Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has already overseen unprecedented postseason success in just three years: the five postseason wins with him under center are the same number the franchise has in its other 53 seasons combined (1968-2019). The 2023 AFC North race provides Burrow with another historic milestone opportunity: the chance to win a third straight division title, something that has never happened in Bengals history.
Bengals playoffs history
|With Joe Burrow||Without Joe Burrow|
Conf Champ Appearances
* Won playoff game in consecutive seasons for first time in franchise history
The current run Cincy is on with back-to-back AFC North crowns marks only the second time that has happened in team history. The only other occurrence came when quarterback Ken Anderson won an NFL MVP and led the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance in 1981, which the team followed up with another AFC Central first-place finish in the following season in 1982.
However, the Baltimore Ravens are well-equipped to block Burrow's and the Bengals' path to making more team history. Most of the pieces from their third-ranked scoring defense (allowed 18.5 points per game in 2022) remain, and the Ravens have ensured 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson will be their long-term answer at quarterback after making him the NFL's highest-paid player with a. Baltimore nearly toppled Cincinnati on the road in the AFC Wild Card Round last season with Tyler Huntley leading a run-first offense, providing plenty of potential for the team to achieve more with Jackson in a fresh, more .
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have well-stocked rosters, but it's unclear if either has a quarterback who can go toe-to-toe with Burrow. Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett finished 2022 much stronger over his final eight games played (five passing touchdowns to one interception, 6.4 yards per pass attempt, and an 84.0 passer rating) than he started in the first five games he played (two passing touchdowns to eight interceptions, 5.8 yards per pass attempt, and a 66.8 passer rating). Although, it's a mystery how much of Year 2 leap he'll have.
Ditto for Deshaun Watson in terms of his second season in Cleveland. The Browns ranked 25th or worse in scoring offense (16.3 points per game, 26th in NFL) and total offense (298.0 total yards per game, 25th in the NFL) once a noticeably rusty Watson took over for Jacoby Brissett after serving his 11-game suspension after he was accused of sexual misconduct by over 20 women. Cleveland ranked in the top-12 in the NFL in those categories with Brissett under center.
With that in mind, here are the roads to victory in the hunt to win the 2023 AFC North for the Bengals and the Ravens.
The Bengals' path to their third division title is pretty simple: protect Joe Burrow and proceed to profit. He's led the NFL in passer rating and ranked in the top three in nearly every other crucial passing metric since 2021 despite having one of the lowest graded offensive lines in the NFL. His line ranked 29th in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grade during their AFC Championship season in 2021, and the unit ranked second-to-last, 31st, in the entire league in 2022.
Joe Burrow Since 2021
If given slightly more protection, Cincy could be the best team in the entire league. That's why they signed four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. away from the Chiefs in free agency on a four-year, $64 million contract this offseason. On defense, they added a trio of solid reinforcements to what was an already top-10 scoring defense (20.1 points per game allowed, sixth in the NFL) in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, selecting Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy in Round 1, Michigan cornerback DJ Turner II in Round 2, and Alabama safety Jordan Battle in Round 3.
Burrow behind an improved offensive line while still throwing to Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins in addition to being backed by a top-10 defense has all the makings of a third AFC North championship.
No one is like Lamar Jackson. His 101 career passing touchdowns and 4,437 career rushing yards make him one of six players in NFL history to hit 100+ passing scores and 4,000+ rushing yards, something he did 31 games (67 games) faster than Randall Cunningham (98 games). Ninety-five of those passing touchdowns have come since the 2019 season, and none of his wide receivers have made a Pro Bowl in that time... that's 35 more scoring strikes than New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones' 60 without a Pro Bowl wideout since 2019.
Now in addition to Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, Jackson has the best supporting cast of his career with the additions of Boston College rookie receiver Zay Flowers, the 22nd overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, in addition to three-time Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr. This trio of pass-catchers is surrounded by complementary speedsters in Devin Duvernay, Rashod Bateman, and Nelson Agholor.
Perhaps just as important as the on-field additions is the move made on the sidelines, transitioning from longtime offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his run-heavy offense (their 170.8 rushing yards per game from 2018-22 are the most in any five-year span since the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1975-79,172.5) to Todd Monken's more pass-centered attack. He most recently called plays for the back-to-back defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs where he also was hands-on with the quarterbacks as their position coach during their championship runs.
Monken also has four seasons of prior experience as an NFL play-caller, serving as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers OC from 2016-2018 and the Cleveland Browns OC in 2019. During his final two seasons with the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay had a top-five passing offense each year. Monken's Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards per game (320.3) in 2018 with Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterbacks. No team has averaged more passing yards per game since. That has Jackson excited about the scheme transition. He's so fired up, he's setting historic season goals for himself, like becoming the first player in league history to throw for 6,000 yards. Hall of Famer Peyton Manning's 2013 NFL MVP season when he threw for 5,477 passing yards in 16 games stands as the current mark to beat.
"I'm very eager," Jackson said when asked about the Ravens' 2023 season at the press conference for his new deal. "I think I told someone, I want to throw for like 6,000 yards with the weapons we have. I'm not an individual, award type of guy. I just want to do that because no one's ever done that before, and we have the weapons to do that. ... Just can't wait to get rolling."
If Monken could have top passing offenses with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, imagine what he could do with Jackson. Baltimore's defense will likely remain stout, so if the Ravens new aerial-focused offense can lift Jackson and Baltimore's passing game to new heights, the AFC North will be well within their reach.