For a while now, NFL fans have considered the AFC North the roughest division in football. Is it the best division in the NFL? Well, maybe, but maybe not. But it is, without a doubt, the roughest division in football. Almost every team in the division is good. Almost.
Since the inception/re-naming of the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns have won the division a grand total of zero times. Only twice have they even come in second place in their division. Yes, the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers currently rule the North, but the Browns could be on the rise in coming years. So, what exactly do the Browns need to do in order to compete for a division crown? Let’s take a look.
NOTE: This article is part of a series. If you missed the last part, be sure to check it out.
Five Steps for the Cleveland Browns to Compete in the AFC North
1. Bolster the Running Game
Going back to the fact that the AFC North is the roughest division in football, it’s mainly because of the style of play. First and foremost, you have to be able to run the football in this division. This is what makes the Steelers so successful; Le’Veon Bell is a monster, and they can always run the ball. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger definitely helps a lot, but Bell is normally their offense’s focal point in the winter months. If the Browns can find a way to bolster their running game, that should be a great start. Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, and Matt Dayes are nice pieces, but they must all gel together.
2. Kizer is Key
In the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Browns took Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. Now, Kizer is a special case. Earlier in the year, he was seen as a top pick, but due to various circumstances, fell to round two. But why did scouts love him originally? Size.
Take a look at every other quarterback in the AFC North. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton are all big and tall, with a strong arm. And (surprise, surprise) DeShone Kizer is the exact same way. All things considered, Kizer is a prototypical North quarterback. If Hue Jackson and company give him time to develop, he could become a star.
3. Rough and Tumble Defense
Alright, it’s no secret that the Browns defense needs some work, especially in the secondary. However, the front seven is already greatly improved, with some nice pieces in place. All signs are pointing to the Browns front seven becoming their strong suit, and that’s exactly what they need. At the end of the day, teams in this division need a strong front line to compete with opposing offenses. It’s really that simple, and it looks like the Browns might be finally starting to figure that out.
4. Be Consistent
Each and every year, it seems there is at least one AFC North team that makes a deep playoff run. Last year, it was the Steelers. Before that, it was the Steelers. In 2014, it was the Ravens who lost to the juggernaut New England Patriots. So, what lesson can we learn from that? Well, we have to notice that every other division team is usually pretty consistent. Now, that’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike. However, if the Browns can find it, they should be well on their way to division game success.
5. Finish Strong
It seems like it’s been forever since the Browns truly finished a season strong. Sure, they might start out winning one or two games in the beginning stages, but then they fall off a cliff. In a division as cutthroat as the AFC North, that is simply unacceptable. During most seasons, the division title race is incredibly close. One loss could completely derail a season and allow for another team to overtake the Browns. If they want to truly succeed in this division long-term, the Browns need to eliminate unnecessary losses and unforced errors. Then, and only then, will they be able to compete.