AFC NORTH PREVIEW
Preseason week 2 has ended as I continue to delve further into the league with focus on the AFC North and potential NFL betting futures of 2010. When I began to analyze the North, I see a changing of the guard, as the Ravens are on the upswing, while I expect the defending Champ Bengals to fall backward. The Steelers will be working to reestablish their prior divisional superiority, and even with Big Ben’s suspension, the Steelers are still a dominating force within the league, so don’t get caught off guard.
The AFC North is one of the stronger divisions in the AFC, if not the NFL. You have three potential playoff teams, and Cleveland looks to be on the mend with a born again Jake Delhomme under center. Two teams emerged last season into the post season, and I expect a repeat performance out of this “Paul Brown Division”. The question remains which two will they be?
The Ravens have been a team that seems to fly under the radar, but they were one win from a Superbowl 2 years ago and they’ve been in the playoffs 4 out of the past 5 years. Last year they were my sleeper pick, but were unable to get by the Colts in a romp during the playoffs. They added Anquan Boldin to match Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. So overnight they became an offensive juggernaut with a triple threat receiving corp. When betting on futures, look to which teams will be improved the most, and I expect big things again out of the Raven camp with Cam Cameron as their offensive play caller. Of course, so do oddsmakers and that is why they have installed them as the favorite to win this Division (-150 / -130).
The Ravens (Week 8 Off) were 9th overall in scoring last year, but are benefactors of the leagues 12th most difficult schedule, so it will be interesting to see the direction they take. I’m expecting more offensive consistency throughout the year as John Harbaugh is getting the most out of this squad. The defense didn’t miss a step with the departure of Rex Ryan last season and I expect similar performance again this year. The Ravens have always been built around their defense, and the past two season they were owners of the #3 defense in the NFL. They will likely stay on even keel with this defense. The offense over the past two seasons have averaged an additional 7 ppg helping them back into the playoffs again.
Oddsmakers have given the Ravens a hefty 10 for season O/U (-130/+110) and I have to agree with some of the money movement here favoring the Over. If you are a backer of Baltimore this season there is some real value at the window on the Conference Win number getting +725 with five others favored above them. Prediction 12 Wins; Key Wins @ Pittsburgh Wk 4, Miami Wk 9 and @ Houston Wk 14. Key Losses @ New England Wk 6 and Cincinnati Wk 17.
Looking back on the Bengals you must attribute much of their success last season to the revamped running attack going from fourth worst to top ten in the league. Along with the resurgence of Cedric Benson came the impressive play from the Marvin Lewis defense. This defense made improvements in each category over a season ago. A question remains to how much better they can be? They could make some strides in the secondary, but with the schedule they face they will have earned their spot if they make more improvements. Now something I haven’t really discussed over the past 3 issues, and that is Offensive Line play, and frankly the Bengals O-Line play is getting more impressive every step of the way. When Carson Palmer gets protection he can be an extremely effective play caller. The run success was also very much the effectiveness from the trenches from this young but maturing line.
The defending North Champion Bengals (Week 6 Off) do not get the favor from oddsmakers going into this season to repeat (+350 / +370) and I tend to agree as they face the 4th most difficult schedule in the league. However, many bettors disagree with the posted line of 8 O/U (-150 / +130) moving this one further North. Again, playing in one of the better divisions in the league this team could move in only one direction. I just don’t see them getting over the (.500%) mark. They have a daunting task with road games in New England, Atlanta, Indianapolis and New York (A). There are always surprises each season and I felt the Bengals were one of those teams in 2009. I don’t believe they have the talent to build any dominance in this division.
The Bengals face three road tests right out of the gate and then an untimely early bye week. After the early bye Cincinnati gets a very difficult second half that I just don’t feel they can come out on top. Prediction 8 Wins; Key Wins @ Carolina Wk 3, @ New York (A) Wk 12 and Wk 16 San Diego. Key Losses Baltimore Wk 2, Pittsburgh Wk 9 and Cleveland Wk 15.
Taking a closer look at Cleveland, they made some real impressive moves at the leadership helm that will bring this team back into the fold in a few years. I have to feel that Mangini’s tenure may be limited here under the stewardship of Mike Holmgren as he looks toward his own roots for some comfortability. Personally I would not be surprised to see Jon Gruden’s name being heavily considered in the months to come, especially as they fail to produce but getting better offensive play. You see Holmgren’s stamp on this offense with Delhomme and Wallace bringing a much needed veteran field-marshall to guide this offense. Much like many of the cellar dwellers, I don’t even consider this team as a potential divisional foe at (+1500 / +1450) to win the AFC North.
Looking at Cleveland I must admit I am a closet Browns fan. There, I admitted it. I really want to see this team succeed. It’s good for football. It is very possible that they can grow from some successes on Defense and reestablish any resemblance of a passing game. I think they can make some strides. I have to believe they’ll be in a few more games and they may be able to close out a few more than last season. I think the Delhomme addition is a good thing for both parties, and a seasoned back up in Wallace is an obvious improvement. The Browns are proof that having a running game doesn’t equate to a successful offense. The leagues most anemic offense has nowhere to go but up. As for the defense, well I just don’t have enough space here. Every aspect of this defense needs an overhaul and they’ll need to make some major strides.
Oddsmakers are looking for a bit of improvement and bettors are as well from Cleveland (Week 8 Off) season total wins are set at 5.5 O/U (-130 / +110). Cleveland will face a leagues tenth toughest schedule so the task will be challenging. Prediction 5 Wins; Key Wins @ Tampa Bay Wk 1and @ Buffalo Wk 14. Key Losses Cincinnati Wk 4, @ Jacksonville Wk 11 and @ Miami Wk 13.
The Steelers are one of those teams that I am expecting to return to the playoff fold this season, and the loss of Roethlisberger has only some concern in my opinion. I know that sounds ludicrous, however, I feel that this team will prevail on the interim with the absence of Ben. The way they’ll be able to do that is first by improving their play in the secondary and defensively from a year ago. Then they’ll need that Steeler running game to dominate teams to open up play action passing that will give a couple of veteran back-ups ample targets. One thing’s for sure, the betting public doesn’t see things the same as I do as they have betting the Steelers Under on seasonal totals, and the numbers are increasingly moving. One thing that I’m looking at is that the 5 of their final 8 games are at home. They have one of the easier paths to the playoffs with the 21st league schedule strength.
Now I do not see any real reason to bet Pittsburgh (Week 5 Off) to win the North at (+300 / +340), so my only look is at the season total. There is not an immense amount of value betting Pittsburgh to win the AFC at (+1100 / +1000). The competition is too great and with much better betting numbers. Yet, if you really think they get into the playoffs then it’s anyone’s game and they will have as good of shot as anyone, but they will be doing it from the road wild card slot, so your odds may be better if that time presents itself. In my view a few primary things need to occur for Pittsburgh to return to the playoffs. First, their Defense must make improvements in the secondary: going from 156 ydg with 20 int to 215 ydg and only 12 int you do the math. Second, they need to churn a few more yards on the ground and win the battle in the trenches in the first down arena. Then they need to improve on their redzone scoring performance ranked #22 in the league with only 48% is major need for improvement, also they will need to reestablish their turnover margin dominance from 2008.
Oddsmakers currently have the season total win established at O/U 9 (+145 / -170). Reluctant to move from that number anymore action and I think you’ll see it go to 8.5. Personally if it moves to 8.5 it becomes a play on the Over for me. I agree with the win total of 9 as I see them hammering home a late season schedule with the likes of Oakland, Buffalo, Carolina and Cleveland. Prediction 9 Wins; @ Cincinnati Wk 9 and @ Baltimore Wk 13. Key Losses; New England Wk 10 and @ New Orleans Wk 8.