The Ravens’ 2019 season hinted at long-term dominance, most importantly a young star emerged at quarterback which helped them to their 14-2 record. A relentless defence developed its identity. An offensive coordinator found his creative groove, pounding team after team into clock-draining submission. So why would anyone hesitate to hand the division title right back to Baltimore in 2020?
Maybe it’s just the nature of the division itself. The AFC North, especially during the Bengals’ more capable years, has usually been a dogfight. The same can be expected this year, except with the more functional Browns replacing Cincinnati while the Bengals are in full rebuild mode, hoping to create something entirely new with coach Zac Taylor and top pick quarterback Joe Burrow, instead of running off the fumes of Marvin Lewis–Andy Dalton heyday.
The biggest news is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has recovered from his right elbow injury, meaning that a Steelers team that finished 8–8 with his missing 14 games but nearly backed into the playoffs on the strength of a reborn defence, is better positioned to make a run. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield will have better protection, and more two-tight-end sets will take the pressure off star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. And, while this is no reflection on Lamar Jackson’s abilities, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Ravens’ QB to replicate an MVP season in which he rushed for more than 80 yards per game while somehow staying healthy.
It’s important not to write off what Baltimore achieved in 2019 as gimmicky, or to classify the 23-year-old Jackson as a one-hit wonder if the Ravens stumble a bit this year. Their 14–2 regular season was the culmination of so many pinpoint decisions made by management, including a keen ability to identify undervalued assets, especially Jackson, snared with the last pick of the first round in 2018, and their cadre of versatile tight ends and a commitment to building a stifling defence.
However, the Steelers bring more than their share of intrigue to the race. Roethlisberger, who got hurt in Week 2, was a top-five QB in both 2017 and ’18. Then there’s a defence that didn’t get the recognition it deserved last year because it was paired with floundering offense but is full of rising stars such as outside linebacker T.J. Watt and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Watt methodically piled up 14 1/2 sacks last season, logging 59 total pressures and 19 quarterback knockdowns. Fitzpatrick posted an opposing QB rating of 46.0—that’s elite for his position—after coming over from the Dolphins in mid-September, and he also had five interceptions for the Steelers. Pittsburgh finished third in Football Outsiders’ defence-adjusted value over average rankings, behind just the 49ers and the Patriots.
It’s been difficult to quantify Roethlisberger’s value to the good-to-great Steeler teams of recent years, but 2020 provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. He was the one major factor absent last year while Jackson, guided by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, took over the division. What will it mean for the balance of power now that Big Ben is back?
Predicted Record: 11-5
The Ravens look ready to build on their success from 2019 while updating their offense to make it less predictable to opponents who have been studying last season’s film. Plenty of teams try to copy the Titans’ game plan, built around attacking the line, from their 28–12 playoff upset.
However, as happened to the Rams last year, a postseason loss could provide a successful blueprint for opposing defences. The offense relies too much on Jackson’s rare escapability, and he wears down. Jackson is a tough runner, but he has such an incredible separation that his dashes rarely seemed like a high-wire act. The Ravens could have a bit of a surprise drop off this year if their attack relies too much on Jackson’s runs.
Predicted Record: 9-7
A player who missed 2019 due to injury and, before that, mused about retiring, comes back in 2020 rejuvenated and explosive at age 38 will be key to Pittsburgh’s season. Roethlisberger can elevate all parts of the offense, including its group of receivers and its relatively inexperienced backfield. New tight end Eric Ebron can also rack up the red zone touchdowns.
However, relying so heavily on Roethlisberger could go horribly wrong and the Steelers’ could have another nightmare season. Last year was bad but thanks to coach Mike Tomlin, they nearly crept into the playoffs anyway. Thankfully unless Roethlisberger shows meaningful signs of decline because, as was evident last year the Steelers’ rock bottom isn’t too bad
Predicted Record: 9-7
If new coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense is more streamlined this will benefit Mayfield. An improved line gives Mayfield more time in the pocket, and with new tight end Austin Hooper working underneath, the field opens up for Beckham, whose performances could match the expectations that greeted his 2019 arrival.
However, some believe Cleveland truly is built on some kind of cursed land so the Browns could find new ways to divide and devour themselves. This is arguably the most talented roster Cleveland has seen since its reboot in 1999, even more so than last year’s. Last year Cleveland were the hot pick of so many pundits and it would be a shame to see all that talent go to waste, but an internal blow-up is a possibility.
Predicted Record: 3-13
At the end of the season, some may say it’s clear that Cincinnati hired the wrong Sean McVay disciple as coach last year and then selected the wrong quarterback. Joe Burrow will surely be compared with fellow first-round picks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert for the rest of his career, but he may not be as good as them.
However, despite the record the Bengals can come out of this year believing that they have both the coach and quarterback to move forward comfortably, which would be a massive win. Taylor’s unimpressive 2019 is understood as a necessary bedding in period for this year, when he showcases what his offense can do with healthy wideouts and the right quarterback. If the Bengals show some positives especially at quarterback, it won’t be a disaster.