It’s been a popular trend over the last few offseasons to cast the Steelers aside in the AFC North, but they keep finding ways to win.
Coming into the 2021 season, the Steelers were handed the toughest schedule out of the league’s 32 teams (based off opponents 2020 win/loss percentage). By the end of the regular season they would go on to face six playoff teams, and three other teams who just missed the cut.
The Pittsburgh Steelers scraped and battled their way to a 9-7-1 record in an injury riddled AFC North. A record like that typically isn’t something the organization is proud of but it was good enough for a wild card spot and a second place finish in the division.
As it sits now, the betting odds are heavily against the 2021 AFC North runner-ups. Most outlets are predicting the team to finish last in the division, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1999. That season they finished with an abysmal 6-10 record in what was then the AFC Central. That alone puts it into perspective just how long it has been since a Steelers team was that mediocre. You would have to go back to the 2012 season to find a time that the Steelers didn’t finish in either first or second place in their division.
While every team begins the new season with a clean slate, it is hard to ignore a franchise that has been a consistent threat to the AFC North throne. With that being said, the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers now reside in a much different division than fans have grown accustomed to. Each team has made noteworthy acquisitions and look to make the next step.
Can The Bengals Do It Again?
The Cincinnati Bengals maxed out their potential last season capturing the AFC North crown with a Super Bowl appearance to go with it. Not many had the Bengals coming anywhere close to a championship level season, but you better believe they’ll be looking to finish the job in 2022.
Cincy made a strong push in free agency to protect their franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow. Bringing in the talents of (OT) La’el Collins, (G) Ted Karras, and (G) Alex Kappa are sure to make a difference on an offensive line that gave up 55 sacks last season (third most in the league). While they deserve to be the favorites to finish atop the division once again, the AFC North is as stacked as it has been in awhile, and I’d be hesitant to go all in on them just yet.
Murky Waters In Cleveland
The likelihood of the Browns reeling in a first place finish all hinges on whether or not newly acquired signal caller, Deshaun Watson, is even allowed to see the field. A Jacoby Brissett led Browns team looks much different than it would with Watson at the helm of the offense. Despite the uncertainty, the Cleveland front office feels like they got their crown jewel in a record setting trade from the Houston Texans, and are clearly confident in his future with the team evidenced by the $230 Million they fully guaranteed him. Only time will tell how that one plays out.
Even if Watson manages to start all 17 games in 2022, it is still difficult to have any faith in the organization to put together a deep playoff run. Despite the tremendous talent they have on their roster, the most they have been able to accomplish under Head Coach Kevin Stefanski was a third place AFC North finish and a win in the wild card round. A division title is something that has alluded the Browns since their 1989 campaign as a member of the old AFC Central.
Ravens Seeking Redemption
A promising season turned disaster is an accurate way to summarize the 2021 Baltimore Ravens. What was supposed to be an optimistic year for the club quickly turned ugly after their second round pick JK Dobbins tore his ACL in the preseason. More Running Back injuries would soon follow as the Ravens would be without their second and third rushing options (Gus Edwards & Justice Hill) for much of the season as well.
Baltimore quickly put last season behind them by making big moves in both the draft and free agency. Signing top dollar free agent safety Marcus Williams and pairing him with their 14th overall selection, Kyle Hamilton, is downright scary for opposing offenses. They also managed to land (C) Tyler Linderbaum later in the first round after a somewhat shocking trade that sent Marquise Brown to the Cardinals in exchange for an extra first round pick. All Steeler biases aside, I’d have to say the Ravens are shaping up to be the best team out of the bunch and have a real shot at winning the AFC North.
Steelers Trying To Stick Around
It was a bit of a shift in philosophy for the Pittsburgh Steelers front office this offseason when they decided to get a little aggressive in free agency. Couple the signings of (OG) James Daniels, (CB) Levi Wallace, and (LB) Myles Jack with a respectable draft class and you’re looking at a Steelers team that is unquestionably improved from last season. The question that remains is, “was it enough to keep up with the rest of the AFC North”?
I for one believe that it will be. Whether it’s Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett taking the bulk of the snaps at quarter back this season, the supporting cast around them is a solid upgrade from the roster that won only 9 games a year ago. Add in a relatively easier schedule than the one the Steelers played last season and it could be a recipe for success.
The NFL is as unpredictable as it gets in professional sports, that is why coaching and who you have making the big decisions matters tremendously. The Steelers General Manager/Head Coach duo is about as good as it gets in this league, and that is why I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers will be right there in the thick of it with their AFC North foes come time for the playoffs.
It’s going to be a wild season from start to finish, and you should not be surprised to see a different division champion in 2022 when it’s all said and done.