The AFC North enters the 2014 season as one of the most wide open divisions in football. Las Vegas oddsmakers declined to take a stand and inserted the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all at 8.5 or 9 wins. Cincy won the division last year but failed yet again to win a playoff game, losing at home to San Diego in the Wild Card round. The Ravens are now a full season removed from their Super Bowl win, which they followed up with a disappointing 8-8 season. Pittsburgh has now had two straight 8-8 seasons, doubly disappointing. Cleveland hasn’t finished over .500 since 2007 and had an offseason full of drama that rivaled the 49ers. Can Baltimore or Pittsburgh wrestle the division back from Cincy? Can Andy Dalton take the next step and win a playoff game? Will the Johnny Football circus eat the Browns season alive? Let’s take a look.
Win totals are from www.scoresandodds.com. Win total posted with juice on the over and under, respectively.
Pittsburgh Steelers 8.5 wins (-140/+120): A constant in the NFL playoffs for years, the Steelers have now gone .500 two years in a row. The last playoff game they won was the AFC Championship Game in January of 2011 versus the Jets. Last season, an 0-4 start killed their season, but they rebounded nicely to go 8-4 the rest of the way. During that 0-4 start, they turned the ball over 11 times and didn’t have one takeaway. After a week four loss to the Vikings in London and a bye week, they played much better.
Ben Roethlisberger is back again and has a solid OLine to support him. David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are two of the best interior linemen in the league. The loss of Pouncey last season was crippling. Pittsburgh added LaGarrette Blount to the backfield that features La’Veon Bell, a promising 2nd year running back out of Michigan State. However, both were pulled over and charged with possession of Marijuana, so a suspension could be in their futures; it wouldn’t be a team break down without a little suspension chatter. Antonio Brown is a stud at receiver but will have to cope with the loss of a fellow receiver for the 2nd consecutive year. After Pittsburgh let Mike Wallace walk two years ago, they let Emmanuel Sanders sign with Denver this offseason. There are some young options on the bench and given the Steelers track record of finding good WR talent in the middle rounds of the draft, that unit shouldn’t be a concern.
Defensively, Dick LeBeau is still calling the shots for Pittsburgh. They did lose quite a bit from last years unit, including long time Steelers like Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley, and parts of the remaining unit are definitely long in the tooth. Troy Polamalu is 33 and Brett Keisel will turn 36 this month. Last season their pass rush only generated 34 sacks and the defense only created 20 turnovers; both numbers must improve. They did spend their first two draft picks on the front seven, and both players could see significant playing time.
Last season Pittsburgh started winning shootouts, very un-Steeler like. However, they may have to take the same approach this year as the offense looks to be ahead of the defense. The schedule looks very manageable and they get their Thursday night game out of the way on week two in Baltimore. Pittsburgh is one of the most public teams in sports and we have a rule that you always pick the Steelers when the public isn’t on them. At 8.5 wins, there hasn’t been much talk about Pittsburgh, so…..
Gun to head: Over. After back to back .500 seasons, Roethlisberger will get this team back to a winning record.
Our own free will: Over, regular play. Juice is on the over and there doesn’t seem to be a ton of action on Pittsburgh. Looks like the sharp money is on the over.
Baltimore Ravens 8.5 wins (-115/-105): The Ravens are a hypothetical question you’d ask your buddy in a bar that’s come to life.
“Would you take a Super Bowl win but totally mortgage the future of your favorite team in the process?”
After winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Ravens were forced to sign Joe Flacco to one of the richest contracts in league history. Flacco had been a solid QB, but caught fire in the 2012 playoffs as he led the Ravens to wins at Denver and New England before taking out the 49ers in the Super Bowl. With Flacco’s contract, the team became hamstrung in free agency and lost several key pieces from the Super Bowl team, including Anquan Boldin and Paul Kruger. Flacco had a miserable year last season, throwing 22 INT and 19 TD. Ray Rice was just as miserable, averaging 3 yards per carry and failing to register 1,000 total yards of offense. Steve Smith came over from the Panthers to try and help the pass game. Dennis Pitta is a very good tight end who was sorely missed last year with a season ending injury. The offensive line is solid and they added Jeremy Zuttah at center, who came over from Tampa. The Ravens will miss Ray Rice after his controversial two suspension is served, but once he returns the Ravens really need to get him going. Bernard Pierce is their next option at running back who has shown promise but only averaged 2.9 yards per carry last year.
The defense actually played well last year, giving up 21 points or less in half their games. The defense had 40 sacks, led by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty return to the defensive line and Daryl Smith is an underrated linebacker who led the team in combined tackles. Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb are solid corners, but they really need Matt Elam to step up his game after Ozzie Newsome took him in the first round of the 2013 draft. The former Florida Gator was a let down. Four of the first five picks for the Ravens in the 2014 draft were on defense, so that unit should be in good shape. Given the struggles of the offense last year, it seems odd they went that heavy on defense.
The Ravens have a chance to make noise in the division early, as their first three games they play each division team. In fact, after November 2 they only have one division game left, an unusual scheduling quirk. Even with their offensive struggles, the Ravens were 8-6 last season and in the playoff hunt. Then they got shredded in back to back games by the Pats and Bengals. Can they make the jump back into the playoffs?
Gun to head: Over. Hate to go against a good defense and a good QB on a bounce back year.
Our own free will: Pass. This seems right on, 8-8 or 9-7 type team.
Cincinnati Bengals 9 wins (+100/-120): The Bengals have made the playoffs four of the past five seasons, but didn’t win a game in any of those appearances. Cincy actually hasn’t won a playoff game since 1990. Both of their coordinators left for head coaching jobs (Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer) and not much was added to the team from last season. Andy Dalton did get his new contract but the defense lost a stud in Michael Johnson, yet another free agent who went to Tampa.
At the skill positions, the Bengals do have a nice core. A.J. Green is one of the best receivers in football and their back field combo of Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis should be very productive again. Bernard especially is an extremely explosive back who can do damage on the ground and through the pass game. Tyler Eifert is a tight end that Cincy took in the 1st round of the 2013 draft; he should be in line for a strong sophomore year. The offensive line is very solid, only giving up 29 sacks last year. Most of that unit returns to protect Dalton.
Defensively the loss of Johnson is a big one. However, they do get Geno Atkins back, one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. He missed the 2nd half of last season with an injury. Most of the defense returns from 2013, a unit that only gave up 305 points all season, tied for best in the AFC.
Losing Gruden and Zimmer are big losses; both were very good coordinators. The schedule is also much tougher from last year, as the Bengals travel to the Pats, Colts, Saints, Bucs (who we like this year) as well as host Denver. The end of the season gets especially brutal, as Cincy is on the road five of the last seven weeks of the season. Their early bye week doesn’t help them there.
Gun to head: Under. The drastic changes to the coaching staff, the tough schedule, Dalton and the pressure of that big contract…
Our own free will: Pass. This number seems just about right. Lots to like with this Cincy team (Bernard and Green, the defense), but Baltimore and Pittsburgh should be more competitive this year and we want to see what Dalton looks like without Jay Gruden
Special guest, FSB regular and resident Cleveland fanatic Matt Wills did the honors of writing the Browns entry. Spoiler: he picks them to win the Super Bowl.
Cleveland Browns 6.5 wins (+115/-135): Has there ever been a 4-12 team that’s been as entertaining as this one in a given year? Over the past 365 days, The Browns have shockingly traded their 2nd year former 1st round pick running back after game two, led the AFC North with a 3-2 record, possessed the #1 wide receiver in the league and 6 total Pro-Bowlers, finished 4-12, stunningly fired their head coach after one year, hired a defensive coordinator from Buffalo with no HC experience, fired the entire front office, drafted the most polarizing college player not named Tebow, and had their best offensive player since the Reagan administration banned for an entire year for violating the league’s ban on Marijuana. Say what you will about talent level but this team knows how to stay in the news!
Defense is the primary (if only) strength of the 2014 Cleveland Browns. Led by recently re-signed All-Pro Corner Joe Haden, coach Mike Pettine will stress a strong defensive secondary that should match up well to the inconsistent quarterback play that plagues the AFC North. Key Additions this year include an Ohio homecoming for former Ohio State Buckeye Donte Whitner. Donte provides much needed leadership to a defensive unit that features 1st round draft pick corner Justin Gilbert, 3rd round draft pick linebacker Chris Kirksey, and 4th round pick corner Pierre Desir. Donte will look to fill the void left by All-Pro TJ Ward at Strong Safety. The Browns look to increase their sack count from 2013 of 40. Can Paul Kruger live up to the 40 million dollar deal that he signed after his Super Bowl Season in 2012? After a disappointing 4.5 sacks last year, Pettine’s aggressive 3-4 style blitzing defense should provide more opportunities for Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, and Jabaal Sheard to make impact plays this season. The defense will attempt to improve on a relatively strong showing as the 9th ranked defense in 2013. Cleveland hopes that this year the defense can take on a “lockdown on the lake” approach and be the backbone of this team.
The 2014 Browns offense has significantly more question marks. At print time, suspended top receiver Josh Gordon was investigating the possibility of a lawsuit against the NFL to overturn his 1 year suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. This was Gordon’s 3rd strike and he’ll watch this year from the couch or cabana or Colorado speakeasy. It’s been two paragraphs and I haven’t brought up Johnny Manziel…most websites would have trashed the column by now. The Browns passed on Johnny early in the draft only to move up to get their hopeful franchise quarterback. Since their return in 1999, the Browns have started 21 different starting quarterbacks. 21! Can everyone’s favorite Drake fan put more emphasis on the playbook, not on the all night ragers and live up to the hype finally leading our Browns to the promised land? Preseason performance would lead this scorned Browns fan to believe absolutely not. Johnny’s “Playstation” style of play makes for great ESPN Top 10 Play nominations but fails to translate into wins based on his predecessors (see Vince Young). Put simply, in the NFL it’s pertinent that the quarterback has the ability to throw a good ball and this has yet to be seen. Getting the nod at quarterback is Cleveland Native Brian Hoyer. The undrafted former Tom Brady backup showed signs of competence last year and a better understanding of a pro style offense than the raw Manziel. He’ll look for help to All Pro Tight End Jordan Cameron (7 TDs in 2013) and newly acquired running back Ben Tate. The Browns will rely heavily on the run to combat the inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver.
A bye after week 3 provides a chance to evaluate Hoyer’s performance against having Johnny Football at the helm. Could Browns at Titans on October 5th be our first look at the potential savior of Cleveland Football? Magic 8 Ball says yes.
Gun to head: Under, hope springs eternal on the shores of Lake Erie but this team lacks a competent solution at Quarterback. Picking from what turn out to be two 2nd string options (one being fan favorite Johnny Football) has the potential to deflate a fan base and ruin a season. Pay the juice. The sharp money is on the UNDER.
Our own free will: Loose Money on The OVER! What do the sharps know?! The Browns have Johnny Football…the most exciting player to come out of college in years. Gambling is supposed to be fun right?! The AFC North is not what it used to be. The favorite to win the division pays +190! It’s wide open.
We ran short on time, so an abbreviated AFC West win total preview was posted on our Facebook page.