AFC North Preview; Is it finally time for the Browns?

SoS based on opponent win totals

Baltimore Ravens

Last year 11-5; Second place

The off-season has been typically non-descript for the Ravens, the main headline for them would have been losing Orlando Brown in a trade with the Chiefs who they replaced with Vilaneuva who was free after leaving the Steelers, but there was good reason for that, he wanted to play at Tackle and they felt they had better in that position already, not exactly a bad thing getting capital for a player you consider the second best at a position.

They used their first round draft pick to try and get some more weapons for Lamar Jackson by brining in WR Rashod Batema, a big-bodied versatile receiver who will fit in well with Marquise Brown and FA signing Sammy Watkins as they look to further strengthen the WR corp. for Jackson. Of course there’s always going to be people talking about Lamar and his passing ability, for the record I think he’s a fine passer, it’s just that he’s incredibly effective as a runner as well and that suits the system they play.

They lost Mark Ingram to the Texans in free agency but he was being phased out last season anyway due to the emergence of JK Dobbins and Gus “the bus” Edwards. Dobbins will get the majority of the carries this year and is a very good pass catching back while the Gus Bus will continue to do what he does in getting the tough yards, he’s far more of a North to South runner and the combination of the two with Jackson as well is very impressive.

As always they had a solid defense last season finishing 2nd in points conceded. That area is under-going a little overhaul but the coaching and talent on the roster means that they’re usually one of the better units in the league regardless of personnel back there.

Going forward I think they’ll be once again up there challenging for the division. They start on Monday night at the proper opening of the Vegas stadium before facing the Chiefs in week 2, a game they lost fairly convincingly last season, week 13,14,15 is their toughest stretch with the Steelers, Browns and Packers in succession before finishing with the Rams and Steelers. I don’t think the Steelers are the power they were but games between the two are always competitive.

I don’t have a whole lot bad to say about the Ravens, they’re well-coached, have a good roster and should be top 2 in the division once again. They dominate against poor teams, but they still need to prove they can step up against the elite teams in the league, they are 3rd faves for the AFC, the week 2 game against the Chiefs is one they need to perform in to shut up the doubters. We should know early on if they’re a real threat this year or not.

Cleveland Browns

Last year 11-5; Third place

Is it finally time for the Browns? After years of turmoil, cap savings and high draft picks they look like they’re finally in their Superbowl window and this season should be the first time they can properly compete after an impressive winning season last term where they lost to the Chiefs in a close game in the post-season where the Chiefs lost Mahomes to concussion, there were a few dodgy decisions which could have meant the game ended differently, it was a big step forward in Stefanski’s first season as a HC.

This year is their real Superbowl run, they’ve strengthened throughout, brought in highly-rated veterans and if everyone stays healthy should be looking to win the division at the very least. They were without Odell-Beckham Jnr. for a lot of last season and still made the playoffs with the likes of Rashard Higgins and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones putting in performances to keep them moving. With Odell back and looking healthy it gives them more in the passing game.

The running game is what this team works on though and after signing Nick Chubb to a decent short-term deal they’ll look to ride him and Kareem Hunt to over 1,000 yards each again and grind their way into the post-season. Despite my generic dislike of media-types and their bias, I can’t help but agree that $36.6 ($20m guaranteed) over 3 years for Chubb was a good deal for team and player.

The defense got stronger through free agency and the draft by drafting CB Greg Newsome and LB Owusu-Komorah who was the fave to be the first LB picked but dropped due to health issues, as well as bringing in John Johnson at safety and former #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to go alongside potential DPOY Myles Garrett in the pass rushing unit.

They’ve got arguably one of the best rosters in the league now, this really should be their season and compared to the rest of the AFC North they’ve come out with a relatively comfortable schedule with the 2 games either side of their week 13 bye against the Baltimore Ravens potentially the key to their season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Last year 12-4; Winner

Ah, my favourite team in the world to talk about. The Steelers were the last unbeaten team in the league last year getting out to an 11-0 start before Big Bens luck ran out and they ended up losing 4 of their final 5 games (including to a Ryan Finley-led Bengals team) and the wildcard game against the Cleveland Browns. The defense was one of the top units once more but the offensive line and Big Bens age let them down towards the end of the season. The re-scheduling of games due to covid definitely didn’t help them as a surprise early bye-week definitely hurt them down the stretch.

They re-structured Ben’s contract and kept him under center for the coming season, and I am more than happy that they’ve done that, I think he was very lucky early on last season to have not been picked off in every game and that came home to roost late on as his luck evened out, I personally think they should have looked to move on from him, and maybe they have by signing Dwayne Haskins in free agency after a pretty dismal time in Washington, but he was a first round pick and they’ll be hoping the pass-catching talent in Pittsburgh will help him improve.

The offensive line was a big issue for the team last year, ranked as the worst run-blocking unit in the league, so it needed an overhaul and got it. That unit definitely didn’t help the lack of talent they had in that area, so they had two options in the first round of the draft, offensive line help, or a running back. Pick 24 wasn’t great for OL so they picked up a stud rusher instead in ‘Bama recruit Najee Harris. The Steelers like to have one guy doing it all and Harris has the skillset to do that. I am actually looking forward to see what he can do and wouldn’t be too upset taking him pretty high in a fantasy draft. Behind him Benny Snell, Jaylon Samuels, Anthony McFarland. Whatever.

Juju Smith-Schuster re-signed on a team-friendly deal which you have to admire; He’s still never going to be a proper WR1 and seeing him get knocked down against the Bengals was one of the higher points of my teams year, but fair play to him for staying with the franchise who drafted him. Diontae Johnson is meant to be the top man here but had a horrible year with drops, if he can reduce them then the whole team will improve and Chase Claypool showed his supreme athleticism with some massive games last season before slowing towards the end of his rookie year, showing once again that the Steelers are literally the only team in the league capable of drafting WRs. They’ve looked to improve on Eric Ebron at TE by drafting Pat Freirmuth.

The defense was still one of the best in the league though, and despite losing Bud Dupree will still be up there this year. They finished 2nd in turnovers created behind the Dolphins last season and despite looking weaker on paper will look to be up there again this season. Melvin Ingram comes in to try and fill the Dupree spot, with sophomore Alex Highsmith getting some time there as well.

I am the first to admit I’m biased against this team. So it will come as no surprise that I think they’ll finish behind the Browns and Ravens this season. I genuinely think it’s a year too long for Big Ben, so while having a very good RB will help them as he won’t have to pass as much, I think they’ve probably taken a few too many hits over the summer. It may well be the first losing season for Mike Tomlin.

Cincinnati Bengals

Last year 4-11-1; Fourth place

So we’re on to my Cincinnati Bengals. The team with 6 wins in two seasons, surely this year will be better for them? Umm…. yeah? They’ve got a terrible schedule for the coming season and the 17th game which got added this year happens to be against the 49ers who are the faves to take the NFC West, so they got a bit shafted there as well. Now, last year went wrong from the start. They paid big money in free agency for Trae Waynes who never saw the field and DJ Reader who played a couple of games before a season-ending injury. Joe Mixon only played a handful of games, and deficiencies in the offensive line led to Joe Burrow going down for the season with a horrible knee injury. It wasn’t good.

Joe Burrow is back in training already following surgery, a couple of month ahead of schedule which is brilliant news for Bengals fans, and he’ll hook up once again with Ja’Marr Chase his LSU team-mate who the team took at #5 overall, to the derision of pretty much every non-Bengal fan who thinks they should have taken Penei Sewell… Chase and Burrow broke records in college and as the like-for-like replacement for AJ Green the Bengals had need at WR1. It gives them now one of the better trios in the league with Boyd, Higgins and Chase on the field. If they stay fit then they could all be going for 1,000 yards this year, Boyd hit that last season and Higgins would have done had it not been for a hold on the play which took him over it.

CJ Uzomah looked decent enough in his action before going down injured as well, another knock to the pass-catching talent they were able to put out last season.

I personally believe that had there been a need Joe Mixon could have returned last season but there wasn’t and he sat out the year. He’s a very good back, adept in the passing game and on the ground and after not retaining Gio Bernard (I hope he wins a medal in Tampa) he should get more work in the passing game which fans have been clamouring for since he joined the team. It seems Mixon will get the bulk of the work with Samaje Perine getting the North-to-South work and rookie Chris Evans and/or Trayveon Williams able to help out as well.

The offensive line WAS looked at by the Bengals and knowing they had a first round pick at LT already in Jonah Williams, they picked up Riley Reiff to markedly improve right tackle while drafting multiple OL in later rounds, they added depth to a line which was hit by injury through the season last year, and they replaced the inept OL-coaching with the guy who helped Joe Mixon lead the AFC in rushing yards a couple of years ago.

The defense was poor last year and losing William Jackson in free agency doesn’t help, but they put their eggs in Trae Waynes basket and need him to step up, they brought in Chidobe Awuzie from the Cowboys and Mike Hilton from the Steelers, both of whom should improve on the players they replace, while the LB corp is very young and will improve from last year. DJ Reader back and healthy and Trey Hendrickson replacing the out-going Carl Lawson should both help the defensive line as well. They also boast one of the best safety duos in the league with Jessie Bates and Von Bell.

If it wasn’t for playing in the AFC North and having one of the toughest schedules on paper I would probably be a lot higher on my team. I do think they’ll be much better than last season, but as always it depends on health and this is one of the most injury-plagued teams in the league when it comes to losing big talents. Winning at most 1 game in division doesn’t exactly lead to big things in the overall record. So unfortunately I think it’s going to be another painful year and probably the end of Zac Taylor is things end as I fear they will.

Overall brief on the division.

Sorry Bengals fans, I didn’t mean this to end up as negative as it turned out, but it looks like a long season ahead for us again. Browns fans rejoice, it might FINALLY be your turn to be happy. Steelers, enjoy looking up at the others for a few years. Ravens. Carry on as usual.

Betting angles for the AFC North

It’s worth noting that while they’re in a completely random order, that Redzone have a TON of markets that you won’t find anywhere else, things like total divisions wins in week 1, matchups on games won in September, some baseball vs. NFL win % matchups, just a lot of random things which might pique some interest.

Skybet, and I think a few others are offering forecasts on divisions at the moment, so while Browns/Ravens in any order at 4/5 (Redzone) won’t make you a millionaire, I do think it’s the most likely outcome. Similarly Steelers to finish 3rd at 7/5 (William Hill/Redzone) and the Bengals finishing fourth at 1/2 aren’t exactly money-makers either, but that’s how I see the division this season.

Browns, Ravens, Steelers, Bengals at 11/2 would be the exact order I think, but the amount of variables involved puts me off backing that. It only takes the odd injury to Mayfield/Lamar Jackson to throw the whole thing out of whack.

The passing yards markets are interesting this year, and as a rule I’d be looking to go under on everyone. Baker is at 4000.5, Big Ben 3999.5, Joe Burrow 4249.5 and Lamar Jackson down at 3400.5 on PaddyPower. For context. Last year saw Baker at 3899.5, Ben at 3850.5, Burrow at 3800.5 and Lamar at 3199.5 for 16 game seasons. So initially it looks a decent bet to go over on Baker Mayfield, especially with Odell returning.

Nick Chubb at 9/1 for most rushing touchdowns at William Hill (15/2 on Skybet) probably isn’t the worst bet in the world.

The Bengals to have u1.5 wins in division at 5/4 (Redzone) seems annoyingly generous. I think they lose both to the Browns and Ravens and split with the Steelers.

The AFC North to have u1.5 wins in week 1 is a teaser as well, the Steelers are in Buffalo, the Bengals host the Vikings, the Browns face the Chiefs and the Ravens are at the proper opener of the Vegas stadium. So it’s feasible and probably likely as all underdogs that the division only win 1 at 23/20 (Redzone) is fantastic for quickly comparing the main markets across books, and where I got the best prices in the original image at the top of this article. (Lines have now changed slightly)

Fantasy leagues

My Fantasy leagues will be running again this year, if you’ve not done so already submit your interest and I’ll be in touch when they’re sorted later in August.

Week 1 contests are also available for Draftkings sign up for $10 free when you deposit $10

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