Will the AFC North produce a clear-cut contender, two middling teams, and a league laughingstock for the third straight season? It sure looks that way.
Here are my over/under win-total picks for the AFC North.
Pick: Over 10.5 wins +128 (Bookmaker)
The 2017 metrics called for 10.83 wins for the Steelers, and they blew past that total with 13 victories. Now, just think about how good Pittsburgh’s offense should be this season.
Antonio Brown and then-rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for 2,450 yards and 16 touchdowns while spearheading the receiving game for the Steelers in 2017. James Washington, the Oklahoma State product who’s another deep threat, has been added to complement that unit. The offensive line is a top-five group league-wide, featuring four players who received grades of 72.3 or better from Pro Football Focus in 2017.
We can’t talk Steelers without addressing the Le’Veon Bell situation. Bell is a unique talent, and few running backs in the NFL can match the dynamic presence he adds to the Steelers’ offense. Luckily, Pittsburgh can use its depth and the many weapons that fuel the team’s passing offense to compensate for what could be a lengthy holdout. And if it’s James Conner in the backfield, so be it: He should thrive while running behind an elite O-line.
Pittsburgh faces the four AFC West teams, with both the Chiefs and Chargers coming to Heinz Field. The Steelers are a nine-win team at minimum, and that’s if they only split all three of their two-game sets inside the division. They should earn at least one sweep, and potentially two.
Pick: Over 8.5 wins -105 (Bookmaker)
There’s some sweet, sweet irony in the Ravens’ win total.
A franchise mired in mediocrity has put together an even 40-40 record since its Super Bowl win six years ago. And now the Ravens haven’t been to the postseason since 2014. The 2018 season could be the last gasp for head coach John Harbaugh and aging quarterback Joe Flacco.
Flacco was an eyesore in 2017, posting a career-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt and 3,141 yards overall, his lowest total since the 33-year-old’s rookie season. He has a brand new supporting cast with Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead in, and Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, and Breshad Perriman out. The team also picked up a pair of tight ends in Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews this past spring during the draft. Oh, and the Ravens snagged quarterback Lamar Jackson at the end of the first round. If there was ever a show-me year for Flacco, this is it.
Defensively, Baltimore doesn’t have a weak area. There’s almost no chance the team finishes atop the league in turnover margin again, but takeaways aside, the Ravens’ defense is still a stout unit that doesn’t force the offense to win games by itself.
I’m still not sure how the Ravens squeaked out nine wins in 2017. I don’t think the offense can match its league-average play from a season ago, and Baltimore should have been a 10- or 11-win team based on adjusted Pythagorean victories, which subtracts garbage-time points.
I’m not in love with the Ravens on paper because they lack firepower and sexy names. But I do love what the defense offers and can’t see the Ravens being any worse offensively in 2018.
Pick: Over 7 Wins -148 (Bookmaker)
Will the Bengals get the Teryl Austin of 2014, or the Teryl Austin from any of the last three seasons?
The new defensive coordinator in Cincinnati was a bright spot during his first year with the Detroit Lions in 2014 when his unit finished tied for second while allowing 17.6 points per game. In the three seasons that followed, Detroit didn’t finish better than 13th.
The Bengals’ defense has a lot of potential, and it can likely post a season similar to Austin’s first year with the Lions.
The Bengals should get after opposing quarterbacks plenty in 2018 with their nice blend of veterans and rotational youth behind pass-rushers Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Jordan Willis, and Carl Lawson. The secondary features a rising stud in William Jackson III, and Darqueze Dennard finally put together a solid season in 2017.
Offensively, I’m intrigued to see how Andy Dalton fares with a full year of A.J. Green, healthy returns from Tyler Eifert and John Ross, and the support of Joe Mixon.
The Bengals also have the third-easiest schedule, and their non-division opponents are soft (Miami, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Oakland, and Denver). If Cincinnati goes .500 inside the AFC North, this team has a chance to fly over its win total.
Pick: Under 5.5 wins +130 (BetOnline)
I’m not as high on the Browns this season as others after the team’s winless 2017. It’s tough to trust a franchise that hasn’t won since two Christmas Eves ago, or one that still employs Hue Jackson.
I think the talent is there. But I thought the talent was there last year, too. I didn’t even think the Browns had the worst roster in the league in 2017, and they still couldn’t win a game.
Thanks to all the hot moves this spring and summer coupled with the spotlight of “Hard Knocks,” there isn’t much we don’t know about the Browns. They’ve been under the microscope for months, and if you can’t trust Jackson and Cleveland’s front office when there are zero expectations, I’m not sure how you can when there’s more pressure to win.
With four games against the AFC West, four dances against a tough NFC South, and the six division games, I don’t think there are more than five wins on the docket for the Browns in 2018.
Alex Kolodziej is theScore’s betting writer. He’s a graduate of Eastern Illinois who has been involved in the sports betting industry for 11 years. He can quote every line from ‘Rounders’ and appreciates franchises that regularly wear alternate jerseys. Find him on Twitter @AlexKoIodziej.
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