NFL division preview: AFC North

Tyler Dragon
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Baltimore and Cleveland are the class of the division, but the Ravens have the best quarterback in the AFC North.

Who ends up on top? 

USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.

The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.

Now, let's get into it.

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AFC North

Team to beat? Baltimore Ravens

24. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens get the nod because Lamar Jackson is 30-7 since he became the starting quarterback.

Baltimore is going to go as far as the 2019 NFL MVP will take them. Jackson and the Ravens possess the NFL’s most potent rushing attack, averaging a league-leading 191.9 rushing yards per game in 2020. The Ravens like to impose their will running the football and they have the best dual-threat QB in the NFL.

However, RB J.K. Dobbins’ season-ending knee injury during the team’s preseason finale is a tough blow. The club also lost reserve RB Justice Hill (Achilles). 

Dobbins’ absence puts more of an onus on Jackson in the run game, plus the fourth-year quarterback has to continue to develop as a passer. Jackson and the Ravens averaged the fewest passing yards per game (171.2) last season. The addition of rookie WR Rashod Bateman and veteran Sammy Watkins should help Jackson’s development as a passer.

On defense, Baltimore has playmakers in the secondary with CBs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, but they lack edge rushers who can constantly create pressure. The Ravens blitzed more than any other team in the NFL last season.

Team on the rise? Cleveland Browns

Cleveland has perhaps the most talented roster in the AFC North. Last season, the Browns earned a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. They are going into this year with the best offensive and defensive lines in the division.

Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form a two-headed monster in the backfield, running behind a stout Browns O-line. On the outside, Odell Beckham Jr. is motivated to prove he’s still a premier NFL wide receiver. However, Beckham’s chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield is still a work in progress.

CHASING GREATNESS: Can Denzel Ward become one of the best cornerbacks in Browns history? 

Defensive end Myles Garrett is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate. The addition of Jadeveon Clowney at right defensive end gives Cleveland the best defensive line in the division.

The Browns and Ravens figure to fight for the division title all season.

Team with some intrigue? Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talks with running back Najee Harris during an NFL football training camp Saturday, July 31, 2021, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

The Steelers stormed out to an 11-0 start last season and then lost four of their final five games to end the season. To make matters worse, they lost to division rival Cleveland in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window is closing as rapidly as Ben Roethlisberger’s waning arm strength.

The Steelers overhauled their offensive line and are starting young and unproven O-linemen in 2021. Running back Najee Harris has the potential to be a star in Pittsburgh and is an early offensive rookie of the year candidate.

The loss of OLB Bud Dupree might come back to haunt Pittsburgh on defense, but Mike Tomlin should have a top-10 ranked unit.

Yet, the success of the Steelers largely hinges on Roethlisberger and the offense.

Team with most ground to make up? Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals haven’t finished a season above .500 since 2015. Head coach Zac Taylor has compiled a 6-25-1 record entering his third year at the helm.  

Cincinnati has some promising core pieces on offense in QB Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon, WR Tyler Boyd, WR Tee Higgins, WR Ja’Marr Chase and LT Jonah Williams. But the team still has holes along its offensive line.

Safety Jessie Bates and defensive end Trey Hendrickson are the two Bengals on the NFL’s top 100 list, but the defense has some deficiencies at every level.

The Bengals are a year or two away from serious contenders in the AFC North.