This 2013 NFL preview takes a quick look at the new faces in the AFC North, the fantasy football spin on the Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, and Browns, and a few best bets in the division.
The Steelers are hoping top draft picks RB Le’Veon Bell and LB Jarvis Jones can re-energize two of the most famous and important positions in Pittsburgh. Cincinnati added rookie TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard to add spark and depth to the Bengals offense. Cleveland has a whole new regime, with GM Mike Lombardi, head coach Rob Chudzinski (and offensive coordinator Norv Turner). The Ravens famously lost two legends from their defense with the retirement of Ray Lewis and departure of Ed Reed they quietly added two draft picks in safety Matt Elam and LB Arthur Brown who are healthier and faster than Lewis or Reed have been in the last few years. Assuming Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata can fill the leadership voids, this defense might actually better on the field this year.
I’ve already made a case for grabbing Bengals QB Andy Dalton as a late-round value and possible fantasy sleeper star if the Cincinnati offense really clicks this year. And count me among those on the Browns TE Jordan Cameron bandwagon. QB Brandon Weeden has looked sharp in the preseason, and with defenses stacking the box against RB Trent Richardson, Norm and Chud will be getting the ball to the tight end a lot. All four of these teams should sport some solid fantasy defenses as well.
I don’t think the Ravens will fall off too far. But I think the Super Bowl hangover, and lack of offensive weaponry, will ultimately turn this team back into the dink and dunk defensive-minded team that grinds out games 17-9. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are good enough to keep them in the playoff hunt, but the odds of Flacco getting and staying that hot for a whole postseason again are slim. The Cincinnati Bengals are in position to make a name for themselves as a contender. They have a great defense and if Dalton continues to progress, this team could absolutely win the Super Bowl. I think at the least they battle for this divisional crown, but settle for a Wild Card berth. In Cleveland I think the Browns could be one of the league’s surprise teams. I see them as a really good 8-8 team that narrowly misses the playoffs and all next offseason they’ll be the darling sleeper pick to make The Leap in 2014.
Do not sleep on the Pittsburgh Steelers. I love them in this spot. Sleeping giants. They’ve been kinda blah, same old Steelers the last couple years. Tough as nails contenders one week, then shitting the bed and giving away games to a bad Oakland team and barely grinding out an ugly national TV win against last year’s lowly Kansas City Chiefs. But I think Ben Roethlisberger is finally healthy, and they get 2012 1st-round draft pick David DeCastro at guard, after injury derailed his rookie season. So that’s an extra top rookie to join the above-mentioned RB Bell and LB Jones to join a veteran, well-coached, hungry Steelers team with championship experience.
This Steelers group has a chip on its shoulder. Pouncey to me: “Teams underestimate us at their own risk.”
— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) August 16, 2013
There’s a couple decent values in this division for those of you who like to wager legally when you travel to your favorite Las Vegas vacation spot. As for “Odds to Win the Super Bowl,” Vegas Insider has Pittsburgh at 25-1, while Bovada has the Steelers at 28-1 to win the Super Bowl. Would you be that surprised if Houston and Cincy couldn’t get over the hump, Brady and Belichick couldn’t rebuild the weaponry on the fly, and Peyton Manning either got hurt or threw a critical interception that got tipped right into Troy Polamalu’s hands? Throwing down $20 to possibly win $500 seems like a fun way to spend a football season.
Another futures bet I like in this division is the Over/Under on the Cleveland Browns win total. I’ve seen it listed at 6 or 6.5 (maybe you get lucky and the guy you legally place your wagers with will have them at 5.5 wins). Either way, I think the Browns can get to 7 wins, if not 8 or 9.
Ultimately I see the Steelers winning this division in a close battle with Cincinatti, with the Bengals earning the 5th-seeded top Wild Card spot. Baltimore, and possibly even Cleveland too, will likely flirt around that 7-9 to 9-7 zone jockeying for tiebreaker status over other Wild Card hopefuls like the Colts, Chiefs, and Dolphins.