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Here is the 2021 pro football betting guide preview for the AFC North.
THE FAVORITE: BALTIMORE RAVENS
The NFC West holds the title of deepest division this season, but the AFC North comes in a very close second. Baltimore and Cleveland are projected for double-digit win totals and are favored to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh is not far behind with a win total of 8.5 and a 41.7% chance to make the postseason, according to DraftKings odds. The division could send three teams to the playoffs, and two are unquestioned conference contenders.
Baltimore enters the season as the favorite to win the division (+ 115), and it is easy to see why. The Ravens have 25 wins over the last two seasons, and they have finished in the top three for rushing offense in DVOA the last two seasons. Much of that is due to the play of quarterback Lamar Jackson, but signs indicate that Baltimore is due for a step back this season. Jackson dropped from second in DVOA in 2019 to 21st in 2020, and his PFF grade went from third to 17th. As a result, the Ravens’ passing attack was below average last season, and defensively there are some real questions about the construction of this team on the edge. If the Ravens’ trajectory continues, which seems likely, it opens the door for an emerging young team in Cleveland to win this division.
LIVE DOG: CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns have slowly been building a monster for three years, and the fruits of that labor were an 11-win season and a playoff victory in 2020. For a franchise toiling in mediocrity for decades, that season could be viewed as the culmination of all that hard work, but the Browns are here to stay. Cleveland owns arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, and it matches perfectly with reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski’s offensive scheme. Nick Chubb has emerged as one of the best running backs in the league, and Baker Mayfield is the perfect quarterback to run Stefanski’s offense. In the offseason, the Browns added 11 players to their defense in an attempt to improve a unit that finished 25th in efficiency last season. Not only is Cleveland a live underdog in this division, but it should emerge as the division winner. Given the potential of this offense, the improvement on defense and one of the easier schedules in the NFL, the Browns have a clear path to win their first division title since 1989.
One might point to Pittsburgh as a candidate to win the division, but bettors have many reasons not to invest in that outcome. Despite an 11-0 start last season, there were clear indications that the Steelers were not as good as their record indicated. Ben Roethlisberger hit a steep decline, posting his worst PFF grade since 2008 on a career-worst average depth of target of 7.4 yards. Their offensive line, one of the worst run-blocking units in the league last season, arguably got worse in the offseason. Pittsburgh’s defense has plenty to like, but declining quarterback and offensive line play has this team on shaky ground in an improving division. It would not be surprising to see the Steelers in the postseason, but the roster does not seem to have enough to realistically predict they will win the AFC North.
PROP PLAY: MYLES GARRETT TO WIN DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
Since 2011, eight winners of this award have been dominant pass-rushers, and seven have been defensive linemen. Garrett, the Browns’ defensive end, has been one of the NFL’s best edge rushers since entering the league in 2017, and he has the potential to break out in a big way this season with Jadeveon Clowney joining him on the other end of the defensive front. Malik Jackson is a real pass-rushing threat on the interior as well. The added talent on the line will allow Garrett to face more one-on-one opportunities on pass-rushing downs, so he has a clear path to win his first Defensive Player of the Year Award.
PROP PLAY: JOE BURROW OVER 4,200 REGULAR-SEASON PASSING YARDS
The Cincinnati Bengals will not be a great team this season, but the offense has some real potential. Burrow was very good as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury, ranking first among first-year quarterbacks in rate of perfect ball-placement accurate passes (19.6%), according to PFF. He was one of the best quarterbacks in the league on short and intermediate throws, and this season he has even more weapons with the addition of Ja’Marr Chase to a wide receivers room that already has Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Burrow was on pace to hit this total last season before his injury, and now he has an extra game on the schedule.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Cleveland at Kansas City (Sept. 12)
The Browns have the look of a team ready to compete for the AFC championship, so what better way to test that theory than a game against the two-time defending conference champs? The Chiefs sent the Browns home in the divisional round last season in a game that was close because of an injury to Patrick Mahomes, but a rematch with an improved Cleveland team will show bettors where the Browns really stand in the AFC.
Pittsburgh at Los Angeles Chargers (Nov. 21)
The Steelers could very well be a playoff team, but to make it they must take care of business against others in the running for a wild-card spot. This is one of those games, and it will be in prime time Sunday night. The Chargers should be much better defensively and will pose a stiff test for the Pittsburgh offense.
Baltimore at Cleveland (Dec. 12)
The final meeting between these teams comes early, but it holds so much weight. They are the top contenders for the division title, and the Browns will be in a much more favorable scheduling spot coming off their open date. It is very likely this game will decide who wins the AFC North.
Green Bay at Baltimore (Dec. 19)
How brutal is this scheduling spot for the Ravens? They will be coming off their second meeting in three weeks with the Browns, with a road game in Pittsburgh sandwiched in between, just to host a Super Bowl contender in Green Bay. From Week 12 on, the Ravens have six games against opponents projected to win nine or more games. How will they get through this slog?
Since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback in 2018, Baltimore is 30-7 in games he has played. Jackson is responsible for 87 touchdowns, and he took home an MVP award. However, he took a step back in 2020, and concerns have arisen that this is a sign of things to come for a player who took the league by storm.
Jackson has regressed as a passer, going from a 85.3 PFF passing grade to 76.9 last season, and his turnover-worthy play rate doubled to 3.6%. The biggest change for Jackson was when passing without play-action. During his MVP season, he posted a 2.87 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but last season he threw nine fewer touchdowns on those attempts with a 2.0 ratio, and his yards per attempt dropped to 6.8. If Baltimore is going to challenge for the Super Bowl, he needs to make strides in more traditional drop-back passing situations.
However, some problems are already popping up in the receivers room. WR Rashod Bateman underwent surgery in early August and will likely miss the start of the season, while WR Marquise Brown is dealing with a hamstring injury that could linger into the regular season as well. The best receiving option is tight end Mark Andrews, but a lack of depth plagues the Ravens at wide receiver. On the line, tackle is mostly secure with Ronnie Stanley and Alejandro Villanueva, but Stanley is coming off a serious ankle injury and Villanueva is switching to right tackle. The interior is a question, as center Bradley Bozeman and right guard Kevin Zeitler are average linemen at best. These problems make it more likely this unit will continue sliding down the efficiency leaderboard.
The defense was the most consistent aspect of this team in 2020, and it is still set up for success with a strong secondary. Last year Baltimore was graded as the league’s seventh-best coverage team by PFF. Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters are phenomenal coverage corners. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott graded out as top-30 coverage safeties in the league last year. That elite level of pass coverage allows the Ravens’ mediocre group of pass-rushers to get home. Baltimore led the league by a wide margin in blitz rate last year, sending five or more rushers 44.1% of the time. Coordinator Don Martindale does this by design, as the Ravens have no true dominant pass-rushers, which is why Justin Houston was a late addition. Should the secondary stay healthy, a question given its injury history, bettors should expect similar output this season.
The Ravens have the 12th-hardest schedule by projected opponent win total, and the back half of the slate is an absolute beast. Eight of Baltimore’s final 10 opponents are projected to win eight or more games. From Week 12 to the end of the season, the Ravens have all four divisional games against Cleveland and Pittsburgh plus home games against the Packers and Rams. Taking everything into account, not only is it hard to make a case for 12 wins, but it is impossible to justify laying a price that implies a 54.5% probability that it happens.
No team in this division has more going for it than Cleveland. Fresh off an appearance in the divisional round, Baker Mayfield and the Browns have everything they need to take the next step toward contention. The true straw that stirs the drink for Cleveland is an offensive line that is arguably the best in the NFL. In 2020, the Browns finished first by PFF grading in run blocking and pass blocking. The entire unit returns, and second-year tackle Jedrick Wills has room for growth. It is the perfect offensive line for Kevin Stefanski’s zone-blocking run scheme, and the backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are ideal. Chubb has finished no lower than the fourth-highest-graded runner in the league since being drafted in 2018 and has rushed for 2,561 yards the last two seasons.
All of this surrounds Mayfield, coming off a phenomenal season in which he threw 26 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Stefanski’s scheme allowed the fourth-year QB to post career highs in QBR (72.2), passer rating (95.9) and PFF passer grade (81.6). Cleveland was ninth in offensive efficiency last season and looks like a top-10 offense again.
Defense is where the Browns were weakest, finishing 25th in efficiency. However, the problem was addressed in the draft and free agency. Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson have been brought in to play alongside Myles Garrett on the defensive line. Cleveland’s first two draft picks were spent on corner Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and defensive tackle Andrew Billings is back after opting out of the 2020 season. The Browns’ defense a season ago was just Garrett and Denzel Ward, but this season the unit has real potential if it is fully healthy. The schedule should help push Cleveland into the top half of the league rankings in defense, as the Browns face the ninth-easiest schedule when measured by opponents’ offensive efficiency. The problem on defense is up the middle.
The Browns’ rotation of interior defenders is thin, and they are not highly skilled run defenders. Only one interior lineman or linebacker, Sione Takitaki, graded above 63.7 in run defense for PFF. In 2020 the defense ranked no higher than 14th in the running game stats that Football Outsiders tracks, and the front seven could have similar struggles defending the run. However, with more pass-rushers and more bodies in the secondary, bettors can expect a better Browns defense.
The final arrow in Cleveland’s quiver is its schedule. When graded by projected opponent win totals, the Browns have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL. They get eight games against opponents projected to win eight or fewer games, and a late bye comes in Week 13 before a home game with Baltimore. The schedule presents challenges, like the season opener in Kansas City and a game in Green Bay in Week 16. But from Week 2 to Week 11, the best team they face by projected wins will be the Chargers, giving them a real opportunity to pad their record before the brunt of their divisional games. The best aspect of their schedule? Eleven opponents finished 19th or lower in run defense efficiency last season. A fantastic season seems in the cards for Cleveland any way you look at it.
How Joe Burrow recovers from a serious knee injury is all that matters for Cincinnati. Burrow was solid in his rookie season, ranking second among first-year QBs in passing by PFF standards. He thrived in clean pockets, completing 74.8% of his passes for 7.5 yards per attempt, with 10 touchdowns to three interceptions. However, under pressure was another matter: Burrow posted an atrocious 45.1 PFF passer grade when under pressure, averaged 4.2 yards per attempt and completed just 37.3% of his passes.
He was under pressure on 32.2% of his drop-backs last season, so the front office signed Riley Reiff to play right tackle across from second-year pro Jonah Williams. Williams was a quality left tackle last season, allowing just three sacks and 20 pressures on 429 pass-blocking snaps. He and Reiff give Burrow some security on the edges. The biggest questions are along the interior. No current interior lineman on the roster graded higher than 63.8 by PFF standards, led by center Trey Hopkins, who is coming off an ACL injury. Cincinnati spent its second-round selection on guard Jackson Carman out of Clemson, but the rookie has struggled so much that fourth-round pick D’Ante Smith could surpass him on the depth chart. It is safe to say Burrow will have below-average line play again, but with quality at both tackle spots, he could get slightly better protection this season.
If the offensive line does creep back to average, the offense could wind up in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency. Burrow was a fantastic intermediate passer, completing 74.2% of his passes from 0 to 19 yards for 11 touchdowns and 7.78 yards per attempt. He needs to improve as a deep passer, as he completed only 18.8% of his passes of 20 or more yards, but he has the weapons to do so. His top target at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase, is now on the team, and Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are great receivers. Higgins posted a 95.1 PFF grade on routes 20 or more yards downfield in his rookie season. The path is there for Burrow to lead a more efficient offense in 2021, but a mediocre defense is ultimately what will hold this team back.
The defensive line has some talent but lacks a dominant defender. Trey Hendrickson comes in as this team’s best defensive lineman after four seasons in New Orleans. D.J. Reader is a solid presence along the interior, and Sam Hubbard adds pass-rushing prowess, but there is not much after that. Rookie Joseph Ossai is expected to be a massive contributor to the pass rush, but a wrist injury has the start of his season in doubt. Linebacker is likely the weakest position group, probably leading to another year of poor run defense and inefficient defensive play. The Bengals seem to have no realistic way to make great leaps from the 27th-most efficient defense in the NFL it was last season.
When you factor in a schedule that is the eighth hardest in the NFL by projected opponent win totals, it seems foolhardy to believe the Bengals have a 54.5% chance to win seven or more games.
Some would say Pittsburgh was one of the most disrespected teams in the NFL last season. An 11-0 start was discounted by many who said the Steelers’ statistical profile painted a picture of a team nowhere near that good. Those who believed the Steelers were fraudulent were proven correct when they ended the regular season 1-4 and were bounced by Cleveland in the wild-card round. This year the team that won one game over the final month of last season likely will show up, and it is all because of an offense with some very real flaws.
Ben Roethlisberger is nearing the end of the road. Last season he posted career lows in average depth of target at 7.4 yards and passing grade on throws 20 or more yards. The lack of success on throws downfield or avoidance of such throws is unnerving for a quarterback who was coming off an elbow injury last season. However, he was done no favors by a nearly nonexistent running game. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was the worst run-blocking unit in the NFL by any measure. Yes, the Steelers added Najee Harris in the first round of the draft, but he does nothing to help an offensive line that did not improve. No current tackle graded higher than 63.7 by PFF standards. Kevin Dotson could be their best interior lineman, but he played only 358 snaps last season, and they have zero talent at center. The offense has little hope of being better given Roethlisberger’s trajectory and the personnel on the line.
Defensively it is safe to assume the Steelers will be their usual selves. They have one of the best pass-rushers, and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, in T.J. Watt and quality depth at cornerback and safety. Some weak links exist at linebacker, and much is expected from Devin Bush, who is coming off an injury-shortened season. In 2020, Football Outsiders had Pittsburgh as the most efficient defense in the NFL, and the personnel indicate this will be another top-10 unit. However, a great defense can carry a team only so far, especially when it looks like the offense could be one of the worst in the NFL. Is this really a team that can win nine or more games?
When the schedule is measured by projected opponent win totals, the Steelers have the hardest schedule in the league by a mile. Only six opponents are projected to win seven or fewer games, and they must face the Bills, Packers, Seahawks and Chiefs as part of a first-place schedule. Their slate is the second easiest in opponent offensive efficiency. But given the improvement of Cleveland and the level of competition on this schedule, it does not seem like a winning wager to invest in Pittsburgh winning nine or more games, especially when bettors are laying a price indicating a probability of 58.3% (-140).