Cleveland Browns: Pundits Pounce on Cleveland Bandwagon
The Browns generated buzz in 2020, making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and advancing to the divisional round with a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now many pundits are doubling-down on love for the Browns, expecting them to win the AFC North.
Of the 29 NFL Network analysts who predicted their division winners, the Browns received 19 votes, followed by the Ravens (nine votes) and Steelers (one).
Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News is a Browns believer. He has Cleveland finishing 13-4 and winning the AFC North, although he also predicts the Ravens (12-5) and Steelers (10-7) will also make the playoffs. Iyer thinks the Browns have an improved defense, which will carry them to a division crown.
"The defense has fewer weaknesses around Myles Garrett with additional impact players on every level," Iyer wrote. "Cleveland deserves all the extra division-winning hype after coming through with a long-awaited wild-card breakthrough."
Peter King of NBC has the Browns winning the division as the fourth seed in the AFC playoff picture, before losing to the New England Patriots in the playoffs.
"I love the depth of the Browns, and I picked them to edge the Ravens in the AFC North because of it, particularly with all the soft-tissue injuries plaguing the Ravens right now," King wrote.
Seth Walder of ESPN analytics played out the entire 2021 season and has the Browns finishing 12-5, winning the division, and defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs before losing to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship.
Steelers: Playoff Chances Hinge on Big Ben, Run Game
Many pundits view the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the performance of rookie running back Najee Harris as the keys to Pittsburgh's season. Iyer believes Harris' addition will mean more offensive balance for the Steelers, who have never had a losing season under Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
"Tomlin prefers that style of complementary offense to better support T.J. Watt and the nasty, throwback defense," Iyer wrote.
The ESPN simulator also had the Steelers making the playoffs as the No. 6 seed at 9-8, before losing to the Browns again on Wild-Card Weekend.
John Breech of CBS Sports has the Steelers repeating as division champs.
"Everyone is sleeping on the Steelers, except for me, because I don't sleep," Breech said. "This team won the division last year and I'm expecting it to repeat as champs in 2021."
King also believes the Steelers have playoff potential, although he didn't select them as one of his seven AFC playoff teams.
"It won't surprise me to see Ben Roethlisberger play great and the Steelers win 11," King said. "The neophyte offensive line is the key there."
David Carr was the only NFL Network analyst who predicted the Steelers would repeat as division champs.
Bengals: Even With Improvement, Escaping Division Basement Will Be Tough
While some pundits expect the Bengals to be improved, the consensus is that Cincinnati will finish last in the division again.
The Bengals have had five consecutive losing seasons, and most pundits don't expect them to reach the .500 mark in 2021.
The ESPN season simulator has the Bengals finishing 6-11, which would be an improvement over their 4-11-1 season 2020. However, nobody on the 29-person NFL Network panel had the Bengals winning the division.
In his bold predictions column, Breech said the Bengals will double their win total from last year and win eight games. He also predicted quarterback Joe Burrow could lead the NFL in passing yards, and that the Bengals could have three 1,000-yard receivers in Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase. However, even in a best-case scenario, Breech did not see the Bengals doing enough to secure a playoff spot.