2020 AFC North preview

If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.

Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.

The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.

The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.

The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.

AFC Wildcard game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it 21 divisional titles (granted that division’s title has changed from the AFC Central to the AFC North over the years, but still) on Sunday Night Football when they beat the Bengals last weekend. The last 2 times the Steelers won their division they appeared in the Super Bowl so they’re no stranger to long playoff runs.
If they are to go deep into the postseason this year they will need defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor be healthy and back to their vintage best, which they haven’t really been all season, they could also do with Pro Bowl Running back LaVeon Bell to be 100% fit, which after Reggie Nelson’s crunching hit to his right knee is looking increasingly unlikely. Bell’s knee injury is such a worry for the Steelers that they’ve been trying out Ben Tate this week, the Steelers would be Tate’s 3rd different team this season, but needs must and all that. If they do sign another running back I would imagine it’d be to compliment the 2 talented rookies they have rather than replace LaVeon Bell as the main back, with a short turn around between their Sunday Night Football game last week and their Saturday night playoff game it’d be tricky for Tate to learn the entire playbook. Bell’s loss will mean the Steelers will have to adapt their offense quite a lot this week as Bell is 2nd only to Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown in receiving yards, Brown lead the NFL in yards and with his 854 Bell was 40th in the league. Short passes will be the key for the Steelers offence against a Ravens defence that has recorded 49 sacks this season, Tight End Heath Miller who is master at finding the spot in a zone defence stands to be a key target for Ben Roethlisberger and I’d expect a few screen passes to youngsters Martavius Bryant and Dri Archer who have some serious speed. The 6 foot 4 inch Bryant ran a 4.41 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and Archer ran the fastest time at the combine (4.26 seconds) which is no surprise for someone who clocked a 10.49 100 metre time as a High School student.
The Ravens are not without their own considerable injury problems with a massive 18 players on the Injured Reserve list and 4 more players struggling to practice this week just reaching the postseason is a gargantuan feat in itself. After the controversial exit of their former Running back Ray Rice (not controversial because it wasn’t warranted, but controversial because the NFL’s indefinite ban was overturned in court) early in the season and star Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata being banned for 4 games for failing a drug test, the Ravens could be forgiven for struggling through 2014 and starting a fresh next season. It’s a mark of their resilience not just as a team but as an organisation that they’ve made a potentially traumatic time into a relatively successful season. On the field the Ravens have averaged an impressive 664.9 yards per game and have averaged 25.6 points per game, with the Steelers averaging 411.1 yards and 27.3 points per game this doesn’t appear to be one of the titanic battles of field position that the AFC North traditionally served up. In fact when these teams met at Heinz Field in early November there was a total of 66 points, 43 for the Steelers and just 23 for the Ravens and LaVeon didn’t have his best game that night either, he managed just 58 total yards from scrimmage and wasn’t even the Steelers best rusher. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did tear the Ravens secondary to pieces though with Roethlisberger throwing for 340 yards and a whopping 6 touchdowns and Antonio Brown being on the receiving end of 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
I think the Steelers should win this game too because they have only lost 2 home games all season and they were both against NFC South teams. It should be closer than their previous meeting but 2 inconsistent defensive backfield’s on show there could be almost as many points as the Pittsburgh faithful saw in week 9. The one thing you know about any Steelers matchup with the Ravens is there will be no shortage of physicality and even with the improvement the Steelers offensive line has made over the course of this season the loss of LaVeon Bell’s blitz recognition and pass blocking will mean Ben Roethlisberger will be under constant pressure when he drops back to pass.