AFC North one of Toughest Races in NFL
by Nicholas Tolomeo - 8/27/2013
The AFC North race is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the league this season. While people are ready to concede the West to Denver, the East to New England and the South to Houston, nobody is quite sure who the favorite is in the AFC North, not even oddsmakers.
Throughout the offseason Bovada has listed Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh all at +200. By Week 3 of the preseason the Bengals had emerged as slight favorites on Bovada at +175, with the Steelers at +200 and the Ravens at +225.
On 5Dimes, the Steelers and Bengals are co-favorites at +185 with the Ravens at +250. (Not to forget about the other team in the division, the Browns are +720, but you would need to add a zero to it for it to have any value.)
With the Ravens you have the defending Super Bowl Champions. In the Bengals you have the defending AFC North Champions. With the Steelers you have a veteran roster of players who have one or two Super Bowl rings already.
There has been a lot of change in the division this year. Ray Lewis left Baltimore and went to ESPN. James Harrison left Pittsburgh and went to Cincinnati. Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh and went to Miami, and now the Steelers are prepared to rely heavily on a slew of rookies.
The divisional games this season will be some of the most significant in the NFL. The Steelers were an enigma in divisional play last season. They lost to Cincinnati and Baltimore at home but won both games against their divisional rivals on the road, including a Charlie Batch-led 23-20 upset in Baltimore as eight-point underdogs.
Baltimore blasted Cincinnati 44-13 in the first week of the season only to lose in the regular-season finale to the Bengals, 23-17.
Cincinnati is a chic pick to be a dark horse in the AFC and make a run at the Broncos, Patriots and Texans. Partly because Andy Dalton has led his team to back-to-back playoff appearances and maybe partly because they are the HBO darlings of the offseason, being featured in “Hard Knocks”.
The Ravens are being written off like very few defending Super Bowl Champions have been in the past. Their regular-season win total “over/under” is 8.0 on Bovada. Some are doubting Joe Flacco’s ability to catch lightning in a bottle like he did last season.
The Steelers continue to be considered an aging team on the decline. Their defense is the oldest in football on average, even if rookie Jarvis Jones gets the nod at starting outside linebacker. Injuries continue to plague the team, and not just to the veterans. Second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell was injured in the second preseason game of the year with a sprained foot. Injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu basically derailed the Steelers season last year.
Looking at this season, the Ravens are tasked with the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL while the Bengals have the 12th toughest, and the Steelers strength of schedule ranks No. 22. Those numbers do not do justice to the advantage the Steelers have. While Baltimore plays Houston and Denver and Cincinnati plays Indianapolis and San Diego, the Steelers get Tennessee and Oakland. On top of that, the Steelers have only seven road games because their game in London against Minnesota is considered a road game even though it will be a neutral-site contest with a heavy Pittsburgh contingent on hand.
With the health of Roethlisberger and Polamalu, the Steelers are by far the most improved team from 2012 to 2013 in the division, and their many schedule advantages put them over the top as the best value to win the AFC North.
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