Coming off a 14-2 season in 2019, albeit with a disappointing playoff loss, the Baltimore Ravens seemed like a safe bet to win the AFC North in 2020. After all, they have the reigning MVP in Lamar Jackson and, some would argue, a better supporting cast around him. However, we’ve already seen in 2020 that it’s not going to be as easy to win the division as it was last year. The Steelers — and Browns to a lesser degree — have emerged as a potential challenger in the AFC North.
The Ravens are going to have to work a lot harder this year to secure the AFC North crown. In fact, there is a long list of reasons why the Ravens won’t win their division this season and might have to take the long, arduous road to the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team.
Ben Roethlisberger Is Healthy
It’s important to keep in mind that the Ravens had a slightly easier time winning the AFC North last year with the Steelers using awful backup quarterbacks virtually the entire season. In a way, they got a free pass because Pittsburgh wasn’t at full strength. But Baltimore won’t have the same luxury with Roethlisberger healthy. Early in the season, Roethlisberger isn’t exactly playing like a Pro Bowler, but he’s been efficient and leading an offense that’s scoring more than 31 points per game.
The Steelers have put together a solid group of receiving targets around Roethlisberger, especially with rookie Chase Claypool — aka Mapletron — proving he's not just a one-week wonder after his four-touchdown game in Week 5.
While Big Ben is still getting his deep ball back, a healthy Roethlisberger makes all the difference in the world for the Steelers and turns Pittsburgh into a serious threat to Baltimore’s division crown.
Steelers' Defense is the Best in the AFC North
While the Ravens have allowed the fewest points per game in the NFL through six weeks, the Steelers aren't too far behind at No. 2.
And Baltimore's schedule hasn't been too taxing with games against Washington and Cincinnati in back-to-back weeks. The Ravens might be higher rated in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA, one could also argue that, talent-wise, the Pittsburgh defense is better than the Baltimore defense. The Steelers have no obvious weakness at any of the three levels of their defense and have averaged five sacks per game, which leads the league by a wide margin.
The loss of starting middle linebacker Devin Bush to a torn ACL could be the equalizer between these two defenses. Despite the loss of the former first-rounder, the Steelers' ferocious four-man pass rush should be able to give them a leg up over the Ravens in the AFC North Race.
The Browns Have the Better Backfield
Although Baker Mayfield was benched in the Browns' blowout loss to the Steelers in Week 6, Cleveland is still 4-2 and in position to make the playoffs in the competitive AFC.
While the Browns might have plenty of problems, Cleveland's running game can make up for a lot of those issues. The Ravens excelled last season on the back of their potent rushing attack, but it’s the Browns who have the best running game in the NFL thus far. The difference, of course, is that the Browns don’t have a mobile quarterback who’s leading the team in rushing. Cleveland is doing it with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who are arguably the most terrifying backfield duo in the NFL. Even with Chubb sidelined, Hunt has picked up the slack. Plus, Chubb is expected to return at some point.
As long as the Browns continue to run the ball effectively, they won’t need to ask Mayfield to carry them, which has been a winning formula for Cleveland early in the year – even if that backfired Sunday.
Lamar Jackson is Staying in the Pocket
While it’s still early in the season, the numbers say that Jackson isn’t running the ball as frequently as he did last season. On the one hand, that means Jackson isn’t exposing himself to big hits as often. However, more time in the pocket isn’t improving Jackson’s passing efficiency. Through six games, he’s on track for fewer touchdown passes than last season. Jackson is also throwing for fewer yards per game and is on pace to take a lot more sacks than he did in 2019.
Don't get us wrong: It’s not that his numbers this year are bad, but they aren’t the numbers of a quarterback who will lead a 14-2 team.
At the same time, Jackson is still Baltimore’s leading rusher despite fewer designed runs. On the surface, the Baltimore offense isn’t quite the same as it was a year ago, which makes it less of a slam-dunk that the Ravens will win the AFC North.
The Baltimore Pass Rush Is Overrated
Coming out of Week 6, there is growing optimism in the Baltimore pass rush thanks to Calais Campbell's three-sack game against the Eagles. However, the Ravens averaging more than three sacks per game is a bit of fool’s gold. Of the team’s 22 sacks, 13 have come against the Bengals and Eagles, two of the worst offensive lines in the league.
Baltimore also benefited from playing a porous Houston offensive line and Washington’s subpar line. In games against the Browns and Chiefs, the Ravens had combined for a measly two sacks. It remains to be seen if the Ravens can put consistent pressure on quarterbacks against the better teams on their schedule.
Before Campbell's big game, nobody on the Ravens had more than two sacks through six games. Even last year’s top sack artist Matthew Judon is on pace to fall well short of the 9.5 sacks he amassed last season. Even if the Ravens have allowed the fewest points in the league, their pass rush remains a concern moving forward.
The Ravens Might Have "Big-Game Syndrome"
It might be time to consider that Jackson and the Ravens have “Big-Game Syndrome.” Baltimore ran away with the AFC North title so easily last season that they didn’t play any high-pressure games down the stretch. They didn’t face the fire until the playoffs when they had a massive letdown against the Titans. Keep in mind, this isn't a one-time thing. The Ravens also lost a home playoff game to the Chargers in 2018.
A few weeks ago, the Ravens had an early-season showdown with the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The Ravens had a chance to make a statement about being the team to beat in the AFC. Instead, they were utterly dominated on both sides of the ball, as the Chiefs doubled them in total yards.
With the Steelers and Browns both getting off to fast starts in 2020, the Ravens will play in plenty of high-stake games this season. Specifically, Baltimore has a brutal November schedule where they’ll face the Steelers twice, as well as the Colts, Patriots and Titans.
If Jackson and the Ravens can’t deal with the pressure of tough games in a tight division, they won't win the AFC North in 2020.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration