AFC North 2021-22 NFL Preview

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What happened last season?

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
  2. Baltimore Ravens 11-5
  3. Cleveland Browns 11-5
  4. Cincinnati Bengals 4-11-1

After starting the season 11-0, the Steelers went 1-4 in their last 5 games to finish the season at 12-4. It was still good enough to win the division and lock up the #3 seed in the playoffs, but the negative momentum carried over into the post-season where Cleveland defeated Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Round 48-37. Baltimore had a Wild Card Round victory as well, beating the Tennessee Titans 20-13. However, both Baltimore and Cleveland lost in the Divisional Round, with the Bills overtaking the Ravens 17-3, and the eventual AFC Champion Chiefs coming out on top against the Browns 22-17.

Team Breakdowns with Division Odds

Odds taken from FanDuel Sportsbook on 8/31/21

Baltimore Ravens (+115)

Ravens: There's no reason for Lamar Jackson to play this Saturday
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson Credit: Mitch Stringer USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore’s 2020-21 defense was superb. They allowed the 2nd fewest points in the league (303) and were stingy against both the pass and the run. With the 31st overall pick they added Penn State LB Odafe Oweh for depth.

Still, all eyes in Baltimore are on 2019-20 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. His numbers fell off slightly last season, but he is still an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. The Ravens were hoping 2nd year RB J.K. Dobbins could take some of the running load off of Jackson, but Dobbins is now out for the year with an ACL injury. WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has shown flashes of brilliance, but may be better known for his catchy nickname than his actual play. TE Mark Andrews is the best offensive pass-catcher on the team, and 27th overall pick WR Rashod Bateman will get plenty of snaps, but Baltimore’s success will largely come down to Jackson’s play.

Cleveland Browns (+155)

Cleveland Browns place Myles Garrett on reserve/COVID-19 list - Dawgs By  Nature
Browns DE Myles Garrett Credit: Dawgs by Nature

After 12 straight losing seasons, Cleveland is now a team opponents must take seriously. Their defense was inconsistent last season but is strong up front with the DE tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Top draft picks CB Greg Newsome II and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will have opportunities early to contribute. On the offensive side, Baker Mayfield has shown enough to give Browns fans hope that they finally have a franchise QB. They have the best RB tandem in the league with the bruising Nick Chubb and elusive Kareem Hunt. WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry lead a talented pass-catching crew. Overall, Cleveland has a legitimate shot to advance far in the NFL playoffs this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers (+440)

Steelers to rest RB Najee Harris versus the Panthers
Steelers RB Najee Harris Credit: Charles LeClaire USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh’s defense was dominant last season. The offense? Not so much. Defensively, the Steelers had the 2nd most takeaways in the league (27) and gave up the 3rd fewest points (312) and yards (4,893). However, Pittsburgh was last in the league in offensive rushing yards (1,351) and their inability to move the ball on the ground made the Steelers predictable for opposing defenses. Insert rookie RB Najee Harris from Alabama. Harris is set to be a three-down back out of the gate and his play will largely dictate the Steelers season. QB Ben Roethlisberger is still serviceable at QB and has a new weapon in 2nd round draft pick TE Pat Freiermuth along with a WR trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The defense should dominate yet again, but if Harris doesn’t pan out Pittsburgh may be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Cincinnati Bengals (+1600)

Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase projected as most productive rookie receiver in  analytical study - Cincy Jungle
Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase Credit: Cincy Jungle

The Bengals had a decision to make in the 2021 NFL Draft. Improve their below-average offensive and defensive lines. Or, go add more talent to their crowded WR room. Ultimately, Cincinnati elected to draft QB Joe Burrow’s former teammate WR Ja’Marr Chase to join receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals selected o-line and d-line players with later picks, but if the Bengals, Burrow, and Chase struggle this season there will be plenty of chatter that they should have went a different direction in the draft. RB Joe Mixon is steady, but not someone who induces fear in opposing defensive coordinators. Defensively, the Bengals weren’t abysmal last season, but they weren’t great by any means and did little to improve on that side of the ball. Maybe the Chase selection pays off, Burrow continues to develop, and the Bengals shock some people this season; but the odds are against that happening.

2021-22 AFC North Projections

  1. Cleveland Browns 11-6
  2. Baltimore Ravens 10-7
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-8
  4. Cincinnati Bengals 4-13

AFC North Best Bets

  • Cleveland Browns OVER 10.5 Wins (-105) – We have them slotted for 11 wins, but despite the tough in-division games, don’t be surprised to see Cleveland push for 12+ wins this year.
  • Cincinnati Bengals UNDER 6.5 Wins (-120) – Training camp reports on QB Burrow have not been inspiring. Add that to the tough division, and winning 7 games seems unlikely for the Bengals this year.
  • Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow UNDER 4,249.5 Total Passing Yards (-112) – A very high number for a QB who is yet to fully prove his worth.
  • Pittsburgh WR Diontae Johnson OVER 950.5 Total Receiving Yards (-112) – He was the Steelers #1 receiver last season with 923 yards in 16 games. Add the extra game and the likely increase in targets for Johnson and this seems like a lock.
  • Lamar Jackson OVER 7.5 Rushing TD’s (-112) – He’s had 7 in each of the past two seasons. With Dobbins out, expect Jackson to run even more in the red zone.

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