2018 AFC North Division Preview: Can the Browns Rise to the Top?

By Noah Davis
Published on July 13, 2018
AFC North Division

The end hasn’t come yet for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t retired, running back Le’Veon Bell’s contract issues having become too much of a distraction, and this remains one of the most stacked offenses in the NFL.

No, the end hasn’t come yet.

It still seems far off into the distance, especially since the yellow and black were a few plays away from competing in the AFC title game for the second consecutive season.

In fact, if things break just right in 2018, the Steelers could be right back in that game and have a real shot at securing a record seventh Super Bowl.

Getting out of the AFC North alive is probably a prerequisite, of course.

The division isn’t as nasty as it has been in past years, but you still can’t turn belly-up in your division and live to tell about it.

Can the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals give the Steelers tough outs? Will the Cleveland Browns be more than a doormat?

Only time will tell, and Michael Wynn joins me as we take a closer look at this division, from top to bottom.

Odds Disclaimer 2

Pittsburgh Steelers

It’d be easy to say not much has changed in Pittsburgh, but Ryan Shazier isn’t roaming the field, Martavis Bryant is now in Oakland, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley fled for Cleveland.

The Steelers remain an explosive offensive bunch, but there are lingering concerns regarding their defense, Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation, and continuity in their offensive system.

Everything looks fine on the surface, though, which is why Vegas likes them to win the AFC North and take a crack at a title run.

Here are their odds for 2018, courtesy of BetOnline.

Super Bowl Winner+1200
AFC Winner+500
AFC North Title-275
Team Wins Over 10.5+110
Team Wins Under 10.5-130

Analysis – Noah Davis

I can’t argue with the top NFL sportsbooks. Big Ben is still leading one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, and this team is so stacked that they won’t notice Bryant’s exit to the Bay Area in the least.

The only issue with this offense is the potential distraction of Bell’s ongoing contract feud, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

The real concern is on defense, as the Steelers fell apart on that side of the ball without Shazier and weren’t exactly elite even when he was healthy.

Pittsburgh is absolutely the class of this division, but at -275, they’re a waste of money. I think they can get 11 wins (+110), and they’re a fine try for a Super Bowl wager (+1200), however.

Analysis – Michael Wynn

I think that egregious -275 number attached to the Steelers winning the AFC North is more of a result of how depleted the rest of this division is, rather than a reflection of how good Pittsburgh is.

As Noah alluded to, there are serious question marks on the defensive side of the ball, and the fact that Ryan Shazier won’t be in there to help cover the holes isn’t going to make things any easier. I guess the saving grace is that the starting quarterbacks they’ll face in this division don’t exactly “knock your socks off.”

OC Todd Haley has moved on, but in comes Randy Fichtner, who has been on this offensive staff since 2007 and should provide a seamless transition. When you’ve got the “3 B’s” in Big Ben, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, you are bound to score loads of points.

I don’t think they’re good enough to win the AFC, let alone the Super Bowl, and I hate the price the books are offering us for them to capture the division. I’ll stay away here and find value elsewhere.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have one of the best coaches in the game and always show up defensively, yet in 2017, they found themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

That’s been the case for each of the last three seasons, which may cause some heads to roll if Baltimore can’t get it going in 2018.

Super Bowl Winner+4000
AFC Winner+1800
AFC North Title+450
Team Wins Over 8.5+115
Team Wins Under 8.5-135

Analysis – ND

Even Harbaugh won’t be immune to change if the Ravens don’t show signs of life this season. However, I do think it’s fair to blame a slew of inept offensive coordinators as well as the forever-overrated Joe Flacco.

The selection of dual-threat passer Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft told everyone the Ravens felt the latter could be a genuine problem.

It’s hard to argue against that logic, especially when Flacco led the league’s 29th best passing offense.

Yeah, not good.

Jackson was brought in to push Flacco, possibly be used as an offensive weapon, and ultimately replace Flacco down the road.

Odds are that the passing of the proverbial torch happens before long, but I doubt it saves the Ravens’ season.

This team can defend, but that’s about it. They don’t have a reliable passing game, they don’t have a stud running back, and there’s an argument they’re not even the second-best team in this division.

I don’t hate the Ravens as a +450 bet to take the AFC North, but I don’t feel good about it, either.

Analysis – MW

I think Mr. Davis was being polite with his description of the Baltimore Ravens’ starting quarterback.

Joe Flacco has been unforgivably bad the last few years, and the fact that he makes more money per year than guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers is actually sickening.

The organization drafted a dynamic rookie in Lamar Jackson, and I can’t help but think Flacco’s days as the team’s starting QB are numbered.

I don’t think owner Steve Bisciotti will want to sit around and watch this team lose games under Flacco’s watch for too long. Especially not when he has the former Louisville Cardinals star sitting on the sideline, itching to get an opportunity to show off his unique abilities.

The defense, along with the fact that they get the Bengals and Browns twice apiece, should be enough to win some games. But I certainly can’t bank on them getting to 9-7.

The -135 figure on under 8.5 wins doesn’t make me salivate, but I just don’t see the Ravens being very good this season. This team could seriously fall off, and if that happens, I want to reap the profits.

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton looked like an MVP just a couple of years ago – a time in which some NFL experts were speaking of the Bengals as if they were (gasp) title threats.

Those days seem long gone, as Vegas doesn’t view Cincy as even a mild threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2018.

Here are their odds across the board this year:

Super Bowl Winner+10000
AFC Winner+4000
AFC North Title+1000
Team Wins Over 6.5-120
Team Wins Under 6.5+100

Analysis – ND

Things don’t look amazing for the Bengals on paper, but the simple fact is that they have all the pieces they need for sustained success.

Andy Dalton isn’t elite, but he’s at least a league average passer with loads of weapons around him. Joe Mixon projects as a potential elite running back, Tyler Eifert is a beast when healthy, and A.J. Green heads a pretty stacked passing game.

Cincinnati remains a solid if not unspectacular defensive team, too, while Marvin Lewis is easy to criticize but often does a pretty solid job.

None of this sounds like a ringing endorsement, and it’s not.

The Bengals are constantly teasing us, and I do think they have enough talent to shock in 2018. They also are amazing at shooting themselves in the foot and have struggled to stay healthy.

If the Bengals can stay on the field and avoid boneheaded mistakes, the Over (-120) on their win total is worth a shot. I don’t trust them enough to bet on them in any other capacity.

Analysis – MW

Noah brings up some great points that I think we really need to consider. Andy Dalton has a bevy of weapons around him, and if the “Red Rocket” can’t produce early on and they fall out of the race, I actually think we could see Matt Barkley get a shot.

Despite Joe Mixon’s off-the-field issues, the former Oklahoma Sooner has the skills to be a dynamic running back in this league.

A.J. Green is still a bonafide stud at the wide receiver position, and Tyler Eifert has proven to be one of the top red zone targets in the National Football League. They’ll have speedster John Ross on the outside, who is finally healthy after essentially missing all of his rookie season.

They even have some guys on defense that strike fear in the opposition, but as ND mentioned, this team just loves shooting themselves in the foot.

For whatever reason, this team has severely underachieved the past two seasons, and if it happens again, I can’t imagine Marvin Lewis will be retained.

With all that being said, seeing the Bengals getting to 7-9 doesn’t seem out of the question. I can get on board with Noah here and lay the -120 in hopes that they get there.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns were the laughing stock of the league in 2017, as they followed up a disastrous 1-15 season by going an unfathomable 0-16.

Cleveland was actually fairly competitive and blew some wins, but they still couldn’t luck into even one victory.

Head coach Hue Jackson should absolutely have been fired, but he leads an improved roster back into the fray at least one more time.

Super Bowl Winner+6600
AFC Winner+2800
AFC North Title+900
Team Wins Over 4.5-210
Team Wins Under 4.5+175

Analysis – ND

I don’t like the Browns, but there is absolutely no denying they got a lot better in the offseason.

Drafting franchise passer Baker Mayfield is something to get excited about in the long term, but trading for Tyrod Taylor was just as big of a move.

Cleveland also acquired wide receiver Jarvis Landry, signed running back Carlos Hyde, and should (fingers crossed) get a full year out of Josh Gordon.

On paper, they have a legit NFL offense, while a lot of tantalizing young talent forms a stacked (albeit unreliable) defense.

Just how quickly that defense matures could be the difference between a surge to the playoffs or not, but I don’t see another 0-16 run. There isn’t any money in it, but betting the Over (-210) is a good bet.

The Browns will be better, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend your money on them to prove it.

Analysis – MW

Dang, Noah, you took all the good stuff! In reality, ND was actually spot on here with his assessment of this roster. And I echo his sentiments of not wanting to wager any money on this squad until I see what kind of product they put on the field.

I thought the NFL was a “what have you done for me lately” type of business, but apparently going 1-31 over two seasons as a head coach is enough to get ringing endorsements from GM John Dorsey.

The drafting of Baker Mayfield was a sign of turning the page and starting over, but it looks like Tyrod Taylor will be the man behind center when the season opens.

Believe it or not, Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman on the outside along with Jarvis Landry in the slot has a chance to be an outstanding trio of wideouts. But again, I have to see it happen with my own two eyes before I jump the gun and start firing away.

They certainly won’t go 0-16 again, but I can’t seriously lay -210 and have faith that Hue Jackson can figure it all out.

Summary

Despite the Steelers looking like the lock to hoist the AFC North crown, there are still some viable wagering opportunities elsewhere in the division.

The Cleveland Browns had a very busy offseason and hope they can make positive strides towards being relevant again.

Joe Flacco hears the message loud and clear in Baltimore. If he doesn’t clean up his act soon, don’t be shocked to see the keys of this offense handed over to rookie QB Lamar Jackson. The situation isn’t too dissimilar in Cincy, either.

If Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton can’t win games with the talent they have littered around them, don’t expect to see that pair in “The Nati” much longer.

While the value isn’t screaming at us to run to the books and wager our life savings, it’s just hard to see any team other than the Pittsburgh Steelers winning this division.

After all, chances are that the other three teams will have played themselves out of it by Thanksgiving anyway!

PICKPittsburgh Steelers-275
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2018 AFC North Division Preview: Can the Browns Rise to the Top?
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2018 AFC North Division Preview: Can the Browns Rise to the Top?
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been the class of the AFC North, but will that remain the case in 2018? This AFC North preview features my predictions.
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