AFC North Predictions and Futures Odds with Betting Picks
by Robert Ferringo - 8/1/2013
There is little drama in the AFC.
Three of the four divisions in the AFC are all but decided before a single game has been played. Miami might threaten embattled New England. But no one seriously thinks they will overtake them. The same can be said for Indianapolis in the South; they could put up a good fight, but it would be a massive upset if Houston didn’t win a third straight division title.
The West is even more lopsided. Denver is going to demolish the other three teams in that group, and with their schedule they should end up hosting a couple playoff games.
But the one division that is up for grabs is the rugged North. Three teams in the AFC North have a legitimate chance to take the title. The defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens are not even favored to win this group. That distinction belongs to Pittsburgh, which is looking to bounce back from an 8-8 season. And sleeper Cincinnati, which is about to be glorified on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” is becoming a trendy pick to ascend past the two traditional powers.
Then there’s Cleveland. Oh, Cleveland.
Pittsburgh Steelers Predictions
2012 Record: 8-8 (5-3 home, 3-5 road)
2012 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 ATS, 7-9 vs. Total
2012 Rankings: 21st offense (14th pass, 26th rush); 1st overall (1st pass, 2nd rush)
2013 Odds: 14/1 to win Super Bowl, 7/1 to win AFC, 1.5/1 to win AFC North, 9.0 wins “Over/Under”
Offense: In 2007 the Steelers ran the ball 50 percent of the time. They haven’t approached that level since, and last year they rushed on just 40.3 percent of their offensive plays, No. 21 in the NFL. That was their lowest percentage in years and confirms what we already knew: the Steelers are no longer a ground-and-pound team but have instead adapted to life in the new pass-wacky NFL.
Pittsburgh is trying to ride the strong right arm of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They will miss speedy Mike Wallace in the passing game, though, and the pressure is on Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to step up. Keep an eye on veterans Heath Miller, Jericho Cotchery and Plexico Burress. If Big Ben is going to throw the ball 500 times, that will create a lot of opportunities for those past-their-prime players.
Pittsburgh does not have a bell cow running back on the roster. But they still have some quality pieces and need to find a more consistent running game. Part of their problem has been a patchwork offensive line. Last year they decided to go all-in on their young linemen, with mixed results. They should start to see some return this year, and if this group keeps growing and improving the running game should follow suit.
Defense: The Steelers still have their trademark 3-4 alignment and still have amazing coordinator Dick LeBeau calling the shots. So they should once again field a Top-10 defensive unit. Pittsburgh needs to regain some explosiveness on that side of the ball, though, after finishing No. 25 in takeaways and No. 15 in sacks.
Pittsburgh’s down linemen exist simply to take up space and take on blockers. But in the past they still had guys that could make plays from those spots. They are past Casey Hampton and head to camp with a very young rotation at the point. Those guys need to grow up fast to support the back seven.
Pittsburgh’s linebackers are fast and talented. But the Steelers have gone with a youth movement at their most important defensive position, and its now up to guys like Lawrence Timmons and Lamar Woodley to take the torch and run with it. They are transitioning. But with so much youth in other areas, the LBs need to be a stabilizing point.
Pittsburgh’s secondary is solid and experienced. But the secondary – and the entire defense – is significantly better when future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu is healthy and contributing. Unfortunately in 2012, he played less than half of the season for the second time in four years, and it looks like he may be at the end of the road.
Skinny: The Pittsburgh Steelers went 5-11 back in 1988. They made the playoffs the next season. In the 25 years since, the Steelers have missed the postseason 10 times. But they have failed to make it two years in a row just twice. The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs twice in a row since the 1999-2000 season.
This roster has slowly been turned over during the past three seasons and offers only a passing resemblance to the 2010 AFC Champions. They have gone younger -- and cheaper -- and they lack the level of experience and galvanized toughness that those previous clubs had.
But they are black and gold. The Steelers will win games. They have a tricky schedule through the first month, with a Monday night, a Sunday night and a London game serving as mental obstacles. But few teams are tougher than Pittsburgh. And even though this team doesn’t strike me as a title contender, it doesn’t mean that they won’t have a say.
Baltimore Ravens Predictions
2012 Record: 10-6 (6-2 home, 4-4 road)
2012 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 ATS; 9-7 vs. Total
2012 Rankings: 16th offense (15th pass, 11th rush); 17th defense (17th pass, 20th rush)
2013 Odds: 50/1 to win SB, 25/1 to win AFC, 3/1 to win AFC North, 8.5 wins O/U
Offense: Joe Flacco got hot in the postseason and led the Ravens to a Super Bowl title. But let’s slow down with talking about Flacco as one of the best quarterbacks in football, regardless of what his contract pays.
Baltimore’s offense revolves around Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and one of the biggest, toughest, most experienced offensive lines in football. The Ravens push people around, and that is where everything on this side of the ball starts. Pierce broke out in the playoffs, and I expect to see even more of him this year. And the Ravens will remain one of the few run-first teams left in the NFL, with Rice getting as many touches as he can handle.
Flacco’s best play in the postseason was, “throw it up to Anquan Boldin and let him go get it”. But Boldin has moved on to San Francisco, and top pass-catching tight end Dennis Pitta is out for the year. Those moves weaken an already-average passing game.
Jim Caldwell obviously jarred something loose with this offense after taking over as the coordinator late last year. It will be interesting to see if his mastery carries over into this season or if it was simply a hot streak that coincided with everything else that went right for the Ravens down the stretch last year.
Defense: The Ravens are still going to hit people. That much you can be sure of. But the Ravens were pretty average during the regular season on defense, finishing in the middle-of-the-pack against the run and the pass and No. 12 in points allowed. Given the personnel changes and leadership losses heading into 2013, I don’t see them being better this time around.
Haloti Ngata remains the most important player on this defense. And his presence will keep the front seven formidable. Terrell Suggs is healthy and is now the de facto leader of this side of the ball. And it’s his job to incorporate the new players – Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil (who is making the move to OLB), Michael Huff and Matt Elam – into the unit. They are all learning new schemes and playing with new teammates. And they need to learn quickly.
The Ravens lost their starting nose tackle, three of their Top-5 linebackers, a starting corner and both starting safeties. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were locker room leaders and all-time greats. This defense will not be better without them, no matter what some talking heads may suggest.
Skinny: I am really torn about the Ravens. Before the first flake of confetti hit the turf in New Orleans last February, I was already making my first wager against them for this season. Last year’s team was one of the oldest, most experienced in the game, and they reached the pinnacle. There is nowhere to go but down, and this year’s team cannot be as good without the outstanding leaders that they lost from the locker room.
But Ozzie Newsome is amazing. And he’s done a great job in rebuilding the talent pool for this crew. They are tough, physical and extremely experienced. This franchise has made the postseason five straight times, they’ve gone 40-16 straight up since the start of 2010, and they have one of the most dominating home field advantages in football (14-2 SU in L2Y).
Also, the books are already way out ahead of the Ravens collapse. Their season win total is just 8.5, and they are nine-point underdogs at Denver in Week 1. So there is not as much value for betting on a Baltimore underachievement as I assumed there would be.
Cincinnati Bengals Predictions
2012 Record: 10-6 (4-4 home, 6-2 road)
2012 Against the Spread: 9-6-1 ATS, 6-10 vs. Total
2012 Rankings: 22nd offense (17th pass, 18th rush); 6th defense (7th pass, 12th rush)
2013 Odds: 40/1 to win SB, 12/1 to win AFC, 2/1 to win AFC North, 8.5 wins O/U
Offense: It has been five years since the Bengals had an offense that finished in the Top 20 in total yardage. Five long, painful years. Cincinnati has committed to being a run-first, defensive oriented team under Marvin Lewis, and they have attempted to grind out as many wins as possible.
But now the Bengals are expected to be a major player in the AFC. And if they are going to make that jump they will need some explosiveness on this side of the ball. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are kind of like a poor man’s Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, respectively. Dalton and Green need more help in the passing game. I would start by trying to force the ball to Andrew Hawkins.
The law firm of Benjarvus Green-Ellis ran for over 1,000 yards last year and is the starter. But the Bengals also drafted Giovanni Bernard to support him. The offensive line has quietly become one of the better groups in the conference. If the offense falters it likely won’t be their doing, which hasn’t always been the case.
Defense: From top to bottom the Bengals have an exceptional defense. They have finished in the Top 10 in points and yards allowed in back-to-back seasons and three of the last four years. They did so last year despite battling through a host of injuries in the secondary, and they have a chance to be even better this time around.
Cincinnati’s corner quartet is among the best and most active in football. They have studs in Dre Kirkpatrick and Leon Hall and capable, experienced backups in Terrance Newman and Pac-Man Jones. Safety Reggie Nelson is coming into his own, and Taylor Mays can still lay the wood.
James Harrison was signed away from Pittsburgh to add a little bit of championship grizzle to the defense. He will serve as a mentor to a young, talented group of linebackers.
The defensive line has four potential Pro Bowlers on it. However, the contract situation of end Michael Johnson – who has not signed an extension – and Geno Atkins – who was offered, and signed, a lucrative extension – adds a little bit of backroom drama to how this bunch plays together.
Skinny: The Bengals are becoming a bit of a “buzz” team in the AFC this year. Pittsburgh is being overlooked as they continue their roster transition. Baltimore is seemingly been overlooked because of the Super Bowl hangover. And Cleveland is slogging its way through yet another complete rebuild.
That leaves the Bengals. Cincinnati has quietly moved past its Bungles years and has made the postseason in three of the last four years. They are 17-11-3 against the spread in the past three seasons and have some young, top-tier players.
But just because a franchise should progress doesn’t mean it will. We’ve seen organizations like San Diego, Kansas City, Houston and Chicago all hit glass ceilings. And unless Dalton makes a big leap, that could be the Bengals fate this year. They have a brutal schedule. And I’m not certain that Cincy’s talent is outpacing its expectations. Bettors beware.
Cleveland Browns Predictions
2012 Record: 5-11 (4-4 home, 1-7 road)
2012 Against the Spread: 8-7-1 ATS, 6-10 vs. Total
2012 Rankings: 25th offense (19th pass, 24th rush); 23rd defense (25th pass, 19th rush)
2013 Odds: 125/1 to win SB, 60/1 to win AFC, 6.5/1 to win AFC North, 6.0 wins O/U
Offense: The Browns are just 11-20-1 against the total over the last two seasons and have routinely fielded one of the worst offenses in football. However, new OC Norv Turner brings a sterling resume as an offensive teacher, and his system instantly improves a group that hasn’t finished higher than No. 24 in scoring the past five years.
Brandon Weeden is shaky, at best, under center. But even though he is 30 years old, he was still a rookie last year. Considering the lack of talent that Cleveland has at receiver, Weeden’s first year under center could’ve gone worse. Unless he gets better this year, though, there is a clear ceiling on how much better the attack can be. And it is pretty low.
I was extremely impressed with Trent Richardson in his rookie season. He notched over 1,300 total yards and 12 touchdowns despite playing just 15 games and being hampered with sore ribs through most of last year. Richardson’s durability is a little bit of a question mark. But if he can build on that performance he could become the second-best back in the division behind Rice.
Defense: New defensive coordinator Ray Horton worked wonders with the Arizona defense the past two seasons. And he probably has more natural talent to work with here in Cleveland. The Browns fielded a Top-10 defense just two seasons ago and have finished in the top half of the league in scoring three times in five years. Not bad considering how awful the team has been overall.
D’Qwell Jackson is a stud at inside linebacker, and pricey new addition Paul Kruger is stout on the outside. The Browns have four other young, hungry linebackers getting snaps around those veterans, and this is a pretty athletic group. They need to generate pressure because Cleveland’s front is just space eaters.
Cleveland’s secondary has two of the best young players in the league at their position in corner Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. Vet Chris Owens was acquired to work the slot. But the Browns need someone to step up and seize the jobs at free safety and right corner.
Skinny: I’m really intrigued by what the Browns bring to the table this season. I don’t expect them to leap over the more established franchises in the AFC North. But I think that this team may have some value for bettors looking to “buy low” on a young team with some promise.
The Browns really showed some flashes over a nine-game stretch in the middle of last year. They blew a 14-0 lead at the Giants. They coughed up fourth quarter leads against Baltimore and at Dallas. And they were knocking on the door in a game at Indianapolis. They won the other five games in that stretch, and if they can tap into that potential this season then Cleveland could pull off an upset or three.
I really like Cleveland’s new coaching staff, and I think they can harness some of the young talent on the roster. And unlike the other teams in the North, I think that the Browns have a low bar that they could clear. They will still fall victim to a talent deficit, and they can’t compete for 16 weeks. But there is some genuine optimism here, and the Browns shouldn’t be the pushover we’ve seen the past few seasons.
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.
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