Predicting the AFC North

The Footballguys staff looks at how the AFC North will end up in 2021

Links to discussions of other divisions:


Let's dig a little into the AFC North. Who takes this division? How many wins do you predict for each team?

AFC North Team
Vegas Win
Totals
Staff Predictions
Avg Place
1st-Place Votes
2nd-Place Votes
3rd-Place Votes
4th-Place Votes
Baltimore Ravens
11.0
1.4
5
4
0
0
Cleveland Browns
9.5
1.6
4
5
0
0
Pittsburgh Steelers
8.5
3.1
0
0
8
1
Cincinnati Bengals
6.5
3.9
0
0
1
8

Note: Vegas Win Totals are taken from VegasInsider.com.

Jeff Haseley

I'm going to buck the trend that Vegas has set and say that the Browns win the division this year. Cleveland has quietly put together a formidable team on both sides of the ball, especially defense. Every team in this division is capable of putting up points, so I believe the success of each team's defense will be the deciding factor. This is a tough division where the winner may be lucky to have 11 wins. I fully expect there to be close battles and a road win in the division is going to be huge. Each team may exceed nine wins and there may be an 11-win team miss the playoffs.

Cincinnati may start off slow depending on the return status of Joe Burrow and that could cost them. On the bright side, they don't have to play one of KC or BUF in the first two weeks of the season like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore do.

Baltimore is projected to reach 11 wins according to Vegas, but as Lamar Jackson goes, so do the Ravens. Which Jackson will we see, the 2019 MVP version or the 2020 version that dropped off? Part of me believes we've seen the best of Lamar Jackson already. As a result, I see the Ravens struggling to stay on top in the AFC North.

Pittsburgh also has some uncertainty as well. As good as their offense is, Ben Roethlisberger is a one-dimensional pocket passer in the sunset of his career. The Steelers will be as good as Ben is which is a common theme in this division. Last year their offensive line had some challenges. Whether or not that is resolved will be a factor in how well Najee Harris performs this season.

  • Cleveland 11-6
  • Baltimore 10-7
  • Pittsburgh 9-8
  • Cincinnati 9-8

Andy Hicks

Jeff, I am really fascinated at the 9-8 for Cincy. Do you have more to talk about there?

In handicapping this division, there are no new head coaches and no new starting quarterbacks. All these teams have built, or are building strong rosters. Coaching isn’t a problem either, with two of the longest-tenured head coaches here.

Pittsburgh appears to be the side that is primed for a slide. Their running game has been addressed by drafting Najee Harris in the first round. They have four very good young receivers and a strong defense. To me, the weak points are a rapidly aging Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line. Mike Tomlin has held this team together well, but at some stage, a new quarterback needs to be found. Maybe one more strong year, maybe not.

Baltimore is another side that could rise or fall depending on the play of their quarterback. The team has been throwing draft picks at wide receiver for years and now add free agents. Lamar Jackson is in a crucial year. This team is ready for a Super Bowl, but Jackson needs to deliver when it counts. Baltimore is too good not to make the playoffs though.

Cincinnati should improve, but how much depends on the decision to take Ja'Marr Chase instead of a tackle in the draft. It was a tough decision, but franchises rise and fall with these choices. Joe Burrow looks the part but if he is running for his life or getting creamed, how does he hit his talented receiving group? This is a potential two wildcard division like last season, but every game will be vital. Cincinnati is likely to be a spoiler and I am sure they will relish potentially costing the Steelers a playoff spot.

Onto a team that is also primed for a run deep into the playoffs. This year, like Jeff I cannot see how Cleveland isn’t better, and the over on 9.5 seems like easy pickings. They are stronger everywhere and only bad luck or Baker Mayfield can stop them. For years cursed with poor decision making, poor coaching, and awful play everything is finally in place for Cleveland to be taken seriously.

  • Cleveland 6-15 wins, prediction 13-4
  • Baltimore 8-13 wins, prediction 11-6
  • Pittsburgh 5-12 wins, prediction 9-8
  • Cincinnati 4-9 wins, prediction 7-10

Jordan McNamara

While other divisions had significant offseason overhauls, all four teams in the AFC North return their starting quarterback and head coach. Baltimore was tied for fifth in yards per play differential in 2020 (+0.7) which was the best in the division. Notably, Pittsburgh had the 26th yards per play on offense (5.1) but finished 2nd in yards per play allowed on defense (4.9). Considering offensive statistics are more predictive year over year than defense, Pittsburgh is a team where the bottom could drop out in 2021.

  • Baltimore -- 12
  • Cincinnati -- 6
  • Cleveland -- 9
  • Pittsburgh -- 7

Jeff Haseley

Andy, regarding Cincinnati, maybe 8-9 is more like it but I do see a scenario where their offense can win games for them. I see them as a team on the rise that can surprise people this year. It's all based on Joe Burrow and his ability to lead the team. His level of play upon his return is also a big factor.

Anthony Amico

I'm excited to see what Baltimore does on offense after drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round. There have been questions about Lamar Jackson's abilities as a passer since he was at Louisville, and throwing to one of the worst receiver groups in the league hasn't helped. With another stud in the passing game (along with Tylan Wallace who I also like), I think Jackson finally gets to prove the doubters wrong with another massive season.

It's amazing what a coaching change can do. Kevin Stefanski got the most out of Baker Mayfield and the Browns in his first season, and they should be even better this year. Odell Beckham Jr returns from his ACL injury, and the defense continued to get better through the draft.

Pittsburgh is a bit of a tough nut to crack. The defense is exceptional, and the supporting cast on offense is also very good. Unfortunately, we aren't sure how much Big Ben has left in the tank. If a change in offensive system can inject some life into his arm, this team could compete for a title. If it doesn't, they won't even make the playoffs.

The Bengals aren't going to play any defense, but their offense should be one of the most exciting in the league. Joe Burrow was impressive in his starts last year and now gets to be reunited with his LSU teammate in Ja'Marr Chase. They won't be a playoff team but should be locked into your NFL Sunday Ticket preferences.

  • Baltimore -- 12
  • Cleveland -- 11
  • Pittsburgh -- 8
  • Cincinnati -- 7

Ryan Weisse

While I'm with Jeff that the Browns win the division, I can’t get on board with the Cincinnati come-up.

Cleveland has all of the pieces in place to take a huge step up this season. Their offense is finally going to have some continuity: same coach, same QB, same playmakers, and their defense improved just about every weak spot from last season. This team should have one of the best defenses in the league and a running offense to protect the ball.

Baltimore is still a great team. They improved enough on offense to make up for some of what they lost on defense. They also had a great draft on both sides of the ball. Overall, they will go as far as Lamar Jackson takes them, and that should be to the wild-card playoff round.

The Steelers might a shot at the playoffs, despite finishing 3rd in the division, but it seems unlikely. Ben Roethlisberger is another year older and regression will likely continue, especially with their patchwork offensive line. Defensively, all of the pieces are there, minus Bud Dupree, but they will need to carry this team more than in previous years.

The Bengals haven’t really made a bad move yet, and on offense, this team will be fun to watch. Their defense isn’t quite what it needs to be to pull this team out of the cellar but they are a year away from really competing in this tough division.

  • CLE 12-5
  • BAL 11-6
  • PIT 9-8
  • CIN 5-12

Ryan Hester

I thought Pittsburgh will finish last in the North this year would be a hot take, but it seems others have them at or near the bottom as well. But this is a team with a chance to see the bottom fall out significantly in 2021.

The backup quarterback situation is unclear, but it’s safe to say that any injury to Ben Roethlisberger results in the Steelers starting a player who’s around the 50th-best quarterback in the NFL. And with a patchwork offensive line, an injury isn’t a far-fetched scenario.

And with how the team struggled to the finish last season, even with a healthy Roethlisberger, they’re on the decline. Every other team in the division, however, is on the rise. Each team got better in the offseason while Pittsburgh got worse. This division looks like one with two playoff teams but unlikely to get three.

Predictions for each team:

  • Baltimore - 11-6
  • Cleveland - 11-6
  • Cincinnati - 8-9
  • Pittsburgh - 6-11

Chad Parsons

This is a strong division overall and three playoff teams is a decent bet for 2021. Baltimore is the class of the division (for now) but Cleveland and Pittsburgh are legit challengers for the divisional title. Lamar Jackson officially has minimal excuses now if he does not take a step forward as a passer with four wide receivers drafted in the first three rounds in recent classes (Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Miles Boykin), plus Tylan Wallace as a strong prospect profile from Day 3, plus signing Sammy Watkins.

Pittsburgh has pitchforks in the hands of some for their impending doom and downfall after a meek finish to 2020. However, early reports are promising we see a revival from Ben Roethlisberger, even if it's only for 2021, and Najee Harris is poised to aid the entire offense as a two-way and foundational running back to balance the pass-slanted attack from a year ago.

Cincinnati is the big loser here. Joe Burrow may take a step forward in Year 2, but still, be a distant fourth in the division due to the level of competition.

  • Baltimore -- 11
  • Cincinnati -- 5
  • Cleveland -- 10
  • Pittsburgh -- 9

Victoria Geary

I'm with Anthony -- I cannot wait to see if Baltimore will remain the #1 rushing offense for the third straight year or if they will buck the trend and open up their passing attack. The Ravens cannot rely solely on the legs of Jackson and the rest of the backfield anymore, as evidenced by the three total points scored against the Bills in the divisional round last year. With the additions of Rashod Bateman, Tylan Wallace, and Sammy Watkins, Lamar Jackson should be able to take the next step as a passer. Jackson may have burned us last year relative to his ADP, but I'm still not shying away from drafting him this year after seeing the front office make a true effort in building around him.

The Steelers are going from the second-easiest strength of schedule in 2020 to the #1 most difficult this year. They were exposed rather shockingly when they lost to the Bengals in primetime in Week 15, but like the Patriots, I know better than to count them out. Head coach Mike Tomlin always finds ways to squeak out wins throughout the season. As long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can stay in one piece, this team will keep things competitive.

Joe Burrow could be ready to play when Week 1 rolls around, but I personally don't believe that means he will be at 100%. Though they had a good draft, there are still too many holes on both sides of the ball for them to compete with the best in this tough division.

It would not shock me at all to see Cleveland win this division. They have arguably the best backfield duo in the league, a fantastic receiving core, a top-tier defense, and finally some stability in head coach Kevin Stefanski. Here's to hoping they can finally put all the pieces together cohesively; it's hard to root against a team and a fan base that has suffered for so long.

Prediction:

  • Cleveland 12-5
  • Baltimore 11-6
  • Pittsburgh 8-9
  • Cincinnati 6-11

Sigmund Bloom

The AFC North draws the AFC West - Kansas City and three mercurial teams - and the NFC North - which has the potential to be one of the weakest divisions in football if Aaron Rodgers doesn't play for the Packers this year. It is also one of the best divisions in the NFL, so pencil it in for two spots with the potential for the three. The three non-shared games for each team:

  • Baltimore - IND @MIA LAR
  • Cincinnati - JAX @NYJ SF
  • Cleveland - HOU ARI @NE
  • Pittsburgh - SEA TEN @BUF

The Ravens have probably downgraded at right tackle and they lost their best edge rusher, but they've also greatly improved the passing game targets and hopefully will have a fresh approach. Cincinnati gets Joe Burrow back and might have an adequate offensive line, but they still have a ways to go to fit in with the other three teams on a regular basis. The Browns made major changes on the defensive side of the ball and they get Odell Beckham Jr back. The Steelers offensive line is suspect to say the least and the secondary isn't much more reliable. They also lost Bud Dupree in free agency among others, but they will get back Devin Bush from injury and there's hope for improvement in the running game. With all that in mind...

  • Baltimore - 12-5
  • Cincinnati - 5-12
  • Cleveland - 12-5
  • Pittsburgh - 9-8

The play of the Steelers offensive line and ability to frustrate opposing offenses with their front seven will be the key to whether this team can be the third playoff squad from the division.


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