The AFC North has been one of the toughest NFL divisions to forecast the past three years, based on the fact that in 2018 and 2020 the odds-on choice failed to win the loop and in 2019 the third-rated team, Baltimore, prevailed at +400.
Only the NFC North has a longer stretch of seasons without the preseason division favorite coming through.
The Ravens are the choice again this year, but not as heavy a favorite as in 2020 when they went off at -180 and wound up with a wild card. Only Cincinnati figures to be left behind in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last year.
Here are the division and Super Bowl betting odds for the group:
|AFC North Odds||DraftKings||FanDuel||BetMGM|
It helps immensely that the Browns, who finished third in the North last year, have by far the division’s easiest schedule based on the win expectancy of their foes.
Cleveland made dramatic offensive improvement last year behind QB Baker Mayfield, entering his fourth season. After pitching 21 INTs in 2019, he threw only 10 last year and had 28 TD passes as Cleveland went 11-5 and earned its first playoff berth in 18 years. All 11 starters return, too.
RBs Nick Chubb (1,067 yards, 5.6 norm) and 2017 NFL rushing champ Kareem Hunt form a dynamic 1-2 punch, and Mayfield has nice receiving targets in Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashard Higgins (16.7 per reception) . Plus the offensive line is rated as one of the league’s best.
The defense was far from the best last year when it allowed 47 touchdowns, which was two more than last-place Cincinnati. But there has been a major makeover of the unit this offseason and nine different starters are expected opening day for NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski. They’ll join a couple of Pro Bowl holdovers in DE Myles Garrett (12 sacks 2020) and CB Denzel Ward.
And maybe this year Cleveland will avoid another horrible start. The past two seasons have seen the Browns lose by 30-plus points in Week 1.
Note: Uh-oh! The Browns begin their season on the road against the favorites to win the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs. In last year’s divisional playoff round, the Browns fell to the Chiefs in KC, 22-17.
The Ravens have flourished in the past three regular seasons with QB Lamar Jackson as the starter, going 30-7 and making the playoffs three straight times after a three-year drought. But the team has struggled mightily in the postseason, going 1-3 and totaling only five touchdowns.
Outscoring the opposition hasn’t been an issue. though, in the regular season. In 2020, Baltimore had a plus-165 points differential that was tops in the league, but that was down from a league-best plus-249 edge in 2019.
Jackson just had his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season (6.3 norm) to team with RB J.K. Dobbins, whose 805 yards at 6.0 a carry was impressive enough for the NFL’s top rushing team to release vet Mark Ingram this offseason. Seven times in 2020 Baltimore rushed for 200-plus yards. There were 13 teams that didn’t have even one such game.
Yet Jackson has been criticized for his failure to show progress throwing the deep ball. Thus, Baltimore selected University of Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman in the first round to help out.
On defense, a lack of a pass rush has caused issues. But standout CBs Marlon Humphries and Marcus Peters are considered top-of-the line at their position.
Note: The Ravens have a rough go in Weeks 13 and 14 vs. their fiercest North rivals, playing at Pittsburgh on a Sunday and then hitting the road again to face a Cleveland team off a bye the next Sunday. It’s one of only two times this season a team plays on the road a week before playing away from home again vs. a team coming off its rest week.
No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers
Which Steelers team can we expect to see this season? The one that started the season 11-0 in 2020 or the one that lost four of its next five and then was blitzed by Cleveland 48-37 at home in the wild-card round? Cleveland led 28-0 in the first quarter.
Most likely it will be the latter for a team that had the league’s worst rushing attack last season and a 39-year-old quarterback who has lost mobility and threw for a career-low 6.3 yards an attempt last season, excluding 2019 when he missed the final 14 games.
It will be up to a stellar defense to play over its head.
Even though Pittsburgh drafted Alabama RB Najee Harris in the first round, he’s probably not going to have a lot of running room considering three standout offensive linemen are gone: OLT Alejando Villanueva, via free agency; center Maurkice Pouncey, who retired; and guard David DeCastro, who was released for salary cap reasons. Together they started a combined 348 games for Pittsburgh with 17 Pro Bowl seasons.
Pittsburgh’s hopes to contend will center around a defense that has been atop the league sack chart the past three seasons, with T.J. Watt having an NFL-best 15 last season. The Steelers also get back injured LB Devin Bush, who played only five games last season because of a knee injury. He led the team in tackles a year earlier.
Note: The Steelers have a league-high four games against teams off extended rest — one off a bye, three others having played the previous Thursday.
No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals
It should be a steep climb to playoff contention in this powerhouse division for the Bengals, who finished 6 1/2 games deep in the cellar last season and have been last in the loop the past three years.
QB Joe Burrow returns after suffering a serious midseason knee injury and now has his old favorite target from LSU’s 2019 season in Ja’Marr Chase — but only a slightly better offensive line.
Joe Mixon will be the featured back, but coach Zac Taylor, 6-25-1 in two years as boss, is going to need to get him some help.
Defensively, the Bengals had a league-low 17 sacks last season and followed up by drafting three edge rushers. But they’ll also need show major improvement stopping the ground game, having yielded 5.1 a carry last season.