In this new series, we’ll be reviewing each division in the NFL - taking a look at each team’s 2019 season, their ups and downs, as well as looking ahead to what their 2020 might look like. This week, we take a look into a tantalising division with huge upside potential for the season ahead – the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens were one of the surprises of 2019 – Lamar Jackson won the MVP and their early exit in the playoffs was one that shocked the league.
Cleveland’s all-star roster wasn’t enough to put them in contention, while the Steelers overcame an early slump to make a push for the playoffs.
As for Cincinnati, there might not be much to take from being the worst team in the NFL, but there’s a lot to look forward to.
When you’ve got the MVP and one of the best head coaches in the NFL, you should be in contention again and again. Baltimore finished 2019 with a touch of embarrassment though. At 14-2, they went into the playoffs as AFC favourites, but it didn’t take long before they were eliminated.
The Ravens, much like the Patriots, were victims of Derrick Henry’s dominating stretch in 2019. He ran for 195 yards, the Titans went up early, and Baltimore were left chasing the game to no avail.
Lamar Jackson received a lot of criticism after that game. He received criticism all year, in spite of his remarkable season (3,127 passing yards, 1,206 rushing yards, 43 total touchdowns, and six interceptions).
He’s a human highlight reel, a perennial presence on your Twitter feed during NFL Sundays, and a very worthy MVP. But he still gets criticised.
The reason he received such negativity on the back of the Raven’s playoff loss was that he looked lost. Where Patrick Mahomes exuded confidence and rallied the troops, Jackson did not.
But it’s also his second season, and he doesn’t have the weapons that Mahomes has either. The Ravens also abandoned a very good running game and asked that Jackson throw the ball time and time again. Granted, Ingram was injured, but the Ravens had the best rushing offense in 2019, and that deserved more credence.
People are ready to jump on Lamar for any error in his game, but the reality is that he’s one of the most exciting quarterbacks the game has seen in recent times. Giving him ammunition for 2020 is imperative to Baltimore’s success.
That’s not to say they haven’t got anyone – Mark Ingram rushed for 1,018 yards and Marquise Brown (Antonio’s less erratic cousin) looks like a stud. But they need more.
On the other side of the ball, Harbaugh will have nightmares about how easily Henry was able to gut their defensive line. Enforcements are needed on pass rush and stuffing the run, so signing Calais Campbell and Michael Brockers will certainly help with that.
Baltimore were an excellent team in 2019, and they’ll retain most of their pieces this year too. They should stay relevant in 2020.
Ceiling: 13-3 and a Super Bowl
A 0-11 start to the season is not ideal by any team’s standards. The Bengals started the 2019 with a new coach at the helm – Zac Taylor, friend of Sean McVay and form quarterbacks coach of the LA Rams. They kicked off against Seattle, losing 21-20 on the road. On paper, the one-point loss left room for optimism, but that optimism was quickly stamped out with another 10 losses in a row.
As that record might suggest (they went on to finish 2-14), not a whole lot went right for the Bengals. Least of all Taylor’s debut season. Presumably, he was hired to work some of his NFC Championship calibre offensive magic in Cincinnati – get the most out of the red rocket, Andy Dalton, and maybe even turn the Bengals into playoff contenders.
Instead, Dalton is probably leaving the franchise and the Bengals own the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Dalton finished the season with 3,494 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. For years now, he’s been the subject of uncertainty. Dalton is a fine quarterback, but at 32 years old, he has never won a playoff game and it feels like his best years are behind him.
The time to move on is right. As for who they replace him with, all signs point towards Joe Burrow.
Burrow, for what it’s worth, is coming off a Heisman trophy-winning season. LSU were crowned national champions and he had a damn good season within that. But there are rumours that he wouldn’t want to play in Cincinnati.
This wouldn’t be the first time a player looked the avoid joining the team with the number one pick (Eli Manning famously navigated away from San Diego in 2004).
On paper, his 2019 season is enough for Cincinnati to ignore those murmurs and pick him anyway. Burrow posted 5,671 passing yards for 60 touchdowns and just six interceptions, with a completion percentage of 76.3%.
But should one sublime college season be enough for the Bengals to hang their hat on Burrow? As NFL Analyst Cian Fahey pointed out, even Case Keenum has strong numbers to point towards in college.
If Burrow does get picked and he does live up to the hype, there’s still a lot of issues to resolve for the Bengals.
Entering the 2019 season, there was an almost unanimous assumption that this was the year the Browns would become good. They were not good. They finished 6-10 and it wasn’t long before rumours surfaced of Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry pleading to opposition players to sign them mid-game.
The 2019 Browns were a bigger let down than New Year’s Eve and The Last Jedi rolled into one.
The fact of the matter is that the Cleveland Browns have a lot of good players. There are the aforementioned Odell and Jarvis, two number one picks in Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward is a very promising defensive back, and they’ve two dynamic running backs in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb.
Chubb was quietly one of the more productive backs in the league with 1,494 rushing yards in 2019. Add Hunt into the mix and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Browns’ offense should be one of the best in the league – but they’re not.
There are a few reasons as to why the Browns underperformed. Putting their former coach, Freddie Kitchens, aside, a lot of their problems reside in the trenches. According to PFF, the Browns’ offensive line ranks 23rd in the league.
One year prior, they ranked second in those same rankings. So there’s probably a direct correlation between Baker’s decline in 2019 and the unit protecting him.
Looking ahead to 2020, improving that unit will prove pivotal in Cleveland making a playoff push. They have the 10th pick overall, so expect them to look for OL help with that selection.
The Kitchens issue is no more with Kevin Stefanski taking over as the new head coach. He has some tough choices to make from the outset too – do you hold onto Odell and Jarvis or try and ship them? When Pat Shurmur took over the New York Giants in 2018, they considered shopping Odell, but the temptation to have a receiver with that ability was too enticing, so they kept him for one more season.
Stefanski, an offensive mind, will surely want the best weapons possible at his disposal in order to success in 2020. The question is whether two want-away receivers will prove to be a distraction to a very talented roster.
It’s a new head coach, a new scheme and a new season to be optimistic about – but this is also a tough division. It could go either way with this team.
Unfortunately, the main headline surrounding Pittsburgh these days is around Mason Rudolph’s alleged racist remarks against Myles Garrett. Between that, the Antonio Brown saga, and an 8-8 season, the Steelers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. They also spent the season without Ben Roethlisberger.
For a perennial powerhouse franchise, surely 2019 was an aberration, right?
They started the season 0-3, with losses against New England, Seattle and San Francisco (three playoff teams). Since 1980, only 2.8% of teams have made the playoffs, but after that dismal start, Pittsburgh made a fine effort to make sure they weren’t just another statistic. But they fell short.
The general feeling from a middling season is that Pittsburgh did well under the circumstances. Roethlisberger wasn’t their only injury, as James Connor struggled to get over a shoulder issue, the effervescent Juju Smith-Shuster had a niggling knee injury, and Vance McDonald suffered a knee injury.
The Steelers’ offense was consistently strong up until 2019, so they’ll be hoping for a big bounce back. Signing Eric Ebron is a sign of intention to remedy those offensive woes.
Defensively, it’s a whole other story. Signing Minkah Fitzpatrick from Miami was met with mixed feeling initially, but by the end of the season, he was considered an outside bet for Defensive Player of the Year. He made an immediate impact on the team with five interceptions in his first seven appearances.
The move proved to be a catalyst for the defensive unit, who finished the season as the fifth-ranked secondary in the NFL.
It wasn’t just the secondary who played well though, the whole unit raised their game, forcing 33 fumbles and keeping teams to 18.9 points a game on average. One of their star performers, Bud Dupree, was franchise tagged, but their GM has made it clear that they intend to lock him down long-term.
Written by Matthew Carolan.