The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the class act in a division with question marks around the Ravens and Bengals but some real optimism in Cleveland.
Predicted AFC North finish:
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Baltimore Ravens
- Cleveland Browns
- Cincinnati Bengals
Best Backed: Browns (76% of stakes)
Last season: 13-3
Coach: Mike Tomlin
They still have the ‘Killer Bs’ in Pittsburgh but all is not quite rosy for one of the NFL’s top attacking trios. QB Ben Roethlisberger is constantly toying with retirement, while running back Le’Veon Bell has not yet returned to training after failing to agree on a new contract.
Bell did the same last year but still clocked up 1,291 rushing and 655 receiving yards along with 11 touchdowns so it’s not too concerning - the fact it looks like his last year in Pittsburgh is more of a worry.
Their defence was top seven unit overall last season but was shredded for 75 points in two games against Jacksonville and had 38 points put up against them by an ordinary Baltimore, all at home – that will be a worry as they look for a third straight title.
Their 13-3 record was bolstered by winning five games by three points or less and one game by four points – just a few of those going the other way puts a completely different light on the season.
Last season: 9-7
Coach: John Harbaugh
It’s now over five long years since John Harbaugh led them to the Super Bowl and they've gone three seasons without even making the play-offs, so it’s a crucial season for the team, the coach, and QB Joe Flacco after they drafted the exciting Lamar Jackson – who piled up 5261 yards and 45 touchdowns for Louisville.
Flacco has Michael Crabtree on board to help fire a muddling offence from last season that was bailed out more than once by a high-scoring defence. The Ravens topped the turnover charts with twice as many takeaways than giveaways but they’ll want more points from their offence this year.
They suffered a sickening loss against the Bengals in the last game of the season that cost them a place in the play-offs, so there’ll be a desperation to get back into the post-season but 9-7 probably looks about the best they can muster again and that once more that may not be enough to get in.
Last season: 0-16
Coach: Hue Jackson
There a few places to go but up when you finish winless on 0-16, but beyond that there are a few decent pieces of the puzzle now in Cleveland to suggest that they could make it a decent turnaround season. They’ll certainly win a game or two, but talk of a play-off charge seems more than a little far-fetched.
First pick Baker Mayfield looks an exciting QB prospect but they’ve got the chance to win this season due to Tyrod Taylor’s projected starting berth – his consistency and mistake-free football at QB will give Cleveland a long-needed settled presence under centre.
The wide receiver room could contain three of the best around with Josh Gordon set to return and Miami’s Jarvis Landry joining on a $75m deal – they’d form a mouth-watering partnership between them but if they can land Dez Bryant as well that trio would be as good as any.
Throw in well-thought-of offensive coordinator Todd Haley arriving from Pittsburgh and there’s real optimism in Cleveland, which after last year is a miracle in itself, but this year should be one small step on the road towards a brighter future rather than one giant leap into the play-off picture.
Last season: 7-9
Coach: Marvin Lewis
It’s a 16th season for Marvin Lewis and on the face of things it looks like a similar story to last season as they failed to make the most of the talented AJ Green and Andy Dalton and don’t really look equipped to do it this year.
Two late wins padded their record last year but it was the manner of some of their defeats which was most disappointing – it certainly looks like the play-off window with Dalton and Green could well be closing.
Throw in continued doubts over Lewis as coach and there are just too many negatives against this team going forward as they look like a team on the decline – they may even be crossing paths with the Browns on the way down.
The Steelers are rightly favourites for a third title in a row as it’s largely the same team that went 13-3 last year and, although a repeat of that record is a tough ask, they’ve won 11 of their last 12 games in the AFC North as the dominant force in the division. It’ll take some turnaround from the rest to overhaul them at the top of the standings.
As for the rest of the chasing pack, the Bengals may be on the way down and Browns on the way up, while the Ravens may just be about the same as last year. Baltimore look like another 9-7 outfit but with other AFC teams set to improve that may not be enough to make the play-offs this time around.
Cincinnati could be set for a downward spiral and actually be overtaken by a resurgent Cleveland Browns. The only way is up after a winless season and, although it may not be an earth-shattering turnaround, five wins should be reasonably achievable and that may just be enough to pinch third spot.