The AFC North was the best division in the NFL by record last season, collectively going 38-25-1, while three of its teams finished with at least 11 regular season wins. The Baltimore Ravens entered last season as the favorites, but lost both games against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, one of which was a game that Lamar Jackson missed due to COVID-19. As a result, the Steelers got off to an 11-0 start, before ultimately just hanging on as the Ravens and the Browns surged in the later stages of the season. The Ravens won one playoff game but went on to lose to the Bills, while the Steelers and Browns matched up in the Wild Card round. The Steelers’ late-season struggles continued in that game, as the Browns advanced and nearly were able to knock off the Kansas City Chiefs in an effort to reach the Super Bowl.
Heading into the 2021 season, it seems as though the Browns’ momentum and the Ravens’ general prowess are factoring in heavily as far the betting odds are concerned, while the Steelers are a distant third in conference and divisional odds. The Bengals were a non-factor in 2020 with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow missing about half of the season due to a leg injury, and while they should be significantly better in 2021, it’s going to be a tough road for them with such a tough schedule of divisional opponents to go through.
Super Bowl Odds: +1400
AFC Conference Odds: +650
Team Win Total: 11 (-120/+100)
To Make Playoffs: -300
Awards Contenders: Lamar Jackson (MVP +1600), Jayson Oweh (DROY +1600)
Week 1 Spread: -4.5 at Raiders
The Ravens had a disappointing season in 2020, and it was one that was impacted by injuries and COVID-19 to some extent, particularly in the second half of the season. Lamar Jackson missed arguably the most important game of the season for the Ravens, a road game in Pittsburgh that resulted in a 19-14 loss and cost them a shot at the AFC North. Nonetheless, the Ravens still won 11 games and got into the playoffs, and even won on the road in Tennessee in the Wild Card round. They went on to fall apart the next week in Buffalo, and while this would have been a successful season for most teams, the Ravens’ expectations were so high that this was clearly a let down.
Heading into 2021, the Ravens’ roster looks more or less the same, with a similarly prolific defense and an offense dependent on Jackson. The Ravens added two receivers, free agent Sammy Watkins and first-round pick Rashod Bateman, and this could go a long way in helping Jackson and the Ravens’ passing game reach the next level. The hype will be large once again, but it seems to be justified again too.
Super Bowl Odds: +1600
AFC Conference Odds: +800
Team Win Total: 10.5 (-120/+100)
To Make Playoffs: -225
Awards Contenders: Baker Mayfield (MVP +3500), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (DROY +1400)
Week 1 Spread: +6 at Chiefs
The Browns had moderate expectations to start the 2020 season, and were blown out in Week 1 in their first test against the Ravens. From that point forward, however, the Browns were one of the best teams in the NFL, winning 11 of their remaining 15 games to make the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years. The matchup in the Wild Card round seemed like a tough one, especially with all of the injuries and COVID-related problems that the Browns were dealing with, but they dominated the first half of the game and ultimately hung on to win 48-37. They lost to the Chiefs the next weekend despite a late-game injury to Patrick Mahomes, but it appears as though expectations are high heading into 2021.
The Browns’ roster is largely unchanged for the upcoming season — much like the rest of the AFC North — and the starting skill positions will look virtually the same as they did in 2020. The one possible exception here is Odell Beckham Jr., who only played in seven games last season after suffering an ACL tear. Beckham has a chance to be a factor in 2021, although it remains to be seen just how effective he’ll be coming off the injury. The Browns’ offense was quite good in 2020, especially on the ground with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but the defensive liabilities may be enough to keep them a tier below the Ravens in 2021.
Super Bowl Odds: +4500
AFC Conference Odds: +2500
Team Win Total: 8.5 (-135/+115)
To Make Playoffs: +140
Awards Contenders: Najee Harris (OROY +800)
Week 1 Spread: +6.5 at Bills
The Steelers started the 2020 season as well as anyone could have possibly expected, getting out to an 11-0 start while taking a commanding lead in the AFC North standings. They ultimately did wind up winning the division, but the second half of the season was amazingly unimpressive as they limped their way into the playoffs with one win in their last five games. The most embarrassing of these games was a loss on Monday Night Football against the Bengals in Week 15, a game in which the Steelers were favored by more than two touchdowns. Their poor play carried into the playoffs too, as they lost badly to the Browns in the Wild Card round.
Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles were clearly among the most relevant problems towards the end of last season, but the Steelers are sticking with their aging quarterback heading into 2021. The Steelers have an elite defense and a good group of receivers, but one of the major offensive issues was that they got minimal production out of their running game. As a result, they spent their most recent first round pick on Alabama’s star running back Najee Harris with the hopes of creating a more balanced attack to help out Roethlisberger. If the Steelers do manage to figure out how to create a strong rushing game, Roethlisberger might have just enough left in the tank to keep this team in the Super Bowl hunt, especially because the Steelers’ defense should be one of the best in the NFL once again. The odds aren’t as optimistic after the way this team fell apart in last season’s playoffs, but the possible path to success here isn’t that tough to imagine.
Super Bowl Odds: +15000
AFC Conference Odds: +6500
AFC North Division Odds: +2500
Team Win Total: 6.5 (-130/+110)
To Make Playoffs: +500
Awards Contenders: Ja’Marr Chase (OROY +1000)
Week 1 Spread: +3.5 vs MIN
One of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Bengals were predictably inconsistent in 2020 with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow struggling at times but also flashing the upside that caused him to be the 1st overall pick in the 2020 draft. Unfortunately for him and the Bengals, Burrow suffered a torn ACL in Week 11 and missed the remainder of the season. He should be back at full strength in 2021, with many of the same skill players around him that will need to take some steps forward if they’re going to contend in the highly competitive AFC North.
The Bengals drafted wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase 5th overall in this year’s draft, and he’ll play alongside Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, both of whom have shown decent potential early on in their respective careers. This could be a decent offense overall, but the Bengals are still most likely going to have a significant degree of problems on defense. This probably isn’t their biggest concern for 2021, however, because the major issue is that they’ll have to face one of the NFL’s toughest schedules with six of their games coming against three divisional opponents that each won at least 11 games in 2020. The Bengals have a good chance to improve this season, but they’re probably another year away from really making an impact in the standings.
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