NFL Predictions: AFC North Odds and Preview with Football Betting Picks
by Robert Ferringo - 8/25/2010
All hail the last old school division in football.
While pass-wacky spread offenses are all of the rage on the gridiron, from the Pop Warner fields to the Super Bowl champions, the AFC North is taking the contrarian’s position. The four teams in the AFC North are all rough, rugged, punch-you-in-the-face-and-then-kick-your-teeth-in-while-you-are-on-the-ground teams that play the type of physical, violent brand of football that would make Jim Brown and the Steel Curtain smile.
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The AFC North had the highest percentage of rush attempts of any division last year, with three of the four teams finishing in the Top 8 in terms of percentage of plays used rushing. This group, collectively, also had the best red zone defense percentage, proving that they were at their best when it mattered most and that scoring against them was a bit like subduing an angry Kodiak bear in a dark closet.
It will be survival of the fittest in this division this season, and the oddsmakers have instilled Baltimore as the team with the best odds of winning the AFC North. The other survivalists include Pittsburgh at +240 and Cincinnati at +280, with Cleveland a punching bag at +900.
Here is my full NFL predictions and preview with betting odds for the 2010 AFC North:
Pittsburgh Steelers Predictions
2009 Record: 9-7 (6-2 home, 3-5 road)
2009 Against the Spread: 5-11 ATS, 9-6-1 vs. Total
2009 Rankings: 7th offense (9th pass, 19th rush); 5th defense (16th pass, 3rd rush)
2010 Odds: 20/1 to win SB, 10/1 to win AFC, 2.5/1 to win AFC North, 9.0 wins O/U
Offense: Pittsburgh has vowed to return to “Steelers football” this year, which should mean more pounding of the rock on the ground. Last year the Steelers ran the ball on just 43 percent of their offensive plays, down even from a pass-happy (by their standards) 46 percent in 2008. They have worked to improve the offensive line and therein lay the keys to this side of the ball. They threw too much and were sacked on 8.5 percent of their drop backs, the fourth-worst rate in the league. But while the Steelers line has gotten bigger (three of their starters are 335 pounds or more), we don’t know if it has gotten better. The fact that they are starting Flozell Adams, who has been a turnstile for two years and was a disaster last year, is a really bad sign. The team is still deciding who will lead this group while Ben Roethlisberger serves his four-game suspension. I think they would be wise to go with Dennis Dixon over Byron Leftwich. But either is just a short-term solution. Big Ben will be working with the same receiving corps of his Super Bowl win – the first one. Antwan Randle El has come home to join with Heath Miller and Hines Ward. And watch for a breakout season from dynamic Mike Wallace. If the o-line is the biggest question for this group, Rashard Mendenhall running the ball is the second biggest. He has to “play big” for this team after a nice second half of the year. That needs to carry over.
Defense: This group is still one of the best in the business. And now that Larry Foote has returned they still boast the best set of linebackers in the league. Newly minted Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau still calls an aggressive game and Pittsburgh usually executes. What people forget is that last year this team played only four games with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who is probably one of the best six or seven defensive players in the NFL. With him back and 100 percent they should improve on that No. 16 passing ranking, which was actually better than it seemed because the team was so impossible to run on that all teams could do was throw. Casey Hampton is still the anchor up front and he’s bookended by two pros (Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith) along the line. There is just nothing about this group not to like. And if the offense can do a better job of controlling the ball and the clock then they should get even better.
Skinny: I think people have been way too quick to write off the Steelers. This team lost seven games last year, and six of them were by six points or less. So this group was that close to posting another 11- or 12-win season. Roethlisberger will be motivated and his absence could even be good for them in the long run if it helps them recommit to the run. Pittsburgh opens with a tricky schedule, but I can definitely see them winning at least two of those games. Then they get a bye and then should absolutely hammer Cleveland with Big Ben back. Then comes a crucial three-game road trip at Miami, New Orleans, and Cincinnati before a home game against the Patriots. Brutal. However, if they survive that they get three of their last four games at home before the season finale at Cleveland. It’s tricky. But I don’t like betting against one of the three best franchises (along with the Patriots and Colts) of the last decade.
Baltimore Ravens Predictions
2009 Record: 9-7 (6-2 home, 3-5 road)
2009 Against the Spread: 8-8 ATS; 6-9-1 vs. Total
2009 Rankings: 13th offense (18th pass, 5th rush); 3rd defense (8th pass, 5th rush)
2010 Odds: 14/1 to win SB, 7/1 to win AFC, 1/1 to win AFC North, 10.0 wins O/U
Offense: I know this is blasphemy, but this is the year where the Ravens offense is the best unit on this team. Joe Flacco looks great this preseason and this group is ready to build on last year’s exceptional campaign. Their No. 13 offensive rank was the best this franchise has managed since 1997 and their No. 9 scoring rank was the second-best since then as well. Anquan Boldin has been added to the fold to give this team – finally – a legit No. 1 wideout. Boldin is a stud and his toughness will fit right in with what this team is about. That now moves Derrick Mason down to the No. 2 spot, where he should be able to use his guile to have a great year. Ray Rice is an absolute workhorse and has several capable options to help him bear the load. The offensive line is full of just massive, nasty, angry mammals that want to impose their will. Overall, outside of the wideouts, the core of the offense is young. But they are ready to take a major step forward and I see them surpassing their total of six games with more than 30 points from last year.
Defense: Hey, it’s the Ravens, you don’t need to worry about the defense, right? Well, not exactly. I think that some cracks are starting to show. Despite Baltimore’s gaudy numbers last year there are some reasons to think that they could take a small step back. This team benefited from a +10 turnover margin, and turnovers can be fickle business. Also, their defensive yards per point fell in a range that suggests a regression this year on their record. Also, Ed Reed hasn’t taken the field this season (hip), and you just can’t lose a player of his caliber and expect the defense not to suffer. Especially since they have already been decimated at the corner spot. I think that Ray Lewis has lost a step and he’s playing on heart as much as physical ability right now. However, all is not doom and gloom. These guys have just set such a high standard that even they have a hard time reaching it. As long as Haloti Ngata is healthy their front seven will be powerful and potentially dominating. And they have so much depth because their front office does such an amazing job loading up on quality players. So any fall can easily be mitigated. If there even is one at all.
Skinny: I am really getting torn on this team. Coming into the season I was ready to say they were one of the two or three best in the game and a true Super Bowl contender. I actually felt they were the best team in the AFC last year but they kept shooting themselves in the foot. And that worries me about this season. The talent on this team is unquestionable. And they have finally, finally gotten the offense that they have been craving. But I still have big questions about John Harbaugh. I don’t think he has control of this team and I think that they are too sloppy. They gave away nearly 1,100 yards in penalties last year and they lost five games by less than six points. Baltimore has never had three straight winning seasons and after a 13-3 march in 2006 they came back with a dreadful 5-11 2007. They’ve disappointed before. And with expectations sky-high I have a feeling this team is starting to get overvalued, despite its enormous talent base.
Cincinnati Bengals Predictions
2009 Record: 10-6 (6-2 home, 4-4 road)
2009 Against the Spread: 7-9 ATS, 7-9 vs. Total
2009 Rankings: 24th offense (26th pass, 9th rush); 4th overall (6th pass, 7th rush)
2010 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win AFC, 3/1 to win AFC North, 8.0 wins O/U
Offense: Last year Cincinnati’s 9.9 yards per completion was one of the worst in the league. Enter Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant. Bryant is still at least a month away from contributing and Owens has clearly given the Bengals preseason a kick. But I don’t think that either can replace the big play threat that departed Chris Henry brought to this club. I don’t understand any questions about Carson Palmer’s ability to perform (there were grumblings at the end of last season) and I still think that he has the capability to be a top-tier quarterback. But the most important part of this offense is the line. They were exceptional at run blocking last year and paved the way for Cedric Benson’s breakout season. Benson is now showing why he was a Top 10 pick and one of college’s all-time best rushers. But the line was substandard with its pass blocking. They only gave up 29 sacks, which was one of the best totals in the league and a massive improvement from 2008. But much of that had to do with the fact that the Bengals rarely called anything that required more than a three- or five-step drop. They never tried to throw the ball deep because they knew they couldn’t protect Palmer. This team needs to find a way to make some more big plays in the passing game. If not, they simply have to work too hard to score. They were the only playoff team that was under 0.30 points per play last year, ranking No. 22 in that category. And with the general lack of discipline on this team the more plays they have to run the more of a chance of someone doing something to screw up and kill a drive.
Defense: Slowly but surely the Bengals front office built this unit up and now its quality can be summed up in one word: legit. Cincinnati has hitters and playmakers at every level of the defense and fields a group with no weakness. Up front, their tackle rotation is as good as any in the AFC, led by Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. Michael Johnson is a physical freak and is sliding into a hybrid DE/OLB position and could be poised for a double-digit sack year. Their linebackers are savage, and Rey Maualuga will be a star in this league. Keith Rivers is severely underrated and Dhani Jones is a solid vet in the middle. They have plenty of depth in the front seven, with several former starters now worked into the rotation from backup spots. Their secondary is built on the play of stud corners Leon Hall and John Joseph, and veteran safety Roy Williams has plenty of good ball left in him. There is just a nice mix of experience, youth, athleticism, finesse and power on this unit and it will keep this team competitive all season long.
Skinny: Cincinnati really had an incredible season last year. From being featured on Hard Knocks, to the tragic deaths of DC Mike Zimmer’s wife and of Henry, this team was really in a haze of emotion all year. Add in a surprise playoff berth and they were one of the best stories in the league last year. The trouble is that things like that are really difficult to sustain. And even though he 100 percent deserved to be the NFL Coach of the Year, I still think that Marvin Lewis isn’t a good head man. His teams just do too many dumb things – turnovers, penalties, missed assignments – and are constantly their own worst enemies. There are a lot of numbers (yards per point, Pythagorean wins, etc.) that suggest that this team will take a step back this year. And in a division where there is going to be a razor-thin margin between first and third place I think that Lewis’ lack of attention to detail will doom them.
Cleveland Browns Predictions
2009 Record: 5-11 (3-5 home, 2-6 road)
2009 Against the Spread: 10-6 ATS, 7-9 vs. Total
2009 Rankings: 32nd offense (32nd pass, 8th rush); 31st defense (29th pass, 28th rush)
2010 Odds: 80/1 to win SB, 40/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC North, 6.0 wins O/U
Offense: While breaking down tape of this team last season, I remember thinking that they had one of the worst collections of skill players that I’ve ever seen on an offense. Basically, there was Josh Cribbs – a glorified No. 3 wideout and skilled kick returner – and that was it. And to be honest, I don’t see many upgrades this year on that side of the ball so I again think that this offense is going to be a train wreck to watch. Jake Delhomme could have a good season simply because he has zero expectations. He can be as daring as he wants because, frankly, there’s no one else there to challenge him or anyone that would be any better. Beyond that it’s just a wasteland of retreads, backups, low-level prospects, and journeymen. They were the worst total offense in the league last year and near the bottom of just about every significant category. Cleveland was held to seven points or less in seven – SEVEN – games. That means that nearly half the year they played and didn’t score more than a touchdown. And if you discount two stunning outbursts against fellow bottom-feeders (37 scored against Detroit, 41 against Kansas City) this team averaged 11.9 points per game against the rest of the league. They had the third-highest percent of running plays called last year (52 percent) and I expect that to continue this year as they take advantage of their only true offensive asset, a stout offensive line.
Defense: Last year’s Browns defense might have had the most heart of any unit in the NFL. Despite being shackled with one of the worst offenses of the last decade, the Browns D came to play every single week. I know their rankings were awful, but this team had one of the highest yards per point ratings in the NFL, up there with teams like the Jets, Ravens and Chargers, so they made people work for it. Cleveland also had the best red zone defense in the AFC and fourth best in the NFL. That’s all heart. But I wouldn’t expect them to hold up again this time around. Corey Williams paired with massive Shaun Rogers to create a wall on the defensive front. Williams has moved on to Detroit. Further, the secondary was suspect last year (their 62 pass plays of 20 or more yard allowed was the most in the league) and now may take a step back if it has to rely on a pair of rookies – T.J. Ward at safety and Joe Haden at corner – to do much. That said, there is still some potential with this group. A couple Eagles castoffs, Chris Gocong and Sheldon Brown, should slide into starting spots and provide some experience. And the Browns absolutely stole Matt Roth, who was stunningly waived by the Dolphins last year. Roth is an absolute animal and one of my favorite young linebackers in the NFL. This group has some pieces, but only if Rodgers and the line can hold up and if they can somehow minimize big plays. Oh, and if they get some help from the offense.
Skinny: The Browns were fourth worst in the NFL last year with a -12 turnover margin, which means that they could be a prime contender for a bounce back season. The problem is that they are at the bottom of the best division in football. So even if this team does make some strides I don’t think they have enough talent to overtake any of the clubs above them. I trust Mike Holmgren to turn this team around. But Eric Mangini is A) a little prick and B) a lame duck coach. So if the season starts to go up in flames – and Delhomme is pretty much a guy covered in gasoline and strapped with dynamite, smoking a cigar – I think that this team could do what past Browns teams have done, quit. They did go 4-1 against other bottom feeder teams last year (KC, Detroit, Buffalo, Oakland, Jacksonville) but unfortunately they only have four of those teams on the schedule this season. Maybe next year, Browns fans. (But probably not.)
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports and NFL handicapper for Doc’s Sports. Last year his NFL picks brought home +62.5 Units for his clients and he is regarded as one of the top totals players in the sport. He guarantees a winning football season this year or he will work for free until you turn a profit. You can sign up for his college football and NFL picks and get more information here.
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