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'Hard Knocks: In Season' to feature AFC North teams

Hard Knocks is entering new territory in 2024 with plans to document an entire division's regular-season journey.

For the first time ever, HBO and NFL Films will follow all four teams in the AFC North for their annual Hard Knocks: In Season, aiming to chronicle the inner workings of the rough-and-tumble quartet of squads. The new episodes will feature the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, members of the first division to finish with nothing but winning records, achieved in 2023.

"Last season the AFC North became the first division ever to have all four teams finish with a winning record, making it the perfect place to launch this new approach to Hard Knocks," NFL Films vice president and head of content Keith Cossrow said in a statement on Monday. "We thank the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers for the opportunity to showcase some of the greatest rivalries in football and present the intensity of a playoff chase from all four corners of this incredibly competitive division."

All but one of the AFC North members have appeared on Hard Knocks in the past, with Baltimore serving as the focus of the first-ever Hard Knocks, Cincinnati appearing in 2009, and Cleveland filling the role in 2018. Pittsburgh will be making its debut after a productive offseason that included the additions of quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Justin Fields, and a new three-year contract extension for coach Mike Tomlin.

Hard Knocks season officially begins with the debut of Hard Knocks: Offseason with the New York Giants on July 2, followed by the start of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Chicago Bears on Aug. 6.

Here are four things to watch for in Hard Knocks: In Season with the AFC North, which debuts Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and will be available to stream on Max.

1. Intense rivalries. The football world is already well-acquainted with the fierce struggle that has lasted for 20-plus years between the Steelers and Ravens, but they might not be quite as familiar with the disdain shared by the Bengals and Browns with the rest of the division. There was a time when Browns-Steelers was the best rivalry in the formerly named AFC Central, back before the Ravens existed, and thanks to the Browns' and Bengals' return to contention, this entire division is brimming with fuel for the fire of hatred. Expect the lead-up to every divisional showdown to be emotionally charged, and for the HBO and NFL Films cameras to exquisitely capture every bone-rattling hit between each participating team. There's a reason the AFC North is known as the most brutal division in football, and it's not just because of the weather. If this group ends up as close in the standings as they were last season, these winter games should produce some of the best footage in the history of Hard Knocks.

2. Pivotal seasons for two (or three) QBs. Lamar Jackson is coming off his second career NFL MVP, and Joe Burrow is entrenched as the franchise quarterback of the Bengals. That still leaves two teams with questions needing answered under center. Deshaun Watson returns for Year 3 of his Browns career with little to show for his efforts so far, but he's had a long runway to rehab and return at full strength to an offense that should be better (on paper, at least) than it was last season, when Joe Flacco was slinging Cleveland to unexpected victories. If Watson's going to prove he was worth the $230 million he received from the Browns, it better be in 2024. And we all know the uncertainty surrounding the Steelers, who brought in both Russell Wilson and Justin Fields completely revamp their quarterbacks room this offseason. Will Wilson emerge as the Week 1 starter? If so, how long does he hold onto the job? And how does Fields find a fit if he isn't the starter? That alone should be worth watching, even if this is an in-season documentary, and not one focused on training camp. If the doubters are right, the HBO/NFL Films crews should be in perfect position to capture the moment Wilson loses his job to Fields.

3. Baltimore's attempt to defend the throne. The Ravens finished the 2023 regular season with so much emphasis, it helped power Jackson's campaign for his second MVP. Jackson was far from the only star, though, for a team that emerged from the regular season as the heavy favorite to take the AFC crown, and it wasn't until the clock struck triple zeroes that we even considered the chance Baltimore wouldn't be in the Super Bowl. The Ravens looked like a juggernaut as the calendar turned to 2024, and there's no reason -- other than losses in the coaching staff -- they shouldn't repeat that performance again this season. The addition of Derrick Henry and a depth-focused draft should make them the favorites again this fall, but don't expect the rest of the division to lay down. Every team in this division believes this is their year.

4. The return of Joe Burrow's Bengals? Cincinnati had a rough 2023 season because its quarterback was only healthy for about a month's time. Burrow began the season looking like a statue due to a calf injury that carried over from training camp into the season, then suddenly found his health again, lighting up the Cardinals for 317 yards and three touchdowns in Week 5, which served as Cincinnati's official announcement of its return. Folks along the Ohio River are likely still wondering what could have been had Burrow not suffered a season-ending injury in Week 10, but now that he's healthy again, they have every reason to get excited about what is ahead in 2024. Health has been Burrow's greatest adversary to this point in his career, and as long as he avoids the injury bug, the Bengals should be right in the thick of the AFC North, a division that doesn't own any glaring weaknesses. If he's on top of his game, he just might lead the Bengals back to the division throne, too.

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