It's Pittsburgh's world and everyone is chasing the Steelers
The AFC North is going to be a fun division as usual with the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens leading the way. The thing that decides this division could be the team that manages to trip up against the Browns.
The pieces are in place once again for Pittsburgh to go far, but can the Steelers get over the Patriots hump? Cincinnati and Baltimore will try to prevent that from happening. Let's take a look at the win total numbers from the South Point Casino.
Over 8.5 wins -115...Under 8.5 -105
+275 to win the division
Offense: It bears watching how Joe Flacco progresses with the back injury through the preseason and if it flares up again. Ryan Mallett is not the answer as a backup so the Colin Kaepernick talk makes sense here. The backfield features a bunch of veterans, but no real standout in the group. Kenneth Dixon might have been the answer but he's out for the season. Now it's turned over to a group that features Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Javorius Allen. Steve Smith Sr. has retired and Dennis Pitta reinjured his hip and was released. We'll see if Breshad Perriman can build momentum along with Mike Wallace and Benjamin Watson.
Defense/Special Teams: Brandon Carr comes over from Dallas to help out the Ravens secondary. Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle form a solid safety group. The team saw some talent leave in Timmy Jernigan, Elvis Dumervil, Lawrence Guy and Zachary Orr. The question will be how much pressure can this defense get on the quarterback? Orr led the team in tackles in 2016, but he retired unexpectedly. I expect this side of the ball to initially struggle with so many new pieces. Fortunately, Baltimore has the best kicker in football in Justin Tucker. He rarely misses, especially from long range.
Selection: This number opened up in April at 9.5 and came down as injuries started to rack up. Baltimore goes to London in Week 3 and will play at home against Pittsburgh the following Sunday. There aren't too many tough home or road stretches on the schedule. I agree with what Athlon Sports’ NFL preview magazine said that this feels like an 8-8 team. The offense lacks true playmakers while the defense has some holes to patch up. I trust John Harbaugh to win a game or two this team otherwise probably shouldn’t.
Over 8.5 wins +115...Under 8.5 wins -135
7/2 to win the division
Offense: I've never been a big Andy Dalton fan despite his sometimes gaudy numbers. Last year he threw for more than 4,200 yards, but the team only won six games. The running back group is very intriguing in Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and now rookie Joe Mixon. The Bengals overlooked Mixon's off-the-field issues and are planning on making him a big part of the offense. Tyler Eifert is finally healthy and ready to make a difference. Now the team just needs A.J. Green to stay on the field. Green missed six games due to a hamstring injury. I'm excited to see how rookie wide receiver John Ross will fit in with his speed.
Defense: There has to be some improvement on this side of the ball if Cincinnati hopes to make the playoffs. They had a league-worst 12.7 percent of their tackles broken in 2016. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap is a good starting point up front, while Vontaze Burfict will patrol the second level. The secondary shouldn't be terrible although Darqueze Dennard needs to improve. The Bengals addressed a key area in the draft by taking three defensive linemen in the first four rounds. Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis both figure to bolster the depth up front.
Selection: I'm not a Marvin Lewis guy so that is a factor in any projections I have for the Bengals. There are too many things that go on with this team and I think a new voice in the locker room is needed. The season starts out with three games in 14 days thanks to a Week 2 Thursday night date with Houston. November starts with three straight on the road, but that's followed up by three straight at home. I think eight wins is about right. This team is talented in certain spots, but under Lewis Cincinnati has been hard to trust in big games. Maybe another mediocre season will bring forth much-needed changes on the coaching front.
Over 4.5 wins -115...Under 4.5 wins -105
40/1 to win the division
Offense: Poor Joe Thomas, who has to continuously block for garbage quarterbacks. The team traded for Brock Osweiler, who the Texans basically gave away for nothing. Osweiler is competing with Cody Kessler and rookie DeShone Kizer for the job. None of those exactly inspire confidence. Isaiah Crowell is an underrated running back who pairs well with Duke Johnson, who is more of a receiver than a runner. Corey Coleman was having a good year before he got hurt. Kenny Britt signed in free agency to replace Terrelle Pryor.
Defense: The team went heavy on defense in the draft so it's going to be fun to see this unit grow up. Obviously it starts up front with No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, along with Emmanuel Ogbah and Danny Shelton. If you look at this defense as a whole there are a lot of rookies, second- and third-year guys. The secondary still has Joe Haden, who will mentor Jabrill Peppers. Haden isn't the player he used to be, but he can still get it done.
Selection: There are not a lot of expectations for the Browns, but the future is bright if Cleveland continues to make the right moves. One of the most pressing concerns of the present is figuring out the quarterback position. Garrett and Peppers give the fans something to be excited about on defense. Last year, the Browns opened with five of their first seven on the road. This season there are just three true road games before their Week 9 bye. There are about six winnable games for Cleveland. If the number was four, I'd feel more comfortable taking the over because four would be a push. Because of the hook, I'm not touching this one.
Over 10.5 wins -135...Under 10.5 +115
-160 to win the division
Offense: The usual suspects are back with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Bell is not reporting to training camp because of his contract situation, but he's working out so you figure he won't have many issues once the regular season starts. We don't talk enough about how good this offensive line is when healthy. The group has protected Roethlisberger well and gotten the job done in the running game. James Conner was a solid draft pick as a backup to Bell.
Defense: Lawrence Timmons departure via free agency is something to keep an eye on, although the hope is that first-round T.J. Watt can eventually take his place. Overall, Pittsburgh is in pretty good shape at linebacker with Ryan Shazier and James Harrison leading the way, and Bud Dupree continuing to improve. The defensive line needs the starting trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave to stay healthy. The secondary is young, but Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell are pretty solid. Third-round pick Cameron Sutton should help the depth on the back end.
Selection: It would be a massive upset if the Steelers don’t win the division. Baltimore and Cincinnati both have weaknesses and Cleveland is a few years away. Pittsburgh has three of its first four on the road, but gets a stretch of four of five at home from Weeks 11-15. I came up with 10 wins which means I might be willing to buy the under if it stays at an underdog price. There are some tough stretches on this slate and who knows if Big Ben can play all 16 games.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.