Neil Reynolds' Division Preview - AFC North

There are many questions surrounding the teams in this division as we hurtle towards the new season. Can Baltimore bounce back after consecutive playoff disappointments in 2018 and 2019? Can Cleveland finally become a force to be reckoned with? Will Ben Roethlisberger's surgically-repaired throwing arm last the course in Pittsburgh? How quickly can Joe Burrow turn around the Cincinnati Bengals?

There's only one way to find out and that's to line up and play the games!

Neil's Predicted Finish

  1. Baltimore Ravens
  2. Cleveland Browns
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. Cincinnati Bengals

BALTIMORE RAVENS

State of the Franchise

The Ravens ran all over the league to the tune of 206 rushing yards per game in 2019. That resulted in a 14-2 record before a surprising and disappointing playoff exit at home to Tennessee. Superstar quarterback and reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson is now 0-2 in the playoffs in his young career and will feel some pressure to produce wins in January. Baltimore are loaded with talent, grit and character. Can they turn all of that into a Super Bowl run in 2020? I think the disappointments of the recent past will spur this team on and John Harbaugh's men are my pick to win it all this season.

Star Man

The impact of Lamar Jackson on Baltimore is clear to see. Since he became the starter in Week 11 of the 2018 season, the Ravens have averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game. Jackson is so much more than a dynamic runner who gained a record 1,206 yards on the ground in 2019. He also led the league with 36 touchdown passes and is a generational and game-changing talent.

Secret Superstar

Look for wide receiver Miles Boykin to play a much bigger role in Baltimore this season. As a rookie, Boykin caught just 13 passes. But he has the speed and athleticism to break games wide open.

By the Numbers

17… Baltimore successfully converted 17 fourth down plays last season – most in the NFL.

42… Lamar Jackson forced 42 missed tackles in 2019 – most of any QB in the league.

64… The Ravens scored a league-high 64 points on 11 game-opening drives in 2019.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

State of the Franchise

The Browns had us all excited about 2019 and laid egg after egg in a campaign that unravelled fast. Can this collection of talented individuals play as a team and reach the playoffs in 2020? I think they can, at least as a wildcard outfit. There have been a couple of defensive blows in camp with injuries to linebacker Mack Wilson and safety Grant Delpit but the talent across the roster is the envy of many teams. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at receiver, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield and the under-fire Baker Mayfield pulling the strings at quarterback. If Mayfield rebounds, this could be tasty!

Star Man

Nick Chubb has now established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL, gaining 1,494 yards at an average of five yards per carry in 2019. Chubb is a team-first player who will be essential in Cleveland's locker room. He is the complete back who can run over defenders or sprint away from them. Kareem Hunt will play a role, but Chubb is the lead man in Cleveland's backfield.

Secret Superstar

It's hard to find under-the-radar guys on this roster! If and when Mack Wilson returns from his preseason knee injury, expect him to contribute and build on his 81-tackle rookie campaign of a year ago.

By the Numbers

35… Baker Mayfield has thrown 35 interceptions since 2018 – second-most in the NFL.

564… Jarvis Landry has 564 catches in his career– the most in NFL history in a player's first six seasons.

2,490… Nick Chubb has rushed for 2,490 yards in the past two seasons – third-most in the NFL behind Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

State of the Franchise

The Steelers are always competitive under head coach Mike Tomlin. Last season, they lost Ben Roethlisberger for much of the year to an elbow injury and still battled to an 8-8 record with Mason Rudolph and Devlin 'Duck' Hodges at quarterback. An elite defense that led the NFL in takeaways (38) and sacks (54) in 2019 now powers this team and we can expect the Steelers to be in the playoff mix, providing Big Ben comes all the way back from such a serious injury to his throwing arm. That is the one big doubt hanging over this fiery team as the new season approaches.

Star Man

Edge rusher T.J. Watt has definitely laid down a marker and is staking a claim as the best Watt in the NFL. The All-Pro is a force of nature who cannot be slowed down and his reputation for making game-changing plays is growing. Watt recorded 14 ½ sacks, eight forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2019 and there is no reason to think those numbers are going to decrease this term.

Secret Superstar

Diontae Johnson became Pittsburgh's leading receiver in 2019 and while the Steelers would rather JuJu Smith-Schuster steps to the fore, there is still a role for a youngster who also shines on special teams.

By the Numbers

4… Pittsburgh's four leading receivers are aged 24 or younger. Rookie Chase Claypool (22), JuJu Smith-Schuster (23), Diontae Johnson and James Washington (both 24)

10… Pittsburgh scored 10 or fewer points in five games last year (most in NFL), going 0-5 in those contests.

20… The Steelers ranked second in the NFL with 20 interceptions in 2019

CINCINNATI BENGALS

State of the Franchise

The only way is up for the Bengals after a 2-14 season saw them finish as the worst team in the league. I don't see this as a worst-team-in-the-league roster. Joe Mixon at running back, a fit-again A.J. Green at receiver alongside Tyler Boyd and some decent defensive linemen to go along with a revamped secondary suggest things are not that bleak. They become a lot brighter when you add quarterback Joe Burrow into the equation. The first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will be charged with doing what Andy Dalton failed to do in his time in Cincinnati – win a playoff game. That won't come this year, but progress will.

Star Man

This will become Joe Burrow soon enough – Bengals fans certainly hope that is the case. But, for now, the best players on this roster are Joe Mixon on the offensive side of the ball and Geno Atkins at defensive tackle. Mixon would get much more attention on a better team and is entering a contract year. Atkins is a force in the middle who has quietly put together a Hall of Fame-calibre career in Ohio.

Secret Superstar

Even with A.J. Green back to full health, the Bengals expect to feature Auden Tate, who stepped up to the tune of 40 receptions and 575 yards in 2019. Those numbers would have been higher but for a season-ending knee injury in Week 13.

By the Numbers

15-0… Joe Burrow went 15-0 and threw 60 touchdown passes along the way in his final season at LSU – both the best marks in college football in 2019.

198… Geno Atkins has produced 198 quarterback pressures over the past four seasons – second among interior defensive linemen to Aaron Donald.

2,931… Joe Mixon has rushed for 2,931 yards since entering the NFL in 2017 – fourth-best in the league during that period.

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