The AFC North was one of the strongest divisions in football last season, boasting three teams with 11 or more wins. The Bengals lost their quarterback for a chunk of the season, so we’ll give them a pass for being reverted to the punching bag. The other three–Steelers, Ravens, and Browns–carried the load in leading the division to more collective wins (38) than any other.
Though nothing stays entirely consistent from year to year in the NFL, it’s safe to say that expectations for the AFC North as a whole remain pretty lofty heading into the 2021 season. However, one significant hindrance could be a stout strength of schedule for each team in the division. With all four AFC North squads checking in among the top nine in SOS based on the 2020 records of their opponents, the cream must truly rise to the top of this hard-nosed, rivalry-rich division.
For this article, we scoured DraftKings and FanDuel to find our favorite win total odds at the respective sportsbooks for each of the AFC North teams.
Here are my picks for the AFC North’s win totals.
Compare odds from all major sportsbooks for the AFC North Champion >>
Over 11.0 wins: +100 (DraftKings Sportsbook)
Under 11.0 wins: -120 (DraftKings Sportsbook)
The Baltimore Ravens are a well-oiled machine. The defensive unit is consistently one of the best in the NFL, a statement that remained true in 2020 when the Ravens trailed only the Rams in allowing just 18.9 points per game. The Baltimore D was stingy with the yardage, too, permitting the seventh-fewest yards of total offense among NFL defenses.
Their prowess on defense blended brilliantly with a potent ball-control offense that churned out the league’s top rushing attack by a margin of nearly 400 yards more than the output of the second-best team. Lamar Jackson endured some growing pains as a passer last season–the Ravens totaled the lowest passing yardage total in the league–but he led his team to an impeccable execution of its intended game plan en route to an 11-5 campaign.
Though Mark Ingram has departed the offense, look for the Ravens to lean heavily on their run game behind Jackson and the anticipated backfield of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Further progression for Jackson’s consistency through the air could give the Ravens a more balanced look–adding Sammy Watkins and first-round pick Rashod Bateman could help in that department. But hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s conceivable that the Ravens’ potent defense would take a step back after Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon signed elsewhere in the off-season. Given Baltimore’s track record on this side of the ball, however, the unit should once again be among the league’s best in 2021. Mix it with another year of Lamar Jackson doing Lamar Jackson things, and the Ravens should be among the best teams in the entire AFC, with a 12-5 record certainly within reach.
PICK: Over 11.0 wins (+100 at DraftKings Sportsbook)
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Medium
Over 10.5 wins: -105 (FanDuel Sportsbook)
Under 10.5 wins: -115 (FanDuel Sportsbook)
The Cleveland Browns fell short of reaching the AFC Championship Game last season, falling 22-17 to the Chiefs in the playoff game that would have sent them there. Behind the strength of their tremendous running game, the Browns’ return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 NFL season was a cathartic experience for the team and its fans. They trounced the rival Steelers with an offensive explosion on Wild Card Weekend. They also enjoyed this glorious ride without the benefit of a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., though some have argued his injury was a blessing in disguise for the chemistry of the Baker Mayfield-led offense. Odell will be back in the lineup for the Browns this season. The impact of his re-insertion may honestly pale compared to the moves the team made this off-season on the defensive side of the ball.
Cleveland plundered the sturdy secondary of the Los Angeles Rams, coming away with Troy Hill and John Johnson in free agency. Those additions should bolster a Browns defense that possessed quality athletes but suffered from inconsistent performances a year ago. A strengthened defense to complement the return of the two-headed backfield monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should put the Browns in a position to play their preferred style more regularly this season.
The problem could be the schedule. Across the board, AFC North teams are due to face notoriously difficult slates in 2021, although the Browns have several games that feel like gimmes on their schedule. You can go ahead and chalk up home dates against the Texans and Lions as wins before the season even begins.
Games within the division, however, are going to be pretty difficult. The AFC North has a chance to be a respectable division, top to bottom, in 2021. With Joe Burrow back from injury, the Bengals should elevate beyond pushover territory. A rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger could put the defending AFC North champion Steelers back in position for a quality campaign, even if it does not lead back to the postseason for Pittsburgh. It feels as though the Browns’ chances to retain a perch near the top of the AFC North table will be tied heavily to their ability to push around the Steelers and Bengals with regularity.
With an extra game on the schedule in 2021, the Browns could absolutely climb back into a double-digit win total. The path to more than 10 wins is too uncertain to wager the over 10.0 wins at DraftKings given the massive vig (-150). At FanDuel, the line is O/U 10.5, with more reasonable juice on either side. If you’re a fervent Browns doubter, I recommend DraftKings for this play. There you can bet Under 10.0 wins at a cool +125.
I’m not in that camp, as I actually think the Browns have built a pretty solid team. Nevertheless, I’m wary enough of the schedule to lean every-so-narrowly toward the Under 10.5 for this one.
PICK: Under 10.5 wins (-115 FanDuel Sportsbook)
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Medium
Over 8.5 wins: -115 (FanDuel Sportsbook)
Under 8.5 wins: +115 (DraftKings Sportsbook)
The consensus on the Steelers heading into the 2021 season includes lowered expectations across the board. On an almost universal basis, the defending champions of the AFC North are being counted out by the public before training camp even begins.
I understand the skepticism of the notion that offseason elbow surgery will somehow elevate Ben Roethlisberger back into prime form at age 39. He led an offense that was frequently frustrating to watch last season. Though the Steelers rattled off 11 straight wins to start the season, they cratered toward the end, dropping five of their last six before being bounced by a division rival in the opening round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh ranked in the top 12 in the NFL in points per game, but their path toward that achievement doesn’t seem repeatable if they replicate last year’s 25th-ranked finish in total offense during the upcoming campaign.
Despite a 12-win season providing the illusion of a thriving unit, those wins came primarily thanks to the third-ranked defense in the NFL. This year, something has to change for the offense. If a more competent Big Ben can be that difference on any level, the reports of the demise of the Pittsburgh Steelers may have been greatly exaggerated.
Though questions across the offensive line don’t lend confidence to the notion that Big Ben will stay upright for the duration of the upcoming season, this is a group with talent at the skill positions. The addition of Alabama standout Najee Harris gives Pittsburgh its most capable backfield weapon since Le’Veon Bell. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool form a wide-receiver trio teeming with play-making potential.
There’s a world in which the talent wins out and hits on its potential to guide the Steelers to another division title in 2021. Based on 2020 records, though, the Steelers are stuck with the most daunting schedule in the league this season. Losing tends to beget more losing. When wins prove more difficult to come by against a schedule littered with playoff-caliber opponents, the likely result is a dash of turmoil and a sub-.500 season in the Steel City.
PICK: Under 8.5 wins (-115 at FanDuel Sportsbook)
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Low
Over 6.5 wins: +120 (FanDuel Sportsbook)
Under 6.5 wins: -130 (DraftKings Sportsbook)
Is it time for Joe Burrow to save the Cincinnati Bengals?
The former LSU standout should return for Week 1 following a devastating knee injury that robbed him of the second half of his rookie season in 2020. Behind a pitiful offensive line, Burrow was under siege for much of his 10 starts for the Bengals last season; though efforts to improve his protective unit were made this off-season, the impact of the team’s moves remains to be seen. Pro Football Focus ranks the Bengals offensive line at 24th in the NFL heading into the season.
Cincinnati might be asking a lot of second-round lineman Jackson Carman. He’s the lineman that became the fallback upgrade after the Bengals couldn’t resist Burrow’s college teammate Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick of the draft. Penei Sewell might have been a more prudent selection with that pick. Still, you’ve got to admire the gumption to add to Burrow’s receiving corps in such a flashy way. Chase will join Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to form a legitimately threatening trio of wide receivers for a Bengals team that will likely need to take to the air with some frequency, given the team’s recent struggles defensively.
The Bengals finished toward the bottom of the league in scoring defense and total yardage in 2020, but it’s hard to judge their efforts post-Burrow injury and hope to glean anything substantive about what those games mean for their upcoming campaign. The 2021 season should be an important one for head coach Zac Taylor. In his first two years at the helm in Cincy, he has limped to a 6-25-1 record.
I believe in Taylor’s vision for the offense. He has had ample opportunity to surround his franchise quarterback with the pieces necessary for excellence. Expectations are low for the Bengals relative to the division, but the opportunity for Burrow to ball out with legitimate pieces around him could inspire new excitement for the organization. Don’t forget about Joe Mixon, whose return to the lineup would be another major boost for the Bengals after playing just six games a season ago.
I’m not sporting an orange and black tin foil hat, but I view the line on Cincinnati’s win total as too low given the upside that resides within the offense amid the addition of a 17th game to the schedule. Cincy could lose double-digit games this season and still find a way to clear the over on this total.
PICK: Over 6.5 wins (+120 at FanDuel Sportsbook)
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Medium
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