The connection between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown will be paramount towards Pittsburgh’s quest to regain the AFC North title
The Pittsburgh Steelers are favorites to win the AFC North but their matchups vs. the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens are still going to provide great challenges. Meanwhile in Cleveland, the Browns are preparing to roll out of the tunnel with their 25th starting quarterback since re-entering the league in 1999. Providing, that is, that Robert Griffin III can make it through the rest of preseason unscathed.
ODDS TO WIN AFC NORTH (Now & Then)
Here is each team’s current odds to win the division along with their previously posted odds from early June, in parentheses.
In my first and hopefully only post-Olympics reference, the Steelers season is shaping up like a steeplechase. Long, arduous and full of obstacles that will be tough to navigate even though Mike Tomlin can see them coming.
The first is a suspension to RB Le’Veon Bell, recently reduced to three games by Lord Goodell. Second is a year-long ban to WR Martavis Bryant. Third is the potential suspension to LB James Harrison, pending his chats with the league regarding a recent Al-Jazeera’s steroid report.
Now for the unknowns. Ben Roethlisberger is a stud and he posted huge numbers in 2015, leading the league with 328 PYPG. He also suffered knee, foot, shoulder and head injuries that ended his modest streak of 16-game seasons at two. Ben has only played complete seasons three of 12 times in his career. He gets good pass protection but he’s also a year older.
The next question involves Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton. Both look good but with Antonio Brown facing so many doubles, Pittsburgh needs these two to be great. Speaking of pass catchers, it’s worth monitoring the tight end situation in Steel Town. Ladarius Green (head; ankle) is hurting and the depth chart beyond him is unproven.
Especially considering the fact that Andy Dalton and AJ Green are starting the season at 100-percent, there has never been so much talk about the Bengals No. 2 wide receiver position. In a typical ‘sky is falling’ type of slant, there is a mass of NFL pundits that seem increasingly worried about who Dalton will throw to now that Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) and Marvin Jones (Lions) have moved on.
Brandon LaFell was considered the first option before Bengals second round pick Tyler Boyd’s fantastic preseason. Tyler Eifert, Dalton’s favorite red zone target, is on pace recovering from ankle surgery to repair an injury suffered at the Pro Bowl. Cinci also has a top 10 O-Line and two solid backs in Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. A change at O-Co seems like a more legitimate concern but HC Lewis didn’t find Ken Zampese walking down the street. The guy has been working alongside Dalton for five years since scouting him out of TCU.
This team has a good schedule (after a tough start) and should be in great position to take on the Steelers, Texans and Ravens in their final three games to challenge for the division.
The Ravens are coming off their worst season since 2007 (5-11 SU) and they didn’t make any friends with Joe Pub, either, going just 1-6-1 ATS as chalk. Meanwhile, early odds show them as faves or ‘Pick’ in each of their first five-straight contests. Go figure.
There isn’t enough room here to list all of Baltimore’s key injuries from 2015, but with a little more luck in that department we should expect this team to finish on the right side of more close games. The Ravens (7) tied with Chicago last season for most games decided by three points or less.
Here’s the thing, though. Baltimore is only 21-20 SU and 15-23-3 ATS during regular season games under HC John Harbaugh decided by tight margins. They’ve got a good schedule this year but this roster doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. 8-8 SU seems optimistic and unless we’re getting points, Baltimore will be a pass or fade.
The Browns’ first possession during their preseason game vs. the Packers featured a 49-yard connection between RG3 and Terrelle Pryor, a fumble behind the line of scrimmage and finally an interception at the Green Bay one-yard line. Throw in the special teams penalty that preceded Cleveland’s possession and we’ve pretty much seen a nutshell version of what HC Hue Jackson’s first season could turn into.
Sure, the Browns could pull a few upsets, perhaps win a game or two straight-up vs. the division, but the odds of this team challenging for a playoff spot are long for a reason. 10 to 1 (“No”), to be exact.