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AFC North Preview: Week 1

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The 2022 NFL season is finally upon us. As usual, the AFC North is expected to be one of the toughest divisions in the league. The Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to repeat as division champions, the Ravens hope to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2021 season, and both the Steelers and Browns will trot out new quarterbacks.

Cincinnati Bengals

The reigning AFC Super Bowl representatives start the 2022 season as 6.5-point home favorites over Pittsburgh. After falling just short to the Los Angeles Rams on the biggest stage, Cincinnati enters the season with high expectations. Much of the core cast remains from last season. However, the Bengals did revamp their glaringly weak offensive line through a variety of moves, including signing center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, and right tackle La’el Collins in free agency.

The Bengals have stars at both quarterback and running back in Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon, and will once again boast one of the best wide receiver corps in the NFL with 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase, third-year Tee Higgins, and veteran Tyler Boyd. Former Baltimore first-round pick Hayden Hurst replaces C.J. Uzomah at tight end.

Cincinnati returns much of the same starting lineup on defense as well. Star free safety Jessie Bates III will play the 2022 season under the franchise tag after the two sides failed to reach a new deal during the offseason. Trey Hendrickson leads the pass rush once again after recording a career-high 14 sacks in his first season with the Bengals. First-round rookie safety Dax Hill is a new player to keep an eye on.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers will start the season without longtime staple Ben Roethlisberger at the quarterback position after his retirement this offseason. While they did draft Pittsburgh’s own Kenny Pickett in the first round of the draft to replace Roethlisberger, free agent acquisition Mitch Trubisky is set to receive the start on Sunday for Pittsburgh. They are 6.5-point underdogs in Cincinnati.

When the offense isn’t going through second-year running back Najee Harris on the ground, Trubisky will have plenty of targets to choose from in the passing attack. Wide receivers Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and second-year tight end Pat Freiermuth headline the group of pass catchers, but keep a watch on second-round rookie George Pickens as well. The Georgia receiver has turned heads throughout training camp and the preseason. The offensive line is once again a concern for the Steelers, and without the lightning-quick release of Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, pass protection may be an issue.

2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt leads the way on defense for Pittsburgh. Watt paired with All-Pro Cameron Heyward makes for one of the league’s deadliest pass rushes that should give the new-look offensive line of the Bengals quite a handful.

Baltimore Ravens

Somewhat lost in all of the drama of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ongoing contract situation is the fact that Baltimore will in fact play a game on Sunday. The Ravens will start the season on the road as 7-point favorites against the New York Jets and former Raven Joe Flacco.

The biggest storyline surrounding the team in 2022 (aside from Jackson’s contract) is the vast number of players returning from injury. That list includes Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Tyus Bowser. Bowser and Edwards are both set to miss at least the first four weeks of the season after being placed on the Reserve/PUP list. Dobbins, Stanley, and Peters all have a chance to play against the Jets this week after limited practices on Wednesday.

Baltimore brought in a bevy of new additions this offseason, including safety Marcus Williams and right tackle Morgan Moses in free agency. The Ravens’ two first-round draft picks, safety Kyle Hamilton and center Tyler Linderbaum are both expected to contribute heavily as rookies, with the latter being a starter out of the gate. Rookie tight end Isaiah Likely was the talk of training camp and a dominant force in the preseason and appears poised for a large role in the passing attack. Second-year receiver Rashod Bateman enters the season with high expectations as the team’s top wide receiver after trading away Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason.

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland was the talk of the offseason after making the controversial trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Browns followed that up by giving Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. Watson has since been suspended for the first 11 games of the season, meaning that Jacoby Brissett will take the helm at quarterback in the meantime, with his first game as 1.5-point road underdogs against the Carolina Panthers.

One of the biggest storylines of Week 1 in the NFL will be quarterback Baker Mayfield against the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. After spending the past four seasons as Cleveland’s quarterback, during which helping to lead them to a playoff appearance and even a playoff victory over the Steelers, Mayfield was traded to the Panthers after the Browns acquired Watson.

Wide receiver Amari Cooper was another notable offseason trade for Cleveland. Cooper, acquired from the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a 2022 fifth-round pick and swap of 2022 sixth-round picks, headlines an unproven group of wide receivers. Tight end David Njoku is in line for a larger workload in the passing game this season after signing a four-year, $56.75 million extension. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will likely be the focal point of the offense as one of the league’s best running back tandems.

On defense, the Browns still have one of the NFL’s best edge rushers in Myles Garrett as well as a strong secondary with cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II and safety John Johnson.