AFC North divisional preview

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First up, these divisional previews have been really damn tough this year. I feel like I could give a reason for a lot of teams winning their respective divisions and for a lot of teams failing completely. The Norths in particular have been a real pain to try and figure out and it probably wasn’t my smartest move to start and finish with those divisions in particular.

This one is especially tough when you support the team that will most likely finish bottom of it… Oh, I want to preface this by saying I think this is the most likely division for me to get completely incorrect. I have been procrastinating on this division trying to let everything stew over in my mind and figure out what the hell is going to happen… It’s not worked, I’m no closer to feeling confident on anything.

Thirdly this is a long read, apologies for that but I feel I know more about this division than the others and no-one else is going to say anything good about the Bengals anywhere else.

Cleveland Browns

  • Last year – 7-8-1
  • Superbowl odds – 18/1 (Skybet, Redzone)
  • Divisional odds – 7/5 (Ladbrokes, Redzone)
  • O/U line – 9.5 (over 11/10, under 4/5)

Yes, I’m buying in. It’s just too hard not to. God Bless Sashi Brown, his plan seems to be on the cusp of bearing fruit with him long gone from the building. They’ve established arguably the best roster in the league and definitely the best in the AFC North, and it’s at a time where their rivals are in a state of flux as well, it couldn’t be looking too much better for them.

I’ll do the negatives first just to delay having to provide enthusiasm for the Browns – They’re lead by a first time head coach who basically got the job due his relationship as the current QBs coach when he was drafted last year. If things get a bit dodgy I can’t see the GM cutting him too much slack. Second negative, their Offensive line isn’t great and if anything they weakened it when trading for a certain player over the summer. That’s about it. HC is unproven, O-Line not great.

Baker Mayfield could be brilliant in this league, and boy is that smug arrogant prick going to make sure we know about it. He started 13, and played most of 14 games last year and gave the whole franchise hope that things were finally turning around for them, he threw the most TDs of any rookie QB in history, 3,725 yards and 27 scores last year. How. Ever… down the stretch they beat a host of backups and dead teams. I’ll put my dis-like aside and admit he’s bloody good, he could be REALLY good, for a rookie year it was very impressive and he’s with the weapons he’s now got he could be nearer 5,000 passing yards than 4 this year.

So they weakened their offensive line by trading away (a few other bits and) one of the better guards in the league in Kevin Zeitler, but for now at least you’ve got to think that bringing in a top 3 receiver is probably worth it and while Odell Beckham Jnr. has a few injury worries, and reportedly some worries over his character (which frankly I’m not buying from the NY media) He does things on the field that very few players can achieve and now he’s teamed up with his bestest buddy from college Jarvis Landry you’ve got to think any possible attitude worries will be kept in check. If anything it will be Jarvis complaining when he doesn’t see a huge amount of targets this year. Add alongside them in the receivers room Antonio Callaway, a very talented bonehead, Rashaad Higgins who is hoping to be the best “hollywood” in the AFC North and a super athletic tight end in David Njoku and you’ve got a very good looking attack through the air.

The running game isn’t awful either, Nick Chubb had a big season last year with nearly 1,000 yards and 10 TDs on the season. He plumped his yards with a few huge runs but the eye test made him look pretty good and capable of leading a team, and he’ll have to as they traded away Duke Johnson Jnr. to the Texans who has been their third down back for a few years, leaving basically just Dontrell Hilliard behind him until the suspended Kareem Hunt returns in week 10 (8 games suspension and a bye week)

Their defense isn’t a weak point either. Having half of the draft picks each year for the last few years has seen to that, Myles Garrett is a physical freak and may well have a true breakout this year. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon are one of the most star-studded fronts in the league, and should be good at run stuffing and pass rushing. The secondary isn’t bad either, Denzel Ward turned up nicely to show he’s one of the better CBs in the league in his rookie year last year Kirksey, Burnett and Randall are a decent safety trio as well.

Honestly there’s no real weakpoint in this team. The coaching looked great once Kitchens took over last year so for me as a Bengals fan it’s more hope that it all goes to shit rather than expectation. They’ve got a decent schedule as well to make it even better for them. But despite all this, I still don’t want to bet on them for the division or over their win total.

Baltimore Ravens

  • Last year – 10-6
  • Superbowl odds – 40/1 (Redzone)
  • Divisional odds – 14/5 (Redzone)
  • O/U line – 8.5 (over 15/13, under 4/5)

I have pretty much completely flipped my stance on the Ravens this summer, I fully respect their head coach and their offensive coordinator was perfectly chosen once they got Lamar Jackson in the draft. He knows what to do with mobile QBs.

Lamar Jackson is one of the more polarising players in the league, mainly because he pretty much plays as a running back more than a passer. He came in after the bye week last year and had roughly 50% more rushing attempts than passing attempts. His completion percentage was around 55% last year, he only threw for 6 TDs and 3 INTs… So why is he there?! Well he ran for nearly 700 yards at 4.7 yards a go and 5 TDs. His starting debut against the Bengals, he ran all over them and frankly they had no answer for him. He’ll have been working on his passing over the summer and I expect him to at least look like he knows what he’s doing this year. (If you read Warren Sharp you’ll have seen that apparently by some stats he was the best 21 yr old passer in history) The worry is that teams will stack the box and now there’s a decent amount of video on him they’ll know how to stop him like the Chargers did for 3 qtrs in the playoffs last year.

That isn’t as easy as it would have been last year as they’ve given him some electric weapons who should be able to keep defenses honest next season. Miles Boykin has had the better off-season of the draftees, mainly because Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is still recovering from a lisfranc fracture and hasn’t played… But he’s a tall, quick wide receiver who can turn nothing into something. Brown is in a similar mold, taking screen passes, end-arounds and the likes to the house in college. Willie Snead is the remaining WR from last year, he was solid in the slot for the Ravens last year and should retain that role then there’s a few others in Seth Roberts and Chris Moore whom they seem to think a lot of. They’ve also got 45 tight ends on the roster. Nick Boyle is generally more of a blocker, Hayden Hurst and in-betweener and Mark Andrews or MAndrews as he likes to be known (maybe) more of the play-maker of the three.

They signed Mark Ingram to the top of their running back list, he’s always been good in New Orleans both catching and rushing and should get first crack at the main role here. If he doesn’t do it then they’ve got Gus Edwards who blew up last year once Jackson took over the reigns, apparently Kenneth Dixon is somehow still there, and one to watch this year and a good sleeper in fantasy is Justice Hill who’s been lighting up camp and pre-season.

The usually very solid defense has had some turnover during the off-season but still looks strong with the addition of Earl Thomas, he and Thomas Jefferson form a brilliant partnership.

One and only Kicker talk. Justin Tucker is the best in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Last year – 9-6-1
  • Superbowl odds – 28/1 (Redzone)
  • Divisional odds – 19/10 (Bet365)
  • O/U line – 8.5 on Skybet (over 8/11, under 1/1)
  • O/U line – 9 (over 5/6, under 1/1)
  • O/U line – 9.5 on 365 (over 13/10, under 4/6)

I don’t think it’s anything to do with my hatred of this franchise that I’ve got them here, as I said at the top, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of these three in any order at the top of the division, it’s bloody hard to call. But they have taken the opposite route to the Browns and jettisoned two players who caused headaches for them and quite blatantly put themselves first over the team. Brown especially kicking off and missing their vital week 17 game last year.

So it’s been a surprisingly quiet and calm off-season for them. Big Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t even tried to grab the limelight by claiming he’s going to retire which makes a change. He threw for a league leading and frankly ridiculous 675 attempts last year as their defense stank and they were having to keep up/blow away teams. It will probably end up being around 550-580 this year so he’ll still be up there come the end of the season. Due to that volume he ended up as the leading passer in terms of yards, he also led the league in interceptions. The two sides of Big Ben.

As alluded to they lost Antonio Brown in free agency, he had 15 TDs and 1,297 yards last year, that’s actually a down year for him yard wise but the highest TD total of his career, and his absence leaves 168 targets to be split to the rest of the team. It also leave Juju Smith-Schuster as the WR1 this year, and it seems very unlikely that his targets/receptions will go up this year after finishing the year with 166 targets himself last year, good for 3rd in the league in that stat. 1,426 and 7 TDs suggest he may make the step up to being the main man, personally I’m not entirely sure, he didn’t do a whole lot in the final game of the season when Brown had kicked off and didn’t turn up. The beneficiaries of the targets should be newly signed Donte Moncrief, second year James Washington and rookie Diontae Thompson, as well as tight end Vance McDonald. Given his history at Indy I would expect Moncrief to offer more TD threat and more receptions than the other two this year, but James Washington has made some plays in pre-season and will get more of the ball than last year where he didn’t seem to have the trust of Ben, and Thompson has had a few good games too. I know a lot of people fancy Dancing with Vance at TE this year in fantasy and I’ve picked him up in a few leagues despite them saying he won’t get any extra snaps this year.

James Conner had a good season at RB, but got injured and faded a little towards the end of the year, he still finished with 12 TDs, mainly because Juju was stopped inside the 2 yard line more than any other WR in the league, history shows that the Steelers will run one RB into the ground so you’ve got to expect that’ll be him again this year and he’ll have a good season. There were early reports that they’ll mix in TE/RB/WR? Jaylen Samuel who played a little at the end of the year and there’s a chance he’ll get more 3rd down work, and they drafted Benny Snell Jnr. who by all reports isn’t the most agile but is tough to stop once he’s moving.

The defense has been poor for a few years since Shazier injured himself, he was their leader, and a bloody brilliant player, but this year they may have fixed that, traded up ahead of the Bengals to draft Devin Bush who is already captaining the defense and calling plays on the field. With him in charge of the secondary and apparently everyone’s favourite younger brother TJ Watt providing pressure up front they’ve got a couple of decent young players back there

If you fancy the Steelers to beat the 9.5 win total then don’t bother with that bet and take the bigger odds on them to win the division.

Cincinnati Bengals

  • Last year – 6-10
  • Superbowl odds – 150/1 (Unibet, Paddpower)
  • Divisional odds – 20/1 (Ladbrokes, Redzone)
  • O/U line – 5.5 (over 4/6, under 11/10)
  • O/U line – 6 at Redzone (over 11/10, under 10/13)
  • O/U line – 6.5 at 365 (over 7.5, under 4/7)

This isn’t going to be pretty.

The Bengals finally moved on from Marvin Lewis this year, he did a brilliant job for the team turning them around from where they were to perennial playoff participants, and I thank him for that, however his departure was probably 2 years over-due. The team had grown stagnant and there wasn’t a lot of support left for the team. Bringing in Zac Taylor, who was once in a room with Sean McVay, gave a spark to the team as whole and breathed a bit of life into the organisation. Whether he’s a good coach only time will tell but I’ve liked all that I’ve seen of him so far off the field.

It’s expected that he’ll play a rams-style play-action offense which will help the much-maligned Andy Dalton. When he’s got players healthy around him, he’s a decent QB, the Bengals were 5-3 last year before injuries took their toll and ended their season, Tyler Eifert and Carl Lawson were the first big losses on either side of the ball but the nail in the coffin was AJ Green I’d argue that better coaching could have mitigated the injuries better but that’s three of the best players out and it killed the team. Anyway. Andy Dalton is average. He won’t sink a team, he won’t rise players around him but if they’re good, he’s good.

They’ve already had the injury bug hit at WR this year with AJ Green injuring the opposite foot to the one he was out with last year and fuelling those who believe he’s injury prone… It’s a big blow but at least it gave them the full pre-season to figure something out, and what they seem to have figured out is that Auden Tate isn’t awful. He’s a big target who can out-muscle players for the ball, a very poor mans AJ Green from what I’ve seen so far. Tyler Boyd had a break-out year and actually had better stats with Green on the field, he’ll be looking for another 1,000 yard season playing mainly in the slot. John Ross is he ever gets fit could be brilliant at the “Brandin Cooks” role in this offense, he had the quietest 7 TD season in history last year and is still widely considered a bust, I’m keeping the faith, he used his quickness more than his speed last year, beating players at the line of scrimmage and getting open in short areas to get his TDs. Josh Malone has shown glimpses and it looks like Damion Willis the undrafted rookie should be making the roster after impressing coaches and beat writers in camp. They’ve also got a pro-bowl level kick returner in Alex Erickson who played well in the slot when required last year too. As a whole they’re fairly deep although not many of the guys have proven themselves in the league as of yet. Add to the WR, a good tight end trio of Tyler Eifert, CJ Uzomah and Drew Sample who was highly rated by the team and one of the better blocking tight ends in the draft, and there’s a core of good pass catchers.

At running back they had the AFC leader last year (not that you’ll hear anyone other than Bengals fans mention it) in Joe Mixon, he missed a couple of games, he was playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league but he’s supremely talented and if he was behind a decent line would be right up there in terms of best in league. Seriously, 5 yards per carry behind that O-line is a brilliant achievement. He got the vast majority of snaps last year, but Giovanni Bernard is a very good backup and third down back. They also drafted more competition in Rodney Anderson and Trayveon Williams who are highly rated coming out of college (Unfortunately means Gio is probably off when his contract tolls at the end of the year) So there’s depth and talent at RB as well.

Defensively they were really poor last year, and missing out on the top 2 LBs in the draft meant they waiting until the third round to pick up Germaine Pratt. They’ve got to hope Jordan Evans, Hardy Nickerson and Malik Jefferson pick up their game as they were atrocious against the run last year. I personally think it was the loss of second year pass rusher Carl Lawson which was the catalyst to the defenses downfall, he was providing a lot of pressure and without him pro-bowler Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap weren’t anywhere near as effective. Again they’ve got top 10 talent through the defense, Geno, Jessie Bates and William Jackson III are all probably top 10 at DT, Safety and CB. It’s just a case of everyone else taking a step forward so it’s not all left on them.

Unfortunately for the Bengals their offensive line is worse than it was last year. They drafted Jonah Williams in the draft, he never missed a single game for Alabama, hardly allowed a pressure. Then boom, out for the season before anything has happened once he joined the Bengals. Cordy Glenn the left tackle missed PS week 3 with concussion… It’s something that I think it going to totally derail their season and the reason that despite being a fan and recognising there’s talent through the team that I can’t have them anywhere other than the basement of the AFC North.

Balls.


 

  • Baker Mayfield o4200.5 passing yards – 10/11 (Redzone) – 5 points

Honestly that’s about it. There’s not really been a whole lot catching my eye in the betting markets this year with regards to anything specifically for teams.

A word of note with the Browns, they have 5 of their divisional games AFTER their bye week, including the Bengals twice in the last 4, so if they’re within 1 or 2 games of the lead of the division and you think they’re playing well then you’re probably sensible to be backing them midway through the season to win the division.

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