Why Each AFC North Team Won’t Win Super Bowl LVIIby Ryan Potts March 5, 2022 3 comments
As free agency and the draft approach, every team has some level of excitement. Some are looking to contend in 2022, while others only want to move in the right direction. The NFL is unique in that every team has a chance to win the Super Bowl each season. At the same time, only one team can lift the Lombardi next February. The other 31 will fall short, and there are reasons why each team will not have what it takes.
Let’s continue with the AFC North.
Previous: AFC East
The Bengals were not fluky in 2021. However, the rest of the division was. Both Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson dealt with injuries throughout the season, hurting their teams. They overachieved to great degrees to win eight games each, and they should be healthier in 2022. The Cleveland Browns even swept the Bengals, including a blowout win when both Joe Burrow and Mayfield played. Week 18 can be disregarded because it was a duel of backups, but the Browns did blast Cincy when Mayfield played. Cincinnati will have to contend with a first-place schedule that includes the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, and Kansas City Chiefs. On the other hand, the Browns and Ravens get to third and fourth-place schedules.
The offensive line is still an issue for the Bengals. Burrow can overcome poor offensive line play, but this diminishes the margin of error the team can play with. Look no further than the playoff clash with the Titans. Tennessee sacked Burrow nine times, but he was just good enough to put Evan McPherson in range four times to win the game. If Burrow threw a fluky interception as he did against the New York Jets or Chicago Bears, the Cincinnati’s season would have ended prematurely. Similarly, if McPherson did not go 14-for-14 in the NFL playoffs, the offensive line would have been seen as an even larger disaster.
2021 was a perfect blend of circumstances for the Bengals. They capitalized on a fourth-place schedule while their three rivals tripped over themselves in a Three Stooges impression. This is not to knock the Bengals – they were deserving AFC representatives – but the challenge will stiffen in 2022. Even if the Pittsburgh Steelers take a step back with a rookie quarterback, the Browns and/or Ravens will be better.
As mentioned, the Steelers might be drafting a new quarterback. Pittsburgh fans will be quick to mention the last time they started a rookie signal-caller when they went 15-1. The problem with that analogy is that the Steelers lost a home playoff game and did not win the Super Bowl. However, after 11 full seasons without a trip to the Big Game, Steelers fans might be happy with another home playoff loss.
The Steel City fails at two key pieces: quarterback and offensive line. No matter how strong the rest of the roster is, having six routinely inept pieces will sink the ship. Pittsburgh could trade for a quarterback like Russell Wilson, but they are also likely to select one in the NFL draft. Since Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez guided their teams to AFC Title Game appearances in their rookie seasons, rookies have had a poor track record in the playoffs. John Wolford is the “well, technically” answer, but no rookie who served as a team’s primary quarterback has won a playoff game since Wilson in 2012. He squared off with another rookie, so his inclusion is a technicality as well.
The offensive line is among the worst in the NFL. There are no “lock” starters moving forward. While this approach could breed competitiveness along the line, it also leaves the team exposed to the reality that individual pieces may not be great linemen. Building an offensive line is often about having the steadiest weakest link. The Steelers have opted to have five weak links. Even if the entire Browns offensive line and Ronnie Stanley are excluded from the discussion, no Steeler would start on the All-AFC North offensive line. That is a disaster for Super Bowl aspirations. Even the Bengals would have a starter (Jonah Williams).
Mayfield got the benefit of the doubt in the Bengals mention because he was dealing with injuries. However, if 2022 Mayfield resembles 2021 Mayfield, any Browns Super Bowl futures will be tossed into Lake Erie. The Browns have surrounded Mayfield with a competent supporting cast, including a tremendous offensive line and Nick Chubb. Baker let them down in 2021. Now, it appears that Cleveland could move on from the likes of Jarvis Landry and Kareem Hunt. The Browns could replenish in the draft, but the time is ticking with Mayfield at the helm.
Instead of attacking the Browns for, well, being the Browns, let’s take a holistic look through the rest of the roster. As mentioned, quarterback and wide receiver are trouble spots at the moment. They could be solved in free agency or the draft, but the Browns do not have a perfect defense. They have a glaring need on the interior of the defensive line, and they need to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney. Cleveland entered 2021 with a loaded secondary, and it generally held up its end of the bargain. They finished third in yards allowed per pass, but it also had a pair of outlier games (allowing one passing yard to the Chicago Bears and 77 to Tim Boyle).
For what seems to be the millionth season in a row, the Browns have issues with connecting on field goals. Chase McLaughlin made just 15 of 21 kicks including an abysmal 4-for-10 in the 40-yard range. Travis Coons (87.5 percent) and Greg Joseph (85 percent) are the only kickers with reasonable volume and accuracy. Even club legend Phil Dawson only connected on 84 percent of his kicks, below the desired amount. The other three teams in the division have elite kickers, key to a Super Bowl run.
As optimistic as one can be about the Ravens getting their stars back in 2022, the returns do not exist in a vacuum. J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Marcus Peters are coming off serious knee injuries. Stanley has played in two games since signing a mega-deal, and he allowed nine pressures in one of them. Jackson’s injury should not linger, but it is in the back of every executive’s head if it does. It is great to add the players back into the fold, but Baltimore cannot be sure that they will get the same impact from them again.
The Ravens have a disastrous front seven, and it might get even worse with the loss of Calais Campbell. While they are generally excellent at stopping the run, they generate little to no pass rush without blitzing. Don “Wink” Martindale took his scheme to the New York Giants, so the Ravens will run a slightly different system. However, they will need their front four to win their reps more often to account for less blitzes. It helps the coverage unit to have more bodies accounting for receivers, but reduced pressure will force the corners and safeties to cover for long periods.
Even when Baltimore is operating at maximum efficiency, all it takes is one play to ruin a drive. A botched snap, holding penalty, or loss of yards dramatically skews the likelihood of converting the next first down. The Ravens have been sensational on third and fourth down in the Jackson era, but sample sizes in an individual game could generate extra losses that other teams would not have to worry about thanks to having more explosive passing attacks. The Ravens can be efficient through the air, but they are rarely explosive.
Are you an optimist? All four of these teams have a chance to win the Lombardi.