Battle of AFC North: Will Cincinnati or Cleveland Reign Supreme?

It’s finally a conversation worth having – who will win the Battle for Ohio between the Bengals and the Browns? The answer may determine the AFC North.

Before the AFC North battle, the Bengals and Browns haven’t given NFL fans in Ohio much to cheer about.

During the Super Bowl era, the state is 0-for-57 in NFL Championships. The last title coming for the Browns in 1964. Three years before the NFL Championship was even called the Super Bowl.

Failed draft picks, poor coaching hires, even a brief departure from the city (for Cleveland). They’ve all been part of Ohio’s NFL history.

But everything could change in 2023. The Bengals, coming off a Super Bowl appearance two years ago and a tight loss in the AFC Championship to eventual champ Kansas City last year, are a hot pick to make it to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

AFC north

But can they overcome their in-state rivals? The Browns, armed with a franchise QB and a superior offensive line, are a trendy pick to make some noise in the AFC North and beyond this season.

We look at each squad and attempt to pick a winner in the Battle of Ohio for 2023.

Cincinnati Bengals Preview

Last Season

12-4, AFC North Champions, lost AFC Championship game to Kansas City.

Key Additions

Sometimes the best way to strengthen your team is by weakening your foe. The Bengals did both when they signed offensive tackle Orlando Brown – who spent the last two years with the Chiefs – to a four-year deal.

Brown was by far the Bengals’ biggest free agency splash, but safety Nick Scott is in as well to help shore up a secondary that was hit by free agency. Second-round pick DJ Turner will figure prominently in the defensive backfield, while first rounder Myles Murphy figures to be a cornerstone of the Cincinnati pass rush.

Key Losses

Safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are off to the AFC South, Bates to Atlanta and Bell to Carolina.

Cornerback Tre Flowers is joining Bates in the ATL, and Eli Apple signed with the Dolphins. The Bengals have plenty of work to do retooling their secondary.

Tight end Hayden Hurst also left for – you guessed it – the NFC South. Joining Bell in Carolina while RB Samaje Perine is now with the Broncos.

Cincinnati Bengals Season Preview

The trio of QB Joe Burrow, WR Ja’Marr Chase, and RB Joe Mixon is fast becoming the AFC’s premier skill-position group.

Tee Higgins is one of the best #2 wide receivers in the NFL, and the Bengals have done an admirable job rebuilding the offensive line that was much maligned after their Super Bowl LVI loss.

Cincinnati Bengals

The schedule is unforgiving: the Bengals open AND close the season against their in-state rivals from Cleveland, with trips to Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Kansas City – all playoff teams last year.

The Bengals host three more playoff teams in Minnesota, Buffalo, and Seattle in addition to their two games each with division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Cleveland Browns Preview

Last Season

7-10, 4th place in AFC North, missed playoffs.

Key Additions

The Browns added plenty of pieces and depth to their defense this offseason, including defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson formerly of the Vikingsand veteran safety Rodney McLeod.

Elijah Moore and third-round pick Cedric Tillman add to the wide receiving corps, and Wes Martin adds depth to the AFC’s best offensive line.

Key Losses

Jadeveon Clowney and Kareem Hunt are the biggest names in this section, and although Clowney signed with the division rivals Baltimore Ravens, Hunt is still looking for this 2023 team.

Cleveland was largely spared by major departures in the offseason.

Cleveland Browns Season Preview

The most promising element of Cleveland’s 2023 season is the opportunity for QB DeShaun Watson to spend an entire season operating behind my pick for the AFC’s best offensive line.

Running the ball with Nick Chubb doesn’t hurt the outlook either. Amari Cooper and the emerging Donovan Peoples-Jones are the main targets on the outside, with offseason acquisition Elijah Moore in the mix.

By week 4, Cleveland will have played each divisional rival once. Aside from their divisional matchups, a week 8 trip to Seattle looks like the toughest road trip for 2023.

Cleveland Browns

How Do the Browns and Bengals Do Against AFC North Foes?

The Browns have owned this head-to-head matchup over the past five seasons, taking 8 of 10 games from the Bengals. Cincinnati did, however, claim the most recent matchup – a 23-10 final score on December 11 last season.

Records Over Past Five Seasons Against AFC North Opponents

This underscores how tight the AFC North really is. Cleveland hasn’t finished higher than third in the past five years, yet they have a winning divisional record.

Both teams have gone 4-6 against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers over the past five season. However, you can add in one extra win against Baltimore for the Bengals thanks to last year’s Wild Card playoff game.

Divisional Records Since 2018

Cleveland Browns: 16-14
Cincinnati Bengals:
11-20 (includes one playoff win)

Despite their struggles against the Browns, Cincinnati has gone a combined 7-2 vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh the past two seasons. It’s no accident that the franchise’s fortunes turned when they started winning divisional matchups.

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Battle for the AFC North: Who Wins in 2023?

I think Cincinnati ends up winning the AFC North in 2023.

But Cleveland is the better bet.

Confusing? It’s a simple question of odds (courtesy of DraftKings):


AFC North TeamOdds to Win AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals+140
Baltimore Ravens+235
Cleveland Browns+400
Pittsburgh Steelers+500
AFC favorite: Bengals

The Bengals have won the division two straight years and deserve to be favored again.

But looking at Cleveland’s record against Cincinnati, their improved depth, more favorable schedule, and a quarterback with everything to prove… the Browns make for a live underdog. At a price of +390, they’re worth a shot to win the AFC North. Even if the Bengals are the favorites.

For a prediction?

Let’s go with the Bengals finishing 11-6 and topping the Browns by a single game. Cleveland, at 10-7, figures to be in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race.

In fact, it might all come down to the Week 18 showdown in Cincinnati between the Bengals and Browns. It’s shaping up to be another photo finish in the AFC North, suddenly one of football’s toughest divisions.

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