AFC North Preview and Projected Standings: This is Lamar Jackson World.

AFC North Preview and Projected Standings: This is Lamar Jackson’s World.

The 2020 season is most likely going to be the next brilliant chapter in Lamar Jackson’s career as the Ravens are clearly the team to beat in the AFC North. Sure the Pittsburgh Steelers have Big Ben Roethlisberger back but the rest of the offense is still in the midst of a mini rebuild. As for the Browns, well after last year’s hype machine fiasco, and yet another coaching change, the team finds itself loaded on paper but full of hard to answer questions. Then there’s the Cincinnati Bengals who will most likely realize that head coach Zac Taylor is not the next Sean McVay. The real question for the Bengals is can they find a way to give rookie QB Joe Burrow more than 2 seconds to throw the ball.

Baltimore Ravens – Projection 11 -5

Welcome to Lamar Jackson’s world. Jackson who is revolutionizing football as a true dual-threat QB is poised to have another great year. His ability to dominate on the ground and in the air is unlike anything we have ever witnessed in the NFL.

Jackson rushed for over 1,200 yards and also posted over 3,100 yards in the air. He threw 36 touchdown passes and rushed for 7 on the ground. Simply put this was the most impressive offensive season by a player in the history of the NFL.

The defense is as good as any in the NFL, but the real question is how often will teams try to copy the Titans’ playoff game plan which resulted in a 28-13 upset win over the Ravens.

The Titans shut down Jackson and the Ravens by attacking the Ravens offensive line. They loaded up the box and applied pressure to Jackson in the backfield. The Ravens clearly had not prepared for that type of defensive attack and were unable to make adjustments to free-up Jackson. To be clear this was not Jackson’s fault, this game was lost by the coaching staff.

Now head coach John Harbaugh is aware of how teams are planning on attacking the Ravens offense heading into the season so I doubt we will see the same statistical numbers on the ground that Jackson put up last year.

Sure Jackson will still run around like the best player in a video game, but I bet the Ravens come out with a more conservative approach at the start of the season. Pass more, and run less will probably be the initial strategy for the upcoming year.

The goal for this fully loaded football team is to at least make an appearance in the AFC Championship game and while winning this division shouldn’t be a problem, the question remains how will the team perform in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Projection 9-7

Hands down one of the top 5 coaches in the NFL is Mike Tomlin. He is so good as a head coach that he actually masks many player performance issues by out coaching other teams. The truth is the Steelers are in the midst of a mini rebuild on the offensive side of the ball which is never a good thing at the start of a season. Sure Big Ben is back, but that offensive line is not a championship-caliber group and the concerns about their running backs and lack of depth are real.

As much as I like the way running back James Conner plays, the fact is the rest of the backfield is unproven and could be an issue. Now the Steelers did draft the explosive University of Maryland running back Anthony McFarland in the fourth round. Reports out of training camp have been positive and it’s possible that the Steelers will end the season with him as the starting running back.

The wide-receiver group includes JuJu Smith-Schuster who struggled as the number one wide receiver last year but to be fair that might have been more a QB issue than a Smith-Shuster issue. In the second round of the draft, the Steelers selected Notre Dame’s, Chase Claypool. The 6’4″, the 238-pound target has crazy fast speed combined with a tight end body which should make him a threat in the middle of the field and in the red-zone. James Washington and Diontae Johnson have both had their moments in the past couple of seasons and make up a really strong receiving core which also includes free-agent tight end, Eric Ebron.

The strength of this team in 2019 was the defense that gobbled up the most turnovers in the NFL with 38. The defensive line and linebacker core are solid. The group includes All-Pro T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree who combined for 26 sacks and 12 forced fumbles. Then there is the secondary which is now led by Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Despite all the positives, the Steelers are still just one Big Ben hit away from being in the same position that they were in 2019. Sure Tomlin is a magician, but if the offense is forced to rely on Mason Rudolph for an extended period of time, the team will be lucky to sneak into the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns – Projection 7-9

With Johnny Manziel leading the way, ah sorry I meant to say Baker Mayfield who is entering the 3rd year of his NFL career and second season as a Progressive Insurance pitchman. In my opinion, this is the make-it or break it year for Baker who will either post-pro-bowl type stats of end-up as a member of the always growing former Cleveland Browns QB club.

Offensively, the Browns have a solid offensive line, an above-average young running back in Nick Chubb, two tier-1 wide receivers in OBJ, and Jarvis Laundry. Not to mention their depth chart which includes Kareem Hunt and former Falcons tight end Austin Hooper.

The defenses while not as loaded as the offense does have Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. The biggest weakness appears to be the linebacker group. Joe Wood is the teams’ new defensive coordinator. At this point, it’s hard to tell if they will continue to have issues applying pressure to quarterbacks which last year resulted in the secondary getting torched on a regular basis.

First-time head coach Kevin Stefanski takes over after the one-year Freddie Kitchens experiment failed big-time. On paper, the team looks respectable and certainly has enough talent to make a wild-card run. On the other hand, they have yet another rookie head coach, a QB who has become 1-dimensional, and a defense that has holes. It’s for those reasons that I have the Browns finishing third at 7-9 but this is one of those teams that does have enough talent to get on a run and make a playoff push.

Cincinnati Bengals – Projection 5-11

Personally, I’m a big fan of NFL teams that can figure out how to turn their franchise around in a short period of time. As much as it was fun to rip on Marvin Lewis for not winning playoff games, at least he was able to still get the team to that level. The Bengals who win the award for being the cheapest team on and off the field are at a pivotal time in their efforts to not stay down for too long.

The decision to draft Joe Burrow instead of Tua might turn out to be a mistake, but still, you have to hand it to Burrow who has done and said all the rights things since joining the Bengals. Actually the offense is not going to be the weakest link on this team, that’s what they have the defense for.

Burrow will need to be proficient out of the gate releasing the ball in 2 seconds or less if he is going to survive an offense line that is suspect at best. Still, he does have some nice weapons which include AJ Green, running back Joe Mixon, and rookie WR Tee Higgins from Clemson.

For those die-hard Bengals fans that are wondering why I didn’t bring up Giovani Bernard, well he did only rush for 170 yards last year. Enough said.

By the end of the year, we will probably all agree that head coach Zack Taylor is not the next Sean McVay but if Zack gets this team to win 5 or 6 games it will have been a successful enough season to have earned him at least one more year in Cincinnati.

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