Whenever a club other than the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens wins the AFC North Division, it’s considered an upset. And that would be the case again in 2012 as the Steelers and Ravens are clear-cut favorites to win arguably the NFL’s most physical division.
Baltimore finished 12-4 overall last year to tie with Pittsburgh atop the North, but the Ravens won the tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep over the Steelers. In fact, Baltimore swept all three teams in the North in 2011.
The Ravens would then beat AFC South champion Houston in the divisional round before losing a heartbreaking AFC Championship Game in New England. The name of kicker Billy Cundiff will live in infamy in Baltimore after he missed a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining in regulation that would have tied the Patriots at 23-all. It was the shortest missed field goal in the final 30 seconds of regulation of a postseason game in which the kick could have tied the game or given the team the lead and the team lost the game.
Baltimore, the +130 second favorite to win the AFC North at Bovada, believes it can reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 2000 this year as the team is mostly back intact.
Quarterback Joe Flacco may be ready to take the next step after he outplayed Tom Brady in the AFC title game. And the defense is littered with future Hall of Famers, although it is an aging group. One huge blow for Baltimore was an Achilles’ injury suffered this offseason to 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. That is expected to keep Suggs out until at least November.
The schedule will be a challenge this season for Baltimore as it ranks as the fourth-toughest in the NFL with seven games vs. teams that finished over .500 a season ago. The Ravens’ over/under wins total at the book is set at 10, with the under a -130 favorite.
Since the AFC North was created for the 2002 season, no team has won the division more than the Steelers’ five titles. Pittsburgh was a wild-card team at 12-4 last year but was upset in the playoff game by Tim Tebow‘s Denver Broncos.
However, the Steelers are the +120 favorites to win the North this season. The team still has one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger and also the league’s best defense.
But the club did say goodbye this offseason to past stars like receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith. In addition, starting running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL at the end of last season and won’t be ready to return until the second half of the 2012 season. And the Pittsburgh offensive line has undergone some changes. The team also has a new offensive coordinator in former Cardinals head coach Todd Haley.
Pittsburgh’s over/under wins total is set at 10. The AFC North title likely will be decided in a three-week span from Week 11-13 as the Steelers and Ravens have their two regular-season meetings in that window.
The Cincinnati Bengals were projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL last year but were a huge surprise in finishing 9-7 and earning the AFC’s final wild-card spot. The duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green was one of the best rookie tandems in recent league history.
Cincinnati is +400 to win the North this season but has never reached the postseason in back-to-back seasons under coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals also will have to fare better against good clubs in 2012. They were 0-7 against teams that made the playoffs in 2011. Cincinnati’s over/under wins total is set at 8, with the over a slight -120 favorite.
The Cleveland Browns are the long shots to win the North at +2500 after finishing last in 2011 with a 4-12 record. The Browns have finished over .500 only twice since the franchise returned to the NFL and have yet to win the division.
Cleveland had one of the worst offenses in the league last year but added two rookies who should start right away in the first round of this year’s draft: running back Trent Richardson from Alabama and quarterback Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State. However, Cleveland has the third-toughest schedule in the NFL in 2012 by opponents’ 2011 winning percentage. The Browns’ over/under wins total is set at five, with the over a -130 favorite.