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2023 has reminded the AFC North on the importance of depth

The division is battered, bruised, and broken

NFL: NOV 16 Bengals at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ravens have been on the worst end of the injury bug the past two seasons. In 2021, they missed the playoffs after multiple players including Lamar Jackson, Ronnie Stanley, Marcus Peters, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Rashod Bateman, Derek Wolfe, and more missed either multiple games or entire seasons. In 2022, they managed to make playoffs as the No. 6 seed after Jackson went down again while missing their top two wide receivers in Bateman and Devin Duvernay. They were also missing Marcus Williams, Kyle Fuller, Michael Pierce, and David Ojabo at multiple moments.

This year, it’s been much better though they’ve still been hit hard. Dobbins once again went down for the season. Marlon Humphrey missed the beginning of the year and then another game later. Stanley’s ankle continues to get rolled up on more than anybody should ever have to deal with. Williams, Ojabo, Tyus Bowser, and Odafe Oweh have missed multiple games. They lost their top two slot guys in Damarion Williams and Ar’Darius Washington.

The latest blow, however, might be the worst. All-Pro tight end and Jackson’s favorite weapon Mark Andrews suffered an ankle injury last week is likely out for the season.

But this year, the Ravens have stepped up. Geno Stone emerged in the absence of Williams and is tied for the league-lead in interceptions. Gus Edwards is second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns and Keaton Mitchell looks extraordinarily electric. The signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have filled the gaps in the edge room. The corners have stepped up, the wide receivers have rotated in and out when health allowed, and Patrick Mekari has been reliable on the offensive line wherever needed.

The other major difference: other AFC North teams have been hit hard as well. At one point, all four teams in the division were in the playoffs. Now, we aren’t sure if two will make it.

Both the Bengals and the Browns have lost their starting franchise quarterbacks. The Browns have also lost their Pro Bowl running back and multiple starting offensive tackles. The Bengals, outside of losing Burrow, might have been hit the least. Tee Higgins has missed a couple of games and Sam Hubbard has as well.

Pittsburgh has also been ravished by injuries. On offense, both Dionte Johnson and Pat Freiermuth, arguably the leaders of both their position rooms, have missed games. On defense, Cam Heyward went six weeks on injured reserve. Minkah Fitzpatrick was out multiple games. They lost both starting linebackers for the season.

Where does that leave the division? The Ravens have been near the top of the standings for the entire season. They are currently in control of both the AFC North and the conference as the No. 1 seed. But a difficult schedule still awaits them with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, and Steelers still looming. The Steelers are third in the division, two games behind the Ravens, but a rather easy schedule remains. Of the seven games remaining for Pittsburgh, two are Burrow-less Bengals. Three more are the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, and Arizona Cardinals. It’s a good guess that the AFC North could come down to the Ravens vs. Steelers in Week 18.

The Browns are only a game behind the Ravens and will be in the conversation for the division for a little longer. But with Watson and Nick Chubb done for the year and plenty of issues along the offensive line, how many games they can win is a massive question. The Bengals in the meantime are a measly 5-5, last in the division, and currently not in a playoff seed. Their backup quarterback did not play inspiring football and the Bengals have yet to make a move to change there. They will have to claw for a wild card seed without Burrow.

The key lesson is that having your starting quarterback is really important to winning games. That’s an obvious and well-known fact. Baltimore and Pittsburgh remain the biggest part of the division because their quarterbacks are healthy. The other lesson? Depth is forever important. Every team in the division this year has had games without massively important players. The Ravens had the depth to survive them and stay on top of the standings.

Top-end roster talent is important for the playoffs, without question. Injuries are always going to be a part of football, though, as they’re ingrained in the sport. Being able to survive them with quality depth will always be important. There’s a reason why NFL rosters are one of the largest in sports. The Ravens will now ride with Isaiah Likely and Charlie Kolar, two more depth pieces who will help fill the void of Andrews. They will attempt to win games with a next-man-up mentality and maybe, just maybe, survive until a possible Andrews return.