The AFC North shapes up as the best division on the conference, and the second-best in the entire NFL, with only the presence of the Cleveland Browns relegating the foursome behind the NFC West. It’s also going to be a little quieter, with Baltimore Ravens’ legend Ray Lewis now retired, off his team’s magical Super Bowl run to end the 2012 season.
By quieter doesn’t mean less competitive. Two years ago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all made the playoffs. Last year, Cincinnati joined Baltimore, with Pittsburgh just missing. These three teams again look extremely competitive and extremely balanced.
You can credibly argue for most any 1-2-3 order of finish. You can reasonably predict that all three will be playoff-bound. And you should certainly expect that all three will at least be in the hunt the last couple weeks of the regular season.
The betting odds in Las Vegas back this up, when you look at the prices on each team for winning the division. Pittsburgh comes in as the 9-5 favorite. Cincinnati is just a hair behind at 2-1, and Baltimore in hot pursuit at 11-5.
Clearly, the oddsmakers are not optimistic about the Ravens’ chances in the post-Lewis era. I still find this lack of respect for Baltimore a little surprising—the Steelers have plenty of question marks and the Bengals need to show they can get some more big plays. And the fact Joe Flacco now has the confidence of leading a successful Super Bowl run gives the Baltimore quarterback some extra cache. Or at least it should.
Being surprised by the lack of respect for Baltimore though, does not mean I’ll pick them. I think Las Vegas has accurately assessed the general landscape of this division, which is that the smallest of margin separates all three teams. NFL analysis of all four AFC North teams is at the link below, with a prediction on how they’ll fare against their Over/Under win number in Vegas.
As to how they’ll fare against each other…that’s a tougher call. The final NFL predictions here at TheSportsNotebook will come about a week before the September 5 opener when Baltimore goes to Denver. So it’s subject to change, but right now I’m leaning Cincinnati-Baltimore-Pittsburgh in that order, with all three clocking in at either 9-7 or 10-6.