Thursday, September 7, 2023

2023 NFL Predictions: AFC North

Before the start of the season, I will post my division-by-division predictions for the 2023 NFL regular season and postseason.

Instead of projecting an outright winner and loser in all 272 regular-season games, I've assigned a win probability to each team in every game and totaled them up.

Check out our 2023 NFL Predictions page for other divisions.

With that said, here are our early AFC North projections for each team including their win total.

1. Cincinnati Bengals - Projected Wins: 10.34

The Bengals have one of the league's best offenses — top seven in scoring in back-to-back seasons — and it all begins with Joe Burrow. Although Burrow sustained a calf injury early in camp, he says he is "ready to go" for Week 1. Cincinnati has a talented trio of receivers with Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Both Chase and Higgins eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last season, and they are arguably the two most talented receivers in the division. Joe Mixon is back after accepting a paycut, and the team upgraded its offensive line by signing Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency. In other words, it should be business as usual for Burrow & Co.

Safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell had eight of the team's 13 interceptions last season, but both departed via free agency in March. Former first-rounder Dax Hill will take on an expanded role, the team signed Nick Scott in free agency and drafted Jordan Battle in the third round. In addition, the Bengals have a talented cornerback room with Chidobe Awuzie, Cam Taylor-Britt (potential breakout candidate), Mike Hilton and second-round rookie DJ Turner. With Trey Hendrickson, DJ Reader and Logan Wilson anchoring their front-seven, the Bengals should have a strong defense in 2023.

From 1990-2020, the Bengals won only one playoff game (Wild Card round against the Houston Oilers in 1990). During that span, their playoff record was 1-8. Since then, however, they have gone deep into the postseason losing in the Super Bowl two seasons ago and in the AFC Championship Game last year.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals 2023 Fantasy Football Projections

2. Baltimore Ravens - Projected Wins: 9.87

In terms of division runner-ups, no team has more projected wins after my game-by-game predictions than the Ravens. If they were in the AFC South, NFC North or NFC South, they'd win the division.

As long as Lamar Jackson stays healthy (after missing five games in back-to-back seasons), the offense should be electric in Todd Monken's scheme and with a vastly improved supporting cast. Mark Andrews is one of the league's top tight ends, but Demarcus Robinson (no longer on the roster) ranked second on the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (458) in 2022. First-rounder Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr. and a healthier Rashod Bateman are the best wide receiver trio of the Jackson era. Meanwhile, J.K. Dobbins has averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his career.

Baltimore ranked third in the NFL in scoring defense (18.5 PPG allowed) in 2022. The Ravens made two August signings — Ronald Darby and Jadeveon Clowney — that address two question marks on the defensive side of the ball and they did so at a cap-friendly cost. Marlon Humphrey had foot surgery mid-August and could miss some time at the start of the season. The Ravens have a long list of talented young defenders who could be poised for breakouts in 2023.

MORE: Baltimore Ravens 2023 Fantasy Football Projections

3. Pittsburgh Steelers - Projected Wins: 8.88

In a league of parity, it's remarkable that Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season since becoming head coach in 2007. Speaking of parity, however, the Steelers have won either eight or nine games in four of the past five seasons.

There is some reason for cautious optimism with the offense as Kenny Pickett heads into his second season after a strong offseason and a perfect (158.3 rating) preseason. While Najee Harris has been a volume-based but relatively ineffecient workhorse, Jaylen Warren offers some juice in the backfield and should see his role expand in 2023. The duo of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens form a talented tandem, Pat Freiermuth is a steady option over the middle, and the team has invested to improve its offensive line by signing guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig and drafting Broderick Jones in the first round.

T.J. Watt missed seven games last season. That said, he had a total of 55 sacks from 2018-21 including a league-high 22.5 sacks in 2021. Meanwhile, Alex Highsmith broke out with a team-high 14.5 sacks, and Cameron Heyward added 10.5 sacks. In addition, the Steelers have a top-three safety on the back end with Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Assuming their health cooperates, the defense will be one of the best in the NFL. Depending on how big of a step forward Pickett takes will determine their success in 2023.

MORE: Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 Fantasy Football Projections

4. Cleveland Browns - Projected Wins: 8.55

If we were power ranking projected fourth-place finishers, the Browns would be the clear No. 1 seed. In fact, their projected win total is 16th, which puts them in the top half of the league. That's probably not much consolation, but I think it's fair to say that they have the potential to exceed these baseline projections and make the playoffs in 2023.

Deshaun Watson doesn't need to lead the NFL in passing yards (4,823, 8.9/A) while throwing 33 touchdowns to only seven interceptions like he did in 2020, but much of Cleveland's 2023 success will be determined by how closely his play resembles his pre-2021 version. The Browns have arguably the league's best pure runner in Nick Chubb, who has averaged 5.2 YPC over his career. Amari Cooper had the sixth 1,000-yard season of his career in 2022, and Elijah Moore is a popular breakout pick for Cleveland's offense.

Pairing new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz with all-world edge rusher Myles Garrett should (further) terrify opposing offensive tackles. Cleveland traded for Za'Darius Smith in May and signed Obo Okoronkwo in free agency to boost their pass rush. (Garrett has 16 sacks in back-to-back seasons, but the next closest teammate last year had just three sacks.) As noted by ESPN's Jake Trotter, Garrett has had to face the highest double-team rate (25.3%) among edge rushers over the past three years. While Denzel Ward had a down year, the team has a couple of talented young cornerbacks (Martin Emerson and Greg Newsome II) and Cleveland has a top 10 secondary in the NFL.

MORE: Cleveland Browns 2023 Fantasy Football Projections

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