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AFC North Preview

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Division Winner

The Ravens are two seasons removed from winning the Super Bowl, but Baltimore fell short of the postseason in 2013 with a subpar 8-8 record. Where did it all go wrong? John Harbaugh’s club lost four games by three points or less, including a pair of walk-off loss at Pittsburgh and Chicago to destroy any hopes at grabbing the AFC North crown.

However, this division is wide-open in 2014, as defending division champ Cincinnati plays four of its final six games on the road with the two home games coming against Pittsburgh and Denver in December. The Steelers started last season in an 0-4 hole before a remarkable finish to close at 8-8 for the second straight season. The Browns are still unsure of their quarterback situation between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, while Cleveland has a very difficult schedule this season.

Baltimore will be without running back Ray Rice in the first two contests against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (both home games), but the Ravens have qualified for the playoffs in five of Harbaugh’s six seasons as head coach. This will be the season that the Ravens fly back to the top of the AFC North.

Projected order of finish

1) Baltimore
2) Cincinnati
3) Pittsburgh
4) Cleveland

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None of the four teams in this division have a projected win total in the double-digits, as realistically three teams can finish above the .500 mark. The Ravens are coming off their worst season since 2007, as going ‘over’ 8 ½ wins doesn’t seem like a ridiculous task in 2014. Baltimore finishes the season against four teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2013 (at Miami, vs. Jacksonville, at Houston, vs. Cleveland), while also hosting San Diego and Carolina. The Ravens have a difficult stretch from October through the start of November by playing four road games in five weeks, including trips to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. As long as Baltimore can win at least one of those games, this team should be able to creep above .500 and cash its win total of 8 ½.

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The Browns have plenty of questions at the quarterback position heading into the season along with year-long suspension of top receiver Josh Gordon, but their schedule does not help their cause. Cleveland’s first three games come against Pittsburgh (on the road), New Orleans, and Baltimore. The best chance for the Browns to make any major progress comes in the middle of the season with a stretch against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tampa Bay. However, the December slate of Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, and at Baltimore will likely keep the Browns below their posted win total of 6 ½.

Games to watch – September

Sept. 7 – Cleveland at Pittsburgh: Depending on how the rest of the preseason shakes out, this game could be the regular-season debut of Manziel in a tough spot at Heinz Field. The Steelers have owned this series since 2004, winning 18 of the past 20 matchups, including 10 straight home victories.

Sept. 7 – Cincinnati at Baltimore: The Bengals won this division last season, but they have struggled at M&T Bank Stadium recently by dropping their last four visits to Baltimore. Since beating the Browns to kick off the 2011 season, Cincinnati owns a dreadful 1-7 SU/ATS record in its past eight road games against division foes.

Sept. 11 – Pittsburgh at Baltimore: A very difficult spot for both these rivals to play on a short week coming off divisional matchups in Week 1. The Steelers own a 3-0-1 ATS in the past four meetings with the Ravens, while both meetings last season were decided by a combined five points.

Sept. 14 – New Orleans at Cleveland: Not to jump too far ahead, but this is potentially Manziel’s home debut against a Saints’ team that failed to cover in all four games as a road favorite last season. New Orleans has lost three of its past four contests against AFC foes away from the Superdome, including defeats to the Jets and Patriots.

Sept. 21 – Baltimore at Cleveland: The Ravens wrap up a three-game stretch against AFC North foes as Baltimore is 11-1 SU and 8-4 ATS record against Cleveland since 2008. For what it’s worth, the Ravens put together an 0-2 SU/ATS record as a road favorite last season, which includes a 24-18 defeat at Cleveland (the only loss in this series in the past six seasons).

Sept. 21 – Tennessee at Cincinnati: The Bengals put together a sterling 6-0 SU/ATS record as a home favorite in the 2013 regular season, with all six victories coming by double-digits. Tennessee makes its first trip to Paul Brown Stadium since 2008, when the Titans blew out the Bengals, 24-7, as Cincinnati started that season at 0-8.

You can reach Kevin Rogers via e-mail at rogers@vegasinsider.com

Kevin Rogers can be followed on Twitter at virogers.

  
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