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Examining The Odds: AFC North

It’s tight at the top of the AFC’s most competitive division, but the Steelers seem primed to run away with another crown.

Devon Jeffreys

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With minicamps taking place around the NFL and OTA around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to analyze how each division across the league looks heading into the summer. We began with the AFC East, where the Las Vegas oddsmakers are sticking with the Patriots, and pushing some pretty strong odds against the other three teams.

Next up is the AFC North where that’s far from the case, with three teams at the top sitting at odds of 2:1 or better. It’s hard to blame the oddsmakers. The AFC North might be the most top heavy division in football with three teams perennially within a single game of the crown, as they were last year, when Pittsburgh came out on top by half a game.

The division was so competitive last year that for the second time in four years, the North placed three teams in the postseason. The division has also managed to have at least one, if not both of the AFC Wild Card teams for six of the last seven seasons. This year should be no different, but who is the best bet to take it in 2015?

THE FAVORITE
Baltimore Ravens 8:5

Out of the three-headed coin flip to win the AFC North, it’s the Baltimore Ravens who have emerged as the ever so slight favorite in Las Vegas to claim the division crown this season. It’s actually a pretty surprising call. Of the three teams perennially at the top of the division, Baltimore looks the most vulnerable.

There’s no guarantee the offense will be better than last year’s group, which ranked just slightly above average in the NFL. Quarterback Joe Flacco bounced back from his Super Bowl MVP hangover to post a strong season, but for the second time in three years they lost one of his top receivers. This time it was Torrey Smith, who followed Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers. First round pick Breshad Perriman should help, but not every first round receiver has an immediate impact. The Ravens offense also was boosted last year by the running game success of Justin Forsett, who came out of nowhere to finish fifth in the league in rushing. That earned Forsett a shiny new contract, but it’s hard to fathom him repeating that performance. The one part of the offense that remains steady is the Baltimore offensive line, one of the league’s best, and perhaps they could lead the way for Forsett to have another outstanding campaign.

What’s admirable about the Ravens is how they’ve seamlessly pushed the reset button on defense. The expectation was they’d fall off with the departure of Hall of Famers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but they’ve remained steady. They continued to move on from players of the past by sending Haloti Ngata to Detroit for a few draft picks, moving Brandon Williams and 2014 second round pick Timmy Jernigan into the crosshairs at nose tackle. It’s a risk, but after years of those paying off, you somewhat have to believe they know what they’re doing. The linebacking corps is still in excellent shape with the continued dominance of Terrell Suggs and the arrival of last year’s first round pick C.J. Mosley, who quickly established himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the league. The biggest question marks though, are in the secondary. They did address one need there by signing free safety Kendrick Lewis away from Houston, but cornerback Lardarius Webb had his worst season as a pro last year and strong safety Matt Elam has been disappointing over his first two NFL seasons. The secondary is the last place you want to be vulnerable in the AFC North and if the Ravens don’t find a way to patch things together there, it could be their undoing.

BEST CHANCE TO CHALLENGE
Pittsburgh Steelers 2:1

History is working against the defending division champ Steelers a little bit here. Since the inception of the AFC North in 2002, the division has only had two repeat winners: the 2008 Steelers and the 2012 Ravens. However, if the Steelers can become the third team to do so, history will suddenly be on their side in the postseason, as both those repeat division champions went on to win the Super Bowl.

There’s reason to believe the Steelers can join the ranks. Continuity is the key here for the Steelers, as they retained their entire offense from last season, when they ranked second in the league in total offense. Their QB-WR-RB trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell is the NFL’s best and their offensive line is one of the league’s more unheralded units. With the talents of Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant also on the rise at receiver, it’s easy to predict Pittsburgh to once again rank at the top of the league on offense.

The Steelers defense took a couple of perceived hits with the retirement of two of the league’s most well known defenders: Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. But while many will tout the loss of those big names, the truth is both players were dragging the Steel Curtain down in their advanced age. Veteran Will Allen is penciled in to replace Polamalu, but could be overcome in training camp by Shamarko Thomas. Pittsburgh addressed their other needs in the secondary via the draft by selecting Senquez Golson in the second round and Doran Grant in the fourth. But it’s their first round pick, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who has the best chance to make an immediate impact for the Steelers. Dupree, one of the best pass rushers in this year’s draft class and free agent signee Arthur Moats will team up to replace Jason Worilds, who made a surprising decision to retire in March. With replacements in place for their retire starts, the Pittsburgh defense shouldn’t skip a beat in 2015.

THE OTHER GUYS
Cincinnati Bengals 2:1

Annually a contender that turns into a pretender in December and January, the Bengals might be the most enigmatic team in the NFL. They’ve made the postseason four years running and are a perennial threat to capture the AFC North crown. But is anyone outside of Ohio willing to bet on them anymore?

A major reason Cincinnati has been an enigma is quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs each of his first four years in the league, something very few quarterbacks in history can say. But each appearance has been a one-and-done and the fact that Dalton has made very little progress as a player from the day he entered the league is the catalyst for those letdowns. Entering his fifth season, Dalton has essentially run out of excuses. He has a Top 10 offensive line in front of him, the NFL’s most dynamic backfield combination behind him in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and one of the league’s best receivers flanking him in A.J. Green.

In all fairness, the Bengals were held back last season by a defense that ranked a disappointing 22nd in the league. They did manage to upgrade that unit slightly by luring defensive end Michael Johnson from Tampa and linebacker A.J. Hawk from Green Bay, but they’ll need some of the players they’ve invested in long-term — Rey Maualuga, Dre Kirkpatrick, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap — to step up for the unit to improve significantly.

However, even if they can get more out of their defense in 2015, the Bengals will only go as far as Dalton takes them and the guess, after four years of the same thing, is that’s not very far. If they improve defensively, they’re a good bet to compete through the first few months of the season for the division crown, and with a few key wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh they could even claim AFC North supremacy for the second time in three years. But they’re not a team worth betting on until proof comes that it won’t just be more of the same in Cincinnati.

DON’T TAKE THESE ODDS
Cleveland Browns 10:1

There’s not much to say here other than it’s surprising that the Browns are even getting odds this good to win the North. This is somehow better than the odds on the Jets to win the AFC East. Not sure how to explain that one. While the Jets are a quarterback short of where they need to be, quarterback tops a long list of things wrong in Cleveland. It’d be easier to list the things they have going for them.

That short list starts in the secondary where the addition of former Packers cornerback Tramon Williams gives them one of the league’s best and deepest defensive backfields. The addition of first round pick defensive tackle Danny Shelton solidifies their trio up front, which should have the added impact of making things easier on an underrated linebacking corps. All told, their defense could emerge as a Top 10 unit this season. But the offense is too much of a mess, with far more questions than answers at most positions, to expect anything by more of the same by the end of the season.

Since the AFC North was established in 2002, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati have each won the division three times while the Browns have yet to rise to the top. In fact, over those 13 years, they’ve only ever close twice. The most recent chance came in 2007, when they finished with the same record as the Steelers but missed the playoffs entirely as a result of two head-t0-head losses giving Pittsburgh a tie-breaker. The other close call was in 2002, the inaugural year of the AFC North. They finished 9-7, second to Pittsburgh (10-5-1) and made the postseason. That’s the last playoff appearance the franchise made and they won’t be coming close again this year.

TAKE THESE ODDS
Pittsburgh Steelers 2:1

With the odds at the top so tight, it’s tough to choose a best bet between the three. But the strongest team in the division looks to be Pittsburgh, with arguably the league’s best offense and young talent replacing declining veterans on defense. It’s too early to tell if the Steelers can continue the trend of repeat AFC North champs winning the Super Bowl, but they should have a shot at it.

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