Picking a winner in the AFC North is not always easy, as the division specializes in having four teams that beat up on one another in a season-long war of attrition. That’s especially the case this year, as all four teams have legitimate aspirations of making it to the postseason, and the only team that might not be able to make it, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are masters of finding a way to outperform what’s expected of them.
Today, we’re taking a look at the division and identifying the biggest question that each team faces.
Cleveland Browns: Who is their quarterback?
The Browns acquired Deshaun Watson in a gigantic trade with the Houston Texans — then decided to give him a monster contract extension — with the full understanding that he was going to face some sort of suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy in light of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. After being handed a 6-game suspension by an arbiter, the league decided to appeal, and we should find out the results of that soon. Perhaps he will avoid getting handed the indefinite suspension of at least one year he wants, perhaps the 6-game suspension sticks, who knows. But one thing is for sure: The Browns made their bed by going all-in on Watson, and for some period of time, they are going to have to lie in it. We’ll see how long presumed backup Jacoby Brissett will start as a result.
Cincinnati Bengals: Can their defense build on a heroic playoff run?
I feel pretty confident that Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, and Ja’Marr Chase are going to continue to all be very good, in part because their offensive line should be better. Their trio of offseason acquisitions up front — La’el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras — are not world-beaters, but should keep Burrow from running from his life, which he had to do far too often in 2021. But ultimately, the thing that got them to the Super Bowl last year was a defense that was just lights out in the postseason. They only allowed 313 yards against the Rams in the Super Bowl, while their second half and overtime performance against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs was the stuff of legends. Outside of losing standout defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, the team brings back basically everyone, although they do need to figure out a contract extension with star safety Jessie Bates. Between all that and a draft class with three defensive players in the first three rounds, Cincinnati may be dangerous on defense.
Baltimore Ravens: Will Lamar Jackson’s contract situation loom over the team all year?
Normally signing the quarterback who you acquired with a first-round pick and became a league MVP to a lucrative, long-term contract extension is pretty standard practice. But so far, the Ravens have been unable to come to terms on a new deal with Jackson, who is in the final year of his deal. Now, Jackson is saying all the right things about getting a deal done and he hasn’t tried to force any hands by sitting out until a new deal is done, but he has made clear that he has a cutoff date to get a deal done with the team. Jackson doesn’t seem like the kind of guy whose play will suffer based on his contract situation — he’s really good, he knows it, and everyone around him knows it — but with how the NFL works, every single time something happens with the Ravens, questions will pop up about whether or not Jackson’s lack of an extension is to blame. Of course, there’s a pretty easy way to avoid that: Baltimore can just pay him, and based on the long-term deals that guys (who, it must be mentioned, are not former MVPs) like Watson and Kyler Murray got this offseason, it’s going to be for a whole lot of money.
Pittsburgh Steelers: What does their offense look like with someone other than Ben Roethlisberger at QB?
To put it plainly, Roethlisberger has held Pittsburgh’s offense back the last few years. He was old, slow, immobile, and lacked any sort of arm strength that could keep a defense honest, but because he’s a franchise legend, Big Ben kept starting games, but even with his numerous flaws, at least the team had a pretty good idea of what it was going to get out of him. Now that he’s gone, the Steelers need to figure out which member of its quarterback room is going to be the man: first-round pick Kenny Pickett, longtime backup and occasional starter Mason Rudolph, or free agent acquisition Mitchell Trubisky. It’s safe to assume that Pickett, who was a Heisman finalist at the University of Pittsburgh, will be the starter at some point down the road, but can he win it from one of the veteran guys in camp? And once they get that all sorted out, how does their offense change from what it was with Roethlisberger pulling the strings?