The AFC North has long been considered one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, even with the teams like the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals struggling over the years. While the Bengals are still a below-average team, the Browns have massively improved in recent years. Of course, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers have consistently produced winning records over the years, being the only two teams in the division to win at least one Super Bowl. Entering the 2021 campaign, who will be the team that crowns themselves as the next AFC North champion?
Odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.
Baltimore Ravens (+120)
Ever since Lamar Jackson became the full-time starting quarterback of the Ravens in 2019, life has been different for fans in Baltimore. Jackson has produced a 30-7 record as a starter in the regular season, and he’s led the Ravens to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. While we all hope Jackson is given the green light to throw more under Greg Roman, Baltimore boasts one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL, with Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards pounding the rock. During the offseason, the front office did add veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman — who is currently dealing with an injury — at the wide receiver position, which could signify them making a concerted effort to let Jackson air it out more. On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have talented players like Calais Campbell, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, and Patrick Queen. Baltimore has won the AFC North in two out of the past three seasons, and they are considered the favorites to sit atop the division in 2021 at +120 odds.
Cincinnati Bengals (+1700)
At the start of the 2020 season, there was optimism surrounding the Bengals due to the arrival of Joe Burrow. Burrow was fresh off of winning the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship at LSU after a historic season in college. In the first 10 weeks of his rookie season, Burrow flashed signs of promise under center, completing 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions. However, Burrow would sadly suffer a torn ACL, a torn MCL, a partially torn PCL, and a partially torn meniscus. While Burrow will be ready to suit up in Week 1, it will likely take him time to get comfortable again in the NFL. As for Cincinnati’s defense, they’ve spent some money in recent years, but I still don’t expect that to be enough to give them a formidable group in 2021. If Burrow can make the necessary improvements for the future, the Bengals could be a potential playoff team down the road, but they are years away from competing in the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns (+160)
Andrew Berry deserves a round of applause for what he’s done with the Browns in the past two years. Cleveland has gone from being a laughing stock in the NFL to a team that has a legitimate chance to contend in the AFC sooner rather than later. Just last season, the Browns compiled an 11-5 record as they made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Besides the relief of ending their long drought of missing the postseason, Cleveland would defeat their division rivals from Pittsburgh by double-digits in the Wild Card Round a season ago. The Browns have the best running back duo in the league in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, have an up-and-coming quarterback in Baker Mayfield, one of the league’s best offensive lines, and a much-improved defense, led by Myles Garrett. The return of Odell Beckham Jr. and the signing of Jadeveon Clowney could be enough to propel Cleveland to their first division crown since 1989.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+450)
Fans of the Steelers were joyous for the first 11 weeks of the regular season in 2020. Their team owned a perfect 11-0 record as Ben Roethlisberger was hoping to get another shot at making a Super Bowl. Despite the blazing start from Pittsburgh, the black and gold would lose five out of their next six games, including back-to-back losses to the Browns. Following their collapse from last season, the Steelers have a completely new starting offensive line and a potential star in Najee Harris running the ball. But while the defense and the running game could be strong areas for Pittsburgh, the underwhelming play from Roethlisberger is what could very well hold back the team in 2021. While Roethlisberger could be playing his final year in the NFL this season, he would need to turn back the clock for the Steelers to have any chance of ending the season with the best record in the AFC North. Mike Tomlin has yet to produce a losing season in Pittsburgh over the course of his first 14 years with the organization, but there’s a chance the Steelers miss out on the playoffs in the upcoming season.
Entering the regular season, the AFC North is just one of three divisions that don’t currently have a team at minus-odds to win the division. The Ravens are the current favorites to win the division at +120 odds, and it’s hard not to see why. Jackson has been spectacular in the regular season in his young career, and Baltimore’s defense continues to be a formidable unit. As for the other teams in the division, the Browns could come close to winning the division, the Bengals are years away from relevancy, and the Steelers are playing with a dismal offensive line and an aging quarterback. Getting Baltimore at plus-odds to end the year with the best record in the AFC North feels like a somewhat safe bet to make.
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