I’ve already previewed four NFL Divisions throughout the hot summer months – we’re at the halfway point; with four more divisional previews still to come. Let’s continue the process this week with an early breakdown of the AFC North. As always, teams are listed in alphabetical order within the division.
The Baltimore Ravens had been a model of consistency throughout the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco eras...until last year. Baltimore suffered through an injury riddled disaster of a campaign, finishing with a 5-11 SU, 5-9-2 ATS mark, while going 7-9 O/U. By the end of the season a franchise record 20 different players were on injured reserve. It’s worth noting that the Ravens switched their field surface this past offseason, at least in part due to all of those injuries last year, replacing the field turf with natural grass for 2016.
The betting markets are expecting a significant Ravens bounceback this year, lining Baltimore as an 8.5 win team for 2016 (there are a handful of books that have Baltimore lined at 8 wins with juice to the over). A quick look at their mainstream stats from last year suggests that they were unlucky as well as unhealthy. Baltimore finished with the 14th total offense and the 8th total defense, but their -14 turnover differential (tied with the hapless Titans at 31st in the NFL) doomed their chances. Let’s not forget that nine of the Ravens eleven losses last year came by a single score (by eight points or less).
There’s solid continuity among coaches and management in Baltimore. Head coach John Harbaugh is entering his ninth year on the job. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Dean Pees both returned as well. GM Ozzie Newsome has been running the show for the last 15 years. Newsome re-made the roster in the offseason, bringing in a whopping 31 new guys.
The Ravens lost four defensive starters to free agency. They also lost their best offensive lineman when Kelechi Osemele left for Oakland. Baltimore did acquire a handful of veteran talent in free agency including safety Eric Weddle, CB Jarraud Powers, RB Trent Richardson, WR Mike Wallace and TE Ben Watson. Their strength of schedule ranks right around the league average, but there are some legitimate negatives to note, including three different sets of back-to-back road games and a particularly tough closing road salvo at New England, at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati.
The 2016 Cincinnati Bengals also face a near league average schedule in terms of toughness this year, but it’s surely worth noting that the Bengals give up a home game to play the Redskins in London. That being said, with the exception of that one game in London, the Bengals play every other game in the Eastern or Central time zones; a very manageable schedule in that regard.
Cinci enjoyed a tremendous 2015 regular season: 12-4 SU, 12-3-1 ATS and 7-9 O/U. They were 100% perfect ATS in games where they weren’t favored (at pick em or underdogs). Their mainstream stats won’t wow you: 15th total offense, 11th in total defense and a +0.4 yards per play differential (10th). The most important stat from last year is probably their +11 turnover margin, third best in the NFL.
Cinci has been an "over" machine with their season win totals throughout the Marvin Lewis era; 5-0 to the over in the last five years. They’re lined as a 9.5 win team for 2016. Their biggest offseason issues came on the offensive side of the football. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson left for the Browns head coaching job. Receivers Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones left town in free agency. Andy Dalton is coming off a season where his QB rating was 106.3; second in the NFL behind Russell Wilson. In his first four seasons, Dalton’s previous high was 88.8. For Cinci to cash a sixth straight winning over bet, Dalton will need to show that last year’s success wasn’t a short term mirage.
Steady money has been showing for the Cleveland Browns in early offseason betting action, as their win total of O/U 4.5 now has heavy juice attached to the over. Some of that is ‘knee-jerk’ – the markets tend to bet any teams lined at less than five wins Over their season win total, based on long term trends. But a team that went 3-13 SU, 6-10 ATS and 8-8 O/U, on paper, looks every bit as bad as last year’s squad, maybe worse. And last year’s squad had some VERY ugly stats: the 25th total offense, 27th total defense, -1.0 yards per play differential (32nd) and a -9 turnover differential (28th).
The Browns went through ENORMOUS offseason upheaval. A new management team, headed by MLB advanced analytics superstar Paul DePodesta was hired. And a new coaching staff came onboard as well, with head coach Hue Jackson not noted for his advanced metric mindset. There have already been conflicts between management and the coaching staff; something worth watching as the season develops.
The Browns made the right moves for the future – the far future – by trading down in the draft at every opportunity and letting all of their top free agents walk away without re-signing them to fat contracts. They’ve got RG3 penciled in as their starting quarterback, with three new starters on the offensive line. The Browns are counting on four rookie wide receivers, and a pair of rookies for their pass rush. Their secondary is loaded with questions as well.
No one is going to notice the Browns this year. They come into the season ranked 32nd in everybody’s power ratings, with only one Thursday Night game – every other game starts at 10 am PT. That being said, in a division where the other three teams are lined as playoff contenders, Cleveland is clearly headed for another season of bottom feeder status against a slightly tougher than average schedule.
The Pittsburgh Steelers went 10-6 SU, 9-6-1 ATS and a surprising 6-10 O/U last year; lined as a 10.5 win team heading into 2016. I say "surprising" in regards to their totals because the offense finished third in the NFL, while their suspect defense was ranked 21st. They outgained opponents by +0.8 yards per play, good for fourth in the league.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is 92-52, now entering his 10th season in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has the 3rd best record in the NFL for any team during that span, yet Steelers fans complain because he’s "only" won one Super Bowl (ask Lions fans if they’d mind that). It’s worth noting that Tomlin’s .639 winning percentage is first for Steelers all-time. And Tomlin’s willingness to think outside the box when attempting two point conversions last year was brilliant – he’s not getting enough credit for it.
The Steelers had severe salary cap constraints to deal with in the offseason, limiting their roster flexibility. They lost six starters from last year’s team, including WR Martavis Bryant (suspended) and left tackle Kelvin Beachum. Neither guy was effectively replaced, on paper. Their top three draft choices all came on defense. Corner Artie Burns Miami, safety Sean Davis, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave are going to be asked to fill departed veterans shoes as rookies.
Last year, the Steelers won ten games against a slightly harder than average schedule. This year’s slate is a good notch or two easier, although they do have a tough stretch of four roadies in five weeks in November and December. The Steelers aren’t the favorites to win the AFC North by accident.