For football fans of a certain age, it may seem unthinkable that the entire AFC North division is now catching up with the Cincinnati Bengals.
This is a franchise that didn’t appear in a single playoff game from 1991 to 2004. They lost in the AFC Wild Card round five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015.
They saw the Pittsburgh Steelers (2005, 2008) and Baltimore Ravens (2000, 2012) each win two Super Bowls in 13 seasons, including the Ravens’ first outing from the former AFC Central.
The Steelers and New England Patriots are tied for the most Super Bowl championships with six each. Pittsburgh also won the AFC North four times in eight seasons from 2013 to 2020 and did not finish below second place once.
Suddenly, however, head coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to two AFC North titles, a 22-11 regular season, an 8-5 division record, a record of 5-2 in the playoffs, two AFC Championship berths and a Super Bowl appearance in two years.
It’s now coming in June of the 2023 offseason, as there are rumblings in league circles that free agent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has a chance to land with the Cleveland Browns, in part because that they may be willing and able to pay a higher salary than most.
Hopkins, 30, would make the team better. He and QB Deshaun Watson have chemistry from their years with the Houston Texans. But would it be a necessary decision for Cleveland or a desperate decision?
They are not Super Bowl contenders. Hopkins could improve them just enough to save a few jobs and pinch the Bengals’ heels, though.
For the past two years, however, the Browns have made an expensive and controversial trade for Watson out of desperation – after their dogged support of Baker Mayfield – before giving Watson an expensive and controversial guaranteed contract.
Looks like just yesterday, rookie coach Kevin Stefanski led his 2020 Browns team to their first playoff berth since 2002, then a Wild Card victory over rival Steelers while Stefanski was quarantined in his sub- floor.
Now, in the blink of an eye, GM Andrew Berry and Stefanski enter Year 4 with the added pressure on them from the success of their intrastate rivals and the fickle nature of owner Jimmy Haslam.
The underperforming Ravens are also acting with urgency as they enter Coach John Harbaugh’s 16th season as head coach. They had to crush a public showdown with franchise QB Lamar Jackson out of necessity.
They drafted Boston College wide receiver Zay Flowers in the first round and signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a one-year, $15 million deal, knowing they needed more.
While the Bengals lost their first three head-to-head division games last season, Cincinnati went 4-0 in the AFC North the rest of the way, including a 24-17 Wild Card victory over the Ravens led by Tyler Huntley.
The Steelers stayed afloat at .500 or better in the regular season, but Mike Tomlin and Pittsburgh paid a penalty for hanging on to Ben Roethlisberger too long. Their rise to the top must therefore be gradual and intelligent.
Cincinnati’s recent success isn’t just offensive. The Bengals defense, led by coordinator Lou Anarumo, has been excellent, especially in the playoffs. They held the mighty Kansas City Chiefs to 24 and 23 points, respectively, in back-to-back AFC title games.
AFC North’s balance, however, can be precisely summed up in its quarterbacks:
Cincy a Terrier. The Ravens have Jackson. Cleveland has a shell of what Watson once was, at least based on its most recent football. And the Steelers have Kenny Pickett.
In that context, the Browns hypothetically adding Hopkins could help them get something, anything, from Watson. So it’s worth it, especially with the general manager and the coach maybe feeling a bit of heat.
The bigger picture, however, is that the Bengals’ seemingly long-term threat as a championship contender appears to have put their AFC North rivals on high alert.
SLAYTON DEFENDS DANIEL
Last fall, Darius Slayton promised to deliver a message to all Daniel Jones haters this spring once the Giants QB proves everyone wrong. Here’s what Slayton had to say in defense of his 2019 recruited colleague on the “Talkin’ Ball with Pat Leonard” podcast this week:
“In our first three years, I think people underestimated how much turnover affects players,” he said. “We’ve been here four years and had three head coaches, four OCs [offensive coordinators]. It’s four different people with a microphone in his helmet, four voices. The four voices have different philosophies, different ideas, and as players you have to adapt to each coach’s personality.
“Some coaches are more aggressive, some are more conservative, which ultimately affects how we play on a subconscious level,” Slayton continued. “So I think the success he had last year proved that he’s capable, he’s a winning quarterback, he’s a quarterback who can be a franchise guy, and all we needed was someone to come along and let him be him.”
For Slayton’s info on new teammates Darren Waller, Parris Campbell and Jalin Hyatt, as well as updates on Brian Daboll’s attacking progress and more, head to Apple, Spotify or @PLonNFL on YouTube.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Football coaches and players around the world are mourning the loss of coach Bill McGovern, 60, who died at his California home on Tuesday following a battle with cancer. McGovern, most recently UCLA’s defensive coordinator, was a first-team All-America defensive back at Holy Cross who went on to a decorated coaching career in the NCAA and NFL. He coached the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Giants as pros after an impressive NCAA streak that included 13 years at Boston College, where he coached stars like Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich. McGovern, revered by all who knew him as a big man and mentor, spent four years coaching linebackers with the Giants under Ben McAdoo (2016-17) and Pat Shurmur (2018-19). … Minority New Raiders owner Tom Brady told Sports Illustrated: “I’m sure I won’t be playing again. So I tried to clear that up and I hate to keep professing that because I’ve told people that many times before. So there you have it (until Brady asks that question again, at least). … San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey, the highest-paid running back with an average annual salary of $16 million, defended Saquon Barkley and the values of all RBs during a recent appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show.” . “I look at what Saquon Barkley brings to the Giants. I look at what Josh Jacobs brings to the Raiders. Austin Ekeler (Chargers). Dalvin Cook (Vikings)… They’ve been eye-catching, they catch the ball out of the backfield, they provide multiple threats, they create lags, they make defensive coordinators think, and I think that has a lot of value. … Former Steelers star RB Le’Veon Bell admitted on the ‘Steel Here’ podcast that he used to smoke marijuana before NFL games. “Thinking back, that’s what I did,” Bell said. “When I was playing football I was smoking mate. Even before the games I was smoking and I was going there and running for 150 [yards and] two [touchdowns].” But anyone shocked by that admission – or who thinks Bell is the only one – hasn’t been paying attention to football’s reflection of society’s changing tolerance for the matter. The NFL Players Union won significantly relaxed rules from the NFL in the new collective bargaining agreement on marijuana testing and enforcement, including not testing for Delta 9-THC-acid. carboxylic acid present in cannabis during the off-season, increasing the threshold for failing a THC test fourfold (from 35 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml), and no suspension for a single failed test.
THEY SAID IT
“If it were up to him, honestly, we’d probably be sunrise to sunset every day. But sometimes you have to remind him, “Buddy, you’re not running.” — Slayton jokes about Giants QB Jones holding frequent workouts away from team facilities in the spring