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AFC North Season Preview

Image licensed from USA Today Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off their second straight AFC North title and their third in four years. Meanwhile, the Ravens improved for the second year in a row but fell short of earning a playoff berth and the Cincinnati Bengals suffered through their second straight losing season. The Ravens appear to be close to challenging the Steelers for the division title but Pittsburgh still has the edge. Cincinnati looks destined for another year of mediocrity but they have enough talent to at least be a .500 team if a few things go right. What’s that other AFC North team? Oh yeah, Cleveland. What can you say about Cleveland’s last couple of campaigns? 1-31? Let’s see how things are going to shape up this year in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

It’s not like you can blame Cleveland’s winless 2017 on a brutal schedule or a slew of key injuries. Try as you may, you can’t even blame the refs. No. This team just stunk! Surely they’re going to be better this year? Right? Surely they can get at least one win out their games against the Jets, Bucs, Bengals or Denver? Maybe they can even steal a game from Pittsburgh like they almost did twice in 2017? They might have made a few beneficial changes but these guys are going to have another long season.

Cleveland appears to have upgraded in a big way at quarterback which is more a testament to how bad their quarterback by the committee was last year as opposed to how awesome Tyrod Taylor is. The biggest story is their number one draft pick, Baker Mayfield but we’ll have to wait to find out if he’ll get his chance to lead the team this year. The additions of Jarvis Landry, Jeff Janis, and rookie Antonio Callaway give them a much better receiving corp while Carlos Hyde should be motivated by the fact that he could be supplanted by Duke Johnson or rookie Nick Chubb. The offensive line doesn’t look like it will be much better than the atrocious one they had last year but a good season out of rookie guard Austin Corbett and center JC Tretter would help the cause.

The defense has a few good pieces like Myles Garrett and Jamie Collins. Honestly, Cleveland’s defense isn’t terrible unless you simply consider that they allowed the second-most points against per game in 2017. A lot of that can be attributed to their league-worst -28 turnovers. The offense needs to hold onto the ball and hope that their defense can create turnovers.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

2017 wasn’t a banner season for the Bengals and it is isn’t looking like 2018 will be all that memorable either. Thanks to Cleveland being in their division, Cincinnati managed to scrape together a 3-3 record against their AFC North division rivals. Outside of that is was pretty grim. They went 2-3 in games against winning teams and you could even argue that they went 2-4 when you consider they lost to the Packers when they were still winning with Rodgers. The schedule isn’t any easier this year.

Andy Dalton is still a decent quarterback despite being rather flat over the past two seasons. The Bengals have had trouble scoring touchdowns even though they have a stud receiver in A.J. Green and a capable young running back in Joe Mixon. With the exception of their 2018 first-round pick, center Billy Price, the offense is pretty similar to last year’s version.

They don’t look much different on the defensive side of the ball either although they’ve added rookie free safety Jessie Bates III into the mix. This is actually good news because this defense is loaded with young guys that are trending up. Besides, it’s not like this defense was all that bad, to begin with. They were one of the better teams against the pass and although they allowed the 3rd-most rushing yards against per game last year. The 4.2 yard per run against was far from the worst average in the league.

 

Baltimore Ravens

If it wasn’t for a critical loss against Cincinnati in Week 17, the Ravens would have been in the playoffs. Baltimore overcame a slow start and got themselves right back in the thick of things thanks to a stretch in which they won 5 of 6 games. However, the reality is that the Ravens played just 6 games against teams with winning records and they won only one of those. It’s going to be tougher this year as they play 9 games against winning teams from 2017.

With a revamped receiving corps, it looks like embattled quarterback Joe Flacco has some good options which is a good thing considering that they look rather weak at the running back position. Baltimore should still have one of the better offensive lines in the league so it’s really going to be up to Flacco to make his throws count. Don’t expect miracles out of the running game.

The Ravens have mostly been recognized for having strong defenses over the years and they should once again be in the top portion of the league in that department. They allowed the 6th fewest points against in 2017 and there isn’t much reason to believe they aren’t going to be just as difficult to score on this year. Just remember that those stats from last year were accumulated against some pretty bad teams. 2018 going to be tougher.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

One of the biggest knocks on the Steelers in 2017 was that they seemed to lack the killer instinct. Narrow victories over Indy and Green Bay, along with their 2 wins over Cleveland and a loss to Chicago left many fans shaking their heads. Sure, a win’s a win and they racked up 13 of them during the regular season but it was like they weren’t interested sometimes. The schedule is going to be a bit tougher this year. They will play 8 teams that posted winning records last year instead of the 6 they faced in 2017.

This offense is very good. They have an elite running back and one of the most electrifying wide receivers in the league. Their offensive line is among the best and all of these traits makes them a team that can score a lot of points. They will do that this year too.

All of those things just said about their offense also apply to their defense. Little has changed in that department so it can be reasonably expected that Pittsburgh remains one of the toughest teams to score on in the upcoming season. If they can force a few more turnovers then they will once again be a special team. At least in the regular season.

 

Betting Predictions

 Current Odds to Win the Division and Projected Order:

1st Pittsburgh -280

2nd Baltimore +400

3rd Cincinnati +1000

4th Cleveland +1200

Win Total Predictions

Pittsburgh: Over 10 (-140) – One of these years the Steelers will no longer dominate the AFC North. Alas, 2018 is not that year. Six games against the weak teams in the Division all but ensure the Steelers go over their projected win total for the fourth time in five years.

Baltimore: Over 8 (-135) -  Tough call, but if Flacko utilizes all of his offensive pieces, the Ravens could win nine games and be in the wildcard conversation.

Cincinnati: Under 6.5 (+160) - The late money has come in on the Over 6.5 (-190). I'm not laying almost 2-1 on Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. Small lean here on the Under.

Cleveland: Under 5,5 (+115) - This total seems like an overcorrection based on this year's draft and the HBO show "Hard Knocks," which features the Browns. They may have a future, but it doesn't start this year. This play provides excellent value and is our top pick of these four bets.

The Admiral

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