(Previous entries in this series are my breakdowns on the NFC North from June and the AFC East from earlier this month)

 

There must be something in the water of the NFL’s pair of North Divisions. Both have three teams with strong (and realistic) playoff aspirations while another team’s goal is to avoid picking in the 2013 NFL Draft’s Top 5. My NFC North breakdown detailed how, despite being overwhelming division favorites, the Packers will have stiff competition from the Lions and Bears while the Vikings ogle with envy. Today, we’re looking at the AFC North where the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all have legitimate chances to win the division title while the Browns are just hoping they can win a divisional contest.

It’s been an interesting offseason for the division as a whole, most notably in the draft. Pittsburgh actually addressed the offensive line, which has been the team’s seemingly only weakness for a few years, but still hasn’t come to terms with its No. 1 wide receiver Mike Wallace. Baltimore grabbed Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw in the draft which might help offset Terrell Suggs’ season-ending* injury. (*Suggs says he’ll return this year but all scientific evidence suggests otherwise). Bernard Pierce, a bully of a RB from Temple, immediately becomes the team’s No. 2 back and a great guy to have behind Ray Rice. The Bengals, looking to find more gold with college rookie WRs (A.J. Green, part duex?) grabbed Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, both who are expected to compete for starting spots. That coupled with the addition of The Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the Bengals have the offensive pieces to fit their system. Even the lowly Browns made headlines. The Browns are putting much of their hope (present and future) in Alabama RB Trent Richardson. However, unless it gets consistent QB play from rookie Brandon Weeden – who almost certainly will take the starting job from Colt McCoy – Richardson will be facing 8- or even 9-man boxes daily.

With that snippet of information as a primer, here’s a look at the over/under win totals for the AFC North for 2012.

 

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Has any quarterback gotten berated more than Joe Flacco despite leading his team to the playoffs in each of his four seasons? Not only have Flacco’s Ravens made the playoffs each year, they’ve won a playoff game each season as well. Apparently, five playoff wins in four seasons in the vaunted AFC get overshadowed by a pair of AFC Title Game defeats. Some would argue Baltimore’s defense has nearly taken it to the promise land only for Flacco to screw it up; those people might have a point, especially if they focus on a few playoff wins where Flacco was terrible (34 passing yards in a 33-14 win at New England in 2009; 140 passing yards in a 20-13 win vs. Houston in 2011). However, the Ravens defense isn’t what it was five years ago. Baltimore has a solid defensive unit, but it gives yards in chunks and needs opportunistic turnovers and timely stops (read: forcing teams to settle for field goals inside the red zone) to look as good as it does.

Ray Rice is still one of the top backs in the NFL and, given time, Flacco can make plays. It’s been an inconsistent offensive line coupled with his one-legged Grandma mobility that has hurt the former Delaware QB. Baltimore is following New England’s lead with the two-TE game plan design and both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta – while not nearly the formidable combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez –  are both solid in their own right and can be difference makers.

The Schedule

The first thing that jumps out at you is the absence of a Baltimore-Pittsburgh clash in the team’s first nine games. The teams will play their two games in a three-week stretch (Week 11 at Pittsburgh, Week 13 at Baltimore). Nevertheless, Ravens fans shouldn’t be giddy about a 9-0 start before facing the bitter AFC North rivals. The entire schedule is brutal, especially the early slate. September is bookended with divisional home games against the Bengals and Browns but a trip to Philadelphia and a home game against New England are sandwiched in between. October starts out nice with a probable victory at Kansas City but is followed by games against Dallas (Week 6) and at Houston (Week 7). Between the Pittsburgh battles is a west coast trip to San Diego (Week 12). While the games are at home in December, Peyton Manning’s Broncos (Week 15) and the defending champ Giants (Week 16) come to M&T Bank Stadium. Needless to say, this is not one of those schedules where you can confidently say “I can find 10 wins.”

Why they’ll go over 10 wins (-110)

The simple answer is because John Harbaugh’s club always does. Technically, they do 75 percent of the time, but that 9-7 campaign in 2009 still earned a spot in the playoffs. The other seasons, despite difficult schedules, the Ravens won 11, 12 and 12 games. Baltimore is 15-1 the past two seasons at home, the lone loss coming in 2010 to Pittsburgh. With that in mind it seems like seven home wins is a worst-case scenario. That means splitting eight road contests would be enough to get Baltimore to 11 wins and the over. There are three that jump out right away: at Kansas City (Week 5), at Cleveland (Week 9) and at Washington (Week 14). If the team sweeps the home slate those three wins would be enough to top the over. But, given the assumption of a home defeat, Baltimore will need to win a game at one of the following places: Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego or Cincinnati. (For reference, the Ravens won at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh last year but lost at San Diego). This kind of prop is all about playing the odds. Recent odds suggest 10 wins is the floor for the Ravens, making the over a solid bet.

Why they’ll fall under 10 wins (-105)

Joe Flacco’s regression last year was extremely worrisome. Terrell Suggs, the second heart-and-soul piece of the defense, will be a key loss. Anquan Boldin is really showing his age and, while people love his upside, Torrey Smith is entering his sophomore season in the NFL; can he really be Flacco’s No. 1 guy? The way the schedule is set up, Baltimore could enter its Week 11 game with Pittsburgh at 5-4. There are a lot of obstacles in Baltimore’s way this season. If Ray Rice somehow gets banged up, meaning he won’t be touching the rock 350 times again, it’ll mean more pressure on Flacco to make game-winning plays. That’s something he hasn’t been able to do consistently in his four years in the league. Would it be out of line to assume he’ll be able to make the change in Year 5? No, but it would be a big stretch. The Ravens could still be a playoff team at 9-7, but that’ll make “over” bettors irritated.

The play?

Isn’t it funny how a team that was a play or two away from the Super Bowl is all of a sudden a questionable bet to win double-digit games? There is nothing cut and dry with the Ravens. The schedule might be the toughest in the league but John Harbaugh has built a tough team that makes schedule difficulty irrelevant on Sundays. Because this division will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh once again it’s logical both teams will be sitting around 10 wins. I see a 10-6 Wild Card season in store for Baltimore, meaning a push. That being said, the Ravens are known for stealing an extra game so the only play here is the over.

 

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Digest this: Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been arguably in the league’s bottom five the past two seasons, during which QB Ben Roethlisberger played with a broken foot; The Steelers went 12-4 each season. The fact is, with a defensive unit that plays more cohesive than any unit in the past decade, the Steelers aren’t going anywhere. Yes, a new offensive coordinator is in town, but the number of improvisational plays Roethlisberger has made in the pocket the last few years means there is no reason to fear the minute change-in-command.

The Schedule

Like all fellow division mates, Pittsburgh has a tough schedule, drawing the intriguing AFC West and NFC East. Four of Pittsburgh’s first six games are on the road and the Week 4 bye is ill-timed for a team that likes (and usually needs) its bye later in the year for a slew of banged-up veterans. Nevertheless, the Steelers aren’t fearful of travel as Pittsburgh has won 12 games the past two seasons on the road, including a crazy 7-1 mark in 2010. This year’s road trips are trickier, however. The opener at Denver culminates with Peyton Manning’s Mile High debut; Week 9 at the New York Giants and Week 15 at Dallas won’t be cakewalks either. Even the Week 3 trip cross country to Oakland will provide a set of challenges. There are some of those gimme road games – at Tennessee (Week 6) and at Cleveland (Week 12) – but not enough to hide the fact this is an extremely difficult slate.

Why they’ll go over 10 wins (+105)

During Mike Tomlin’s tenure as coach the Steelers have failed to win double-digit games once – and that was a 9-7 season. This team finds ways to win regardless of the opponent or venue. NFL castoff Issac Redman has proven to be a great (and better?) fill-in at RB than Rashard Mendenhall, whose lingering ACL issues might keep him below 100 percent for the entire year. The upgrades to the offensive line are just what Roethlisberger needed. He’s had great years with a terrible offensive line. Imagine what he’ll do with an average line in front of him. That plus the emergence of Mike Wallace as a top five WR in the NFL and Antonio Brown’s as arguably the league’s best No. 2 WR and the Steelers have an offense that can compete with anyone. Finding 10 wins on the schedule might be difficult, but that’s assuming the Steelers struggle in games they never do.

Why they’ll fall under 10 wins (-120)

A new coordinator could wreck havoc on Big Ben’s creativity in the pocket. It could also stunt the development of Pittsburgh’s young players if there are too many changes to the playbook. The Steelers could struggle out of the gates, dropping both September road games (at Denver, at Oakland) as well as a home game against a surprising Jets team to enter the bye at 0-3. At that point, the season isn’t over but it would make the challenge to finish 10-3 feel like Mount Kilimanjaro.

The play?

It’s quite interesting that Vegas believes the Steelers are closer to finishing 9-7 than 11-5 with the small juice on the under. Again, this goes back to playing the odds with a respect for history. With just one season in Tomlin’s reign that failed to reach 10-6 it makes an under play fairly risky. There is no doubt the AFC North division winner could be 10-6, mirroring the typical standings in the NFC East. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. Despite the division’s difficulty, a pair of teams are always vying for the title at 10, 11 or 12 wins. Why should 2012 be any different? It shouldn’t be. That’s why the only play here is the over, especially when the fact remains Pittsburgh and New England still feel like the teams to beat in the AFC. Book It!

 

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Quietly, the Bengals are becoming a consistently-good-with-a-few-dashes-of-great team. Maybe Cincinnati’s stayed off the police blotter enough that people are taking them seriously for once. Or, maybe the Bengals hit the blotter but the fact that seemingly every Detroit Lions player was cited for smoking weed this offseason overshadowed anything happening in Cincinnati. Regardless, the Bengals are no longer the Bungals. What’s most encouraging about Cincy is how the team is built to last with the infusion of talented and “team first” players. Andy Dalton looks like a long-time NFL starting quarterback with great poise and playmaking ability. A.J. Green made the college-to-NFL transition look way too easy. Jermaine Gresham is a rising tight end who is rapidly becoming a goal line ball hawk. Throw in a few gritty veterans who aren’t spotlight guys (BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Bernard Scott, Jordan Shipley) and the Bengals look like a team that’ll be pushing the Steelers and Ravens for years to come.

The Schedule

While Cincinnati lucks out by having to travel to Jacksonville and host Miami (as opposed to Baltimore playing New England and Houston while Pittsburgh plays the NY Jets and Tennessee) the Bengals do have four games against the Ravens and Steelers. The Bengals are one of those teams that will undoubtedly start hot but has a great chance to fade down the stretch due to a brutal second-half schedule. The pre-bye slate is bookended by the season opener at Baltimore and a Week 7 game vs. Pittsburgh. In between are what appear to be five wins: Cleveland, at Washington, at Jacksonville, Miami, at Cleveland. Beginning in Week 9, however, is where things get tough. November starts by hosting the Broncos (Week 9) followed by a home game against the Giants (Week 10). The probability is fairly high Cincinnati could finish December winless with road games against San Diego (Week 13), Philadelphia (Week 15) and Pittsburgh (Week 16) and home games against Dallas (Week 14) and Baltimore (Week 17).

Why they’ll go over 7.5 wins (-185)

If the first half of the schedule proves true, the Bengals should be, at worst, 5-2 before the bye. Heck, maybe the Bengals can steal a game at Baltimore or at home against Pittsburgh to hit 6-1. It means finding 2-3 more wins. A road game at Kansas City (Week 11) doesn’t look too daunting. The same can be said for the Week 12 home game vs. Oakland. If we assume the Bengals win both of those games, they’ll either already hit the over or just need to win one of five games in December (or beat the Broncos or Giants at home in November). It’s definitely doable but Cincinnati will likely be an underdog in all of those games. Heck, Cantor Gaming’s lines for every game have the Bengals as underdogs at Washington in Week 3 and at Kansas City in Week 11. Still, the Bengals, like their division mates, seem to win games they aren’t expected to win. This definitely could be an 8-8 squad.

Why they’ll fall under 7.5 wins (+160)

Going strictly off Cantor’s spreads the Bengals are favored just six times (Cleveland, at Jacksonville, Miami, at Cleveland, Oakland, Dallas) with two games being pick’ems (Denver and New York Giants). If we split the pick’em games, that’s just seven games Cincinnati will be chalk and there are some questionable calls on a few games as well. Despite playing well over the last few years, an optimist really can’t view anything better than a 3-3 divisional mark (sweep of Cleveland plus one win in four tries against Pittsburgh or Baltimore). Every team in the NFC East is going to be tough – even Washington (RGIII will be in his third game when these teams meet; remember how it took the NFL a month before it realized a way to slow down Cam Newton?) – and the AFC West is going to be better than people realize. In all honesty, the Bengals look, feel and smell like a 7-9 team that starts hot and tanks down the stretch.

The play?

If your five senses are working properly, you should be seeing, feeling and smelling the same thing I am: Cincinnati’s ceiling is 7-9, making the under a great play at an even better price. If you also want to taste and listen to the Bengals to hit the quintet of senses be my guest, but I’m sure your conclusion will be the same.

 

CLEVELAND BROWNS

The Browns are one of those teams that have such an ingrained culture of losing that it almost doesn’t matter what talent is on the roster. Part of this can be blamed on being in a division with two seemingly perennial playoff teams in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Throw in Cincinnati, which was in a similar spot at Cleveland a half dozen years ago and Cleveland’s biggest goal for the next few years should be to compete for third in the AFC North. While others bagged on Brandon Weeden for his age during the NFL Draft (have you heard he’s a 28-year-old rookie?) I think he’s a great fit for Cleveland. If Trent Richardson proves to be what’s he’s touted as – the best back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson – then the foundation is set. Evan Moore is the most underrated tight end in the game but Cleveland’s anemic offense makes his numbers (47 targets, 34 catches for 324 yards and 2 TDs in 2011) seem rather pedestrian. The biggest issue with this team is the receiving corps. I’ve never met a guy who said “Greg Little is a great No. 1 NFL wide receiver.” If I did I’m sure I would later learn his fantasy team consistently finishes 1-13 and picks No. 1 in the following year’s draft. Mohamed Massaquoi as a No. 2? Travis Benjamin as a potential starter? The wild card is Josh Cribbs. But, while he’s explosive when he touches the ball, he doesn’t get enough catches in this offense.

The Schedule

I know the city of Cleveland has circled the Week 7 game at Indianapolis. (It’s the battle of Andrew Luck vs. Brandon Weeden!) The problem with Cleveland’s schedule – which seems to be the problem every year – is that there just aren’t that many games where you can say, “That’s a win.” I see one game – one! - that I would say Cleveland definitely wins (vs. Kansas City in Week 14). The problem is, even Cantor Gaming is pessimistic as the Chiefs are 1.5-point favorites. There is the home game against Buffalo in Week 3 (Bills are a 1-point favorite), the above-mentioned game at Indianapolis (Colts are 3-point favorites) as well as a home game against Washington in Week 15 (The RGIII vs. Brandon Weeden Game!) where, surprise, the Redskins are 1-point favorites). I’ve only mentioned the “winnable” games. Six games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati as well as games against the NFC East seem to equal a best-case 2-8 record but a more-than-likely 1-9 or 0-10 mark.

Why they’ll go over 5.5 wins (+120)

With brutal schedules for all division teams, the Steelers and Ravens get beat up against other big boys and the Browns can hold serve against the Ravens (Week 9) and the Steelers (Week 12). Finding four other wins with so many almost-equally-as-bad teams on the schedule shouldn’t be too difficult. There is also the chance Denver and/or Pittsburgh have locked up playoff spots and seeds in the final two weeks meaning Cleveland will have a real chance against the backups for both teams.

Why they’ll fall under 5.5 wins (-140)

Cleveland is an underdog in every game right now except during the Week 10 bye, where oddsmakers haven’t posted a line but are leaning toward a “PK.” With a year under their belts I could see this team pushing a 6-10 mark, but with the future being a group of rookies I find it tough to imagine anything outside of the 1-15 to 4-12 mark. Heck, this team is more talented than the 2008 Lions group that went 0-16 but it could very well join that group. That would take a lot of bad luck, however, so expect a win or two (or three, or four) from the 2012 Browns.

The play?

I think Vegas might have forced more indecision had it set the over/under prop at 4.5 wins with the same juice. I suppose there’s an argument to be made between 4-12 and 5-11, though it would take a lot of convincing to get me to put a wager on 5-11 or better. The fact remains this team has a lot of holes and this is all assuming Brandon Weeden is the starting QB from Day 1. If Colt McCoy makes this a fight for signal-caller dutie this team could be worse than expected. Take the under here, the biggest lock of the NFL season. Book It!