The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

It’s no fun to be the man! You win one unanimous MVP at the helm of a 14-2 season early in your second season (and your first season as the undisputed starter) and all of a sudden everyone expects that you’re gonna have unanimous MVP, 14-2 seasons for the rest of eternity. That’s dumb! That’s so dumb. Lamar Jackson is good and the Ravens are good and following up a 14-2 season with an 11-5 one is like, the most normal thing imaginable. Now that the Steelers have committed to trotting out Ben Roethlisberger’s bloated, fetid corpse for another season, the division is theirs for the taking.

I’m going to keep my thoughts on this team brief, because I fear that a prolonged discussion is going to give the worst anti-Lamar Jackson takes far too much (read: any) oxygen. It does suck that the Ravens’ revamped receiving corps is starting the season injured, but since the Ravens have made perennial success despite a dearth of receiving talent one of their calling cards so I’m not worried. All of that said, just get vaccinated dude, seriously.

Max Points: 14

Predicted Finish: 1st

Cincinnati Bengals

I know I said this guide would be a safe space free from any sort of fantasy-related discourse, but I can’t not talk about this. So the league I ended up in this year is comprised largely of Bengals fans, and during our draft a lot of them were tentatively talking themselves into this year’s team, saying things like “their defense wasn’t too bad” and “they hung in most of their games” and just generally speaking of the Bengals as one speaks of a functional team that is potentially headed in the right direction. And I was sitting there thinking “…so, uh. Do I tell ’em?” The Bengals finished 27th in defensive DVOA, and while they did underachieve relative to their Pythagorean wins, they did so by barely half a game. In other words, they were about exactly as bad as they seemed.

Of course, one cannot discuss the Bengals without mentioning their ongoing attempts to get Joe Burrow murdered. I’m not going to spend to much time re-auditing the team’s decision to draft wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase when tackle Penei Sewell was still on the board, except to say that it was a terrible idea. But let’s face it, it would have also been a terrible idea if the Bengals had drafted Sewell instead. There’s not much one tackle can do when the opposition knows they can keep rushing six because your idiot coach keeps calling plays out of empty sets with an interior line that may as well be made of Lincoln Logs.

Speaking of that idiot coach, I think we all knew that the hiring of Zac Taylor represented the nadir of the 2019 hiring cycle, which saw teams go after every Sean McVay assistant they could possibly find. Taylor probably doesn’t have any business being a head coach anywhere and would be a lock to get fired after this season if he worked anywhere else. But alas, Mike Brown’s decades-long records if shamelessness and incompetence are known throughout the sporting world, and since he’s the asshole signing the checks there’s a real chance Taylor gets three more years to see if he can maybe crack 7 wins. Poor Burrow, the guy never had a chance.

Max Points: 2

Predicted Finish: 4th

Cleveland Browns

Congratulations Cleveland Browns! After a rough start to the 2020 season, you managed to pull all the way up to not only save a bit of dignity, but also reach the playoffs for the second time since the franchise reboot! And on top of that, this time you managed to win your first a playoff game, too! And on top of that, this victory was a mostly dominant triumph over the hated Steelers! I mean, you really did almost let them back in during the fourth quarter, but all’s well that ends well, am I right?

So now, after this one (and only one) season of success, expectations are sky-high. This is despite the fact that the Ravens still exist, the Steelers aren’t dead just yet, and the AFC is once again loaded with potential contenders. This is also despite the fact that, for as well as last year went, you still finished the regular season with a negative point differential and a negative overall DVOA. Your team’s future is still very much tied to the fortunes of Baker Mayfield, whose performance last year maybe cracks the above average threshold, if you’re viewing it with a generous eye. No one knows if they have a defense to speak of beyond Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. All of the AFC’s top teams have at least one well-know weakness; the Browns seem to have several.

Any chances the Browns may have of capitalizing on their new-found competence hinge entirely on whether or not the team can continue to improve, and improve drastically. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story of a team, mind you, but in this case, the statistics overwhelmingly imply that the Browns were lucky to have made it as far as they did. The good news is that Kevin Stefanski appears quite competent indeed, capable of playing to Baker’s strengths as a passer and hiding his deficiencies. The rushing attack is monstrous. OBJ is back. The Browns will score buckets of points, enough that an average defense will be enough, most weeks.

I believe these new, relevant Browns are here to stay, but I don’t see them getting much further than they did last year. They still have too far to go to seriously contend, and luck is cruel and fickle. Playoffs? Yes. Super Bowl? I can’t imagine.

Max Points: 10

Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)

Pittsburgh Steelers

So I suppose I already tipped my hand during the Ravens write-up, but I remain flabbergasted that the Steelers are rolling into this season with an obviously toasted Roethlisberger under center. Who do they think they’re fooling? The days of that piece of shit being one of the top quarterbacks in the league are well and truly in the rear view mirror; anyone reading this could name at least five quarterbacks in the AFC that are clearly, visibly superior to that fucking guy. With respect to the fact that it’s hard to replace a quarterback, especially when you’re drafting in the late first round, I don’t know what the Steelers are thinking. It’s gonna be just as hard to replace Roethlisberger next year, or the year after that.

Ignoring the offensive line, which is a strictly theoretical construct in Pittsburgh these days, the rest of the roster is simply too loaded for a true rebuild to be feasible. While the Steelers may not have a true superstar wide receiver these days, their depth at the position remains enviable. People also seem to expect good things from rookie running back Najee Harris, which is weird because again, who do these people think is gonna be doing the blocking? I know that probably reads like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. I legitimately have no idea. But, if Harris does pan out, that obviously gives the skill position groups even more juice.

And, of course, the Steelers’ defense has returned to its normal, terrifying self after a few seasons in the wilderness. Teams aren’t supposed to be able to field elite defenses year after year, and yet the Steelers are too stacked and too well-coached to even fall out of the Top 10, defensively. As a result, it’s possible to read their current strategy as “What if we were the 2015 Broncos, but with better receivers?” While I think it makes some sense for a team that aspires to contention to lean on an elite defense when the rest of the conference has turned into an offensive arms race, depending on defense when your offense is terrible necessarily requires playing with a thin margin of error. When the scores are low, so are the margins of victory. And it’s very easy to imagine this offense being terrible. Is it possible that the Steelers will remain a top team? I must admit that is is. Is it likely? Not really.

Max Points: 9

Predicted Finish: 3rd

AFC South / NFC South / AFC East / NFC East / AFC West / NFC West / NFC North

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