They might not admit it publicly, but I’m pretty sure that if you asked the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns if they would like to move to another division they would be out of their faster than Mike Brown could say, “tax-payer subsidized soul”.
The poor Bengals and Browns have been the whipping boys for Baltimore and Pittsburgh since the league expanded to eight divisions back in 2002. The Ravens and Steelers have won eight of 10 division titles and have ruled the North with an iron fist, routinely pummeling the inept Ohioans. And as much as I would like to say that it is going to be different for the bottom feeders this season it most assuredly will not.
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Here is my NFL predictions and NFL betting odds for my 2012 AFC North preview, with odds courtesy of 5Dimes:
Pittsburgh Steelers Predictions
2011 Record: 12-4 (7-1 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-9 ATS, 6-10 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 12th offense (10th pass, 14th rush); 1st overall (1st pass, 8th rush)
2012 Odds: 16/1 to win SB, 7/1 to win AFC, 1.2/1 to win AFC North, 10.0 wins O/U
Offense: Last year the Steelers outgained their opponents by 100 yards per game, the highest total in football. But they were done in by a -14 turnover ratio. Some of that was just sloppy play as a traditional smashmouth, run-first team continued its transition to a more pass-heavy offense. Some of it was also due to an offensive line that had Ben Roethlisberger running for his life. Regardless, the Steelers gave OC Bruce Arians the axe and brought in volatile Todd Haley. It will be interesting to see how the brash, opinionated Haley plays in the Steel City within perhaps the best organization in football. Haley loves to throw the ball. But his first task needs to be resuscitating a ragged running game that was not nearly as effective as its No. 14 rating suggests. Pittsburgh lacks a legit No. 1 back and will try to get the job done by committee this season. Also, the receiving corps is solid – if Mike Wallace returns from his holdout. If not, they are one injury away from being in crisis on the wings.
Defense: It’s tough to have any complaints about a unit that has finished No. 1 in scoring in three of the past four years and has been in the Top 3 in football in six of the last eight seasons. That is beyond domination. Some of the more decorated veterans, guys like Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, can’t be counted on to lead the defense for a full 16 games any more. But they will still be a factor and are doing a good job of teaching the Steeler Way to the next crop of players. The defense is not the same without Polamalu. And he has only played 16 games twice in the last six years. But when he plays he is still among the best players in the sport. The Steelers get pressure from everywhere, they are impossible to run consistently against, and they have slowly and steadily build up nice depth in their back four. This defense dominated last year. And looking at this year’s schedule they could be even better during this campaign.
Skinny: The Steelers have been a premier franchise in the NFL for over 40 years. They just keep doing it. And this season will be no different. There are holes on this team. The offensive line is a train wreck and is one of the worst in football. But they have overcome issues in the past with their rock solid system and overall toughness. The Steelers have a more difficult schedule this season; they aren’t going to win 12 games again. But they are still a juggernaut in the watered-down AFC and will once again be banging heads into January.
Baltimore Ravens Predictions
2011 Record: 12-4 (8-0 home, 4-4 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 8-7-1 ATS; 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 15th offense (19th pass, 10th rush); 3rd defense (4th pass, 2nd rush)
2012 Odds: 19/1 to win SB, 7.5/1 to win AFC, 1.3/1 to win AFC North, 10.0 wins O/U
Offense: You get the sense that everyone – from fans to the front office to Joe Flacco himself – is getting a little twitchy about the Ravens offense. Baltimore has finished in the Top 10 in scoring just one time in the last eight years and hasn’t been better than 13th in total offense in the Flacco Era. The skill people in the attack, from quarterback to receivers to tight ends to running backs, have been together for a couple years now. And it’s time for coordinator Cam Cameron to open things up. I am looking for the Ravens to be a bit more daring this year, trying things like a no-huddle offense and throwing the ball down the field more. But none of these steps can be taken if their offensive line, which has little depth and some injury issues, can’t hold up. The Ravens have, in terms of age, one of the oldest starting offensive lines in football.
Defense: Do they still have Ray Lewis? Yup. Do they still have Ed Reed? Yup. Then they still have one of the best defenses in football. The Ravens have throttled opponents for over a decade with wave after wave of devastating defense. This year shouldn’t be much different. However, they have lost some key pieces from last year’s No. 3 unit. Terrell Suggs may miss the year due to an offseason Achilles injury and Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson have moved on. But General Manager Ozzie Newsome is masterful at restocking the coffers. And the Ravens might have the most physical roster of linebackers in the league. The secondary has slowly been built back up and has a chance to be exceptional if second-year man Jimmy Smith makes strides. From top to bottom you know what you are getting with this group week-in and week-out: you’re getting physical domination.
Skinny: They were one of the healthiest teams in football last year, with just 19 adjusted starts lost to injury (third-fewest). That started to balance itself out this offseason with the loss of Suggs. But the Ravens, like the Patriots and Steelers, have an exceptional system and have been winning consistently for over a decade. I said last year that the window for this team to win a Super Bowl had already closed. I still feel that way because I don’t think John Harbaugh has enough control of this team, or enough savvy against other top coaches, to get this team over the hump.
Cincinnati Bengals Predictions
2011 Record: 9-7 (4-4 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 8-6-2 ATS, 11-5 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 20th offense (20th pass, 19th rush); 7th defense (9th pass, 10th rush)
2012 Odds: 45/1 to win SB, 16/1 to win AFC, 4/1 to win AFC North, 8.0 wins O/U
Offense: Andy Dalton showed some promise in his rookie season, posting a rating over 80 and passing for 3,400 yards. He was a turnover machine with 20 interceptions (to just 16 touchdown passes) but that is to be expected from rookies. His favorite target was fellow rookie A.J. Green, who has the makings of a star. However, the Bengals dumped a lot of key weapons in the offseason, including 1,000 rusher Cedric Benson and No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. The offensive line has also been reshuffled due to defection and injury and Dalton is working with decidedly less this year. The Bengals had a favorable yards per point total (15.3) last year and were efficient at finding points where they could. But I think there are some troubling signs here for a below average group.
Defense: Very quietly the Bengals have fashioned a defense that is within an arm’s reach of the historically elite units in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Cincinnati finished in the Top 10 in points and yards for the second time in three years, something they haven’t done since the 70’s. The front seven is effective and physical. The secondary is athletic and instinctive. However, there was a slight purge in the offseason that really cut a lot of quality depth in the front seven; there is a severe drop-off in talent on the second team. Also, the injury bug has really ravaged this team during the preseason, and they are reaching a dangerous point where if anyone else goes down between now and the opener they could have trouble filling gaps. They were No. 5 in the league in sacks last year with 48. But I think they will be hard-pressed to reach those numbers again: after Week 6 this team has a rough schedule that pits the defense against most of the best quarterbacks and offenses in the game.
Skinny: Hey, even I was impressed at what the Bengals were able to accomplish last year. But facts are facts, and this team went 0-8 against 2011 playoff teams and 9-0 against the rest of the league. They didn’t beat anyone. So how good are they, really? I say not very. This team has been consistently mediocre under Marvin Lewis. When you’re the Bengals I guess that’s good enough. But they haven’t had back-to-back seasons in the playoffs (or over .500) since 1981-82. I will let history be my guide and call for another losing year. The Cincinnati Bengals schedule offers no quarter and I think we’ll see a sophomore slump out of Dalton.
Cleveland Browns Predictions
2011 Record: 4-12 (3-5 home, 1-7 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 8-8 ATS, 5-10-1 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 29th offense (24th pass, 28th rush); 10th defense (2nd pass, 30th rush)
2012 Odds: 350/1 to win SB, 95/1 to win AFC, 25/1 to win AFC North, 5.5 wins O/U
Offense: Cleveland’s 21.2 yards per point was third-worst in the league last season. It was a gruesome struggle for this team to find the end zone and I don’t know how much easier things are going to get this year. I have been screaming for two years that Cleveland has the worst skill players in football and one of the most consistently pathetic group of skill position people that I have seen in the last 20 years. Cleveland’s receivers are a joke. Their tight ends are the epitome of mediocre. And their running back stable is woefully inept. Sure, you can try to chalk a knee injury to Trent Richardson up to bad luck. But he had knee issues in college and wasn’t worth a Top 10 pick. He is a rookie anyway and rookie running backs are usually only good for one thing: getting quarterbacks maimed because of terrible blitz pickups. I do think that Cleveland’s quarterbacks – both Brandon Weeden, who I really like, and Colt McCoy – have a world of potential. But it is just absolutely impossible for young quarterbacks to mature or produce when dealing with this abortion of an offense. It will not be better this year.
Defense: Much like Jacksonville, you have to be pretty impressed that Cleveland finished in the Top 10 on defense considering just how stunningly bad they were on offense. Cleveland’s secondary played well, led by rising stars Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. Ward is coming back from injury and Haden will miss the first four games of the season with a foot injury. But when healthy they, along with D’Qwell Jackson, are the anchors of this group. Beyond that, well, things aren’t promising. Will linebacker Scott Fujita will miss the first four games of the season and Sam linebacker Chris Gocong is out of the year. The line is made up of journeymen and projects and pass rush should again be a serious issue for this group. In something of an anomaly, Cleveland was an outstanding No. 3 in the NFL in red zone defense despite being one of the easiest fronts to run against (No. 30). I don’t know if that is sustainable.
Skinny: There are a lot of parts moving behind the scenes in this organization that will directly impact what is on the field. The coach and general manager were inherited by the new owner, who has made it known that no one’s job is safe. There is politicking going on and if the Browns have to endure another four-win campaign they are a prime candidate to mail in December as the rats try to jump ship. This roster is ridiculous. The skill players are pathetic and it’s not just that the Browns are losing it is that they are a terrible product for fans to watch. It will be another long, cold winter in Cleveland.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.