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Previewing the AFC North Division for 2021 – Are the Steelers Poised to Slide?

| May 14, 2021 6:37 am PDT

Anchored by a trio of teams that each won at least 11 games, the AFC North was the most competitive division in football a season ago. More of the same is expected in 2021.

The Steelers return the same core of players that jumped out to an 11-0 record out of the gates. Cleveland and Baltimore are loaded on both sides of the ball and the Bengals are undoubtedly headed in the right direction.

This AFC North preview is designed to unpack what lies ahead for each of these teams in the upcoming year. Team assessments are followed by my AFC North predictions.

Baltimore Ravens

  • AFC North Odds: +135
  • 2020 Record: 11-5
  • X-Factor: Odafe Oweh

The Ravens did what the Ravens do and improved their roster during the offseason. The wide receiving corps was completely revamped to ensure that Lamar Jackson would be supported by a reliable group of pass-catchers.

Ravens Top-4 WRs in 2020 Ravens Top-4 WRs in 2021
Marquise Brown Rashod Bateman
Willie Snead IV Marquise Brown
Miles Boykin Sammy Watkins
Devin Duvernay Tylan Wallace

Boykin and Duvernay simply slide down the depth chart to clear space for the intriguing newcomers.

Another position group Eric DeCosta made sure to bolster was the offensive line. Welcoming Ronnie Stanley back from injury is huge, as was snagging Kevin Zeitler in free agency.

Alejandro Villanueva replaces the departed Orlando Brown and look for Ben Cleveland to make an impact as a rookie in the interior.

With the secondary and linebacking core essentially intact, the last order of business was to address the pass rush. The Ravens led the NFL in blitz % in 2020 and ranked 2nd in QB knockdowns. However, their 39 teams sacks clocked in 14th.

Enter Odafe Oweh, the 31st overall pick. The Penn State edge rusher fits perfectly into Don Martindale’s 3-4 scheme as a disruptive outside linebacker.

Baltimore fits the profile as a genuine Super Bowl contender, although profiting in the futures markets might be easier said than done.

The best NFL betting sites installed the Ravens win total at 11.5 – or the same number of projected wins as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • AFC North Odds: +1400
  • 2020 Record: 4-11-1
  • X-Factor: Joe Mixon

Based on the level of excitement brewing in Cincinnati, you’d never know this team won four games in 2020. Inserting Ja’Marr Chase into a WR room already blossoming with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd gives Joe Burrow some serious weaponry.

Any concerns surrounding Joe Mixon’s foot are at ease given the resolute statements from Brian Callahan. When asked about Mixon’s availability heading into 2021, the Bengals OC didn’t mince any words.

“I don’t want Joe to leave the field, personally, and I think he’s up to the challenge. He has some things he has to improve pass-protection-wise. Joe shouldn’t come off the field, he should be on the field on every down.”

Assuming Reilly Reiff and Jackson Carman can have a positive impact on the protection scheme, we could be looking at one of the most high-octane offenses in the NFL.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm in Cincy comes back down to Earth when we dissect the “Bungles” defense.

  • Last in sacks (17)
  • 27th in yards per play (6.1)
  • 27th in takeaways (17)

The good news is Duke Tobin had plenty of cash to shell out and spent $60 million to lure Trey Hendrickson. The 26-year-old defensive end is entering the prime of his career after totaling 13.5 sacks with the Saints last season.

Throw in third-round steal Joseph Ossai and the Bengals should do a much better job applying pressure off the edge.

Cleveland Browns

  • AFC North Odds: +145
  • 2020 Record: 11-5
  • X-Factor: Jadevon Clowney

Outside of the defending Super Bowl champs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a roster as complete as the one in Cleveland. From the laughingstock in the league to a viable threat in the AFC, this franchise deserves a ton of credit for their 180-degree turnaround.

It starts with the men up front – the Brown’s O-Line was PFF’s highest-graded offensive line in 2020. All five starters return, as do Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and their cast of competent tight ends.

Odell Beckham Jr. is back from his injury, but is that necessarily a positive for Baker Mayfield?

Last season I hinted that Baker would start to flourish following the news of OBJ’s injury. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s kind of what happened. Mayfield sported the 14th-best QBR with OBJ in the lineup.

Without OBJ in the lineup, Baker’s QBR was the third highest in the league behind only Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.

I love the additions in the secondary from plucking John Johnson III and Troy Hill from the Rams and drafting Greg Newsome in the first round, but I’m pumping the brakes on any talk that Jadevon Clowney will be a difference-maker.

One of three former #1 overall picks on this roster, Jadevon’s production has sadly diminished since his days in Houston.

Clowney amassed three sacks in 13 games with the Seahawks in 2019. He accounted for zero sacks in eight games with the Titans in 2020.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • AFC North Odds: +380
  • 2020 Record: 12-4
  • X-Factor: Najee Harris

Close your eyes Steelers fans because I do not have a whole lot of nice things to say about the direction this team is heading in.

I like Najee Harris as a player but utilizing a first-round pick on a running back granted the holes on the offensive line was egregious in my opinion.

Next Gen Stats reveal that the inadequacy of Pittsburgh’s rushing attack had a lot more to do with the lack of blocking than not having a capable RB in tow.

JuJu Smith-Schuster demonstrated that he was more concerned with his Tik Tok account than he was with winning games, and yet Kevin Colbert awarded him with $7 million guaranteed.

Ben Roethlisberger’s decline is coming fast and furious, but somehow this organization is content with Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins as the fallback options.

Losers of four of their final five games before surrendering 48 points to the Browns in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin’s going to have to roll up his sleeves if this team wants to carry out any playoff aspirations.

Is it too bold to predict that Cincinnati winds up with a better record than Pitt?

AFC North Predictions in 2021

Between the inordinate amount of talent and the regimented approach of the coaching staff, I am looking at the Browns as the top team in this division. A date at Arrowhead Stadium to kick off the year is a great early measuring stick to see how far Cleveland has come.

The Ravens will be right there challenging for the crown, and Cincy is on the uptick and will be an exciting team to watch.

Knocking the Steelers in this AFC North preview has nothing to do with any biases against the city of Pittsburgh – it has everything to do with the thought process of the front office.

After shopping AFC North odds around, I landed on the Browns at +145 at SportsBetting.ag. If you like Cleveland, I recommend locking that in now. I anticipate the Browns closing in the +125 range by the time September rolls around.

Michael Wynn
Michael Wynn

As a former Division I collegiate golfer, Michael Wynn loves writing about golf. He's also an expert in most of America's most popular sports, writing extensively for GamblingSites.com on football, basketball, and baseball.

Michael's a Las Vegas native and has been with the company since 2017.

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