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2020 Betting Review: AFC North

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2020 Betting Review: AFC North

I wanted to do quick-hitting postmortem reports on every team since I spent so much time — and about 2000 words — breaking down all 32 franchises from a betting perspective this summer. These articles also gave me a chance to do a full accounting of all my off-season/preseason Best Bets. Here were the overall results for my NFL Futures with individual results for each NFC East team below.

NFL Futures

For a full rundown of my NFL Futures from the off-season/preseason click here.

  • OVERALL BEST BETS — 27-27 (+15.51 units)

  • Season Wins — 8-0 (+11.98 units)

  • Season Player Props — 7-8 (-2.47 units)

  • Season Futures — 4-11 (+1.91 units)

  • Draft Props — 8-7 (+4.09 units)

  • Every Team Season Wins — 20-12 (62.5%)

AFC North Reviews

*Playoff team*

1. *Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 10-6 ATS)*

  • Division Odds: +300

  • Playoff Odds: -155

  • Best Bets: Diontae Johnson over 775.5 receiving yards (win, +1.82 units, 923 yards)

  • Leans: Over nine wins (win, 12-4)

What went right

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the lineup after missing the final 14 games of 2019 with a throwing elbow injury, which required surgery to reattach three flexor tendons in his right elbow. The Steelers got off to a franchise-best 11-0 start to the season with a healthy Big Ben owning a 25-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio. Their defense also limited opponents to just 14.9 points per game through the first three months of the season. Overall, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed the third-fewest yards per game (310.8) and the fifth-fewest points per game (21.2). They also led the league with 56 sacks with T.J. Watt pacing the defense with a career-best 15 sacks. The Steelers found another Day Two gem at wide receiver in Chase Claypool, who became the first rookie in the post-merger era to score 10 touchdowns in his first 10 games.

What went wrong

The Steelers went from winning their first 11 games to open 2020 to losing five of their final six games to flame out of the playoffs in the opening round. Pittsburgh’s loss in the Wild Card Round also came at the hands of the Browns, their hated rival, who were making their first playoff appearance since 2002. The Steelers fell behind by an NFL-playoff record 28-0 deficit in the first quarter while Big Ben threw four interceptions in the embarrassing 48-37 loss to the Browns. Roethlisberger’s arm strength diminished as the season went along and the offense became stale and predictable as they had no running game and limited intermediate-to-deep passing concepts. The defense also got ravaged in the second half of the season after a pair of blue-chip defenders in Devin Bush and Bud Dupree went down with ACL tears.

The game they stole

The Colts owned a 14-point halftime lead and a 91.2% win probability against the Steelers in Week 16 — the Colts outgained the Steelers 206-28 in the first half — before Pittsburgh staged an epic second-half comeback. Roethlisberger completed 23/29 passes for 243 yards (8.4 YPA) and three TDs in the second half while the Colts mustered just three points in the final 30 minutes in their 28-24 loss. The win wrapped up Pittsburgh’s first AFC North title since 2017 and Big Ben’s eighth division title in 17 seasons. The victory ended up being the only moment worth celebrating in the final six weeks of the season for the Steelers.

The game that got away

Pittsburgh’s hopes for a perfect regular season came to an end against Washington in Week 13 after the Steelers opened 2020 with an 11-0 record. The Steelers squandered a 14-point first half lead to fall 23-17 to the Football Team as six-point home favorites. Washington’s win probability didn’t creep above 50% until under five minutes remained in the game as Pittsburgh slowly let the Football Team back into the game. Roethlisberger averaged just 5.8 YPA while Pittsburgh’s running backs managed just 13/20 rushing (1.6 YPC). The Steelers’ loss to Washington was the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl aspirations as they lost five of their final six games after their perfect start to the year.

What to look for this off-season

Big Ben’s future looms heavily over the direction of this franchise not just for 2021 but for the next several seasons. He’s set to count for $41.2 million against the cap next season and they’d have little wiggle room against the cap with a bunch of important players heading toward free agency including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dupree, Mike Hilton, and Cam Sutton. If Roethlisberger would decide to retire, Pittsburgh would likely let Mason Rudolph be the starter next season while adding some veteran competition, but it appears likely that Big Ben will return as of late January. The Steelers would get one long look at Rudolph with an entire off-season to prepare for the season, and his cheap contract would help them to get the rest of their roster under control. The Steelers also need to start a youth movement along an offensive line that’s slowly deteriorated in the last two seasons, and they need to figure out what direction they’re going to go with James Conner, Benny Snell, and the rest of this backfield.

2. *Baltimore Ravens (11-5, 10-6 ATS)*

  • Playoff Odds: -900
  • Best Bets: Lamar Jackson under 975.5 rushing yards (loss, -1 unit, 1005 yards); J.K. Dobbins +2800 OROY (loss, -.25 units); Patrick Queen +1400 DROY (loss, -.25 units)
  • Leans: Under 11.5 wins (win, 11-5); Marquise Brown over 800.5 receiving yards (loss, 769 yards)

What went right

The Ravens had an extremely rocky 2020 campaign after their storybook 2019 regular season, which ended with a 14-2 record and Lamar Jackson winning the NFL MVP last season. The Ravens still set the pace for the league in rushing output as they led the NFL in rushing yards once again with 3071 yards. Lamar became the first quarterback to run for 1000 yards in consecutive seasons, and he vanquished some demons by winning his first postseason game after losing as a favorite in his first two playoff games in 2018-19. Baltimore was on the outside looking in at the playoffs through their first 11 games of the season with a 6-5 record, but they ripped off a five-game winning streak to grab the AFC’s top Wild Card spot.

What went wrong

The Ravens had a difficult season in many respects but they still finished with an 11-5 record. Baltimore’s issues started in late August when it cut one of the league’s better safeties, Earl Thomas, after he attacked teammate Chuck Clark — Thomas also had an off-the-field issue with his wife earlier in the off-season. Baltimore then lost one of the league’s best left tackles in Ronnie Stanley to a broken ankle in Week 8, which came just two days after he signed a massive extension with $70.9 million in guarantees. The Ravens then went on a three-game losing streak in Weeks 10-12, which coincided with one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks across all of professional sports. The losing stretch dropped them to 6-5 overall and it cost them a chance at another AFC North title. It also forced them to play on the road in the playoffs, which eventually bit them in the Divisional Round when Lamar suffered a concussion shortly after throwing a back-breaking pick-six in the red zone against the Bills.

The game they stole

The Ravens and the Browns produced the highest-scoring game of the season for a national TV audience in Week 14. The game featured seven lead changes and the two teams combined for nine rushing touchdowns, which was the most rushing scores in a game in the NFL’s post-merger era. Lamar left for a significant stretch of time as he felt under the weather — social media had a good time with the bathroom jokes that night — but he made a dramatic return after his backup, Trace McSorley, suffered a knee injury. On his first play back in the lineup, Jackson promptly hit Marquise Brown for a 44-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-2 play with under two minutes remaining in the game. The Browns tied the game just four plays later but Jackson responded again by moving the Ravens 38 yards to set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning 55-yard field goal. Jackson’s late-game heroics kept the Ravens on track to make the playoffs for the third straight season with Lamar at the helm.

The game that got away

The Titans continued to own the Ravens in their first meeting of the season in 2020 after they stunned Baltimore in last year’s Divisional Round. The Ravens owned an 11-point lead and a 91.7% win probability over the Titans midway through the third quarter in Week 11, but the Titans clawed back into the game with 14 unanswered points before Tucker sent the game to overtime with a 29-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in regulation. Derrick Henry won the game on a 29-yard touchdown run in overtime to give the Titans the outright victory as six-point road underdogs. The Ravens would ultimately avenge their losses to the Titans with their 20-13 victory in Nashville in the Wild Card Round to give Lamar his first postseason victory.

What to look for this off-season

The Ravens’ top priority this off-season is to acquire a true #1 perimeter WR if they want Lamar to continue to develop as a passer. The Cardinals and the Bills did it last off-season for Kyler Murray and Josh Allen when those franchises acquired DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs through trades, respectively. Free agent wide receivers like Allen Robinson and Corey Davis are at the top of the wishlists for any Ravens fan this off-season. The Ravens will have a difficult time keeping both EDGE defenders Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, who are both set to hit free agency this off-season. Baltimore also needs to upgrade the interior of their O-line after showing weaknesses inside after the retirement of Marshal Yanda last off-season.

3. *Cleveland Browns (11-5, 6-10 ATS)*

  • Playoff Odds: +100
  • Best Bets: None
  • Leans: Under 8.5 wins (loss, 11-5)

What went right

The Browns had their finest season since returning to the NFL ranks as an expansion team in 1999. First-year HC Kevin Stefanski led Cleveland to a five-win improvement from 2019 under one-and-done HC Freddie Kitchens. 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 2020. Cleveland also won their first playoff game since Bill Belichick coached the franchise in 1994, and they did it by scoring an NFL-record 28 points in the first quarter of the Wild Card Round against the rival Steelers. Baker Mayfield got his career back on track under Stefanski as threw for a career-high 26 touchdowns with just eight interceptions after throwing a combined 35 INTs in his first two seasons. Cleveland also had players like Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, and Wyatt Teller emerge as some of the best players at their respective positions.

What went wrong

The Browns became just the ninth team in the Super Bowl era to reach 10+ victories with a negative point differential, and they joined the 2012 Colts as the only 11-win team to have a negative point differential. The Browns had arguably the best pass rusher in the league in Garrett and their defense still struggled, especially in the secondary as they played without top draft picks Greedy Williams (shoulder) and Grant Delpit (Achilles) this season. Cleveland gave up the 11th-most points per game (26.6) and the sixth-most passing yards per game (265.4) despite their season-long stats being skewed more than any other team because of three nasty weather games in Weeks 8-11. Odell Beckham’s disappointing run in Cleveland continued as he tore his ACL seven games into the season. We’re now four years removed from his last special season with the Giants in 2016, and it wasn’t a great look that the offense took off after his departure for the season.

The game they stole

The Browns and the Bengals are headed toward plenty of shootouts in their rivalry going forward after these teams combined for 136 points in their two matchups in 2020. The lead changed six times in the second half when these teams met for the second time in Week 7, including five lead changes in the final 13 minutes. Rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones accounted for the last lead change with his 24-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left to give the Browns a 37-34 victory. Mayfield and Joe Burrow combined for 703 passing yards and eight touchdowns in the contest while Rashard Higgins stepped into a prominent role and posted 6/110 receiving after OBJ tore his ACL early in the game.

The game that got away

Entering the last two weeks of the season, the Browns had an outside shot at winning their first AFC North title in franchise history and their first division title since 1989. They squandered their opportunity by losing a bizarre game to the one-win Jets in Week 16. Cleveland played without their top four WRs (Jarvis Landry, Higgins, Peoples-Jones, and KhaDarel Hodge) because they were identified as high-risk contacts to someone with COVID-19. The Jets jumped out to a 17-point lead early in the third quarter and they rode out the Browns in a 23-16 victory. Mayfield needed 53 attempts to reach 285 passing yards (5.4 YPA) with 11 of his passes going to Ja’Marcus Bradley, who saw no other targets in 2020.

What to look for this off-season

The Browns have a strong roster foundation to compete at the top of the AFC for years to come, and they’ll be looking to lock up a couple of key pieces for years to come. Cleveland’s trio of 2018 first-round picks in Mayfield, Chubb, and Denzel Ward are each heading toward the fourth and final years of their rookie contracts and they’ll be looking for contract extensions starting this off-season. The Browns also need to bolster all three levels of their defense this off-season, and they need Williams and Delpit to get healthy this off-season to see if they can live up to their high draft capital to bolster their weak secondary.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1, 9-7 ATS)

  • Best Bets: Joe Burrow +400 OROY (loss, -1 unit)
  • Leans: Over 5.5 wins (loss, 4-11-1)

What went right

The Bengals owned the top overall pick in last year’s draft after going 2-14 in 2019. It was the first time they had the first overall pick since 2003 when they drafted Carson Palmer. Cincinnati selected LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the top pick in the draft, and he looked the part of a franchise quarterback before his season-ending injury 10 games into the season. Cincinnati may have found a long-time running mate for Burrow in the second-round in WR Tee Higgins, much like Andy Dalton had A.J. Green for his decade at quarterback for the Bengals. Higgins finished with 67/908/6 receiving as a rookie despite having a limited role early in the season and despite having the likes of Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley throwing him the rock in the final six games of the season.

What went wrong

The Bengals may have selected their franchise quarterback but they need to do a much better job of protecting their asset after he suffered a devastating knee injury against the Football Team in Week 11. Burrow averaged 45.3 dropbacks per game behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines, which is an extremely difficult spot to put any quarterback in, let alone a rookie QB. Burrow lost six games of development as a rookie and he’ll be spending his off-season rehabbing his knee back to full strength instead of developing other parts of his game.

Cincinnati saw just a two-win improvement from 2019 and they missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, and veterans Joe Mixon and A.J. Green were big reasons for the lack of improvement. The Bengals inked Mixon to a four-year, $48 million extension before the start of the season, but he played in just six games because of a foot injury. The Bengals medical staff mangled the situation — much like they did with Green in 2019 — as the team failed to place Mixon on the injured reserve until nearly five weeks after his initial injury. Green’s mostly prolific 11-year run in Cincinnati came to an end with a thud. Green didn’t have the same explosiveness he last displayed in 2018, and he appeared to be mailing it in on a number of his targets this season.

The game they stole

The Bengals went on an unexpected two-game winning streak in Weeks 15-16 when they beat the Steelers as two-touchdown home underdogs before knocking off the Texans the following week. Cincinnati scored 27 points in the second half to beat the Texans 37-31 in Week 16 as 7.5-point road underdogs. Samaje Perine scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes of the game on his way to an unexpected 136 scrimmage yards and two scores in the victory. Cincinnati’s two-game winning spree may have been more detrimental than positive in the long run for this franchise. The Bengals fell from the #3 spot to the #5 spot in this spring’s draft, which may have cost them a chance at Oregon tackle Penei Sewell.

The game that got away

I broke down the Bengals’ disappointing loss to the Browns in Week 7 in Cleveland’s section of this article, and they also had a chance to get Burrow’s first career victory back in Week 3 against the Eagles. Cincinnati stretched its lead to seven points over Philadelphia with a pair of Randy Bullock field goals in the fourth quarter, and they owned a 95.5% win probability on the Eagles’ final drive of regulation, which eventually ended in a seven-yard touchdown run by Carson Wentz to send the game to overtime. Neither team could score on seven overtime drives and the game ended in a 23-23 tie so Burrow had to wait until the following week to get his first career victory over the Jaguars.

What to look for this off-season

Burrow’s recovery and his status for the beginning of the season will be the biggest storyline to follow out of Cincinnati this summer. He’s aiming to begin throwing by the middle of February, just 12 weeks after he underwent surgery for a torn ACL and MCL. Cincinnati could be in the market for a more capable veteran backup than the likes of Allen and Finley since there’s a chance Burrow may not be ready for Week 1 in 2021. The franchise clearly must do a better job of protecting their top asset by attacking their offensive line in the draft and during free agency. The Bengals could also use another perimeter WR with the franchise likely moving on from Green after 11 seasons. Cincinnati needs help all over the place and it needs to keep key free agents like CBs William Jackson and Mackensie Alexander in town.

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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