Given the caliber of quarterback play, and talent that's scattered across the defenses of all four teams, the AFC North remains one of the most competitive divisions in football.
If Pittsburgh Steelers second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett takes a major step in his development, and Kevin Stefanski can finally get the most out of a loaded roster led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, all four teams should enter the 2023 NFL season with very viable playoff aspirations.
The Bengals prioritized protecting Joe Burrow in a big way during the offseason, which could finally unlock Cincinnati's best chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy to date, while the Baltimore Ravens not only extended Lamar Jackson to a colossal long-term contract, but added dynamic playmakers to the electrifying quarterback's supporting cast both via free agency and the NFL Draft.
What NFL Insiders are Saying
"I honestly think Baltimore is going to come through, big time. With them getting Zay Flowers and Odell, with Lamar coming off a year going through what he went through, now he knows he's set ... I think they're about to really take off. Cleveland will be interesting, because if Deshaun can be 90 percent of what he was in the past, he'll be pretty damn good. He can take over a game by himself. Pittsburgh will hover a game or two around .500, like they always seem to lately. I'd be worried about the Bengals' defense, especially starting two young safeties. Just a gut feeling, but I think the Ravens make a run." - NFC Personnel Executive
Offseason Addition Who Will Shape the Race: Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore Ravens
If the Baltimore Ravens are going to inch closer to becoming legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and Lamar Jackson is going to take the next step in his evolution as a passer, the offense is going to need to become more dangerous vertically. Zay Flowers' arrival as Baltimore's first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft has the chance to make a key impact in both regards. Flowers' 4.42 speed gives him the ability to take the top off opposing secondaries, as he showed by averaging 15.3 yards per reception across four seasons at Boston College. Even with Odell Beckham and Rashod Bateman in the fold, Flowers has the potential to emerge as the Ravens' leading receiver and prove to be a legitimate difference maker to Baltimore's playoff hopes.
AFC North Projected Standings
Cincinnati Bengals (12-5)
The Bengals' Super Bowl hopes crumbled in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game as the offensive line folded under the pressure from the Kansas City Chiefs' front-seven. Cincinnati responded by plucking stalwart tackle Orlando Brown to protect Joe Burrow via free agency.
Cincinnati remains one of the most complete rosters in the league, led by one of its brightest stars at quarterback. Arguably the biggest challenge the Bengals have faced over the past three seasons was keeping Burrow upright, and Brown's arrival having only allowed four sacks last season should solve that issue in a big way. On the defensive side of the ball, hard-hitting safety Nick Scott's arrival has the potential to be a difference-maker, and selecting edge rusher Myles Murphy in the first round of the draft is a solid counterpunch against the bevy of elite quarterbacks in the AFC. If Burrow can stay healthy, this is a team that should be considered a serious Super Bowl contender.
Baltimore Ravens (10-7)
Lamar Jackson is back healthy, and the dynamic quarterback's contract squabble with the team is a vanishing speck in the rearview mirror.
Baltimore has built an explosive collection of skill players around Jackson. Rookie Zay Flowers has the speed and versatility to make an immediate impact, while veteran receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman both have the potential to be matchup nightmares.
Jackson is one of the NFL's most electrifying players, and this might be the best supporting cast the Ravens have built around him. Defensively, only the 49ers and Buffalo Bills allowed fer points per game in 2022 than the Ravens' 18.5, and if Baltimore can build up some continuity in a rather young secondary, this is a team capable of making a playoff run in the AFC.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, any hope of returning to the postseason rests on Kenny Pickett building on a strong rookie campaign.
The Steelers did their part to facilitate Pickett making strides coming off a 2,404-yard and seven touchdown rookie season by signing experienced offensive guard Isaac Seumalo and drafting behemoth tackle Broderick Jones. If Pittsburgh's offensive line continues where it left off from a strong finish to 2022, the pieces are there for Pickett to do his part, especially as playmaking wide receiver George Pickens enters his second season.
Defensively, T.J. Watt is a Defensive Player of The Year-type game-wrecker, and Pittsburgh loaded up in the secondary by signing veteran Patrick Peterson and selecting physical cornerback Joey Porter Jr. in the second round. If Tomlin can work his magic on extending his remarkable streak of never having a losing season, and Pickett proves capable of becoming a franchise quarterback, the Steelers have the trappings of a possible surprise contender.
Cleveland Browns (8-9)
Cleveland has the luxury of quarterback Deshaun Watson being available to start the season, but the AFC North figures to be a knock down, drag out fight to the finish as one of the NFL's most competitive divisions. There's no question that this defense packs a punch, especially with Za'Darius Smith lining up opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett, as a duo they produced a combined 26.0 sacks and 151 pressures. Offensively, Watson has a pair of field-stretching receivers in Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore to complement Nick Chubb, who might be the most explosive running back in the game. It remains to be seen if the Browns are capable of playing complementary football or if Stefanski is capable of maximizing all the talent on this loaded roster.
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