While the AFC West is receiving the most attention this offseason, the AFC North is quietly another powerhouse division in the conference. The addition of Deshaun Watson in Cleveland is just one of many roster changes in the AFC North that will make the race for the divisional crown a sight to behold.
This article will lay out my predictions on how the standings will shake out in 2022, which includes a new team at the top.
It was hard for me to select a Mike Tomlin team to finish dead last in the division, but that happens to be the case here. Pittsburgh is going through a transition at the quarterback position, as Mitchell Trubisky will lead the black and yellow into 2022 following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger.
Trubisky is not a bad option as a bridge quarterback, but I anticipate for this offense to struggle due to the team’s inability to address the offensive line in the offseason to this point. Najee Harris will be relied upon to be the star player, and will likely be a top fantasy player because of it.
Defensively, the Steelers are headlined by all-pros Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt, however the unit struggled in plenty of games in 2021. Pittsburgh finished in the bottom half in points allowed, an uncharacteristic trait for a Mike Tomlin team.
Overall, Pittsburgh will once again be a competitive squad that can win any given Sunday, but it will be hard to overcome the excess talent that is present on the other three teams of the division.
It is wild to imagine the AFC champions missing the playoffs the following year, but that is exactly what I think is going to happen. Joe Burrow and cinderella-story Bengals took over the conference in the playoffs, as Cincinnati became the first non-Brady team to take down Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs.
While the offensive line was the biggest weakness a year ago, reinforcements came in the offseason, including right tackle La’el Collins and former Tampa guard Alex Cappa. Despite recent success and the upgrades in free agency, I believe the Bengals will regress in 2022.
Cincinnati only went 10-7 ago in a very injured division, capitalizing against hobbled rivals such as the Baltimore Ravens, who had practice squad players starting in their entire secondary. Furthermore, the offense relied too often on rare, big plays to keep them in games, often with Ja’Marr Chase. With a full year of tape on the rookie of the year, I expect his production down and the offense to suffer because of it.
With two healthy powerhouses now present in the AFC North, I expect the Bengals’ record to drop a few games, and with how loaded the conference is this year, I cannot imagine them sneaking back into the tournament.
If I got confirmation that Deshaun Watson was playing the majority of the season in 2022, I would place Cleveland at one instantly. This roster is borderline perfect, as the team is highlighted with starpower all over the defense, the league’s best offensive line, and capable skill position players.
Baker Mayfield was vital in turning the Browns’ franchise around, however he was the clear problem with the offense. Some may point to his shoulder injury on his non-throwing shoulder, but a year with under 20 touchdown passes is unacceptable in the modern NFL.
Watson is a legitimate superstar, and no matter what opinion one has of him off the field, he is now on a Super Bowl contending team.
Baltimore appeared to be up to something special to kick off 2021, starting 5-2 which included Lamar Jackson’s first career victory over Patrick Mahomes. However, the injury bug never left the team, as injuries on both sides of the ball derailed any title hopes.
With the roster fully healthy and the additions of new starters on defense, I believe the Ravens win the AFC North next season. While the return of Lamar Jackson and J.K. Dobbins will surely aid in rejuvenating the offense, the defensive secondary is the group most aided by offseason recovery.
Pro Bowl cornerback tandem Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters return to the lineup after the Raven’s secondary was torched without the two. More reinforcements arrived in the back end as well, as former Saints’ star safety Marcus Williams now represents the black and purple.
I expect an 11 win season out of John Harbaugh’s group despite the dog fight that awaits them in the division. It will be intriguing to find out if Lamar and the Ravens can finally break through to the Super Bowl.
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