Skip to main content
Presented by

10 Storylines That Will Define AFC North 'Hard Knocks: In-Season'

Ravens HC John Harbaugh (left) & Steelers HC Mike Tomlin (right)
Ravens HC John Harbaugh (left) & Steelers HC Mike Tomlin (right)

The HBO docuseries "Hard Knocks" will focus on the entire AFC North late in the 2024 season, with the debut episode airing Dec. 3. Here are 10 storylines that could offer interesting "Hard Knock" subplots as the Ravens, Browns, Bengals and Steelers make their push toward the playoffs:

Will the AFC North be the NFL's best division again?

The AFC North made history as the NFL's best division in 2023, with all four teams finishing above .500. That's a tough act to follow, but the division remains a popular choice to be the league's toughest again.

NFL Network's Brian Baldinger picks the Ravens to win what will be a very competitive division.

Can Lamar Jackson win his third MVP?

Jackson is already in elite company, coming off his second MVP season at age 27. Only six players in NFL history have been an MVP three times or more – Peyton Manning (five), Aaron Rodgers (four), while Tom Brady, Jim Brown, Brett Favre, and Johnny Unitas have each won three.

It will be a major story line in December if Jackson is a contender to win his third MVP.

Will Cincinnati return to the top of the division with Joe Burrow back?

The presence of Burrow at quarterback helped make the AFC North a compelling target for NFL Films and "Hard Knocks." Cincinnati won back-to-back division titles in 2021 and '22 and is a threat to dethrone the Ravens as division champs with Burrow expected back from last year's season-ending wrist injury.

"I think every time Joe Burrow is healthy, the Bengals are a Super Bowl contender," Keith Cossrow, NFL Films vice president and head of content said via Geoff Hobson of "Joe Burrow is an incredibly compelling figure in the NFL. You can't take your eyes off him when he's on the field. He's a commanding presence. He's got a cool about him that's reminiscent of Joe Montana and others. He plays the game a certain way. It's really appealing."

Does Russell Wilson make Pittsburgh a title contender again?

After a difficult season with the Denver Broncos, Wilson is determined to win again and brings the swagger of a leader who already has a Super Bowl ring. Wilson is a high-profile player who doesn't believe his best football is behind him.

Will Cleveland win its first AFC North title?

The Browns' last division title was in 1989, when they were part of the AFC Central with the Houston Oilers, Steelers, and Bengals. Since the AFC North was formed in 2002, the Browns are looking for their first division crown.

Head Coach Kevin Stefanski won his second NFL Coach of the Year Award with the Browns in 2023 after leading them to an 11-6 record despite starting five different quarterbacks. If Cleveland wins the AFC North for the first time, Stefanski will likely get more Coach of the Year votes.

How will the Steelers, Browns and Bengals deal with defending Derrick Henry twice a season?

The addition of Henry to an already smashmouth division gives Baltimore another way to impose its physicality. There will pads popping in AFC North games when Henry hits the point of attack with fullback Patrick Ricard as a lead blocker.

Will the Deshaun Watson investment finally pay off for Cleveland?

Watson has only played 12 games in two seasons with the Browns since signing a reported $230 million fully guaranteed contract. This is a crucial year for the 28-year Watson to prove he's still an elite quarterback.

Will the Ravens fare better against the Steelers?

The Ravens had the NFL's best regular season record in 2023 (13-4) but lost twice to the Steelers and have lost seven of their last eight against Pittsburgh.

Baltimore will host Pittsburgh in Week 16 in a late-season game that could give "Hard Knocks" plenty of material. The NFL's two current longest tenured head coaches, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh, will face off again in a pivotal game that will likely have division and playoff implications.

The presence of former Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen returning to Baltimore in a Pittsburgh uniform will only make the Ravens-Steelers rivalry hotter. Steelers Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin recently confirmed Queen will wear the green dot helmet this season, relaying defensive calls from the bench to his teammates.

How will the Steelers deal with their grueling finish?

"Hard Knocks" will air during the final six weeks of the regular season, a daunting stretch for the Steelers that will likely make or break their season. The Steelers finish the season against six teams that made the playoffs last season – Week 13 at Cincinnati, Week 14 vs. Cleveland, Week 15 at Philadelphia, Week 16 at Baltimore, Week 17 vs. Kansas City and Week 18 vs. Cincinnati.

The Steelers have never had a losing season under Tomlin, but they've probably never faced a more challenging finish on paper during his tenure.

How will the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals handle three games in 10 days late in the season?

Playing games on short rest late in the season will test the depth and resiliency of Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati trying to make their late-season push. The Ravens' bye in Week 14 could serve them well as a crucial opportunity to recharge for the home stretch.

Related Content