AFC North Divisional Preview

by Eric Eager|August 28, 2023
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

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The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through SumerSports.com over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

For our eighth and final division preview, we have the AFC North. By our predictions at SumerSports, the AFC North has the highest projected wins in the NFL. Once a 150-1 bet to win the Super Bowl in 2021, the Bengals have emerged as the class of the division, taking down the title in consecutive years for the first time since 1981 and 1982. They overcame a slow start precipitated by a Joe Burrow appendectomy to rattle off 10 straight wins (including in the playoffs), before bowing out to the Kansas City Chiefs in their second-straight AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Ravens led the division title race for much of the season on the back of quarterback Lamar Jackson and head coach John Harbaugh. A mid-season move for linebacker Roquan Smith, and an easy schedule of opposing quarterbacks, helped curb the loss of Jackson via a mid-season knee injury during a matchup with the Denver Broncos. Jackson signed, at the time, the richest deal in the history of the NFL this offseason, flipping the script on a roster that was once more than 60 percent invested in the defense cap-wise.

The Cleveland Browns viewed 2022 as a transition year after trading for the suspended Deshaun Watson, starting journeyman Jacoby Brissett for 11 games and rolling over a significant amount of cap space from 2022 to 2023. They were competitive all year, with their first three losses coming by a combined six points en route to a 7-10 finish. Watson looked out of sorts most of the year, playing in a style of offense drastically different than the one he operated in Houston.

The Steelers continued their streak of seasons without a losing record, finishing 9-8 and just out of the playoff race in the AFC. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett won seven of his 12 starts, including four via game-winning drives. His 5.34 adjusted net yards per pass attempt will make no one forget about Ben Roethlisberger’s prime, but optimism is the name of the game for both Pittsburgh and the rest of the division. The AFC North hopes to be the first division since realignment to have four teams qualify for the playoffs.

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

Cincinnati Bengals

2022 Record: 12-4

Prior to Joe Burrow arriving in Cincinnati, the Bengals franchise had not won a playoff game in over 30 years and had never won a road playoff game. In the last two years, the club has secured five playoff wins, including three on the road, and a Super Bowl appearance following the 2021 season.

After leading the league in both completion percentage and yards per attempt in 2021, Burrow was arguably better in 2022, finishing fourth in MVP voting while reducing both his sack and interception rate while winning 10 straight starts. An early-season change that put Burrow in the shotgun more frequently led to a stretch of play where the former first-overall pick was the highest-graded passer by PFF from Week 9 on, generating the only 90-plus passing grade during that time (including playoffs).

Burrow is bookended by arguably the best receiving duo in football in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, who despite combining to miss six games, both had over 1,000 yards and together totaled 16 regular-season touchdowns. Tyler Boyd, a 1,000-yard receiver in the past, returns for another season as the third option in the passing game and generated 762 yards and five touchdowns himself.

An underrated part of Cincinnati’s struggles in the conference title game against the Chiefs was Boyd’s absence, which allowed a Kansas City secondary playing three rookie cornerbacks to hold their own, demonstrating the weak-linkness of even the wide receiver position. Speaking of weak links, Orlando Brown comes over from Kansas City to help shore up an offensive line which – over the course of the last two seasons – has been the Bengals Achilles’ Heel. Jonah Williams, the former first-round pick out of Alabama, moves over to the right side with La’el Collins injured.

The Weak-Link Nature of Football | SumerSports

While Joe Burrow is the main reason the Bengals have emerged from the depths of their struggles late last decade to where they are now, bold and crafty moves from Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin (as well as the game planning prowess of Lou Anarumo) have helped the Bengals emerge from one of the worst defenses in football to a relative strength. From 2020 to 2022 the club brought in numerous veterans: Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple, Mike Hilton, Tre Flowers, Vonn Bell, Ricardo Allen, and Vernon Hargreaves, all with NFL starting experience, to see if they could engineer a secondary that could slow down the great offenses in the AFC.

As luck would have it, some of the biggest investments (e.g., Waynes) failed, but the numbers game worked, as they have been eighth in EPA allowed per play the last two years (including playoffs), including ninth in drop back EPA allowed. The back end, coupled with the savvy acquisition of Trey Hendrickson (74 pressures last year), and the development of players like Sam Hubbard (62) and Joseph Ossai (32), and the Bengals have hit home on the blueprint for how a team should build when a great quarterback is on a rookie deal.

With the Burrow extension pending, they have used the top of the last two drafts to look to the future between Dax Hill, Cam Taylor-Britt, and Myles Murphy. Behind Burrow and a versatile defense, it is hard not to be optimistic about Cincinnati’s future.

Baltimore Ravens

2022 Record: 10-7

The Baltimore Ravens are the darlings of the analytics community and for good reason. Their coach, John Harbaugh, consistently ranks among the top coaches in the league in in-game decision making, while their general manager, Eric DeCosta, does a lot of things a general manager of an analytical-driven team does, especially come draft season.

NFL Draft Proverbs | SumerSports

Thus, the past few offseasons have been interesting for the Ravens as they have faced the decision to pay Lamar Jackson. On one hand, Jackson’s ability to stay healthy the past two years, and his relative lack of consistency as a passer (he was just 15th in adjusted net yards per pass play last year), would give someone pause. However, with the gravity that he adds to the running game, running backs that play for the Ravens routinely pace the league in yards per carry before contact. That, combined with his own ability as a runner, are some of the reasons why the Ravens win when he plays, boasting a 45-16 regular-season market when he starts.

The Ravens decided to give Jackson a long-term deal, securing the star quarterback for the next five years at a rate of $52 million per year. Such a deal signals a transition for the club, which paid its defense more than 60 percent of the cap during Lamar’s MVP days. To help curb what usually ends up being a decline in team success, the Ravens brought in Todd Monken as offensive coordinator along with Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr. at wide receiver. Monken, who guided Ryan Fitzpatrick to a league-leading mark in yards per pass attempt the last time that he called offensive plays in the NFL, should be able to unlock more of Jackson’s talents through the air.

The Ravens defense is already dealing with its customary injuries, with star cornerback Marlon Humphrey facing a foot injury. They have had to dip into free agency this month, acquiring former first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney along with cornerback Ronald Darby, to shore up a unit that has questions at every level but linebacker.

Roquan Smith cleared questions at that position with an All-Pro season while eventually earning a $20 million APY deal. The concerns in their secondary and at edge pass rusher will likely keep them from having a defense good enough to win a championship, but Mike Macdonald’s ability as a play caller will also keep them from being a large liability.

Cleveland Browns

2022 Record: 7-10

The road was long, but the Browns have raised the water level of a franchise that once struggled to win a game to one with real aspirations in the AFC. They went 1-31 in 2016 and 2017 combined, and near .500 in games that 2018 first-overall pick Baker Mayfield played, including 1-1 in the playoffs.

They have their sights set much higher in 2023 after acquiring former Houston Texan Deshaun Watson last offseason. Watson missed much of last season after being suspended and was not effective when he returned to play, guiding an offense that was 24th in EPA per play. Watson himself was 27th among quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs in Ben Baldwin’s EPA+CPOE composite, struggling to adapt to Kevin Stefanski’s under center, run-oriented scheme.

Luckily for Watson, the surrounding talent on offense for Cleveland is very good. They have arguably the league’s best pure runner in Nick Chubb, who routinely leads the league in rushing yards over expected. A trade last offseason brought Amari Cooper over from Dallas, and he produced 2.06 yards per route run, his second-best mark as a pro.

Guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio are likely the best pair in the sport, while 2017 first-round pick David Njoku finally emerged after receiving a big contract at tight end, generating 1.55 yards per route run on a 7.8 average depth of target. The bar should not be very high for the 2022 trade acquisition to make this into a great offense.

Making sense of David Njoku’s new contract with the Cleveland Browns | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF

Defensively, the Browns have some top-end talent in Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward but struggled in recent years stopping the run – perhaps cutting some corners in an attempt in pursuit of being great at stopping the pass. This mostly worked, as they were fourth a season ago in drop back EPA allowed, while being just 16th in run EPA allowed.

To rectify this situation, the Browns went out and obtained two former Vikings defensive linemen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith. Tomlinson is a marvel of consistency, generating exactly 26 stops in the run game in three of the last four years (he made 21 stops in 2021). He also earned a career-high 30 pressures in 348 pass rushes in 2022. Smith was a revelation for the Vikings defense last year, generating 80 pressures in 528 pass-rushing snaps while also holding up on the edge with 31 stops.

Relative to the market, the Browns are lined at 9.5 wins (+108) to the over. We at SumerSports are a little short of that number, predicting 8.9 wins, with the uncertainty around Watson’s ability to lead Cleveland’s offense the main reason.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2022 Record: 9-8

Mike Tomlin did it again.

The Steelers, who have not had a losing season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach, were able to win nine games for the second straight year despite breaking in a new quarterback after more than a decade and a half of Ben Roethlisberger. After starting the season with former Bears first-rounder Mitch Trubisky at the helm, the Steelers moved to Kenny Pickett in Week 5 against the Bills. He struggled early, throwing eight interceptions and taking 18 sacks in his first six appearances.

However, things got better for the Steelers offense down the stretch, as they trailed only the Chiefs, Lions, and 49ers in terms of EPA per play from Week 10 on and were also fourth in drop back EPA. The Steelers added Georgia tight end Darnell Washington into the mix to help bolster a receiving group that is already solid.

George Pickens turned 84 targets into 801 yards as a rookie, while Diontae Johnson earned a new contract in August and then went on to generate 882 yards. He needed 141 targets to do so, granted, and did drop eight passes for the third-straight year. It would not be surprising at all to see the Steelers move away from Johnson in favor of Pickens and the tight end group headed by Pat Freiermuth and Washington.

Najee Harris continued to shoulder the load in 2022 despite efficiency numbers that are below league average with 3.8 yards per carry and 2.74 yards per carry after contact. He was not much more efficient as a receiver, either, averaging just 5.6 yards per catch and 4.3 yards per target. Harris appears to be a player that has a ton of fantasy football value because of volume against a Steelers schedule that is not awful.

Defensively, the Steelers lost Brian Flores to Minnesota while Teryl Austin returns for his second season to coordinate a defense led by T.J. Watt. Watt missed time last year but was still able to earn 31 pressures and was involved in seven sacks. His 22.5% sack-to-pressure ratio regressed from the absurd 34.3% rate he managed in 2021 when he was involved in an astonishing 23 sacks.

Watt is joined along the defensive line by the perennially underrated Cam Heyward, who has earned 58 or more pressures each season since 2014, except for his injury-plagued 2016 campaign. Heyward has been involved in over 10 sacks five of the last six seasons. Minkah Fitzpatrick is their star in the secondary, and he is joined by the first pick in the second round of the 2023 draft, Joey Porter Jr., who follows in his father’s footsteps after Pittsburgh was handed that draft pick in the Chase Claypool trade.

Year two for Omar Khan as the Steelers general manager comes with higher market expectations than year one, as they are lined at 8.5 wins (juiced -150 to the over), versus 7.5 last year. With a promising young quarterback on a rookie deal, a great head coach in Tomlin, and stars at premium positions on the defensive side of the ball, Khan’s position appears advantageous moving forward, even in the toughest division in football.

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