The AFC North sent 3 teams to the NFL playoffs last season and the competition is likely to be no less fierce in 2021. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 11-0 start helped them to secure the divisional title ahead of Baltimore, but their late-season slump ended with back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns. The Browns, who finished third in a division that they have never won since the change to a 4-team lineup in 2002, look genuine contenders this year after a defensive overhaul to match their offensive improvement seen last year.
The Baltimore Ravens are favored by oddsmakers to reclaim the divisional title and they can still boast an enviable roster despite another playoff disappointment last season. As for the Cincinnati Bengals, their bid to improve from last place was hit by rookie Joe Burrow’s knee injury. However, the young QB is surrounded by receiving talent if he is fully healthy again–and if his offensive line can protect him from further harm.
If you’re looking for more in-depth analysis and futures picks ahead of the 2021 NFL season, be sure to check out our predictions for who wins Super Bowl 56 as well as our assessment of which three teams will improve dramatically this year and which teams could regress. As for individuals, we’ve also taken a look at the main player markets including MVP and Offensive Rookie of the Year.
For now, let’s break down the race to win the AFC North.
Baltimore Ravens (+115)
Super Bowl odds: +1400
2020 record: 11-5
2020 ATS record (inc. playoffs): 11-7
Coaching hires: Tee Martin (WR coach), Rob Ryan (inside LB coach), D’Anton Lynn (secondary coach), Anthony Weaver (DL coach/run-game coordinator)
Top draft picks: Rashod Bateman (WR), Odafe Oweh (LB), Ben Cleveland (OG)
Free agency adds: Kevin Zeitler (OG), Sammy Watkins (WR), Justin Houston (DE), Alejandro Villanueva (OT)
Free agency losses: Mark Ingram (RB), Matthew Judon (LB), Yannick Ngakoue (DE), Willie Snead (WR)
The Ravens have won an impressive 35 regular-season games in the last 3 years (10-6, 14-2, 11-5) but failed to get any further than the divisional round of the playoffs. Quarterback Lamar Jackson remains a must-see attraction every time he takes the field, but after last season’s tame 17-3 loss to the Bills he owns a 1-3 postseason record. The Ravens ranked dead last in the NFL in passing last season, instead relying on a juggernaut of a ground game featuring dynamic rookie JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Jackson. Although Matt Judon was a big loss from the defense, Baltimore looks set to be in the hunt to reclaim the divisional crown.
Cincinnati Bengals (+2500)
Super Bowl odds: +15000
2020 record: 4-11-1
2020 ATS record (inc. playoffs): 9-7
Coaching hires: Troy Walters (WR coach), Frank Pollack (OL coach/run-game coordinator), Marion Hobby (DL coach)
Top draft picks: Ja’Marr Chase (WR), Jackson Carman (OT), Joseph Ossai (DE)
Free agency adds: Trey Hendrickson (DE), Chidobe Awuzie (CB), Mike Hilton (CB), Larry Ogunjobi (DT)
Free agency losses: Carl Lawson (DE), William Jackson (CB), AJ Green (WR), John Ross (WR), Cethan Carter (TE)
The Bengals won 4 games in the 2020 season, which was twice what they managed in Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach. But their rise after hitting rock bottom has not been as smooth as planned. A knee injury restricted franchise savior Joe Burrow to just ten starts in his rookie year and more worryingly, reports suggest he is yet to regain full confidence on his return to action. The Bengals opted for wideout Ja’Marr Chase in the draft instead of bringing in much-needed offensive line help to protect Burrow, and that decision looks questionable after Chase failed to impress in training camp. Losing defensive stars Carl Lawson and William Jackson doesn’t help either and the Bengals look set to stay in the lower reaches of a brutal division.
Don’t forget to check out our AFC East division preview, which includes a +350 best bet!
Cleveland Browns (+155)
Super Bowl odds: +1600
2020 record: 11-5
2020 ATS record (inc. playoffs): 8-10
Coaching hires: None
Top draft picks: Greg Newsome (CB), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB), Anthony Schwartz (WR)
Free agency adds: John Johnson (S), Troy Hill (CB), Jadeveon Clowney (DE), Anthony Walker (LB), Malik Jackson (DT)
Free agency losses: Sheldon Richardson (DT), Larry Ogunjobi (DT), Terrance Mitchell (CB), Karl Joseph (S)
Cleveland showed immense improvement in their first season under head coach Kevin Stefanski, who won the Coach of the Year award after leading them to their first playoff win since 1994. A road win at Pittsburgh in the wild-card round was immensely satisfying, but the Browns came up short at Kansas City. They have responded by implementing a huge defensive overall, likely returning only Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward as starters assisted by free-agent signings John Johnson, Troy Hill, Anthony Walker, Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney and supplemented by draft picks Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The offense returns intact, led by the elite RB pairing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and with Odell Beckham Jr. back after injury. These aren’t the same old Browns, but they still only finished third in the division last year and will be targeting the AFC North title.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+500)
Super Bowl odds: +4500
2020 record: 12-4
2020 ATS record (inc. playoffs): 10-7
Coaching hires: Matt Canada (Offensive coordinator), Mike Sullivan (QB coach), Alfredo Roberts (TE coach), Adrian Klemm (OL coach)
Top draft picks: Najee Harris (RB), Pat Freiermuth (TE), Kendrick Green (C)
Free agency adds: BJ Finney (C), Trai Turner (OG), Joe Schobert (LB), Melvin Ingram (LB)
Free agency losses: Bud Dupree (DE), Mike Hilton (CB), Steven Nelson (CB), David DeCastro (OG)
The Steelers held on to win the AFC North after their sensational 11-0 start, but the other side of that is that they finished the year 1-5 including their 48-37 playoff loss to Cleveland. The Steelers’ offensive line is a cause for concern after the departures of stalwart linemen David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, but QB Ben Roethlisberger is back and has a talented group of receivers to target, now led by Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. Rookie RB Najee Harris looked a luxury pick, but will make use of any gaps the o-line might be able to create for him. Pittsburgh’s CB corps looks depleted, but the defensive front remains strong and signing veteran Melvin Ingram offset the loss of Bud Dupree. Still, the onus is on stars TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick to keep the defense playing at their usual standard.
AFC North best bet: Cleveland Browns to win the division (+155)
What Stefanski achieved in his first season as an NFL head coach was remarkable, but even then it understandably took time for the Browns to get things together after a virtual preseason program and no exhibition games. By the time QB Baker Mayfield began to click in the new offense, the Browns were only 5-3 at their bye week and had already suffered heavy defeats to the Ravens and Steelers. An unusual level of offensive stability should see them off to a more solid start this time and challenging the Ravens for the title.
What Roethlisberger has left in the tank has to be questioned, but the Steelers also have a tough schedule with the Packers, Chiefs, and Bills among their road trips. The run-crazy Ravens look the team the Browns need to overcome to take the divisional crown and with a potentially large defensive improvement coming this year, they look the better value play to come out on top.
Don’t forget to check out our NFC East division preview, which includes a bet at +450 odds!
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