The AFC North is one of football’s best divisions, and it’s time to give you our picks for one of the finest NFL betting lines around. Stellar stuff.
We have three teams all with a chance of winning a division title in 2020, and the Cincinnati Bengals. Heck even Cincy has some interest – just not from a betting perspective.
Will this be the year Pittsburgh finally falls off after an incredible sustained run of success under the superb Mike Tomlin?
Will 2021 be the year that Cleveland finally ends its 32-year wait to top its division. It was called the AFC Central last time in happened in 1989. When Stryker was just discovering girls and whisky. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
Baltimore is one of the finest organizations in the league – brilliantly run – and it should be strong again in 2021.
Cincinnati now has some excellent pieces to build around (that is what happens when you are picking high every year), but we need to see some progression this year.
So, who gets our vote to win the North? First let’s look at the odds and take a deeper dive into the offseason changes.
Odds to win AFC North
- +120 Baltimore Ravens (widely available)
- +155 Cleveland Browns (DraftKings, FanDuel, Resorts)
- +500 Pittsburgh Steelers (DraftKings, Resorts)
- +2500 Cincinnati Bengals (widely available)
NB: Odds correct on Thursday September 9, 2021
NFC West Analysis & Predictions
Baltimore Ravens: 2020 was a story of two very different chapters for Baltimore. A 6-5 start punctured by issues with COVID-19, followed by six straight wins including success in the postseason.
One of the players who struggled most with COVID issues was supremely talented QB Lamar Jackson. He wasn’t at the same MVP level he’d shown in 2019 (that would have been difficult to be fair) but the early dropoff was clear.
Jackson has again battled COVID in training camp in 2021, and it remains to be seen whether there are further issues. tobe tackled there.
This Ravens organization though is super-smart. A terrific front office always makes the right personnel moves. Taking Lamar after most of the league passed, and then building an offense to suit him, has paid off. But can it do so deep in the postseason?
There are other question marks in Baltimore aside from whether Lamar can be 2019 Lamar again, notably around his offensive line.
Orlando Brown Jr was traded to the Chiefs, while D.J. Fluker and Matt Skura both left for the Dolphins in free agency.
In come former Steeler Alejandro Villanueva and former Giant Kevin Zeitler, along with Georgia guard Ben Cleveland, drafted in the third round. This offense is built being able to run, so any growing pains will hurt the Ravens significantly.
Baltimore did draft a couple of new toys for Lamar to throw to (remember to win a Super Bowl they will likely need to beat the offensive superpower that is Kansas City). Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman was drafted #27 overall, while Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace was an intriguing fourth-round selection.
The excellent Ravens defense did suffer a couple of major losses in free agency as LB Matthew Judon signed a big-money deal to move to New England while DE Yannick Ngakoue bolted to Las Vegas.
The secondary, anchored by corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, will be good again and the addition of Penn State standout Odafe Oweh with a second first-round pick should help shore things up.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns are finally ready to REALLY contend in the AFC North. The way the team finished 2020 should give all downtrodden Browns fans significant cause for optimism heading into 2021.
After starting the year 6-5, the Browns suddenly hit top gear. They won five straight to race into the playoffs, ending that run with a win over bitter rival Pittsburgh. Next it destroyed the Steelers 48-37 in the playoffs.
Even in defeat in the AFC Divisional playoff round, Cleveland was good enough to hang with Kansas City at Arrowhead, only going down 22-17 after a stout showing.
All Cleveland did in the offseason was get better, the free-agent addition of the supremely talented if slightly frustrating Jadeveon Clowney to play opposite the incredible Myles Garrett should be giving opposing QBs sleepless nights.
The secondary – a weak point in 2020 – should be improved after the team drafted Northwestern CB Greg Newsome II in round 1 of the Draft. Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit will return from injury too to further boost the group.
On offense Cleveland is loaded, starting with the rapidly maturing Mayfield. He finally looks like a player the Browns were right to invest the #1 overall pick in back in 2018.
Mayfield has stellar pass-catching options, and the are bolstered further with the return from injury of Odell Beckham Jr in 2021. Up front Mayfield has a terrific run game anchored by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt running behind a super line. Yep, Cleveland has real balance, which makes Mayfield’s life way easier. He does not need to win games on his own.
The Browns have done a great job of acquiring and then utilizing draft capital in recent years, and it is now starting to pay off. A talented roster now appears to be playing like a team, and everything is in place for a serious run in 2021.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Like we said, the Steelers have a fine front office and one of the league’s best (and most underrated) head coaches in Mike Tomlin. It is not easy to win consistently in a league which is set up to promote parity and change.
But if ever it looked like the Steelers are about to suffer a regression, it’s now. This after it slumped from an 11-0 start in 2020 to a 12-4 record and a first-round exit in the playoffs.
It was not just bare results which gave that impression, it was the manner of that collapse. Particularly the back-to-back losses to division rival Cleveland which ended the season. The second one a 48-37 shocker in the postseason.
Ben Roethlisberger is back for what might be his ‘Last Dance’ in 2021. He’s been excellent for more than 15 years now but there are definite signs of decline. A man who has taken a beating for more than a decade is starting to slow.
The fact ‘Big Ben’ took a pay cut and a one-year deal to come back suggests that #7 knows the writing on the wall at the age of 39. We can’t see him ‘doing a Brady’ and playing well into his 40s.
While Roethlisberger still has excellent pass-catching weapons to throw to (doesn’t he always) in the likes of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the problems for Pittsburgh are up front.
The offense line has undergone a major overhaul – or at least has sustained major losses. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired, Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva both left in free agency and David DeCastro was released. Ouch.
The rebuild didn’t come with big names, and the growing pains are likely to be significant. Cohesion is almost (but not quite) as important as talent up front.
Surprisingly Pittsburgh didn’t address offensive line until Rounds 3 and 4 of the draft, instead spending its first-round pick on running back Najee Harris. An exciting talent yes, but if the line is no good, he will struggle as a rookie.
On the defensive side of the ball Pittsburgh lost pass rusher Bud Dupree as he moved on to Tennessee and a huge contract there. And while T.J. Watt is still very much in the building, he is only just in the building.
The superstar of the Pittsburgh defense is looking for a contract extension, and sat out most of training camp. In fact he only returned to practice this week. Hardly the ideal preparation for what is about to go down
Doubtless Tomlin will over-achieve and find a way to keep Pittsburgh at least some way competitive in 2021. But it is impossible to win and contend for ever. Think of the Steelers as Mufasa, this division has plenty of Scars lying in wait.
Cincinnati Bengals: When Joe Burrow went down with a horrific knee injury late in the 2020 season it put the brakes on what had been a promising year for this traditionally moribund franchise.
The LSU signal caller had shown real flashes of what Cincy thought it was getting when it selected Burrow #1 overall in the Draft, but now he must start again from scratch, with a reconstructed knee. Hardly ideal.
There were eyebrows raised when the Bengals ignored the opportunity to draft highly-rated offensive tackles Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater with the fifth overall pick in 2021. Protecting Burrow should be a priority, no?
But instead Cincy decided to snag one of Burrow’s former LSU team-mates in WR Ja’Marr Chase. Yes Chase is an elite talent, and yes chemistry is already there with Burrow. This feels like a luxury pick though – you win up front in this league (we may have said that before) and if your quarterback is on a cart leaving the field it’s never a good sign.
On a more positive note, the Bengals did spend (lesser) resources on trying to improve Burrow’s line, taking Clemson tackle Jackson Carman in Round 2 of the draft while former Minnesota tackle RIley Reiff was a smart free-agent addition.
One thing we are super positive about is the move to beef up a feeble pass rush – the signing of former Saint Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks in 2020) was a welcome statement of intent. As well as protecting its own QB, Cincy must start getting to others…
It is year 3 for head coach Zac Taylor in 2021, and further progression will be needed if he’s to keep his job. Much will depend on how soon Burrow is truly back to full health – injuries like his traditionally take a year at least.
We expect a slight improvement on 2020, but contending for a division? Don’t make us laugh.
AFC North Picks
It is time for the passing of the torch in the AFC North. The Ravens and Steelers have been the division’s powerhouses in recent years, but Cleveland is ready to take thing on now.
A talent-laden roster is even better in 2021 and the maturing Baker Mayfield can lead his team to the promised land. Imagine the scenes when that 32-year wait is finally over? Should be epic.
OddsCritic Pick: Cleveland Browns to win AFC North at +155 (DraftKings, FanDuel, Resorts)