AFC North Predictions: Can Steelers Repeat As Divisional Champions?

profile image of Nikki.Adams
Steelers . Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images/AFP

The AFC North sets up as one of the most competitive division in NFL betting markets.

The AFC North collectively enjoyed a solid 2020 season, sending three teams (all with double-digit seasons) into the playoffs— the highest number of representatives of any division in the postseason. Although their sojourn into the playoffs was short-lived—divisional champions Pittsburgh Steelers were sent packing prematurely in the wildcard round (l. to Browns) and the Baltimore Ravens (l. to Bills) and Cleveland Browns (l. Chiefs) went only as far as the second round—it nevertheless set the bar high for all three teams and their expectations for the ensuing season. It’s fair to say that in the NFL, teams are only ever as good as their next game, the next season, the next playoffs. The past is the past, so to speak.

And yet, by virtue of previous performance and/or any success (or lack thereof), odds makers workout certain expectations in the form of NFL futures and odds, which they then release as soon as the curtain comes down on the previous season. To look at the 2021 NFL odds board is to see that the Steelers, Ravens and Browns are held in high regard, amongst some of the top bets to win SBLVI even. That competitive outlook extends through to the AFC Conference and into the AFC North division itself where the triplet are trading on tight odds that offer little wiggle room.

AFC North Odds to Win Courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook (April 29, 2021)

  • Baltimore Ravens +130
  • Cleveland Browns +150
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +340
  • Cincinnati Bengals +2600

Aside from the Cincinnati Bengals, who are the quintessential longshots, the Ravens, Browns or Steelers are therefore competitive bets that offer lots of value in this market. Now, it’s worth noting that these are early NFL odds. The NFL schedule is yet to be released; the 2021 NFL draft is yet to be complete; and any final trades or moves that teams may have up their sleeves before preseason gets underway are yet to happen. Nevertheless, bettors have an idea of where each team stacks up in the context of NFL betting. And as far as the AFC North is concerned, the section sets up in a most intriguing manner as a matter of fact. By the aforementioned odds, it’s clear that the Steelers aren’t expected to replicate their standout season that resulted in title winning 12-4 SU mark. Shockingly though, they’ve been pushed down the pecking order into third place.

The Ravens are tipped as the top bet to reclaim the divisional crown followed by the Browns who gained a lot of respect in 2020 after finishing on an 11-5-0 SU mark to rival Baltimore. In the meanwhile, Joe Burrow had an impressive rookie season that was cut short. The Steelers burst out of the gates and won 11 straight games before suffering their first setback last season. It proved to be more than a storm in a teacup though, as the Steelers lost four of their last five games and then bowed out of the playoffs in the first round to their divisional rivals. The Steelers defense, while one of the best in the league, simply crumbled with the weight of expectation in the final weeks and the offense failed to make up the difference. Then again, one could argue that the Steelers ran out of steam ultimately. They were one of the most affected teams by the coronavirus pandemic protocols, having their games rescheduled several times and their bye week disrupted. Perhaps, it was all too much and it caught up with them.

If the Steelers come out with the same verve and swagger that they started their 2020 campaign with, they’re going to be tough to beat. They have a solid foundation clearly, one that they can build up from in the offseason. Fact: Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record in his career as the Steelers head coach. The Ravens were the dream team of the 2019 season, but last year they were anything but. They were found wanting by the league’s best, and they only just scraped into the playoffs by taking advantage of a weak schedule down the stretch. By the stats, the Ravens finished on an impressive 11-5-0 record. However, upon closer inspection, the 11 wins came at the expense of lesser opponents. Otherwise, the Ravens were swept by the Steelers, outclassed by the Chiefs, and upset by the Patriots and Titans.

Importantly, the last five games of the season were season-defining. The Ravens were merely 6-5 SU going into week 13 and their season was in real danger of imploding. As luck would have it, the Ravens played merely one team with a winning record (Cleveland), while the rest featured the Cowboys, Jaguars, Giants and Bengals – all teams that were practically done and done.. Had level of difficulty been greater with stiffer opposition down the stretch, the Ravens may have been hard-pressed to finish on a double-digit season. The main knockback against the Ravens last year was their one-dimensional offense. Lamar Jackson’s passing game needs to improve significantly in 2021 because teams have figured out how to limit his effectiveness on the ground. If the Ravens don’t learn the lessons of 2020, they’ll be in for a much tougher season than the NFL odds would seem to suggest.

The Cleveland Browns proved to be the surprise package of the AFC North as they finished on an impressive 11-5-0 SU mark in Kevin Stefanski’s first season as the head coach. There’s a lot of buzz and excitement surrounding the Browns, with many expecting further improvements as the team enters its second year with Stefanski. However, it remains to be seen whether they can live up to those expectations. Often the pressure can prove too great to handle.

How Baker Mayfield holds up remains to be seen. He is still a relatively untried and untested quarterback entering his fourth year in the league. For the first time in his NFL career, he’s coming off a winning season. Moreover, he crossed a milestone for Cleveland by leading the team into the second round of the playoffs. Setting the benchmark so, Mayfield’s upcoming campaign will be measured against his results in 2020. That puts unduly pressure on a young signal caller which few learn to handle at a young age.

Finally, the Bengals are a work in progress and quite rightly the longshot NFL pick of the group. Ideally, Joe Burrow and the Bengals will take a concentrated step forward, but this is a tough division within which to make gains and they’ll be getting no favours.