The AFC North should be another tough race with the Cincinnati Bengals looking to make history this season. No team has ever won the AFC North three years in a row, but the Bengals can do that if they win it again.
However, the Ravens are expecting big things from a newly paid Lamar Jackson, and the Steelers and Browns also have some very talented players with quarterbacks (Kenny Pickett and Deshaun Watson) going into their 2nd seasons in their offensive systems.
Here are the current NFL futures for the winner of the AFC North in the 2023-24 NFL season:
- Cincinnati Bengals (+115)
- Baltimore Ravens (+275)
- Cleveland Browns (+375)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (+600)
The Bengals have remained the favorite, but many top sportsbooks have them as the division favorite with the worst odds in the AFC this year. Is Cincinnati going to keep this reign going, or will someone else step up in the league’s hard-nosed division?
We have our best bet to win the AFC North below.
Cincinnati Bengals: Simple as Offensive Line?
After appearing in a Super Bowl and back-to-back AFC Championship Games, the Bengals have enjoyed the most successful 2-year run in franchise history. But to keep this going in 2023, they are relying on much of the same cast to get the job done.
The main coaching staff is intact after defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo did not land a head coaching job elsewhere. His defense will look familiar up front, but they did lose some defensive backs, including Vonn Bell, Jessie Bates, and Eli Apple. The secondary will feature younger starters from the 2022 draft class.
Quarterback Joe Burrow returns with Joe Mixon in the backfield and arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. This should continue to be one of the best offenses in the league.
Offensive Line Improvements
But for the Bengals to take that final step as the top team, they have to find a way to cut down the sacks on Burrow. Over his last 31 games, Burrow is 21-1 when he takes fewer than 5 sacks and 1-8 when he takes 5-plus sacks.
It is mostly the top-tier pass rushers who give him fits, but the Bengals in general need to get better play out of the offensive line. Part of the problem in the AFC Championship Game was that multiple linemen were lost to injury, but that group still held up well in Buffalo the week before. The Chiefs took Burrow down 5 times, and it was the 5th sack late in the fourth quarter when the Bengals had the ball in a 20-20 game that was the most decisive. Instead of a game-winning drive to send the Bengals back to the Super Bowl, it was Mahomes and company winning the game.
The Bengals’ solution this year was to borrow a piece from the Chiefs in offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who has also played for the Ravens in his interesting career. He is not a dominant left tackle or else two of the best organizations in the league would have found a way to keep him longer, but he is an upgrade to anything the Bengals have had in years.
Simply by adding Brown, Burrow is unlikely to see the kind of leap he had when the Bengals drafted Chase, his stud college receiver at LSU, in 2021. In fact, there is not much documented in terms of a left tackle elevating an offense to a new level in the NFL as much as there would be a star receiver like when Donovan McNabb got Terrell Owens (2004 Eagles) or Tom Brady got Randy Moss (2007 Patriots).
With the offensive line, it still comes down to unit play more than individual, and the Bengals need to get better across the board there. This also is largely on Burrow’s ability to process faster and not always look for the big plays that require him to hold onto the ball longer.
Divisional Challenges, and Playoff Aspirations
One of the ways Cincinnati actually declined last season was in producing big plays and Burrow’s yards per attempt dropped from 8.9 to 7.4, a fairly significant decrease of 1.5 yards per throw.
The Bengals are very good at playing the Chiefs, and if the playoffs are any indication, they may have Buffalo’s number as well,but they also split with the Ravens last regular season, and if not for a fumbled quarterback sneak at the goal line returned for a record-setting 98-yard touchdown, the Bengals may have lost at home in the playoffs to Baltimore with Tyler Huntley at quarterback.
The divisional success of the 2023 Bengals may likely hinge on the health of Lamar Jackson and what he does in Baltimore. If you do not believe that, then you must have missed the last two seasons where Lamar’s health falling off in December helped the Bengals to these division titles.
This could be the most legitimate 2-team race in any AFC division this year.
Baltimore Ravens: Keep Lamar Healthy, Please
For all the Cincinnati hype, the Ravens may be a healthy Lamar Jackson away from being the team working on their 3rd-straight AFC North title this season. Let’s not forget what happened in December the last two years.
December 12, 2021: The 8-4 Ravens lose Lamar Jackson to injury in Cleveland before losing the final 5 games without him to miss the playoffs. On that same day, the Bengals lost to the 49ers to fall to 7-6. Cincinnati would end up winning the division with a 10-7 record.
December 4, 2022: The Ravens and Bengals begin the day with 7-4 records with Baltimore in first place thanks to a head-to-head win in Week 5. But Jackson would get injured against Denver and never play the rest of the season. Baltimore also never scored more than 17 points in any of the 7 games without him. The Bengals finished 12-4 with a win over Baltimore’s backups and 3rd-string quarterback Anthony Brown in Week 18.
That is two seasons in a row where the Ravens were ahead of the Bengals in December when Jackson was on the injury list. He must stay healthy for the whole season like he did in 2018-20 where the only game he missed to injury was due to COVID-19.
The Ravens finally signed Jackson to a long-term contract this offseason, and they wasted no time in giving him what should be his best-supporting cast yet. Before we mention the players, it starts with the coaching. Greg Roman was a good offensive coordinator, but the run-heavy style was getting old in Baltimore and Jackson was not progressing enough as a passer.
Revamped Ravens Offense
The Ravens are going with Todd Monken, who did get the 2018 Buccaneers to pass for 5,358 yards and 36 touchdowns with Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. More recently, Monken called the shots for Georgia’s offense as a back-to-back national champion winner. He will bring a more modern passing approach to this offense while utilizing play-action, Jackson’s unique running ability, and this new collection of talent for the team.
Baltimore could have the best tight-end duo in the league with Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely, the latter no longer being a rookie. The offense also should get Rashod Bateman back, who can be a deep threat for Jackson. But the new additions are Odell Beckham Jr., a full year removed from his ACL injury, and 1st-round rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers, who can work the slot.
It gives Jackson more legitimate options at all levels of the field than he’s ever had before, and he gets a fresh perspective from Monken calling the shots. It is an offense to be excited about.
You also have to expect that the defense will be solid as it usually is in Baltimore, and head coach John Harbaugh always makes sure the special teams are clicking. He has the best kicker ever in Justin Tucker still going strong.
The Ravens have what it takes to be an elite team. Whether they can translate that into playoff wins is a different story, but this team should be right up there with Cincinnati as it already has been the last 2 seasons before Jackson was injured.
Cleveland Browns: Double Jeopardy for Deshaun
Cleveland has never won the AFC North since its inception in 2002, and the Browns have not won any division title since 1989. Maybe the wildest streak is that the Browns have finished 3rd or 4th in the division 15 years in a row, which is tied for the 2nd-longest streak of not finishing in the top 2 since 1960. It is the longest such streak in the NFL since the 8-division era started in 2002.
The Browns have little time to waste too. Running back Nick Chubb and defensive end Myles Garrett both turn 28 this season, and the team has already wasted much of their athletic primes. Garrett tied his career high with 16 sacks last year and Chubb rushed for a career-high 1,525 yards, but the Browns still finished 7-10 and last in the division.
The switch from Jacoby Brissett to Deshaun Watson at quarterback after the latter’s suspension ended backfired on the team. The offense got worse after Brissett did a solid job in playing his best ball of his career. Watson was understandably rusty, but he only has himself to blame for that. He did not acclimate well to Kevin Stefanski’s offense and it would have gotten more attention like Russell Wilson’s struggles in Denver if the Browns were more in the playoff hunt.
But winning close games and high-scoring games continued to be an issue for the Browns. Cleveland was 1-9 when allowing more than 17 points last year, making it 3-15 over the last two seasons in that split.
Beyond Watson’s struggles, the defense was mediocre at best in 2022. The Browns will hope Za’Darius Smith can help Garrett out with the pass rush, and he has had double-digit sacks in his last 3 seasons where he played most games, but he is 31 and playing for his 3rd team since 2021.
It is possible the Browns still have the worst defense in the division, and depending on how Watson and Kenny Pickett play out, they could have the worst quarterback as well. Even in Watson’s last full season with Houston in 2020, his team finished 4-12. The Browns may improve from last year, but it should not be enough to leapfrog superior teams in Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Blame Canada
Following a miserable 2-6 start, the Steelers rallied after their bye week to finish 9-8, securing yet another non-losing season for head coach Mike Tomlin and pushing that streak to 19 for the franchise.
One might think there would be higher expectations for the Steelers after missing T.J. Watt to injury for half a season, and quarterback Kenny Pickett has some weapons and is no longer a rookie. The Steelers cut down their turnovers with Pickett throwing just one pick after the bye, and the defense allowed no more than 17 points in 7 straight games to end the season, the longest such streak by the Steelers since 2001.
But the division is very tough with multiple MVP candidates at quarterback, and Pickett’s progress may be slowed by the team’s decision to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The Steelers have not had 400 yards of offense in any of the 35 games since Canada took over the role in 2021. It is the longest active streak in the NFL and the teams who were anywhere close to it all fired their coach.
While Pickett certainly showed some game management improvement last year, he threw just 7 touchdown passes on 389 pass attempts. His 1.8 touchdown pass rate was half of Ben Roethlisberger’s 3.6% in 2021, and that was the lowest season of Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career, which saw him at 5.0% overall.
A lack of big plays hurt the Steelers as they produced just 2 offensive touchdowns outside of the red zone, and rookie wide receiver George Pickens caught them both. Incredibly, No. 1 wideout Diontae Johnson went 147 targets and 86 catches without a single touchdown catch, which are both NFL records.
Tomlin’s fondness of maintaining stability could hurt his team by keeping Canada instead of opting for an outside hire that could work with this young core. While the Steelers do not have to face the likes of the Chiefs, Eagles, or Bills in 2023, the offense may not have enough firepower to overcome the Bengals (Week 12 & Week 16) and Ravens (Week 5 & Week 18) in the division this year.
Conclusion: And the Division Winner Is…
At some point, the Ravens have to get through one of these seasons without a ton of injuries and heart-breaking close losses. This team blew 5 double-digit leads in 2022, including a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter vs. Miami and a 17-point lead vs. Buffalo.
The Ravens blew more 17-point leads by Week 4 last season (2) than they did in the previous 24 seasons combined (1). The record and division lead could have been even better over Cincinnati than it was when Jackson was injured in December.
But let’s go with Jackson staying healthy, embracing Monken’s offense and the new weapons, and having his best season since his unanimous MVP win in 2019. The Ravens take the AFC North back from the Bengals as one of your best NFL value bets this season.
NFL Pick: 2023 AFC North Winner – Baltimore Ravens (+275) at BetRivers