NFL 2018 – AFC North Season Preview

Jimmy McGinty previews the AFC North

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

2017: (13-3) A comfortable win in the AFC North before the Jags knocked them out at home in the playoffs. They went 8-2 in one-score games so it’s safe to say 13 wins won’t be repeated.

With Ben, Brown and Bell on the field the Steelers will win many games. If one, or god-forbid more, of them are missing they won’t win much. The other receivers, tight-ends and backup RBs don’t appeal as top-class talents. Big Ben was 100% healthy in 2017 but that isn’t common.

The defense was built around Ryan Shazier and when he went down last year they crumbled. He got injured in wk 13. The following week they conceded 38pts to the Ravens. 27pts to the Pats and 24pts to the Browns followed before the Jags put 45pts on them in the playoffs. His loss cannot be understated. He wasn’t really replaced either, so I’d worry for this D against good opponents – and they face many!

The Browns and Bengals are bad but better. Jags, Chargers, Pats, Falcons and Saints all feature on the schedule. There’s loads of potential losses in the bunch. They look far stronger than their divisional rivals and getting Tampa during Winston’s suspension as well as Carolina and Atlanta at home means a 9-0 start is possible. That is probably unlikely but 8-1 or 7-2 wouldn’t surprise. The closing few weeks are difficult. At Jags, At Den and Chargers visit is a tricky 3 game stretch. Patriots visit in wk15 and road game in New Orleans dome in wk16. Hard to see the Steelers not dropping at least 3 or 4 games there. All in all they’ll probably breeze the AFC North and win 10-12 games. The time to be against them is around wk11 when they’re record makes them look to be the best team in the League.

Relying on three key men to stay fit and the defense to improve drastically from the one which finished the season - I’m against the Steelers this coming year. And will be very much against them in the closing 6wks.

Best bet:

Cheating a little – Chargers for AFC, Bengals/Steelers Forecast, Browns +6pts in wk1

Baltimore Ravens

2017: (9-7) 2nd in Division but missed the playoffs after conceding a TD on their last play of 2017. That’s 3 seasons in a row without a trip to the playoffs. Ranked joint-last in yards per play last year they were hardly going to achieve much if sneaking in. 0-5 against would-be playoff teams and 9-2 against the rest gives a better indication of where Baltimore were at.

Joe Flacco has looked brutal for a while now so he may be replaced by Lamar Jackson during the season. Both will face pressure as the offensive line is definitely in the lower half of the League rankings. Yanda is the key man but he’s 34 and coming off a few injuries. Ryan Jensen started 16 games at centre last year but is now with Tampa.

The Ravens new trio of free-agency receivers (Crabtree, Snead, John Brown) have history of good performances at various points in their careers but they aren’t special and I suspect they wouldn’t have wound up here if everything was going well. A rookie Hayden Hurst will be the starting tight-end. A quick mention for running back Alex Collins – I like him. The Ravens will be hoping he stays fit and their defense remains dangerous – those two factors will have them competitive most weeks.

They were unlucky at the death last season but as I said earlier I don’t think they were ‘a playoff team’. Their wins came against struggling teams (Bengals, Browns x2, Packers w/o Rodgers, Texans w/o Watson, Raiders w/o Carr, Dolphins w/o Tannehill, Colts w/o Luck).

Looking ahead both the Browns and Bengals are marked to improve and the Steelers will have their number. The four NFC South teams (ATL, NO, CAR, TB) that they play are all very strong. Trips to Titans, Chargers and Chiefs also stick out as nasty enough. Four of the first six games are on the road. It’s bad.

Many of the skill positions have plenty to prove. On a tough schedule, with either a declining or rookie QB, aiming at four new faces, standing behind a bad OL - it’ll be a difficult year in Baltimore.

Best bet:

5pts Under 8 wins 11/10 Unibet & 888bet

2pts AFC North Finish 4th 15/4 redzonesports 

Cincinnati Bengals

2017: It was ugly at times. Who knew losing two key offensive linemen would matter. They ranked 32nd in both play volume and yards per drive. The OL was decimated, Ross and Eifert were injured and Mixon was underused and a little disappointing. They can’t possibly be as bad again.

This year they’ve added two decent offensive linemen and most the rest is the same. However last year’s rookie WR John Ross was mostly injured and rookie running back Joe Mixon was drastically underused. They should get loads more out of both of them and maybe even Tyler Eifert will be fit (apparent he is training).

Top defender Vontaze Burfict is suspended (again) which will hurt them in the opening 4 games.

They’ve had 7+ wins in 6 of the last 7 seasons so betting under 7 doesn’t appeal at all. Bengals have 3 away games in the first 4 weeks so the home tie with rivals Baltimore in wk2 is massive. MIA, TB, DEN & OAK all visit Cinncinati later in the season, very winnable games. And other things in their favour include facing the Saints at home after their bye (and Saints play Rams & Eagles either side of this) and getting to face Luck’s Colts in wk1. Assuming they can keep the right guys on the field and get the better of Baltimore and Cleveland I see 8+ games. Which is enough to be second to the Steelers.

If getting it all together, and the Steeler stumble or suffer a key injury, the Bengals could make a AFC North push.

Best bet:

6pts over 6.5 regular season wins – 8/13

1pt Bengals win AFC North 10/1 – Ladbrokes or BetVictor

RFC with Steelers if you can find a market is the play.


Cleveland Browns

2017: (0-16) and well there’s not much to say about that really.

2018: Browns have a tricky start, PIT and @ NO means 0-2 looks likely. After that there are a few opportunities to get a few wins on the board. NYJ, @ OAK, BAL and @ TB (who could be in disarray at that point). By week 7 the Browns will have more wins than the past two seasons combined. But it may stop there. From wk8 onwards they play playoff teams or road games until wk16 versus the Bengals. A step forward but the schedule dictates it won’t be more than 5 or 6 wins at best. From 1-31 to 5-11 is quite a jump especially with a tricky schedule.

If they start Tyrod Taylor it won’t be for long as their opening schedule is tough. A few losses and they’ll call for Baker Mayfield. I’m a big fan of Taylor but this will be a good move as it’ll help the likes of Landry, Coleman, Gordon and Njoku. Hey that’s a talented bunch of receiving weapons. Starting running-back Carlos Hyde is good, he just didn’t suit San Fran. The other options, Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson, means they are strong at RB. Operating behind a decent OL also.

Browns had the worst turnover record in the league and 0-6 in one score games. Unsurprising for a 0-16 team but definitely two stats which can be improved by having more talented players on offense.

Defense has improved also by bringing EJ Gaines (Bills), Kendricks (Eagles), Ward (4th overall ’18) and Randall (GB) into the secondary. Having Myles Garrett fit for a full season would be a boost also. There is plenty of talent on both sides of the ball – in fairness there was very little last year. Coaches are so important in the NFL and unfortunately in Cleveland they have real bad ones.

Surprisingly they don’t get to face the other really bad teams, Arizona or Buffalo. The road game in Tampa won’t be easy unless TB self-destruct like many predict. The Browns will struggle to win home games versus Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs and Panthers. They’re now only marginally the worst team in division (says a lot about the Ravens (and Bengals) perhaps) but I still don’t see much but a 5 or 6 win season and 4th in their division. They’ll be a play on the spread many weeks though, including week one against the Steelers; getting a big head start at home appeals.

Best bet:

Back the Bills and Cardinals for worst record

AFC North 2018 predictions:

Steelers 11-5

Bengals 9-7

Ravens 6-10

Browns 5-11