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Mike Preston: No clear-cut favorite in AFC North, but Browns add some spice | COMMENTARY

The Cleveland Browns have added some spice to the AFC North race.

The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry still has a special place in the division, but a third team only makes it more exciting, especially when Cleveland fans despise the Steelers as much as those in Baltimore. Now, if only the Cincinnati Bengals would join the party … but let’s not go there.

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The NFL loves the AFC North too because it can make the Browns the darlings of the league. It wants to make up for allowing the old Browns to move to Baltimore for the 1996 season, and they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.

The only problem was that the new Browns, who returned to Cleveland in 1999, haven’t been that good since. A lot of people thought they were going to be good in 2019, and they finished 6-10. But since then, the organization hired Bel Air graduate Andrew Berry as general manager and Kevin Stefanksi as head coach.

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The Browns finished 11-5 last year and participated in the playoffs for the first time in 18 years before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs, 22-17, in the divisional round, but not before beating Pittsburgh, 48-37, in a wild-card game.

Major television networks are already pumping up the Browns, and the league has them opening the regular season Sept. 12 against Kansas City, which has played in two straight Super Bowls, winning one.

The Browns aren’t just hype.

They had a prolific offense last season led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and running back Nick Chubb, and they spent this offseason rebuilding a defense that allowed more than 350 yards of total offense per game. Cleveland had one of the best front fours in the NFL, but their linebacking corps wasn’t physical and the secondary was atrocious.

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But going into the 2021 season, the Browns could have as many as eight or nine new starters on defense. They’ve added players through free agency such as safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill, edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Anthony Walker and defensive tackle Malik Jackson.

Two top players who missed last season are returning from injury and expected to start in safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Greedy Williams. The Browns also drafted cornerback Greg Newsome II in the second round with the No. 26 overall pick and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round, No. 52 overall.

It’s only a matter of time before this defense plays well. These aren’t the old Browns, the source of many jokes during the past 20 years. This staff, with defensive coordinator Joe Woods, can coach.

The AFC North needed this shot in the arm, even though the Ravens vs. Steelers matchups have some special history. The early days of listening to Ravens coach Brian Billick and Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher insult each other about winning on the other’s home turf was enjoyable.

There was Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe calling Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress “Plexiglass” and the time Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter went to get running back Jerome Bettis and Burress to fight linebacker Ray Lewis outside of the Ravens’ team bus in Pittsburgh. But Bettis and Burress declined, telling Porter he didn’t have to play against Lewis on Sunday afternoons.

There were the big hits Pittsburgh receiver Heinz Ward put on the Ravens and the ones that Lewis and Jarret Johnson put on him. And of course, there was the classic of Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin trying to trip Ravens return specialist Jacoby Jones on the sideline in Baltimore in 2013.

The intensity will always be there because the two teams bring out the best in each other. That’s almost as good a guarantee as each team playing hard, aggressive defense.

But this series has lost its villains and become somewhat predictable. Pittsburgh won its first 11 games a year ago, but the Steelers were clearly flawed. It was only a matter of time before defenses caught up with Pittsburgh’s short passing offense or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s arm got tired from throwing so much.

It’s was a combination of both.

As for the Ravens, quarterback Lamar Jackson is the most explosive player in the NFL, but until he learns to throw accurately outside the numbers and the Ravens add some quality receivers and concepts, their season will end like it has the past three years with defenses taking away the top-rated rushing offense.

Those scenarios might not change, but the Ravens have upgraded from a year ago. The same can’t be said about the Steelers. At least now Cleveland presents a new element. The Browns have a quarterback in Baker Mayfield who has done more commercials than Joe Namath. They have a loyal fan base and a league that wants to show as much loyalty to a city it once shamed.

The AFC is no longer a two-team race. The Browns are back and appear ready to take another step forward.

It’s good for everybody.

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