2021 Betting Review: AFC North

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2021 Betting Review: AFC North

I wanted to do quick-hitting postmortem reports on every team since I spent so much time this summer breaking down all 32 franchises from a betting perspective for the 2021 season. It’s a good way for me to put a bow on the season that just finished while also getting a leg up on my early research for the 2022 season.

AFC North Reviews

1. Cincinnati Bengals

  • Record (ATS): 13-8 (14-7)

  • Season Win Total: 6.5 (over)

  • One-score Record: 4-5 (3-1 postseason)

  • AFC Odds: +8000

  • Division Odds: +2500

  • Playoff Odds: +450

  • Over/Under record: 8-13

  • PPG: 27.1 (t7th)

  • PPG Allowed: 22.1 (17th)

  • Point Differential: +84 (8th)

Season Review

Cincinnati opened 2021 tied with the Jets with the third-longest odds to win Super Bowl LVI at 150/1, ahead of only the Lions (250/1) and Texans (300/1). They ended 2021 as the Super Bowl runner-ups, finishing just a few plays short of winning a championship. The Bengals tied the 1999 St. Louis Rams as the deepest long shots to reach the Super Bowl but that same franchise ended Cincinnati’s hopes of raising its first Lombardi Trophy. The Bengals won postseason games when they trailed the Chiefs by 18 points and when Joe Burrow was sacked nine times against the Titans, but their good fortune ran out in Super Bowl LVI. They still won the AFC title (+8000) by tying the 2006 Indianapolis Colts for the largest comeback in AFC Championship Game history — Peyton Manning overcame an identical 21-3 deficit against Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Bengals limited the Chiefs to just three points on their final eight possessions in the conference championship after Patrick Mahomes threw for touchdowns on their first three drives.

The young Bengals captured their first winning season, their first playoff appearance, and their first AFC North title since. They were the only non-favorites to win a division title at a whopping +2500 odds. HC Zac Taylor owned just six wins through his first two seasons, but the Bengals reached 10 victories in his third season to exceed their season win total by 3.5 victories, which was the most in the league. They kept on winning once they reached the postseason, ending the NFL’s longest drought without a playoff victory, which dated back to the 1990 Boomer Esiason-led Bengals. Cincinnati is finally moving in the right direction again thanks to their latest star quarterback, who became the first QB drafted first overall to reach the Super Bowl in his first two seasons.

Burrow missed the final six games of his rookie season after shredding his ACL and MCL, but he rebounded to lead the league in completion percentage (70.4%) and YPA (8.9) in his second season, which helped him to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award (+600). The Bengals surrounded Burrow with one of the league’s most exciting young skill groups after they selected his LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick. Chase’s early-career trajectory has him on pace to be one of the all-time great wide receivers based on his college resume, his pre-draft testing, and his performance in his first season. He broke Chad Johnson’s single-season team record and Justin Jefferson’s Super Bowl era rookie record with 1455 receiving yards, which propelled him to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award (+2000).

What to look for this off-season

The typically thrifty Bengals went against expectations by wisely spending in free agency last off-season, which sped up their quick turnaround in Burrow’s first two seasons. Most of their spending came on the defensive side of the ball, and they reshaped that unit in one off-season by landing Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Larry Ogunjobi. The Bengals are once again flush with cap space this off-season, and they have just a few priority free agents in Jessie Bates, C.J. Uzomah, Riley Reiff, Eli Apple, and Ogunjobi. The Bengals have every reason to be aggressive in free agency for the second straight off-season, and the one-time NFL doormat should be an attractive destination with their young offensive core. The Bengals must do everything in their power to keep Burrow from being eligible to win another Comeback Player of the Year Award. He absorbed an absurd 70 sacks in 21 games last season, which was the third-most sacks taken in one season behind only Randall Cunningham in 1986 (72) and David Carr in 2002 (76). Cincinnati needs to make runs at the likes of Terron Armstead and Brandon Scherff in free agency and they need to use their picks in the first two days of the NFL Draft to revamp its offensive line, which is the clear top weakness that needs to be addressed.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Record (ATS): 9-8-1 (8-10)
  • Season Win Total: 8.5 (over)
  • One-score Record: 8-2-1
  • Playoff Odds: +160
  • Over/Under record: 6-11
  • PPG: 20.2 (21st)
  • PPG Allowed: 23.4 (20th)
  • Point Differential: -55 (22nd)

Season Review

The Steelers reached nine wins and the AFC playoffs using smoke and mirrors for much of the season with their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, clearly in the final stages of his career. Only the Raiders owned a worse point differential than the Steelers among the 14 teams that qualified for the postseason. Pittsburgh beat extremely long odds in the final week of the season just to reach the playoffs. A parlay on the Steelers to beat the Ravens (+150) and the Jaguars to beat the Colts (+750) in Week 18 paid out at +1900 odds. They then needed the Raiders and Chargers to avoid a tie in the final regular-season game, which looked bound to happen after both teams made field goals to start overtime. It was a minor miracle for this offense to reach the postseason with Big Ben averaging a career-worst 6.2 YPA, which was better than just Zach Wilson (6.1) and Trevor Lawrence (6.0).

The Steelers made the playoffs for the 10th time in Mike Tomlin’s 15 years as head coach, and they extended their NFL-best streak without a losing record to 18 seasons — the Chiefs are the next closest at nine seasons. Roethlisberger faced the biggest point spread (+12) of his career in his final game, and the Chiefs easily dispatched the overmatched Steelers 42-21 in the Wild Card Round. They experienced a three-win dropoff from 2020, but they finished in the top half of the AFC North for the ninth consecutive season. T.J. Watt earned his third consecutive first-team All-Pro honor and he took home the Defensive Player of the Year Award (+825) for tying Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22.5 sacks in just 15 games.

What to look for this off-season

Pittsburgh is entering an off-season of change like they haven’t experienced since they transitioned from Bill Cowher to Tomlin before the 2007 season. Not only will the Steelers be looking for a new quarterback for the first time since 2004, but Teryl Austin will be taking over as the defensive coordinator with Keith Butler retiring after seven seasons. Kevin Colbert will also be stepping aside after the NFL Draft after 12 seasons as the team’s general manager. The Steelers will look to avoid their first losing season since the one that enabled them to draft Roethlisberger back in 2004, and finding a suitable replacement for Big Ben will be key in continuing their streak.

Mason Rudolph is the +225 favorite to be Pittsburgh’s Week 1 starter next season, but they could use the 20th overall pick on a quarterback or they could test the trade market for Roethlisberger’s replacement. Pittsburgh needs to upgrade its weak offensive line for whoever they tap to play quarterback next season, and they’ll have some cap space to make some moves with Roethlisberger’s contract off the books. CB Joe Haden and slot WR JuJu Smith-Schuster are the biggest free agents who they’ll be looking to retain this off-season. Pittsburgh’s defensive line had a massive hole in it this season with DE Stephon Tuitt sitting out the whole season for personal reasons, and the franchise would love to have him back playing next to Cam Heyward in 2022.

3. Cleveland Browns

  • Record (ATS): 8-9 (7-10)
  • Season Win Total: 10.5 (under)
  • One-score Record: 5-6
  • Missed Playoff Odds: +200
  • Over/Under record: 7-10
  • PPG: 20.5 (20th)
  • PPG Allowed: 21.8 (t13th)
  • Point Differential: -22 (20th)

Season Review

The Browns entered 2021 with sky-high expectations after they had their finest season since returning to the NFL ranks as an expansion team in 1999. In 2020, the Browns won double-digit games for the first time since 2007 and they ended their league-worst 17-year playoff drought with their first postseason berth since 2002. Cleveland also won its first playoff game since Bill Belichick coached the franchise in 1994, which helped Kevin Stefanski bring home Coach of the Year honors. However, the Browns became just the second team in the Super Bowl era to reach 11 victories with a negative point differential (-11). The 2021 Browns couldn’t maintain their 7-2 record in one-score games from the year before as they fell to 5-6 in those contests this season, which contributed to their three-win dropoff.

Cleveland’s season began to unravel quickly starting in Week 2 when Baker Mayfield tore his labrum and fractured his non-throwing shoulder making a tackle on a return of one of his interceptions. Mayfield threw for a career-worst 17 TDs, he averaged a miserable 6.6 YPA, and he finished with 13 INTs, which was the third time in four seasons he threw 13+ INTs. Mayfield played terribly through his shoulder injury and he didn’t get much help from the skill players around him. Odell Beckham forced his way out of Cleveland after two and a half mostly disappointing seasons playing with Mayfield. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb also combined to play in just seven games together, which left the offense lacking firepower in the second half of the season. The Browns still had the best guard tandem in the league with Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller earning All-Pro honors, and Myles Garrett finished third in sacks with 16. Cleveland also nailed its first two picks in the NFL Draft with CB Greg Newsome and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah earning All-Rookie honors.

What to look for this off-season

The Browns could test the waters for a potential upgrade at quarterback, but they’ll most likely be stuck with Baker heading into the final year of his rookie contract at $18.9 million. GM Andrew Berry said in mid-January that Baker would be the team’s starter in 2022 so it would likely take a blockbuster deal to change that outlook. The Browns should certainly explore bringing in a high-end backup to apply some pressure to Baker and to provide a fallback plan if his play begins to resemble his performance from 2021. The best-case scenario is that he returns to his 2020 form after undergoing shoulder surgery in mid-January, which will sideline him for 4-6 months.

Right tackle Jack Conklin will also be returning from a major injury next season after rupturing his patella tendon in early December, and he’ll be in a race to be ready for the start of the 2022 season. The Browns still have a roster loaded with talent to quickly get back into contention this season, but they desperately need to infuse more WR talent into their roster through free agency and/or the draft. Cleveland also needs to decide if they’ll bring back some of their top free agents like DE Jadeveon Clowney and TE David Njoku.

4. Baltimore Ravens

  • Record (ATS): 8-9 (8-9)
  • Season Win Total: 11 (under)
  • One-score Record: 6-6
  • Missed Playoff Odds: +240
  • Over/Under record: 8-9
  • PPG: 22.8 (17th)
  • PPG Allowed: 23.1 (19th)
  • Point Differential: -5 (19th)

Season Review

The Ravens had a season from hell with injuries galore derailing them at every turn, starting with RB J.K. Dobbins (ACL), CB Marcus Peters (ACL), RB Gus Edwards (ACL), and RB Justice Hill (Achilles) all going down with season-ending injuries in a 16-day period before the season started. The injuries continued into the season with LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), S DeShon Elliott (pec), DE Derek Wolfe (back), CB Marlon Humphrey (pec), and RG Tyre Phillips (knee) eventually joining them on the injured reserve. Baltimore kept their season afloat with an 8-3 start to the season, but the worm turned when the Steelers beat them in Week 13 when Lamar Jackson failed to hit an open Mark Andrews for a game-winning two-point play with the Ravens trailing by a point with 12 seconds remaining. Lamar injured his ankle early the next week against the Browns and he never appeared in another game. The Ravens wouldn’t win another game the rest of the way, losing six straight games and experiencing a three-win dropoff from the 2020 season. All in all, the Ravens cycled through 75 players, 45 different starters, and they finished with a league-high 19 players on injured reserve.

Baltimore missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017, they ended with their first losing season since 2015, and they finished in last place in the AFC North for the first time since 2007. The Ravens didn’t have a totally lost season as they stayed in contention until the season finale despite their rash of injuries. Justin Tucker provided one of the NFL’s most dramatic game-ending field goals of all time, drilling an NFL-record 66-yard kick as time expired for a two-point victory over the Lions in Week 3. Baltimore tied the 1974-77 Steelers for the most consecutive games with 100+ rushing yards at 43 — the Ravens started their streak in 2018. Travis Kelce’s run of three straight seasons as fantasy’s TE1 came to an end at the hands of Andrews, who averaged 17.7 FPG. Andrews crushed his previous career-bests nearly across the board (except TDs) in his fourth season, finishing with 107/1361/9 receiving on 153 targets and he finished the season with 6+ catches and 85+ yards in his final five games without Lamar.

What to look for this off-season

Baltimore still owns one of the league’s best rosters when at full strength, and the top priority for the Ravens this off-season is to get healthy across the board after an injury-riddled campaign. Baltimore will look to rebuild its defense after its first down year under Wink Martindale, and they’ll be doing it under new DC Mike Macdonald after the Ravens unceremoniously fired Martindale in January. He led the NFL’s best defenses in his first three seasons, with the Ravens allowing the fewest points per game (18.2) and the fewest yards per game (307.8) while tying for the most defensive touchdowns (12) during 2018-20. His undermanned defense allowed the 14th-most points per game (23.1) and the ninth-most yards per game (363.4) last season.

HC Jim Harbaugh opted to bring in some young blood in Macdonald, who cut his teeth with the Ravens in 2014-20 before running John Harbaugh’s defense for a season in Michigan’s run to the College Football Playoff. Macdonald, 34, promises to be a little more flexible with his play-calling after Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme got exposed with lesser talent last season. The Ravens have big decisions to make along their defensive line with DE Calais Campbell and DT Brandon Williams heading to free agency in their mid-30s. Lamar is heading into the final year of his rookie contract with the Ravens this season, and their contract extension talks will dominate the storyline coming out of Baltimore this off-season.

Tom is a Senior Writer at Fantasy Points who specializes in fantasy and betting analysis. He’ll be helping you to navigate the waiver wire and manage your fantasy teams while also keeping our betting content robust all year long, especially during the season. Tom's Best Bets against the spread won at 61.5% clip in 2019 and he was a perfect 8-0 on his Best Bets for season win totals in 2020.

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