With only the Cincinnati Bengals making the playoffs last season, 2013 marked the first time since 2007 that the AFC North division sent only one team to the NFL’s postseason tournament. From 2008-to 2012, the division known for its tough defenses and blue collar cities, had at least two teams in the NFL postseason. In 2011, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincy all represented the division. Once in the playoffs, the division handles its business quite well posting a 14-10 record during that span of playoff play. Two teams, the Ravens (3) and Steelers (2) have appeared in five AFC title games and are 2-1 in Super Bowls with the Steel and Charm cities winning their sixth and second Lombardi Trophies respectively. The Steelers and Ravens have twice squared off in the playoffs during this time—once in the AFC Championship (2008) and once during the divisional round (2010). Pittsburgh won them both.
The division hasn’t backed into the playoffs. Since the 2008 season, the Steelers (3 appearances) Bengals (4 appearances) & Ravens (5 appearances) have combined to post a 130-62 record (.677) during the regular season. This means that in order to win the division, somebody will need to win 11 of 16 games during the regular season and considering these teams face off twice a year, that’s no small feat.
Two of the top organizations in all of sports are considered to reside within the AFC North in the Steelers and Ravens. Neither spends excessively in free agency but instead conducts masterful drafts and when they do sign players, they are usually players still hanging around after June 1, which means that they don’t have to give up draft picks in order to sign them.
The division only gets tougher every year and this year, the Cleveland Browns believe they can join the party that Cincy, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore have been attending at times during the last six seasons. In order to do so, Cleveland will turn to their sixth regime in 15 years since rejoining the NFL in 1999. They also are putting all of their chips on the first Freshman to win ever win a Heisman Trophy in college football, as quarterback Johnny Manziel looks to take over under center at some during the 2014 season.
Two weeks ago, Las Vegas released their annual over / under win / loss projection totals for the upcoming season. Each year about this time, the book makers in the Sin City believe they have enough information following the NFL Draft and most of the free agency period to convince you they know how your favorite NFL team will do for the upcoming season. Recent history shows that we may want to listen to the invisible men on the strip in Vegas. In 2011, Vegas correctly predicted nine of the 12 playoff teams in May. Vegas doesn’t always get them right, as they predicted the Broncos and Bengals would be good for only 5.5 wins that season—However, the Bengals won nine games and the Tebow led Broncos stole the AFC West with eight victories.
In the NFC, only the San Francisco 49ers, whom the odds makers predicted would win 7.5 games, fooled the Vegas insiders. As you know, the Niners tallied 13 victories and were a muffed punt away from playing in the Super Bowl. Vegas predicted the highest win total for the season would come from the Packers, whom they said would win 11 games. Green Bay won 15 of 16 in 2011, as Aaron Rodgers had one of the best regular seasons in the history of the game.
Vegas doesn’t do badly on the preseason Super Bowl odds. In 2011, they had New England listed as a 7 to 1 AFC favorite and of course Green Bay in the NFC, with the same odds. The Giants, who actually won the big game that season, were 15 to 1 during the months of May and June
In terms of teams losing two or more games than what Vegas predicted for them, only three teams in 2011— the Colts Vikings and Rams veered off course. Vegas predicted seven wins in Minnesota and St. Louis but the Vikes and Rams won three and two games respectively. The Colts were predicted to win nine games but the Peyton Manning injury had a lot do with the two victories.
In 2012, Vegas was again pretty much accurate with their playoff predictions. But as it does every with the parity that exists, teams jumped up that no one could have predicted. Vegas nailed every AFC division winner and only the Colts, who won 11 games with rookie sensation Andrew Luck, surprised. Odds makers predicted less than six wins (5.5) for the rookie QB and rookie head coach, Chuck Pagano. The NFC proved to be a bit trickier in 2012 for Vegas. Odds makers predicted less than eight wins for three teams that made the playoffs—Washington (10w-6.5 projected), Minnesota (10w-6 projected) & Seattle (11w-7.5 projected). The rest of the NFC was status quo, as Vegas projected playoff berths for Atlanta, San Francisco, and Green Bay.
Six teams in 2012 lost at least two more games than what Vegas predicted they would, doubled from the year before. The Lions, Jaguars, Chiefs, Saints, Raiders, and Eagles all lost more than expected. Green Bay and New England were again your May Super Bowl favorites with Packers the leagues favorite at 5 to 1 and the Patriots coming in as the AFC Favorite at 8 to 1. However, if you had dropped a few dollars on the Ravens and 49ers to play in New Orleans in the Super Bowl, you likely would have cashed a nice ticket. The Niners were 20 to 1 in May, while the Ravens sat at 12 to 1.
Last season the Patriots (12w—11p), Bengals (11w—8.5p), Colts (11w—8.5p) and Broncos (13w—11.5p) surprised no one in the Sin City, as all were predicted to be playoff teams. The Chargers and Chiefs were not exactly stunning upsets to be playoff teams in Vegas. Prognosticators didn’t miss by that much as the projected 7.5 wins for the nine win Chargers and believed the Chiefs would rebound to win eight games as they ended the year with 11 victories.
The biggest surprise came from the biggest state in the union, as the Texans were projected to be an 11.5 win team and ended up with the No.1 pick a few weeks back in the NFL Draft.
Over in the NFC, Vegas nailed four of the six playoff teams. They correctly predicted the Packers (8w—10p), Saints (11w—9p), Seahawks (13w—10.5p) and 49ers (12w—11p) would all be playing during the month of January. Vegas was surprised by a 12 win Carolina team that they had predicted would win 7.5 games. The Eagles also took a playoff spot that many thought would belong to the Redskins. Like the Panthers, Philly was thought to be a less than eight win team (7.5) but ended up with 10 and the NFC East title.
Other than Houston, the big losers were the Falcons, Buccaneers, and the aforementioned Redskins. The Falcons were thought to be a nine to 10 win squad and ended with only four, while the Buccaneers were projected to win 7.5 games and also only won four games. In Washington, Robert Griffin III never found a solid relationship with the now departed Mike Shanahan and as a result, the Skins never found a rhythm on offense. Washington dropped 13 games and ended up on the wrong side of the worst to first scenario they were in at the end of the 2012 season.
Your Super Bowl favorites last spring were the New England Patriots (6 to 1) —surprise –surprise and the San Francisco 49ers (8 to 1), who both ended up as losers in their respective conference title games. The second choice on the board in the AFC was Denver, who was listed at 8 to 1 and the Super Bowl runner up. The eventual champion Seahawks were the third choice behind the Niners and Packers in the NFC at 12 to 1.
Vegas may not be perfect but they are pretty damn good at what they do if you ask me. This year’s Super Bowl favorites are last year’s Super Bowl participants. Vegas likes a rematch of Super Bowl XLVIII in Super Bowl XLIX, as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are both listed at 6 to 1 to capture the Lombardi.
So what does Vegas say about the AFC North this season?
Hers is what Vegas has to say followed by what I think will actually happen. Remember, it’s only June for goodness sake! Predictions are listed in order of last year’s division finish. I am using a combination of Bovada (online sports book,) & two Vegas Casinos (Mirage & MGM), as well as footballlocks.com to compile expected win / loss totals
Cincinnati Bengals: Vegas Over-Under Win/Loss 2014 9 Super Bowl Odds: 30 to 1
What I Say:
The jury is out on how much of an impact losing a coordinator affects a team on either side of the football. But we will find out in a hurry how much losing both your offensive and defensive coordinator hurts in Cincinnati this season. Gone is OC Jay Gruden (HC Redskins) and DC Mike Zimmer (HC Vikings). Each guided the Bengals respective units to Top 10 finishes last season becoming one of only two teams (Saints) to accomplish that feat. The Bengals are still loaded with a plethora of young play making talent on both sides of the football and are expected to take control of the AFC North this season and finally become true blue Super Bowl contenders.
The only doubt fans have in the Queen City is under center. Cincy signal caller Andy Dalton is entering his fourth year with what many perceive to be a make or break upcoming season for the Red Headed Rifle. However, a closer look shows Dalton could be ready to break out for good. In the entirety of NFL history, only two players have thrown for more yards in their first three seasons: Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. Dalton has led Cincinnati to the playoffs in all three seasons and when you consider that in the previous 43 seasons the Bungles only made the playoffs nine times, that is quite the accomplishment.
With the addition of one of college football’s top corner backs in May’s Draft, Darqueze Dennard, who fell to the Bengals at No.24, the stout Cincy defense will continue to drive the team. They have finished no worse than seventh in each of the last three seasons and despite losing DE Michael Johnson in free agency, this should be another Top 10 unit in 2014.
Schedule wise, the Bengals’ first seven games will be a challenge as Marvin Lewis’ squad gets road games with Baltimore, New England, and Indianapolis to go with home tilts against Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina and a rematch with the Ravens. Cincy could take control early of the division but if they don’t the pressure will be on them to win key swings games late in the year (at New Orleans, at Houston, Denver and two with the Steelers). This is a tough schedule that features the best two teams in the AFC as swing opponents but Cincinnati is projected to be in the upper echelon this season.
Vegas project nine wins and a third straight division title. Barring injuries, I say they are right about the division title and while the Bengals won’t win 11 games this year with that schedule, 10 will be enough to win the North. The Bengals will then have a chance to prove they are more than one and done material, which they may have to this season to save a few jobs. Take the over nine wins and we will talk further at playoff time.
Bengals projected win total in 2014: 1 0
Pittsburgh Steelers Vegas Over-Under Win Total: 8.5 Super Bowl odds: 35 to 1
What I Say:
The Steelers missed the playoffs for back to back years for the first time since 1998-2000. Pittsburgh also saw another disturbing stat develop for the first time since those consecutive non-playoff seasons. The Steelers finished 13th in the NFL in total defense in 2013, which marked the first time since 1999, a Steelers defense failed to rank in the Top 10.
This offseason, the Steelers brass seemed hell bent on getting back to what made the franchise so successful— power football on offense and developing quick young fast linebackers to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and running backs. For the second consecutive year the Steelers selected a linebacker in the first round of the draft when they took Ohio States Ryan Shazier and then followed that up with what could be a perfect fit in DC Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme, DL Stephon Tuitt, from Notre Dame. The Steelers suffered their usual loss in veteran talent. Gone are Ziggy Hood (Jaguars), Ryan Clark and Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos). Brett Keisel is no longer on the roster but he could re-sign for the vet minimum before training camp.
The Steelers did sign free agent RB LaGarrete Blount, who should form a nice and dangerous duo with last year’s highly regarded draft pick, RB Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh’s rushing attack finished an uncharacteristic 27th in the NFL last season, prompting the signing of Blount and the drafting of RB Dri Archer from Kent State. The Steelers, of course, still have Big Ben Roethlisberger under center and he will need to have a better season in the third year OC Todd Haley’s scheme if the Steelers want to return to the postseason. Pittsburgh’s offense found a rhythm over the final quarter of the season as they closed out with three wins but Big Ben passed for less than 200 yards in each victory. The Pittsburgh passing attack threw an average of 38 times over the first 13 contests last season but that number fell to 28 during the final three victories.
Another big problem is a lack of blocking for Big Ben and the Steelers running game. Injuries and unexpected poor play by high drafted talent has given way to more than 30 different starting offensive linemen during the past four years. Pro Bowl center Maurkice returns healthy after tearing is ACL in Week1 last year and could be the biggest key to a turnaround season—-if he stays healthy. Remaining healthy and working together will also be key to keeping the Steelers offense on the field and not having to rely on the defense so much. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak, the former Tennessee Titans head coach will oversee a line that from 2009-2012, had five lineman selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. David DeCastro is also expected back and healthy after he was put on short-term injured reserve as a rookie. Even Mike Adams, who was stabbed in June, last year, wasn’t entirely healthy to start the year. The projected key six offensive lineman, which is made up of two first round draft picks, two second round draft picks, a seventh round pick and an undrafted free agent has never taken one snap together but if the Steelers are going to return to their glory they must be on top of their game and most importantly, stay healthy.
Continuing to lose more veteran’s while acquiring talented young players can be a problem in the short term—-I.E…..this season. But this is Pittsburgh, where the Steelers know how to conduct business the right way, the way that somehow always seems to find them in the playoffs or a Super Bowl every few year. While that may be the case in 2015 and beyond, it won’t happen in 2014. Despite playing a schedule that has just six teams with winning records they must open with four of six on the road. Last year, the Steelers played five of their first eight games away from the big ketchup bottle and began the season 2-6. At current, the Steelers seem to be missing the Steel Curtain mystique but by no means is it gone forever. It will be another playoff-less year in the Steel city, as Pittsburgh wins eight games in 2014.
Steelers projected win total in 2014: 8
Baltimore Ravens: Vegas Under / Over Win Total: 8 Super Bowl Odds 40 to 1
What I Say:
Last season, the Ravens became the third team in the past five years to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. A big reason for the Ravens fall was the play of their offense, specifically their 20 million dollar QB who parlayed a historic playoff performance into a huge contract during last off season.
It wasn’t all Flacco’s fault. With an average of just 3.1 yards per rush, the Ravens rushing attack was horrible in 2013. The offense finished ranked 29th in the league and as a result changes were made this off season. Flacco also operated behind a poor line in 2013. The Ravens offensive line, which was ranked fourth worst in the league last season, acquired center Jeremey Zuttah this offseason replace Geno Gradkowski, who ranked 35 out of 35 centers last year. RT Michael Oher is now in Tennessee and Rick Wagner is expected to step up and take his place but not without competition. The biggest move was re-signing LT Eugene Monroe at such a bargain price.
But Flacco failed to do his part. Sure there were games like Minnesota at home in the snow and at Detroit on Monday night but in the end there is denying year six was No.5’s worst. Flacco tossed three more picks than TD’s (19-22) and was sacked 48 times behind a very suspect offensive line. For every solid performance there were games like Buffalo when he tossed 5 interceptions.
It’s time for Flacco to win the shootout games with more consistency and takeover contests when the Ravens young defense is getting handled. He has to initiate leadership—on and off the field. Joe Flacco also failed to step up and show leadership this offseason. The former Super Bowl XLVII MVP failed to organize any type of off campus passing camps, similar to the one Peyton Manning and 21 other signal callers put together this past spring. This is particularly disturbing since Flacco was handed a new play book and hasn’t spent a lot of quality time with Kubiak. New NFLPA rules have strict policy on the time a player spends with coaches and by his own admission hasn’t really gotten to know his new offensive coordinator. That may not bode well and some in the local media have voiced displeasure with Flacco for at the very least not getting together with new TE and former Texan, Owen Daniels, who is as familiar with the new offensive system as Kubiak since he’s spent his entire career in it.
Speaking of Kubiak, he takes over the offense from Jim Caldwell, who left to be the head coach in Detroit. The former Texans HC brings with him his stretch zone run blocking scheme. Under Kubiak, the Texans earned their Top 6 all-time offensive outputs in scoring, total offense, and passing yards from 2007-12. During this time, the Texans also boasted the franchise’s Top 3 rushing outputs, including the NFL’s No. 2 ground attack in 2011 when they posted a franchise-record 153.0 yards per game. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two teams (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span.
The Ravens defense finished 12th in the NFL last season and for the second straight year, appeared to be weak up the middle. GM Ozzie Newsome completed the retooling of the once stout unit by drafting ILB CJ Mosley, as well two players from Florida State’s BCS Title team, DT Timmy Jernigan, and Free safety Terrence Brooks. This was the second straight year the Ravens used their first three picks of the draft on nearly the same identical positions. The result could mean a return to dominance on the defensive side of the football. Ravens DC Dean Pees needs three things to happen in 2014 if the unit is going to return the top 10 for the first time since 2011. Veterans Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Elvis and Dumervil must play smart and be productive from week to week and not fade down the stretch. Secondly, the young linebacking corps must be aggressive but play while making big plays in the process. And lastly, the secondary needs to stay healthy. Even with the inexperience at safety, CB’s LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have the talent to shrink a football field. The Ravens young defense must also communicate— something it has not done well over the past two seasons.
The Ravens have lacked a lot of leadership since No.52 played his last game. They tried to correct that this offseason by signing former Panther WR Steve Smith, who may not be as fast as he once was but still plays with a chip on his shoulder similar to the one the Ravens used to have. Leadership was definitely lacking during the offseason when four Ravens players, including Ray Rice on domestic assault, were arrested and charged with various crimes.
Rice was a player that Ray Lewis often mentored in his own home and spent many nights with the former Rutgers star showing him how to navigate the waters of his new life. While off the field issues happened when Lewis, Ed Reed, and even Anquan Boldin were here, they didn’t happen with this type of regularity. Toss In the fact that players like Suggs and Ngata, whom many thought to be leaders, didn’t show up to voluntary OTA’s and one could easily read trouble between the lines.
The Ravens offense will need to be functioning at a mid-season level to start the new year, as Baltimore will face three straight AFC North foes before hosting Carolina. Three of the four teams had defenses in the Top 10 last year and Pittsburgh finished 13. The Ravens then visit Indianapolis and if they can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. This is the easiest strength of schedule the Ravens have had is 10 years heading into the upcoming season.
It is fair to say that storm clouds are swirling around this team. I believe the Ravens are one the league biggest anomalies to start the season but we will know pretty fast if this is a team that can get back to the playoffs after being in them for the first five years of Harbaugh and Flacco’s tenure in the Charm City.
While I like the Ravens to win a game or two they may not be favored in, I expect them to lose their share of ones they are. I still think the 2014 edition of this team has far too many more questions than answers and while this organization, which was voted 11th best in all sports last year, figures it out, the Ravens may struggle a bit in 2014. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Baltimore finish 4-12 or 12-4 but in the end, Vegas will likely refund your money on this ticket. Baltimore wins 8 games and misses the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Baltimore Ravens projected win total: 8 Games.
Cleveland Browns Over / Under Win Total: 6.5 Super Bowl Odds: 75 to 1
What I Say:
Since the Franchise returned to the NFL 15 years ago, the Browns are now on their sixth regime change. New GM Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine replaced Michael Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski. Pettine is the former defensive coordinator for the Jets and Bills and promised to bring a more physical and aggressive style of play to the Browns. Pettine does not willing to veer of his plan. Despite news that WR Josh Gordon was facing a season long suspension at the NFL Draft, Pettine convinced GM Ray Farmer to fill holes on defense and in the running game. Wanting to be more physical in perhaps the most physical division in the league is good mentality to start with but winning games may take some time.
On offense, former Redskins OC Kyle Shanahan takes over for Norv Turner and the two styles couldn’t be more different. Turner loved the vertical passing games while Shanahan utilizes the zone blocking West Coast passing offense. QB Brian Hoyer is likely to get the first shot at running Shanahan’s system but in case you were under a rock, waiting in the wings is Johnny Manziel, the former Freshman Heisman trophy winner from Texas A&M. A lack of cohesiveness has haunted this organization. When Johnny Football assumes his future as Browns signal caller, he will become the 14th different starting QB since the start of the 2007 season.
Even with Gordon likely out for the 2014 season, the Browns still have talent. They still have the hybrid TE sensation Jordan Cameron and acquired WR’s Mile Austin & Nate Burleson, as well as RB Ben Tate in free agency. They also drafted Terrence West from Towson State. The offensive line took a step back in 2013 but should rebound well in 2014 with perrenial all Pro LT Joe Thomas and Alex Mack now re-signed to play center.
Pettine will call the plays on defense and plans to continue to use the 3-4 scheme that saw the Browns finish as the ninth best unit in the league last year. LB Karlos Dansby joins the Browns and he will take over as the leader in the middle. Paul Kruger and last years No 6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo will likely be asked to rush the passer more frequently and with a lot more aggression than they did last season. The Browns can afford to take chances up front now that Pro Bowler Joe Haden has a partner on the other side of the field. The Browns used their eighth overall pick on CB Justin Gilbert, who should step right in and play. Farmer and Pettine brought in safety Dontae Whitner to help show the younger layers the type of attitude necessary to win in a tough division. This should be a solid unit and Cleveland could finish ranked even higher on 2014.
The issue for this team is when Johnny Manziel is going to take the field and how effective will he be when he does. Shanahan compared him favorably to RG3, whom Shanny coached while working for is father in Washington. If Cleveland follows the blue print Pettine has laid out– and there is no reason to think they won’t, they will be an improved team in 2014, but the question is how much improved will they be?
The Browns always have a tough time in the AFC North, as would most teams that had to play Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore six times a year. Swing games with Oakland and Buffalo are two excellent chances at wins and will be critical to evaluating the Browns’ overall growth within the AFC. Road trips to Carolina and Atlanta, as well as a home game with New Orleans— sandwiched between the Steelers and Ravens in Week 2 — doesn’t give the Browns a cold-weather advantage over the warm-weather Saints. The middle of the schedule is an opportunity to show the improvement many are expecting. Cleveland will face the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders, and Bucs over a five-week stretch entering November. The Browns have had one winning season since 2003 and just two since returning t the league in 1999. They have averaged just 4.8 wins per year during that span and haven’t won more than five games since winning 10 in 2007. I’ll say the Browns are going to have an above average year but that’s not saying much when I’m projecting six wins in 2014. Take the under 6.5 if you can still get it and if it drops to six, watch from a distance.
Cleveland Browns Projected win total in 2014: 6