Not to sound like a broken record, but . . . WHAT?
In the words of my former mother-in-law, “give me a fat break.”
Color me jaded, but there is no way that any team other than the Bengals should be favored in this division. Cincinnati went out and addressed its most glaring weakness, its offensive line, during the offseason, and gets a couple of studs back on its defensive line.
Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, DJ Reader and BJ Hill anchor that defensive line, and Joseph Ossai, Josh Tupou and rookie Zachary Carter look to provide some quality depth.
Jessie Bates, III and Vonn Bell give the Bengals one of the best safety tandems in the NFL, and Rookie Dax Hill makes the back end of the Bengals’ defense that much better. Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple and Mike Hilton are more than serviceable, and the linebacking corps, led by Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, promises to be among the best in the league. A defense that finished among the league’s best at defending the run looks to make the leap into one of the NFL’s better overall units.
On offense, Cincinnati boasts arguably the best receiving corps in the entire NFL in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and one of the top running backs in the league in Joe Mixon. Throw in former first-round selection Hayden Hurst at tight end and this offense looks to be truly exceptional.
And, lest we forget, quarterback Joe Burrow, who led the NFL in completion percentage en route to willing the Bengals to the franchise’s third Super Bowl appearance despite being sacked a combined 70 times, is back and ready to be better than ever.
Working behind a new offensive line that includes former Cowboy La’el Collins at right tackle, former Patriot Ted Karras at center and former Buccaneer Alex Cappa at right guard, Burrow has all of the weapons, along with the protection, he needs to make a serious run at league MVP.
The optimism surrounding the Baltimore Ravens is largely fueled by the return to health of former league MVP Lamar Jackson, along with former Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. Never mind the fact that Baltimore’s wide receiver situation is still largely unsettled, and that its offensive line was ranked at No. 17 recently by Pro Football Focus.
The Ravens’ hopes, as usually, lie largely in the hands of its defense. Baltimore had the top rushing defense in all of football last year, but its passing defense ranked near the bottom. In response, the Ravens picked up a new defensive coordinator in Mike Macdonald and drafted five defenders in the first four rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft. With the expected returns of all-Pro cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries in 2021, at least one prognosticator has picked Baltimore’s defense to be tops in the league.
Then there are the Cleveland Browns, who have one of the best overall lineups in the NFL. Led by left guard Joel Bitonio and right tackle Jack Conklin, the Browns feature arguably the best offensive lines in football.
Running back Nick Chubb produced his third-straight 1,000-yard season last year, while Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones anchor the receiving corps.
Like the Ravens, Cleveland’s real strength comes on the defensive side of the ball. After a down year in 2021, the Browns signed free agents John Johnson III, Troy Hill, Takk McKinley, Malik McDowell and Jadeveon Clowney and drafted Greg Newsome, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (JOK), Tommy Togiai, and Richard LeCounte.
After a nearly 50% turnover on that side of the ball, Cleveland will once again be led by defensive end Myles Garrett, cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams and safety Grant Delpit.
However, with Jacoby Brissett set to be the starter for most of the season while Deshaun Watson serves an 11-game suspension, it’s hard to see Cleveland keeping pace with Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Perhaps the only consensus is the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are projected by nearly everyone to finish last in the AFC North. The Steelers will feature a new quarterback in Chicago Bears castoff Mitch Trubisky and are projected to have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.
Pittsburgh does have some talent at wide receiver in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens, while running back Najee Harris recorded 1,200 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He added 74 catches for 467 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns as a rookie, good for a ticket to the Pro Bowl.
The Steeler defense, anchored by T.J Watt and Cam Heyward, finished dead last one year ago, but is expected to make significant improvement this year. Pittsburgh added defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi from the Bengals and signed former Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace to partner with former Seattle Seahawk Ahkello Witherspoon. Two-time Pro Bowler Minkah Fitzpatrick holds down the back end of the defense.
So, what say you? Who ultimately comes away as champions of the AFC North for the 2022 NFL season?
Sound off below and in the comments section!