Other than the AFC East, which the New England Patriots have ruled without exception since the Paleozoic Era, the AFC North probably has changed the least of any NFL division in recent years.
The Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have gone toe-to-toe-to-toe year after year, trading successes while leaving bruise marks on each other. The Steelers, with eight division titles since 2002, have prevailed the most, followed by the Ravens (five) and Bengals (four). But they’ve all had their moments. And they’ve all faithfully pounded the Cleveland Browns into dust.
In that macro sense, almost nothing has changed in the AFC North for well over a decade.
Suddenly, though, the division is awash in upheaval. Few other divisions around the NFL, if any, are experiencing as much change.
The Bengals and Browns have new head coaches. The Browns and Ravens have new franchise quarterbacks. The Ravens have a new general manager after 23 years of Ozzie Newsome. The Steelers have moved on from two signature players, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The Browns, suddenly, have the most dynamic stable of playmakers, led by just-acquired Odell Beckham Jr.
When the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook recently published a line of odds on teams winning their divisions in 2019, it made the Browns the AFC North favorites at 7-5, followed by the Steelers at 8-5, the Ravens at 5-2 and the Bengals at 30-1.
In other words, up is now officially down and dark is now officially light in the AFC North, as the Browns are the chalk (horse racing term for favorite) according to at least one opinionmaker, with more surely to follow.
The Ravens, who won the division with a late surge in 2018, probably aren’t going to get much support for their vision of a successful title defense.
I get it. Everyone loves a good turnaround tale, and no team in any sport, let alone the NFL, had more turning around to do than the Browns. They went 1-31 in 2016 and 2017 before making inroads and finishing 7-8-1 in 2018.
Give them credit. They’ve done a terrific job of improving their prospects. They drafted the right franchise quarterback, as well as several other stalwarts on both sides of the ball. They somehow pulled off the trade for Beckham. They’re generating palpable energy and buzz.
Maybe it’ll all result in a division title in 2019, but the Ravens and Steelers probably have to take steps in the wrong direction for that to happen. I’ll believe it when I see it.
My two cents, you fall asleep on the Steelers at your peril. Yes, they’ve subtracted some major star power. But they’ve still got quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and they’ve already groomed another generation of playmakers. Their blueprint might be changing, but as the Ravens can attest, they’re really good at knowing how to build winning teams.
The Ravens belong in the same category.
Yes, they’re entering a new era with Lamar Jackson replacing Joe Flacco at quarterback and Earl Thomas leading a slate of new defensive starters, some of whom still haven’t been identified. They’re also taking a bold philosophical tack, assembling a ground-oriented offense in a passing-centric league and doubling down on their defensive investment in an offensive-minded era.
But the fact that they’ve had just one losing season in 11 years under Head Coach John Harbaugh speaks volumes about their capacity for fielding winning teams. Parts of their lineup might be changing, but there’s plenty of talent and a strong sense of togetherness that was evident during the drive to a division title in 2018. As always, they’ll play as tough and physical as anyone.
No doubt, the Browns have become must-see TV. My first prediction for the 2019 season is one of the Cleveland-Baltimore games lands in a prime-time slot. Early in the season, I’m guessing.
Either way, life in the AFC North definitely is going to be different. But will it be different enough to rewrite the long-held status quo? A lot of people seem to think so, but I have my doubts.