The Gridiron Grind: AFC North 2023

By Ron Johnson

Continuing our series on the divisions, we now focus on the AFC North. This division on paper should a three-team race in the form of Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland. The Bengals have been on another level since Joe Burrow returned from injury and are obviously slated to be the team to beat not just in the division but also in the conference as well. But in reality, the Bengals will be the hardest team to take down in this division once again.

AFC North

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers had to deal with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, and they thought by bringing in Mitch Trubisky would take the pressure off rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. It was not their best decision as midway through the season, the Steelers were 2-6, their worst start in almost a decade. Despite managing to turn it around mid-season, the Steelers finished at 9-8 and did not make the playoffs. This is why I always called them Shittsburgh.

Mitch-n-Pickett Comedy Hour looks for redemption right off the bat as they welcome Brock Purdy, Deebo Samuel and the 49ers followed by a visit from Deshaun Watson, Myles Garrett and the Browns before heading to Sin City to face Jimmy G and the Raiders. The Steelers then earn their frequent flyer miles as they travel to Houston to face the Texans before heading home to battle the Ravens, then on the road again to California to face the Rams and back home to face the Jaguars. After hosting Derrick Henry and the Titans, they face whatever is left of the Packers before having an extended stay in Ohio as they face the Browns and then the Bengals.

They get in the holiday spirit by hosting Kyler Murray and the Cardinals as well as Mac Jones and the Patriots before hitting the road to face Anthony Richardson and the Colts followed by a quick stop home before Christmas to face the Bengals. They then spend their New Year in Washington to face the Seahawks followed by a season finale at the Ravens, which in fairness could have a lot of things on the line if the season works out in their favor.

2023 Outlook: 9-8 (Miss Playoffs)

Cleveland Browns

To say the Browns overachieved last season is fair. Considering their top quarterback Deshaun Watson was serving his suspension for the majority of the season, they were not expected to do much when he returned. But this upcoming season, there is no suspension, he has won over the Dawg Pound somewhat and he won’t have to use a mulligan for this season. But in regards to last season, the Browns finished at 7-10, including a 28-14 loss to the Steelers in the season finale. As I said, they overachieved last season all things considered.

Now they turn the page once more and hope that they can not only improve on last season but possibly make a push for the playoffs. But to get there, they have to march into the mouth of hell by contending with not one, not two but all three teams in its division plus Tennessee just to start. In English, that is Burrow and Chase, Pickett and Co., Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson just in the first four weeks of the season.

Following a bye week, they host Brock Purdy and the Niners, travel to Indy to face Anthony Richardson and the Colts, then to Seattle to face Geno Smith and the Seahawks before returning home to face Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. 

Another round of division foes is up next as they face the Ravens in Baltimore followed by a brief hosting with the Steelers. Following a pair of road trips to Denver for the Broncos and LA for the Rams, the Browns return home for a pair of games against the Jaguars and Bears before venturing south to face the Texans and back home to face the Jets.

They end their regular season on the road as they travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals. The Browns will have a shot at the postseason like everyone else, but their quest for postseason glory can only go so far. They may not make the playoffs, but just being over .500 should be good enough for them to this point.

2023 Outlook: 9-8 (Miss Playoffs)

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are a respectable team. This may have been the reason as to why they are always in the thick of the division hunt. This would explain why they pursued resigning Lamar Jackson after last season, a 10-7 record with a Wild Card playoff loss to the Bengals.

Do not expect the Ravens to fall past second for long if they do. The Ravens have always found a way to keep the pressure on Cincinnati. If Lamar stays healthy all season, expect the Ravens to be in the thick of it. 

Their season starts off light as they welcome the Texans, who are still trying to figure out which direction they are going. After the first of many divisional slugfests, this one in Cincinnati, they welcome rookie Anthony Richardson and the Colts before venturing to Cleveland to face the Browns followed by Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. Their quest continues with a trip to Nashville to face Derrick Henry and the Titans before returning home to face Jared Goff and the Lions. 

Following a road trip to the desert to face Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, they return home for a trifecta of home games involving Seattle, Cleveland and Cincinnati. They spend post-Thanksgiving in LA to face the Chargers before returning home to face the Rams and traveling again to face the Jaguars and Niners before coming home for their regular season finale involving the Dolphins and Steelers.

2023 Outlook: 10-7 (Clinch Playoffs)

Cincinnati Bengals

For the last two seasons, the paper bags that are available in Cincinnati have been getting used for one thing and one thing only: groceries. That is because the Bengals have been flying high ever since the return of Joe Burrow and arrival of Jamarr Chase. The duo has been the catalyst for the Bengals magical Super Bowl Run two years ago and their 12-4 finish last season which netted them the AFC North Championship. They unfortunately fell one game short of returning to the Super Bowl with a 23-20 loss to the team they dominated in their own backyard several times over the last two years, Kansas City.

Cincinnati won’t have to worry about waking up when September ends in some capacity as they visit the Browns before hosting the Ravens and the Rams in a Super Bowl rematch. Upon Blue October’s arrival they head to Nashville to face the Titans and Glendale to face the Cardinals. They return home briefly to face Geno and the Seahawks (that sounds like a band) before hitting the road again to face the Niners.

After a little trick or treating, the Bengals host Josh Allen and the Bills followed by Davis Mills and the Texans before hitting the road once more to face the Ravens. They return home for a matchup with the Steelers before hitting the road again to face the Jaguars and back home to face the Colts and Vikings. They hit the road for a round of fight club with Pittsburgh and a potential conference championship preview with the defending champ Chiefs. They finish the regular season with the Browns, and while Cleveland looks to play spoiler, the Bengals most likely have the division locked up by then.

2023 Outlook: 12-5

The Bengals are the ones that run this division. The other teams tend to play for show and tell or draft picks. I do not see the Steelers or Browns being much of a threat in the division, and the Ravens will need to keep Jackson healthy if they truly want to contend. The Bengals-Chiefs matchup always intrigues me because of the fact that these two teams tend to leave it all on the field. In a word: When it comes to games involving the Bengals, expect fireworks and don’t blink. You’ll miss a Burrow to Chase touchdown if you’re not careful.