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Crystal Ballin 2022: Afc North Edition

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Hello all, we are in the midst of the summer, which can only mean one thing: everybody is posting their "Too Early Predictions" articles, so I figured I'd join in on the fun!

The first division we are breaking down is the AFC North: a division that was known for their hard hitting matchups for a long time - although not quite to that extent these days.

There are a ton of questions regarding these four teams, and the answers we receive will indeed dictate what happens...

That being said, I will now be taking out my crystal ball and informing you all precisely how this upcoming season will play out.

If you guys enjoy this series, please let me know! I'd love to see any sort of feedback - be it questions, critique or suggestions! Thanks for reading and have an awesome day!


Note: All win totals are current as of the time of this writing via DraftKings Sportsbook

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4. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are not a team entering the year with high expectations. We will be seeing this team without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback for the first time since 2004. Whether it's for Bear Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett taking over, I expect a struggle under center.

The offense as a whole will likely take a dip in production across the board. Running back Najee Harris will still get his touches (similar rushing attempts, less targets) but neither quarterback will be able to feed Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth (not to mention rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin) like Roethlisberger has done - especially with this dreadful offensive line.

Pittsburgh still has enough on defense to keep some games close, but there's only so much that T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Myles Jack and Devin Bush can do if the offense fails to get going. I can see this team losing a lot of close games this year, but unfortunately Mike Tomlin will has the first losing season of his head coaching career.


2021 Record: 9-7-1

The Steelers overachieved last year and they have a new QB with the same terrible line. Even their defense can't bail them out in this division.



2022 Key Performer: RB Najee Harris

Pittsburgh's RB1 will still ball out like he did in 2021, but will likely see a drop in the passing game due to the quarterback change.

1,341 rushing yards 7 TDs, 41 receptions 312 yards 1 TD

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2022 Over/Under: 7.5

Unless Trubisky revitalizes his career or Pickett has a Justin Herbert-like rookie campaign, I'd lean HEAVILY on the under. Some games might come down to the wire, but I can't see 8 wins for these guys in 2022.


Crystal Ball Says: 4-13

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3. Cleveland Browns

For obvious reasons, the Browns have had more drama and spotlight on them than any other team this offseason. They gave away three 1st round picks, a 3rd, two 4ths and a mega contract in exchange for a player who could possibly not see the field at all this year. We won't dive into his lawsuit or anything, as nothing is official quite yet.

With Mayfield being recently traded to the Panthers for basically half a pack of gum (a 2024 conditional 5th round pick), Cleveland will be most likely starting the season with Jacoby Brissett under center. He's a solid fill-in but isn't going to win any games on his own.

The rest of the offense is pretty solid, sporting guys like Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, rookie David Bell and David Njoku. The offensive line is good as well, giving the two headed backfield plenty of space to work with, and decent protection for Brissett and/or Watson.

Cleveland has one of the best defensive players in the league, in Myles Garrett. He is a game wrecker on his own and has a shot at Defensive Player of the Year any given season. With linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Anthony Walker, cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and Greedy Williams and safeties John Johnson III, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison joining Garrett on defense, this could absolutely be a top 5 unit overall.


2021 Record: 8-9

Cleveland missed the playoffs in 2021 due to plenty of issues... but the injury to Baker Mayfield along with his poor play hurt them the most. The Browns finished 4th in rushing yards per game and had the 5th overall defense even with their struggles in the passing game.

To me, this team as a whole seems very similar to the Steelers... only with a better running back group, better defense and slightly easier schedule.


2022 Key Performer: EDGE Myles Garrett

Like I said earlier, this man is a lunatic on the field who is out for blood play in and play out. He has had double digit sacks in each of the last four seasons (including a career high 16 last year). With how stout the defensive unit around him looks this year, I expect this to be his best performance yet.

55 total tackles, 18.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception


2022 Over/Under: N/A

Because of the Watson suspension situation, there is not a win total line at this time.


Crystal Ball Says: 7-10

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2. Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati has never been a consistent franchise when it comes to being successful. They are 0-3 in the Super Bowl and are usually fighting tooth and nail simply for a wildcard spot. In 2022 Joe Burrow led this team to a true breakout season. Yes, they lost to the Rams in the big game, but it's the performance of all of the young players on this roster that give Bengal fans hope for the future.

This young offense looks to not only repeat what they did last season, but improve upon it. Undoubtedly this team's biggest weakness was on the offensive line (Joe Burrow was the most sacked quarterback in the league, going down 70 times including the postseason). The front office made it a priority to improve on this, so they went out and signed interior linemen Alex Cappa and Ted Karras along with right tackle La'el Collins. The improvement in this line should be tremendous, and I fully expect it to show on the field, as Burrow, Joe Mixon, Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd should be just as good, if not even better this season.

The defense was decent all season and they really stepped up their game in the playoffs (never allowed more than 24 points in the postseason). Trey Hendrickson (17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles including the playoffs and a Pro Bowl selection) and Sam Hubbard (10.5 sacks including the playoffs) both truly dominated up front and helped lead this unit in 2021.

Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt hold down the top linebacker spots, as cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton remain very good starters as well. Eli Apple and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt will be battling for playing time at corner as well. The Bengals have one of the best safety duos in the league, with Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. The addition of rookie Dax Hill adds excellent depth to this promising secondary.


2021 Record: 10-7

Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase reignited for LSU chemistry and took defenses by storm. This connection combined with underrated running back Joe Mixon's performance and some great play from both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd made this a damn near unstoppable offense last season, ultimately brought down by their one true weakness: the offensive line.


2022 Key Performer: WR Ja'Marr Chase

Chase will continue to thrive with his man under center. With an improved line, Burrow will have another second or two to survey the field. It gives the second year wideout another second or two to make cornerbacks look silly, and another second or two to get open and make plays for his team in 2022.

His yardage might stay the same because of the focus coming from opposing defenses, but Chase will still remain a top 5 receiver in the league.

136 targets, 91 receptions 1,456 yards 11 TDs


2022 Over/Under:
10

This line of 10 wins appears disrespectful considering the Bengals nearly won the Super Bowl just a few months ago. Of course there is the narrative of "Super Bowl hangover" for the losing team to go along with the 7th most difficult schedule, but this is a young team who is ready to make some deep playoff runs for the next decade.

They shored up their top area of need, have an excellent young offensive core and some great defensive pieces. All that is left is to show it all off once again on the football field.


Crystal Ball Says: 11-6

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1. Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore had an EXCELLENT draft haul this year, which only adds on to the solid team they have now. Safety Kyle Hamilton (STEAL at the 1.14), center Tyler Linderbaum (1.25) and EDGE David Ojabo (round 2, 45 overall) are the standouts here. Hamilton and Linderbaum will contribute right away, and Ojabo will likely be in a pass rushing rotation when he gets fully healthy.

There is a lot of pressure for Lamar Jackson and Rashod Bateman to be able to hook up early and often, with the departure of Hollywood Brown. This is in addition to the return of running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and even Justice Hill from injury last year. Mark Andrews will thrive once again as Lamar's safety blanket and go-to weapon in the passing game.

Defensively, this team is solid across the board. Calais Campbell, Michael Pierce and rookie Travis Jones will provide run stopping ability up front, while the unit of Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh, Patrick Queen and eventually David Ojabo have a bright future of production ahead.

In the secondary, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are both returning from injury but remain one of the best duos in the entire league. With their return to go along with free agent signing Marcus Williams and rookie Kyle Hamilton joining Chuck Clark in the safety room, this secondary will be miles ahead of last year's.

As long as the Ravens don't get bit by the injury bug again this season, they should be well on their way to a winning record and likely playoff berth.


2021 Record: 8-9

Baltimore won 5 of their first 6 games last year while being decimated by injuries. Yes, they went on to go 3-8 down the stretch, 5 of those 8 losses came by 3 points or less. The Ravens are going to be much better in 2022... if healthy.


2022 Key Performer: QB Lamar Jackson

Lamar will prove himself as an elite quarterback this season, and find a way to remain as productive as ever. His chemistry with Mark Andrews will obviously help but I think Rashod Bateman will be the main catalyst for Baltimore's success through the air.

255/395 (64.5%), 3,320 yards 24 TDs 9 INTs,135 rushes 822 yards 6 TDs 6 fumbles


2022 Over/Under: 9.5

This line depends on whether you think the offense gets rolling again and if the Humphrey/Peters tandem regain their old form. I for one believe so for sure, and think the over on 9.5 is the way to go.


Crystal Ball Says: 11-6

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