Ravens look strongest in AFC North

The favorite: Ravens. At this time last year, the Steelers and Browns were virtual co-favorites to win the AFC North, and the Ravens were between + 300 and + 400. But then Lamar Jackson put together an MVP season, and the Ravens not only won the AFC North but were the conference’s No. 1 seed before getting unceremoniously eliminated by the Titans in the divisional round. This season they’re about -200 favorites to win the division, as low as -180 at the Westgate SuperBook and as high as -285 at Caesars. The Steelers and Browns are in the + 300 to + 500 range, respectively. And some are saying the Ravens might even be better with Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins added to the league’s No. 1 running attack with Jackson and Mark Ingram Jr., while the defense added DE Calais Campbell. What everyone will want to know is if defensive coordinators have figured out how to contain Jackson and the Ravens’ offense like the Titans did in the playoffs. Also, are the Ravens truly contenders for the AFC title (+ 250 second choice behind the Chiefs) or the Super Bowl (+ 500, also behind the Chiefs)? Or are they a team built for the regular season and not worth a play in other futures?     

Live dog: Browns. And here we have the flip side of this division. The Ravens were my live dog last year, but now the Browns are in this role at odds of about + 500 to win AFC North, with a high of + 525 at William Hill. The Browns were overhyped last year and thrust into the role of favorites, but they were blown out 43-13 in the season opener against the Titans and finished a disappointing 6-10. But this team reminds me of the 2017-19 49ers. In 2017, they started 0-9 before winning six of their last seven games, including the last five after Jimmy Garoppolo took over at QB. It seemed the whole world picked them as dark-horse contenders in 2018, but Garoppolo tore his ACL in Game 3 and the 49ers stumbled to a 4-12 record. However, with the pressure off in 2019, Garoppolo and the 49ers lived up to their potential, went 13-3 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. That seems eerily similar to the way the Browns finished the 2018 season once Baker Mayfield took over at QB, followed by the Browns’ hype and disappointment in 2019 and now heading into this season with tempered expectations. Even without fans, the Dawg Pound could be barking this year.

Prop players. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards in 2018, but his 2019 campaign ended when he suffered an elbow injury in Week 2. He’s back this season and is 16-1 at Caesars to lead in the NFL in passing yards. Granted, Big Ben still had Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown to boost his stats in 2018, but JuJu Smith-Schuster had 111 receptions for 1,426 yards as the No. 2 receiver in that offense. He was expected to excel as the No. 1 option last season but obviously had a less productive year with the mediocre backup QBs. If he can stay healthy, Smith-Schuster could challenge for the NFL lead in receiving yards at 20-1. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Nick Chubb was second in the league with 1,494 rushing yards last season behind only Derrick Henry. He is the third choice in the betting at 8-1 behind only Henry and Ezekiel Elliott.

Big games on the board

Cleveland at Baltimore, Week 1: We’ll find out right away if the Browns will be part of the AFC North race as they face the Ravens on the opening Sunday of the season. The Ravens are 8.5- to nine-point favorites in Vegas, though we’ve seen the line as low as 7.5 at DraftKings and Bet Rivers in Pennsylvania.

Kansas City at Baltimore, Week 3: The Ravens never got their shot at the Chiefs last season in the playoffs, but they get to see how they match up in this early-season test. The Westgate SuperBook has the Ravens at -3 (+ 100), while PointsBet has it at Ravens -1.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Week 8: The first meeting between the presumptive division favorites comes in a Thursday nighter, with the Ravens six- to eight-point home favorites.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh, Week 12: For anyone making a list of marquee games, this Thanksgiving night game has to be included. The Steelers will host the Ravens with control of the AFC North possibly hanging in the balance. The Westgate SuperBook and PointsBet have the Ravens as 2.5-point road favorites, though a lot will depend on the results of the earlier meeting as well as the rest of the season to that point.


Baltimore (Under 11.5 -110, William Hill)

The Baltimore bandwagon is crowded after the Ravens’ 14-2 record last season, but it’s not going to be as easy this year with the proverbial bull’s-eye on them. They’ll get every opponent’s full attention, and you know the league’s defensive coordinators have been game-planning all offseason how to contain dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ record-setting rushing attack. 


You might have heard that the Ravens’ have the NFL’s easiest strength of schedule based on 2019 records, but remember that’s skewed a lot by getting to face the 2-14 Bengals twice. They have to face five playoff teams from last year in their first 10 games, including the Texans, Chiefs, Eagles, Patriots and Titans. A 7-3 record would be respectable from that gauntlet, but that would mean they’d have to go 5-1 the rest of the way, which includes a stretch of three straight prime-time games in Weeks 12-14 against the Steelers on Nov. 26, the Cowboys on Dec. 3 and the Browns on Dec. 14. That might even be tough to pull off if they start 8-2. The better actual bet might be Circa Sports’ alternate win total of Under 10.5 + 160.


Pittsburgh (Over 9.5 + 100, Westgate)

The Steelers have the second-easiest strength of schedule based on last year’s records, but that’s not why I’m taking the Over. The Steelers went 8-8 last year and just missed the playoffs, but it could be argued that it was Mike Tomlin’s finest coaching job. 


Tomlin lost starting QB Ben Roethlisberger after an 0-2 start yet got his team back in contention with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at QB. They led an offense that ranked No. 30 in the NFL at just 276.8 yards per game but was rescued by a defense that ranked No. 5. With Big Ben back, the Steelers should be right in contention and are helped by the fact that after they open on the road at the New York Giants, four of their next five games are at home. They face some other tough games along the line, including at the Cowboys in Week 9 and the two games vs. Ravens. But if the Steelers are over .500 heading into their last five games against non-playoff teams, they should get Over the 9.5 wins.


Cleveland (Over 8.5 -110, Westgate)

The Browns were lauded as Super Bowl contenders last year and favored to win the AFC North at several sportsbooks, but they crashed and burned on the way to a 6-10 season. Coach Freddie Kitchens was fired and replaced by former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who doesn’t have much more experience than Kitchens had but has to be an improvement, right? 


The players are pretty much the same as the group that had an Over-Under of nine wins last season, so we’ll take that as a value play in needing to go only Over 8.5. The offense is loaded with Nick Chubb supported by Kareem Hunt in the backfield, WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry plus free-agent signing TE Austin Hooper. The defense is led by DE Myles Garrett, whose suspension for the helmet-swinging incident against the Steelers was lifted during the offseason. The main hurdle the Browns have to overcome is the culture of losing that has hung over the franchise since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. 


The Browns would love to win at Baltimore in the season opener, but at least they get the Bengals and the Washington Football Team the following two weeks. They should be competitive in all their games and stay above .500 to keep the 9-7 record for the Over in play. Another pivotal game could be if they could knock off the Ravens in Week 14 at home, but even then they should have winnable back-to-back games in the Meadowlands in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Giants and Jets, respectively.   


Cincinnati (Over 5.5 -135, Circa)

The Bengals went a woeful 2-14 last season but earned the No. 1 draft pick and right to draft Heisman Trophy-winning QB Joe Burrow. I’m not trying to put him in the class of Patrick Mahomes, but the argument can be made that he’s a more developed prospect than Mahomes was entering his rookie season, when he benefited by sitting behind Alex Smith. I believe Burrow can be successful right away. We’re certainly not saying he’ll turn the Bengals into playoff contenders overnight, but six wins doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. 


WR A.J. Green is supposedly healthy again, and he often made Andy Dalton a serviceable starting QB. RB Joe Mixon should also take some pressure off Burrow, as he has compiled back-to-back seasons of 1,400 all-purpose yards without much support. The defense ranked No. 29 in the league at 393.7 yards allowed per game, but it added DT D.J. Reader, CB Trae Waynes (currently injured) and S Vonn Bell. 


We should get an idea of where the Bengals stand against middle-of-the-road teams after facing the Chargers and Browns the first two weeks of the season. Success breeds success in the NFL, so we’ll see if they can get an early win before trying to think of upsetting bigger favorites. You can’t just assume a win from a team that went 2-14 the year before, but the Week 4 home game vs. Jacksonville, Week 11 at Washington and Week 12 at Miami look winnable.


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