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2024 AFC North race: Can anyone prevent a Ravens repeat? How Bengals and Steelers could push Baltimore

No division in the Super Bowl Era, since 1966, was more competitive than the 2023 AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens (13-4), Cleveland Browns (11-6), Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7) and Cincinnati Bengals (9-8) became the first group of four teams from the same division to all have winning records in the same season. Baltimore finished with the NFL’s best record while both Cleveland and Pittsburgh earned AFC playoff spots. Cincy was just on the outside looking in after quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 11 against the Ravens. 

Despite some defensive attrition from the league’s top unit — the 2023 Ravens were the first team ever to lead or co-lead the NFL in scoring defense (16.5), sacks (60) and takeaways (31, tied with the Giants) — on that side of the ball, most notably with the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald who was hired to be the Seattle Seahawks new head coach, Baltimore will be well-positioned to defend its division title with an even more potent offense. NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ passing game could be even better in 2024 in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Todd Monken thanks to more comfort, development from receiver Zay Flowers and tight end Isaiah Likely and a return to health for Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews. Adding one of the NFL’s best running backs in Derrick Henry will most certainly help their offense as well. 

Cleveland will aim to be a similarly stingy defense — they led the NFL in total defense (270.2 total yards allowed per game) — powered by 2023 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett while both quarterback Deshaun Watson (shoulder) and running back Nick Chubb (knee) make their returns from season-ending surgeries. The Browns did sign the first overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, quarterback Jameis Winston, to a one-year, $4 million deal as an insurance policy on Watson. 

Watson as a Cleveland Brown (since 2022)


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* Among 45 QBs with 300+ pass attempts

However, Watson snapping out of playing like one of the worst quarterbacks in football post-shoulder surgery feels unlikely. His biggest difference from his three-time Pro Bowl career with the Houston Texans (2017-2021) and his putrid start to his Browns career is his deep ball efficiency or rather lack thereof. Watson was one of the 10 most efficient quarterbacks in football when throwing passes of 20 or more air yards in Houston with a 43% completion rate on such throws, the sixth best in the NFL. In Cleveland, that figure has declined to 28%, which ranks 38th among 45 quarterbacks with at least 300 passing attempts since 2022. That type of quarterback back play simply isn’t good enough to overtake the Ravens. 

Pittsburgh also boasted a top 10 scoring defense (19.1 points per game allowed, sixth-best in NFL in 2023, but their lacking passing game with Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph taking turns as the team’s starting quarterback resulted in a bottom five scoring offense (17.9 points per game, 28th in the NFL). That’s what led them to become the first team in NFL history to add two quarterbacks in the same offseason that were each coming off of seasons with 20 or more total touchdowns in 2023 in Russell Wilson (signed a one-year, $1.21 million deal in free agency) and Justin Fields (acquired via trade with Chicago Bears in exchange for a 2025 conditional sixth round pick). Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith replaced the fired Matt Canada as the Steelers new offensive coordinator. 

Cincy may simply return to AFC contention with a more healthy season from quarterback Joe Burrow in 2024. Both seasons of his career that he has been healthy, the Bengals have advanced to at least the AFC Championship game. 

Now that the table has been set, let’s take a look at the three legitimate contenders for the AFC North title, and what their road to division supremacy could look like. 

Baltimore Ravens

There’s a chance the 2024 season could be Lamar Jackson’s best overall season in the NFL. Continuity in a Todd Monken pass-friendly scheme will help, but the addition of Derrick Henry could lift a heavy weight off of Jackson’s shoulders: the responsibility of being the team’s quarterback and leading rusher. 

Jackson has had to lead Baltimore in rushing yards in each of his five seasons as the Ravens primary starting quarterback beginning in 2019. That’s how he has become the only quarterback in league history with at least 750 rushing yards in five different seasons. Having to be a team’s signal-caller and leader of the passing offense, which entails throwing the ball plus reading the opposing defense pre and post snap every play, is a lot for any quarterback. Adding on the taxing responsibility of running the ball as much as Jackson has makes his life that much more difficult. 

The great news for Jackson is those days are now over after the Ravens front office signed running back Derrick Henry, a four-time Pro Bowler and the 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, to a two year, $16 million deal this offseason. Henry has concluded four of the last five NFL seasons as a top two rushing yards finisher for the entire NFL, something — being top two in rushing yards in four or more seasons — only nine other players in league history have accomplished. In 2023, he ranked second in rushing yards with 1,167 behind only NFL Offensive Player of the Year Christian McCaffery and his 1,459. 

Henry led the NFL with 280 carries last season, which resulted in a career-worst 4.2 yards per carry, but that was still an above average rate across the NFL — his 4.2 yards per carry stood as the 18th-best among 44 qualified running backs last season. He performed as the league’s second-best running back despite playing behind a struggling Tennessee Titans offensive line and alongside rookie quarterback Will Levis and his NFL worst 58.4% completion percentage. Lining up in the Ravens offense should make Henry more efficient and more productive. 

Defensively, the addition of Clemson first-round cornerback Nate Wiggins plugs a vacancy in the secondary, and the continued development of 26-year-old, first-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who signed a four-year, $98 million extension this offseason, should be enough to help the Ravens’ top-ranked defense remain one of the league’s 10 best.

Between one of the best offensive backfields in the NFL with Jackson and Henry side by side and many of their defensive core pieces — Madubuike , two-time First Team All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey and 2023 First-Team All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton — still in place, the Ravens can certainly repeat as AFC North champions. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt is special. His 19.0 sacks led the NFL in 2023, making him the only player in NFL history to lead the league in sacks in three different seasons (also 2020 with 15.0 and 2021 with 22.5). The way he forces opposing offenses to account for him on every single snap helps Pittsburgh consistently possess a top 10 scoring defense. 

He also had some help in 2023 from rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., who led the NFL in completion percentage allowed last season (41%) among those who had at least 50 passes thrown their direction. The Steelers adding 2023 Second Team All-Pro linebacker Patrick Queen, the former Baltimore Raven they signed to a three year, $41 million deal this offseason, directly strengthened Pittsburgh’s front seven and weakened Baltimore’s. Queen is one of only six players with 450 or more tackles and 10 sacks across the last four seasons. 

Offensively, the Steelers also have playmakers. Second-year wide receiver George Pickens eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark (1,140) and led the NFL in yards per catch (18.1) despite the Pickett-Rudolph rotation at quarterback a season ago. Running back Najee Harris is the first player in Steelers history to total three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons to begin a career, and fellow running back Jaylen Warren led the NFL with a 35.6% tackles avoided rate, the best among 49 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2023.

Early indications are that Wilson will begin the 2024 season as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback, which makes sense. The Steelers have the defense to win now, and they have the playmakers around him to elevate his play. Wilson did lead the league in completion percentage from inside the pocket (73.1%) despite spending much of his nine-time Pro Bowl career with the Seattle Seahawks making magic happen scrambling outside the pocket. 

The Steelers reinforced his offensive line with three picks in the first rounds: Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Year Troy Fautanu out of Washington (20th overall),  2023 First Team All-Big 12 center Zach Frazier out of West Virginia (51st overall, second round) and East-West Shrine Bowl interior offensive lineman Mason McCormick out of South Dakota State (119th overall). That infusion of youth to go along with 2023 first-round pick Broderick Jones will benefit from blocking for a veteran quarterback like Wilson. 

If Pittsburgh’s offense can pack more of a punch in 2024, the Steelers have what it takes to challenge for the AFC North crown. 

Cincinnati Bengals 

The Bengals’ path to an AFC North title is straightforward: keep quarterback Joe Burrow upright for an entire season. They didn’t last season (wrist) and during his rookie year in 2020 (knee), and Cincy missed the playoffs. When they did in 2021 and 2022, the Bengals were the seventh-ranked scoring offense each season, and they either won the AFC or finished as AFC runner-ups. 

Oh, and they won back-to-back AFC North championships in 2021 and 2022. Cincinnati has enhanced their offensive line in 2024 by signing veteran Trent Brown to a one-year, $4.75 million deal, and by using their 18th overall pick on the 2024 NFL Draft’s top physical specimen at the offensive tackle position, Georgia’s Amarius Mims. The six foot, eight inch Mims, who weighs 340 pounds, didn’t allow a single sack in 30 career games, eight starts — including both College Football Playoff games en route to the 2022 national title — as a Bulldog. 

Some of their other notable moves include trading running back Joe Mixon to the Houston Texans, signing former Bills and Colts running back Zack Moss to a two-year, $8 million deal to take his place and swiping former Baltimore Ravens safety Geno Stone, — seven interceptions were the second-most in the NFL last season behind only Dallas Cowboys All-Pro corner DaRon Bland — on a two-year, $14 million contract. 

As long as Burrow is healthy and he can continue letting it rip deep downfield to his BFF Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals have what it takes to return to form as AFC North champions. 

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Author: Garrett Podell
July 10, 2024 | 11:20 am

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