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AFC North Outlook
AFC East · AFC North · AFC South · AFC West
Who Really Runs The AFC North Futures?

No other division in the conference is more wide open than the AFC North futures market (for the record, I’ll say the same thing about the NFC East). This group may be home to the reigning Super Bowl champions, one of the best franchises in sports history and two iterations of Paul Brown’s vision but there is by no means a solid front runner to speak of. That’s perfect, if you ask me, even though that type of environment makes it harder to make a comfortable long term investment.

Every team in this division is a fringe favorite to win the AFC Championship because of two main factors. One of the top three teams is going to make the playoffs by winning the division, and once in the playoffs there’s no telling what a team is capable of. It’s been written before but the gauntlet of the AFC North gives teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore an inside edge by the time the playoffs roll around because of how absolutely competitive these rivalries are.

Of all four teams in the division, I actually like Cincinnati the most because they have a strong core of players that are all growing together. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have so many new moving parts that they’re difficult to assess. It’s easy to write off Cleveland because…well…they’re Cleveland…but I wouldn’t be so quick to ignore them as a regular season play from week to week. But which team is the best bet to take in the upcoming AFC North futures? Let’s break this down.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8 SU and 6-9-1 ATS in 2012)
AFC Championship Odds: +1500 to win
Season Win Total: 9.5 Games

The Steelers lost the biggest free agent prize available this summer when wide receiver Mike Wallace bolted for the greener and sunnier pastures in Miami, and the team has been quick to dismiss the departure because they have other speedsters on the roster. It says enough to me as a fan that Pittsburgh was ready to invest in Antonio Brown before Wallace.

Honestly, no matter who quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is throwing to – and he’s had a TON of receivers during his career – he gets the job done. The passing attack will never be a concern in Pittsburgh as long as Big Ben is standing, and very few quarterbacks in the league do a better job of remaining upright than the two-time Super Bowl champion.

Where Pittsburgh really needs to be concerned is the rushing game, and they seemingly addressed those issues be drafting Le’Veon Bell in the third round out of Michigan State. Bell is a massive back at 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds and compliments the down-hill rushing attack Pittsburgh has been known for. He’ll mix it up in the backfield with Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and the recently imported LaRod Stephens-Howling from Arizona. As long as the offensive line holds up, that’s a fine collection of backs to choose from and the Steelers can get back to pounding the rock as they always have, except for those years when Willie Parker was in town. I really miss Willie Parker on my fantasy teams.
There is a feeling that all the departures on defense are going to hurt Pittsburgh. This was a unit that finished first overall in yards allowed with just 4,413 total surrendered in 2012. All of the absences in Pittsburgh have been calculated beforehand and that means you don’t have much to worry about here. Whomever wears the black and gold on defense knows they have a proud tradition to uphold, and that means the Pittsburgh will have the soldiers it requires to protect the endzone once again in 2013.

No other teams represents a sturdier value in AFC North futures than the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s an iffy bet because we don’t know how well Baltimore will do, or if Cincinnati will take a solid step forward. I’d say Pittsburgh has a strong chance to overcome their perceived shortcomings and crest the 9.5 game mark with a 10-6 SU record. As is usually the case, this is Pittsburgh’s division until otherwise notified.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6 SU and 6-9-1 ATS in 2012)
AFC Championship Odds: +1500 to win
Season Win Total: 8.5 Games

Joe Flacco is 9-4 SU in the postseason, has been to the conference championship three times and is still being underrated as a passer because of justifiable holes in his game that are easy to find. His 2012 post season performance was a nuclear flare of epic proportions meant to signal that he deserved a max contract which was quickly signed, sealed and delivered after the Ravens were crowned as world champions. With a 57.9 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 117.2 quarterback rating (83.6 QBR for you nerds) Flacco was simply brilliant in the playoffs.

However, there are a few red herrings here. Flacco threw for zero touchdowns in the second half of the Super Bowl after punching in three through the air in the first half. If not for Jacoby Jones’ miraculous return touchdown to open the second half, Baltimore could very well have lost that championship game. For once, Flacco was on the fortunate side of lady luck’s whims as the Niners fell just short of an impressive rally. Had Flacco flicked the kill switch in that game and continued to pour in scores, there would be no doubt that he was the sixth or seventh best quarterback in the league (behind Manning, Roethlisberger, Brady, Brees and Rodgers in no particular order). As it stands right now, I’m not sure if Flacco is even in the top-10.

With a hefty contract, the faith of ownership behind him and a coach who is proving his worth every season, the pressure on Flacco should have lessened but it has instead increased. Anquan Boldin was by far Flacco’s favorite receiver last year and he is now in the Bay Area creating chemistry with San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick. With 112 targets and 65 catches, Boldin leaves Baltimore with a gaping hole on offense. Ray Rice is fantastic, and Torrey Smith has potential, but losing a possession monster like Boldin is a safety valve that Flacco will miss.

Also missing are the two defensive anchors who epitomized the Ravens defensively. Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed’s under-reported problems with head coach John Harbaugh caused him to defect to Houston. You can’t replace those two with any one player, but scooping defensive end Elvis Dumervil off of the free agent scrap heap will go a long way in recovering what’s been lost by the retirement of Lewis, especially when you remember that Dumervil will start opposite Terrell Suggs in the Ravens’ 3-4 defense. The return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best and most underappreciated corners in the NFL, will be a massive boost to the secondary.

The Ravens took a major step back in the wake of their Super Bowl victory, but did a lot to recover what they lost. I think their defense will be as good as it’s always been, but I worry about Flacco and the offense which is why the AFC North futures pick is leaning towards Pittsburgh. I have to see what the reigning champs look like before I leverage anything long term on them and even if you put a gun to my head, I’d say they are more poised to just miss their season win total and finish 8-8 SU.

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6 SU and 9-6-1 ATS in 2012)
AFC Championship Odds: +1800 to win
Season Win Total: 8.5 Games
If there was ever a time for Cincinnati to cement itself as a team to watch, it’s in 2013 and I mean that figuratively and literally. They’ll be the focus of HBO’s annual “Hard Knocks” show once again which means they’ll become house hold names to a certain degree. Taking that a step further by repeating last season’s successes will only further the public’s familiarity with this young team. And they’re not that far off. 
Offensively, they have the juggernaut that is WR A.J. Green, and his talents are worth multiple, long winded paragraphs. But I’m extremely interested to see how Lewis and the Bengals use tight ends Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert in order to maximize their offensive potential. At best, Cincinnati was an average offensive unit last season going 23rd in total yards, 17th in passing and 12th in total points scored. They are not an explosive team because Green represents the only home run threat that they have, and teams will be much better at mapping out a blueprint to slow him down.
BenJarvis Green-Ellis is a solid running back, and QB Andy Dalton can usually keep up with the best of them when he’s on. But consistency hasn’t been either player’s best friend. Another year in the same system will go a long way in ensuring their potential.
The Bengals have a lot of fun pieces on defense that quietly make them a threat, and they ranked fifth in total yards surrendered last season. Crazy, right? It’s easy to forget how great this team was as a betting entity in 2012 and as a winning team because of how pathetically they exited the playoffs, but this is a team on the rise. If there’s any longshot play worth banking on in this division, it’s these Bengals.
Cleveland Browns (5-11 SU and 8-7-1 ATS in 2012)
AFC Championship Odds: +3000 to win
Season Win Total: 6.5 Games
Love RB Trent Richardson. I’m warming up to wide outs Josh Morgan and Greg Little. I’m not as uncomfortable betting on QB Brandon Weeden as most others are. The offensive line in Cleveland is very good, but not great. The defense gave up the 23rd most yards and the 17th most points in the league. I wouldn’t bet on Cleveland to win the AFC if my life depended on it, but they’re another strong play to finish better than their projected season win total. A 7-9 SU season would be progress, even if their quarterback is aging at comical rates.

Listen, Weeden is never going to have a Hall of Fame career. For whatever reason, he reminds me of Jeff George. All the offensive pieces around him are insanely young compared to him, and in the 2014 or 2015 NFL Draft, the Browns will land the quarterback of their future. Weeden will do everything he can to prove that he is their guy for the time being, and gives the franchise time to be patient in the draft and build in the other parts that make a team successful. Weeden is old, but much better than most people think he is, but he’s also not going to put this underwhelming squad on his back and carry them to a division title.

Given time, Cleveland can turn in to a very good team overnight but it will take the right kind of quarterback. For now, Weeden is a well above average spot filler that can help his team win games. Cleveland will be a decent regular season play as the public assumes that they’ll be a divisional punching bag again, which is why their games will maintain a strong value throughout the 2013 campaign. I think they’ll do better in this upcoming season than they did last year but in the AFC futures they’re a no-no.

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