There’s no doubt which team is most hyped coming into the 2019 NFL season. Despite a 1-31 combined record in 2016 and 2017, the Cleveland Browns turnaround over the second half of the 2018 season has made this team the favorite to win the AFC North. Cleveland has only made the playoffs once (in 2002) since re-entering the NFL, but that’s no matter to those aboard the hype train. That’s good news for sharps, as there is plenty of value on the three other teams in the division with everyone loving the Browns.
2019 AFC North Odds
Cleveland Browns +144
Pittsburgh Steelers +171
Baltimore Ravens +280
Cincinnati Bengals +2350
What a difference a quarterback makes. After being pilloried for taking Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft, the Browns are the favorites to win the AFC North in 2019. Mayfield showed flashes of being an elite quarterback as the season went off, and his stats were surprisingly impressive for a rookie quarterback.
Kudos to the team for giving him some playmakers too. The Browns traded for Jarvis Landry before the start of the season, and Mayfield found him often. Now, Landry will have former LSU teammate Odell Beckham Jr. alongside of him to give the Browns one of the most talented receiving corps in the league.
The Browns defense has the potential to be good with a defensive line that includes Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon, and they continue to try to shore up the secondary. However, there are major questions in the linebacking corps and along the offensive line. While I think the Browns will be improved, I see this team maxing out at eight or nine wins.
Everyone is keen to write off Pittsburgh after a tumultuous offseason that saw Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown leave the team, but the Steelers are still the team to beat in this division. They have the best quarterback in the AFC North in Ben Roethlisberger, and they still have an elite receiver in Juju Smith-Schuster. James Washington is an incredible deep ball threat, and James Conner acquitted himself very well in place of Le’Veon Bell last season. Benny Snell Jr. gives the running back position depth, but the offensive line has to stay healthy. David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva are all Pro Bowl caliber players, but they have battled injury.
The defense must improve after an uncharacteristic down year in 2019. The linebacking corps is loaded with talent as first round picks TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, and Devin Bush populate the unit, and the defensive line is stout. Cornerback is the big issue for this team. Joe Haden has lost a step, and there isn’t a quality second cornerback on the team. The safeties are promising, but the corners have to play well.
Baltimore is set to see what it has with Lamar Jackson. Jackson might not be much of a passer, but he is the most dynamic runner the quarterback position has seen since Michael Vick. John Harbaugh has said that the Ravens will tailor their offense more to Jackson’s unique skillset, so this team will be fascinating to watch. In the draft, they selected playmakers like Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and Justice Hill, and they are likely to use back-up quarterback Trace McSorley in interesting ways too.
For the first time in what seems like forever, there is reason to worry about the Ravens defense though. Baltimore allowed the least points in the AFC last season, but three of their best players from last year are gone. CJ Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Za’Darius Smith all left in free agency, and replacing arguably the three best players from last year’s defense is an enormous challenge. There are too many variables for me to back Baltimore at this price, but if the Ravens climb to +400, that is a bet to consider.
Marvin Lewis was finally replaced by the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, and he was replaced by former Rams assistant Zac Taylor. Taylor is a relative neophyte to the coaching ranks, spending just one year as a coordinator prior to being named head coach. Rams assistants have been very popular with the success of Sean McVay, but the oddsmakers are very skeptical that he can turn the team around.
There is talent on both sides of the ball, and the right coach with the right system could make this team a winner quickly. I’m not too high on Taylor, but the Bengals have some value at these long odds.
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