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AFC North Preview: Week 1

The war for the North begins

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The 2023 NFL season has finally arrived and with it will come an arduous battle for the throne of the AFC North between four teams with sky-high aspirations. All four organizations expect to make the playoffs this season, but the reality is that one or more will be left out once the dance starts in January.

Cincinnati Bengals

The reigning consecutive AFC North champions enter the season with a Super Bowl or bust mentality after falling just short of hoisting the elusive Lombardi Trophy the past two seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals will start their 2023 campaign with a divisional road game against the Cleveland Browns.

Star quarterback Joe Burrow told the media that he expects to play on Sunday after missing much of training camp with a calf injury. The former No. 1 overall pick is entering his fourth season without a new long-term contract after becoming eligible for an extension this offseason, though all signs seemingly point to a new deal getting done in the future. Burrow will once again have the luxury of throwing to one of the league’s top wide receiver trios with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals made a large investment this offseason toward protecting Burrow by signing Orlando Brown Jr. to guard his blindside at left tackle. Meanwhile, Irv Smith Jr. will replace Hayden Hurst at tight end.

Defensively, Cincinnati’s secondary will feature many new starters, including both safety spots after losing Jessie Bates III and Von Bell in free agency. 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill and free agent acquisition Nick Scott will step in to fill the void. The Bengals also lost cornerback Eli Apple this offseason. Up front, first-round pick Myles Murphy will join an already formidable defensive line headlined by defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle D.J. Reader.

Baltimore Ravens

After a rocky start to the offseason with questions surrounding quarterback Lamar Jackson’s future with the team, the Baltimore Ravens are ready to return to action for the first time since losing a heartbreaker in the playoffs to Cincinnati. The Ravens will start their highly-anticipated season at home against the Houston Texans with rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud at the helm.

Alongside a reinvigorated Jackson with a new five-year deal, Baltimore’s offense will feature a plethora of new wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor, and first-round pick Zay Flowers, in a new-look attack led by offensive coordinator Todd Monken in his first year with the team. The Ravens will be returning all but one player along their offensive line, with John Simpson set to replace Ben Powers at left guard. Running back J.K. Dobbins is itching to prove his worth in the final year of his rookie contract this season after missing all of the 2021 season and part of last season with a knee injury.

On defense, Baltimore will be without their top cornerback for the beginning of the season as Marlon Humphrey recovers from foot surgery. New cornerback additions Rock Ya-Sin, Ronald Darby, and Arthur Maulet will join Brandon Stephens, Jayln Armour-Davis, and Ar’Darius Washington in steadying the ship during Humphrey’s absence while also replacing the play of Marcus Peters after the veteran departed in free agency. The Ravens will be relying on third-year player Odafe Oweh and second-year pass rusher David Ojabo to take the next steps in their development at outside linebacker after not re-signing Justin Houston, the team leader in sacks last season. The pair, along with Baltimore’s interior defensive line, will have a prime opportunity to show their pass-rushing chops on Sunday against an injured offensive line of the Texans.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the season confident after a promising rookie season for first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett in 2022. Pickett’s development is instrumental in the Steelers rejoining the competition for the title of the AFC North this year and returning to the playoffs. Pittsburgh will start the season at home against the talented San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.

Alongside Pickett in his second season is wide receiver George Pickens. Pickens appears poised to take a leap this season to go with Diontae Johnson as quite a formidable duo at Pickett’s disposal. Running back Najee Harris is entering a pivotal season in his career, as a decision must be made regarding his fifth-year option next offseason. The former first-round selection had a disappointing second season in 2022 while backup running back Jaylen Warren emerged as an exciting playmaker in his rookie season. Pittsburgh continues to rework its offensive line, adding guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig in free agency while also drafting offensive tackle Broderick Jones in the first round.

The Steelers added decorated veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson to their defense after losing Cam Sutton at the position. T.J. Watt returns as one of the league’s top edge defenders after missing time last season and only recording two sacks. Watt, alongside outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, form one of the NFL’s deadliest pass rushes.

Cleveland Browns

After going out on a limb and trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson amidst an ongoing legal situation and paying him a king’s ransom in the form of a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract, the Browns ended the 2022 season with nothing to show for it. Cleveland enters the 2023 season hopeful that their expensive quarterback can return to playing like one of the league’s best at the position as he continues to reacclimate to football, with the first test coming at home against the Bengals on Sunday.

The Browns traded for former 2021 second-round pick Elijah Moore from the New York Jets to add to a wide receiver corps of Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, David Bell, and rookie third-rounder Cedric Tillman. Watson will have one of the league’s best offensive lines in front of him this season and perhaps the best running back in football behind him in Nick Chubb.

Cleveland’s defense saw some major changes this offseason. The Browns elected to reshape their defensive line by signing defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to shore up the middle against the run and trading for edge rusher Za’Darius Smith from the Minnesota Vikings to pair with superstar Myles Garrett on the other side. On the backend of the defense, Cleveland signed safety Juan Thornhill to a three-year deal after releasing veteran John Johnson III.