Watson basically has to be a huge improvement over year one. Behind an offensive line that still ranks in the upper third of the league, he should be able to play better considering he ranked ahead of only Taylor Heinicke and Zach Wilson in PFF passing grade. While Kareem Hunt is gone from the backfield, the Browns’ weapons are still really good, with Nick Chubb, David Njoku, Amari Cooper and former Jet Elijah Moore. The Browns are a tough team to judge because of how different last season’s performance was from what we expect out of their players, but the talent is there to make some noise in the AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers

(FanDuel odds: +500)

George Pickens Kenny Pickett Pittsburgh Steelers Baltimore Ravens 2023 Fantasy Football AFC North Preview

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers were as average as average gets. They finished 9-8 and third in the division while ranking in the middle of the pack in most counting and advanced stats. Mike Tomlin made the switch from Mitch Trubisky to Kenny Pickett after four games, and the rookie had his moments, but even with some really solid receiving options, he failed to register a multi-touchdown game. You can count on the Steelers’ defense being good enough to win them games, but if Pittsburgh wants to compete in this loaded division, the offense will need to take a step forward.

The Steelers did address some offensive line concerns by signing former Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo and drafting Georgia tackle Broderick Jones. They also signed wide receiver Allen Robinson, who will provide depth behind Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. The best case for Pittsburgh is that Pickett shows signs of development and compliments the defense enough to get a wild card berth. The worst case is that Pickett struggles like he did last year (51 QBR), doesn’t show signs of growth and holds the team back to the point of missing the postseason.

 

The Pick: Baltimore Ravens

It’s hard to pick against Joe Burrow, but the Ravens are stacked and showed that they can be one of the best teams in the NFL when healthy. Add in a few explosive playmakers and a new offensive scheme and I think the offense does enough to support what figures to be an elite defense.

Wild Card: Cleveland Browns

I’m not saying the Browns will win the division or finish above the Bengals. I just think their potential outcomes have the most variance in the AFC North. If Deshaun Watson remembers how to play quarterback, and if the defense takes even a small step forward, this team could be really dangerous. On the other hand, it’s possible that – to quote the late great Dennis Green – they are who we thought they were.

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