Ravens could be vulnerable in AFC North

The Baltimore Ravens have won not only the last two AFC North titles, they’ve done it as sizable underdogs both times. In 2018 they won the division as + 300 preseason dogs, but that didn’t seem convincing enough to oddsmakers, who listed them as + 400 to repeat as division champs entering last season, according to sportsoddshistory.com.

This year they’re catching no one by surprise. They are coming off a league-best 14-2 campaign, they return the reigning MVP and coach of the year and they enter 2020 as heavy -500 chalk in the division. No one can question the Ravens’ dominance last season. They scored the most points in the league while allowing the third fewest. The question is sustainability. Lamar Jackson threw touchdown passes on a staggering 9% of his attempts. That’s the second-highest percentage since the merger, suggesting regression is perhaps around the corner.

Backing Baltimore to hang the AFC North banner has been a profitable endeavor the last couple of seasons, especially considering the juicy odds. But now that the Ravens are heavy favorites, is it time to zag?

Oddsmakers view this division as the best in the conference. If the season win totals for the four teams are combined, they total 35.5, tied with the NFC West for most in the NFL. Pittsburgh entered last season as the co-favorite to win the division at + 130, but that bet ticket became collateral damage when Ben Roethlisberger underwent shoulder surgery before summer was over. The Steelers sat at 0-2 at the time of the surgery but somehow got to 8-5 before losing their final three games to finish 8-8. The emergence of Baltimore’s QB along with the age and injury of their own QB have plummeted Pittsburgh to a + 350 choice to regain the division title.  

The other half of the division resides in Ohio and looks to capture the state’s first postseason win in over 25 years. Cleveland has had losing seasons 16 of the last 17 years, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 and since resuming operations in 1999 has 101 wins in 336 games. The Browns also entered last season as co-favorites to win the North. How the previous two sentences can both be true is beyond me, but needless to say the results did not meet expectations. This year bettors and bookmakers are more tepid on Cleveland, listing the Browns as + 450 to be division champs.

The other Ohio team has no players who were born in 1982, the last time the franchise advanced in the playoffs. The Bengals’ recent half-decade streak of qualifying for the postseason produced zero wins, and it seems like ancient history as nearly all of that cast of players and coaches is elsewhere. The Bengals are justifiably 30-1 long shots to go from worst to first in the division. 


Best bets ...  


Week 1: Cleveland at Baltimore. Cleveland + 9 and Under 48.5. I like both of these equally, and I think they go hand in hand. New coach Kevin Stefanski was the offensive coordinator for Minnesota last year, which was one of only three teams to run the ball more often than they threw it. The other two teams were the No. 1 seeds, Baltimore and San Francisco, who had plenty of big leads to nurse. Minnesota was extremely run-heavy, and Stefanski’s new team has Nick Chubb, who averaged 5 yards per attempt, as well as 2017 rushing leader Kareem Hunt. Amazingly, with all that talent in the backfield the Browns were only 22nd in rushing attempts last season. That will change. A fullback seldom gets mentioned when discussing the betting market, but the trade for Andy Janovich signifies what’s to come in Cleveland — rushing attempts, and lots of ’em. What that means is fewer possessions, closer games and the clock continually running. Throw in the lack of a home crowd and this opening game should be a close, relatively low-scoring affair in which you’re getting a lot of points. Cleveland was the only team to win in Baltimore last regular season, and it was decisive. I’m confident that if you blindly take the Under on all 16 Cleveland games this year you will come out ahead. 


Week 1: Cincinnati vs. Los Angeles Chargers. Over 44.5. I will look to play the Over regularly on Cincy. The Bengals have an explosive young core in Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins and John Ross. They also get back the criminally underrated but oft-injured A.J. Green. It flew under the radar in the midst of the season, but Bill Belichick called Mixon “probably the best back in the league.” While the offense has a chance to be potent, the season win total is among the league’s lowest at 5.5 for a reason. The defense was atrocious last season, and while it has added a few pieces, it is a long way from being even league-average. Expect a lot of garbage yards and points, and take the Over in this one. 


Pittsburgh to make the playoffs: Yes (-140). This one is simple. The Steelers went back and forth between a second- and third-string quarterback, leading to an offense that ranked 27th in the league. They lost their first two as well as their last three games. With all that, they were still the seventh-place team in the AFC and under the new playoff format would have qualified for the postseason. That trip to the playoffs would have been similar to DiCaprio winning his ticket aboard the Titanic in a poker game as the Steelers would have been facing a trip to Kansas City, but they would have made it nonetheless. Even a somewhat healthy Roethlisberger should rejuvenate the sluggish offense. Given Pittsburgh’s pedigree to draft and develop wide receivers, the return of their quarterback means the offense has a chance to be league-average or slightly above. Pairing an improved offense with an outstanding young defense will get this team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when it was eliminated by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars. A quarter of the schedule consists of Washington, the New York Giants and Cincinnati, giving Pittsburgh a few easy games a year after nothing came easily.



Browns to make the playoffs: No (-140 ). Vince Lombardi famously said: “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” The track record and losing culture in Cleveland is well documented but not overstated. Not only have the Browns missed the playoffs for 17 straight seasons, they haven’t even been close to making it the vast majority of those years. This pick is also in concert with the previous one. Pittsburgh should be really good, while Baltimore won 14 games a year ago, leaving Cleveland a distant third ahead of improving Cincinnati. Even with the extra wild-card team added, non-playoff teams from last year, like Indianapolis and Denver, will provide plenty of competition for the last spot. By the end of the season, Cleveland’s postseason drought will be old enough to vote. 

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