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The AFC North’s historic 2023 NFL season may not actually be its best

Was this the toughest year for the toughest division?

NFL: JAN 06 Steelers at Ravens Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2023 was an historic year for the AFC North. Every team in the division had a winning record, a feat that hadn’t been matched in 88 years. Many called the AFC North this year’s toughest division. But I’ll argue that the division had a more impressive season in its past, and it doesn’t require breaking out the microfiche of history to discover it.

Since the formation of the AFC North in 2002, we’ve had three seasons where three teams from the division made the postseason. But a few seasons could lay claim to the title of division’s greatest.

2008

This is when the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens met in the AFC Conference Championship. It’s certainly the division’s most significant representation in January. But the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns were each 4-12 that season.

2011

Three AFC North teams qualified for the post-season, but the Bengals and Steelers each fell in the Wild Card round. The Ravens defeated the Houston Texans in the Divisional round, before losing to New England in the AFC Championship.

2014

Three teams made the playoffs, but only Baltimore advanced beyond the Wild Card round by upsetting the Steelers at Heinz Field. Cincinnati got spanked by the Indianapolis Colts. Cleveland finished the season 7-9.

2020

Once again, three teams from the division qualified for post-season play. Both Baltimore and Cleveland advanced to the Divisional round, the latter at Pittsburgh’s expense. Cincinnati was 4-11-1 that season. But if we take a closer look at the stats, this season shares some similarities with 2023.

2020 AFC North

Team Record Conference Record Total Points Scored Total Points Average Total Points Rank Total Points Against Points Against Average Points Against Rank
Team Record Conference Record Total Points Scored Total Points Average Total Points Rank Total Points Against Points Against Average Points Against Rank
Steelers 12-4 9-3 416 26 12 312 19.5 3
Ravens 11-5 7-5 468 29.25 7 303 18.94 2
Browns 11-5 7-5 408 25.5 14 419 26.19 21
Bengals 4-11-2001 4-8 311 19.43 29 424 26.5 22
2020 AFC North final results

Despite the Bengals having a much worse record in 2020 than 2023, their performances weren’t too far apart.

2023 AFC North

Team Record Conference Record Points For Points For Average Points for Rank Points Against Points Against Average Points Against Rank
Team Record Conference Record Points For Points For Average Points for Rank Points Against Points Against Average Points Against Rank
Ravens 13-4 8-4 483 28.41 4 280 16.47 1
Browns 11-6 8-5 396 23.29 11 362 21.29 13
Steelers 10-7 7-5 304 17.88 28 324 19.06 6
Bengals 9-8 4-8 366 21.53 16 382 22.59 21
2023 AFC North final results

If we average all scoring stats across the entire division, here’s the breakdown.

In 2020, the AFC North scored 25.045 points per game and gave up 22.783 points per game, compared to 24.8 league-wide average.

In 2023, the AFC North scored 22.778 points per game and gave up 19.853 points per game, compared to a 21.8 league-wide average.

The two seasons are practically identical when compared to the league average. I’d argue 2020 was the better season for the division, considering two teams won games in the post-season.

For what it’s worth, the AFC North is 5-5 in conference championship games and 3-3 in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh has represented the AFC North in the conference championship five times, going 3-2. Baltimore has three appearances, going 1-2. Cincinnati has two appearances, going 1-1. The three teams to win it all were the 2005 Steelers, the 2008 Steelers, and the 2012 Ravens.