The AFC North is one of the nastiest divisions in football and this year should be no exception. The Bengals open the year as favorites, but this could be a three-horse race in December. The worst thing about this quartet is that whichever club comes out of the pile in the end could be too beat up to do anything in the playoffs. If you’re getting points in a inter-divisional game, take a long look at taking them.
Odds to win the AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals – Season win total over/under: 8.5 (over -166)
The Bengals have been to the playoffs three years running but what they’re looking to do this year is take another step and win a postseason game. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton. The Red Rocket has major playmakers in A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Giovani Bernard and is coming of a career year. Dalton threw 33 touchdowns in the regular season. The Bengals also return most of a young defensive core that gave up fewer than 20 points per game last year. The time is now for the Bengals and the pressure is on. One nasty schedule tidbit: Bengals are home to the Broncos in Week 16 and at Pittsburgh the following week.
Prediction: 10-6, first place in the AFC North. From a betting perspective, it all depends on Andy Dalton. His 20 interceptions were at least five too many last year, but if he takes care of the football, Cincinnati could be a top five team against the spread.
Baltimore Ravens – Season win total over/under: 8.5 (Over -140)
The Ravens didn’t make much of a splash in the offseason, but still have a lot of solid pieces left from the 2013 Super Bowl team. Many people wrote last year off as a Super Bowl hangover, though it’s never that simple. Baltimore can’t win unless its running the ball effectively and that means Bernard Pierce needs a bigger role this season. With Ray Rice suspended two games to start the season and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak coming, Pierce should get his shot behind a new-look offensive line. That in itself could be worth a couple extra wins.
Prediction: 9-7, second place in the AFC North. Even if the Ravens struggle out of the gate, keep a close eye on them. Last year’s drop-off could create some betting opportunities for Ravens supporters down the road.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Season win total over/under: 8.5 (Over -134)
The Steelers’ season was over before they knew what happened last year. After losing their first four, they fought back to finish 8-8 outright and 9-7 against the spread. This isn’t your big brother’s Steelers. This team went to an up-tempo, quick-strike offence late last year and that was the main reason why Pittsburgh finished at .500. There are still major concerns on defence, so Ben Roethlisberger will have to manufacture a lot of points despite losing wideouts Emmanuel and Jerricho Cotchery in the offseason. Running back Le`Veon Bell will have to be ready to grow up quick in his second season.
Prediction: 8-8, third place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh lost too much on offense in the offseason and its defence is still too young – outside of a dangerously old secondary. The Steelers should keep games close, but they`ll be in tough to challenge for the division crown.
Cleveland Browns – Season win total over/under: 6.5 (Over -149)
Right now, it sounds as though Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon will be suspended at least half of this season and possibly the whole year. That’s a rotten shame. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the league and gives Cleveland a completely different look. Without him, the Browns can’t compete with the rest of the division. There’s also way too much pressure to start rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. That means that even if Brian Hoyer holds onto the starting gig through preseason, he won’t have a short leash. Cleveland starts the year at Pittsburgh, home to New Orleans, and home to Baltimore so that could easily be an 0-3 start.
Prediction: 6-10, fourth place in the AFC North. This team is a year or two away no matter what happens with Josh Gordon. Fade this team on the road.