NFL Kickoff: What to Know About the AFC North and How to Bet It

What to expect from the Bengals, Ravens, Steelers and Browns

Najee Harris of the Steelers runs with the ball during a game.
Najee Harris could run wild for the Steelers this year
Michael Owens/Getty

The first meaningful pro football game since Super Bowl LVII will take place on September 7, and we’re counting down the days until the upstart Detroit Lions head to Kansas City to take on the defending champion Chiefs in primetime on NBC and Peacock in the NFL Kickoff Game. Each day we publish new content from now until Lions-Chiefs, we’ll be previewing a division in the NFC and AFC and analyzing how likely or unlikely it is that each of the four divisional rivals will go over their projected win total. To help with that over/under analysis, we’ve enlisted Thomas Gable, the director of race and sportsbook at  Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City. Today, we’ll break down the NFL AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals, 12-4 in 2022, ’23 O/U 11.5 wins

The Bengals have been the NFL AFC North champs the past two seasons after winning six games combined during head coach Zac Taylor’s first two seasons in Cincy and have won five playoff games in the past two postseasons. The Bengals, who went 30 years without winning in the playoffs before Taylor took over, lost the two games that ended their recent playoff runs — Super Bowl LVI and last year’s AFC Championship — by six points combined. Point being: the Bengals are getting very close to breaking through and have been just a play or two away from already having done it.

Whether they get over the hump or not, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who returned to practice last week for the first time since suffering a strained right calf on July 27, is going to get paid at some point in the near future and may end up with the NFL’s richest contract. When Burrow’s payday comes, it’s going to make the accounting in Cincy a bit difficult, as the team is going to have a tough time squeezing his top targets — wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd — under the salary cap. That puts some added pressure on a team that was already worried enough about its finances to convince star running back Joe Mixon to take pay cuts of more than $4 million for this year and next year to stay with the team. Mixon would not have done that unless he thinks the Bengals can win the Super Bowl this year — and he’s right to believe that they can.

“I have the Bengals power-rated right below Kansas City and Philly,” Gable says. “I believe if this team stays healthy, they can challenge Kansas City for the AFC Championship. They’ve won this division two years in a row, have a very marginal schedule and they’re an explosive offense. The offensive line needs to stay healthy, which has been a major issue two years in a row now for them. On paper, they really should only be an underdog twice this season when you look at their schedule. But you figure they are going to get tripped up once or twice in a tough division game. This win total is a very hard one for me to play, but I’m really high on the Bengals so I’m going to lean over. But this division scares me.”

Baltimore Ravens, 10-7 in 2022, ’23 O/U 10.5 wins

Entering his sixth NFL season, superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson has as many playoff wins as he does MVP awards: one. That will need to change this year for Jackson to validate the massive contract extension he signed, and there are plenty of reasons to think that it will, as Baltimore’s offense is going to look very different than it has in years past. Usually devoid of playmakers at wide receiver, Baltimore splurged on Odell Beckham Jr. in free agency and is banking that the former Giant, Brown and Ram can regain the form he flashed before tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl against the Bengals. In addition to Beckham, Jackson will have Rashod Bateman, Zay Flowers and Nelson Agholor as targets, all former first-round picks, as well as sure-handed tight end Mark Andrews. At running back, the Ravens will have J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards available at the start of a season for the first time since 2020.  Justice Hill and Keaton Mitchell will provide depth in a relatively deep Baltimore backfield.

All of that offensive firepower should finally provide some support to a Baltimore defense that is shaping up to be as stout as it has typically been with head coach John Harbaugh in charge. The Ravens will be without last season’s top pass-rushers Justin Houston and Calais Campbell, but Baltimore’s secondary should remain a strength. The same can be said for Baltimore’s special teams unit, as the Ravens still have Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history. With Jackson under center as a starter, the Ravens have gone 45-16 but never made a deep playoff run. For this season to be a success, the Ravens will have to end it differently than they have in the past with Jackson.

“Lamar Jackson got what he wanted and got paid,” Gable says. “They have a new offensive coordinator [Todd Monken] and additions at wide receiver in Odell Beckham, Nelson Agholor and their first-round pick was Zay Flowers. Looking at their schedule, I think they have a pretty good shot to get the 11 wins. They’ll be underdogs to Cincinnati and the Niners on the road, but if Lamar can stay healthy and return to form, I think this is a very, very tough team to beat overall. I’m going to lean towards the over.”

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Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-8 in 2022, ’23 O/U 8.5 wins

The model of consistency, the Steelers have never finished below .500 since head coach Mike Tomlin took over in Pittsburgh prior to the 2007 season. Though he was not always good and not always healthy, Ben Roethlisberger served as Tomlin’s quarterback for the majority of his time running the show in Pittsburgh, but that’s no longer the case — Big Ben is retired and second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett is QB1 for the Steelers. Pickett wasn’t great as a rookie, but he did lead a couple of comeback wins and will head into this season with some great targets to throw to including wide receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth. The only quarterback in the division who hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl, Pickett is in position to make the coveted second-year jump teams look for in a franchise quarterback.

Even if he doesn’t, Pittsburgh — one of two undefeated teams during the preseason (Washington was the other) — should still win their share of ballgames thanks to a defense anchored by former Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and dominant veteran Cameron Heyward. With Watt out of the lineup early last season with a torn pec, Pittsburgh limped to a 2-6 start. Once he returned, Pittsburgh finished the year 7-2 and allowed an NFL-best 272.9 yards per game. Watt and the Steelers defense will have their work cut out for them with two divisional games apiece against Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow, but Pittsburgh should still be stingy with points even if they can’t repeat what they did to finish last season.

“This may be the best division in football from top to bottom,” Gable says. “Three of the teams had winning records last season, and that could certainly happen again. The Steelers have the lowest win total, but they do have a somewhat easy schedule overall and an early bye in Week 6. Still, this is an offense I just can’t get behind it. They averaged fewer than five yards per play last season. While Kenny Pickett did have a winning record of 7-5 in his 12 starts, I just don’t see him developing into a top-tier NFL quarterback. If he’s able to protect the ball and is used as a game manager, maybe Pittsburgh can stay around 500, but I’m gonna lean to the under with this team.

Cleveland Browns, 7-10 in 2022, ’23 O/U 9.5 wins

After essentially punting on contending last season by trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson, knowing he’d likely be suspended by the NFL for a lengthy amount of time, the Browns enter this season hoping to recapture the positive momentum they had when they went 11-5 and made the playoffs during Kevin Stefanski’s first season in Cleveland. Now entering his fourth year with the Browns, Stefanski has a strong nucleus of players in place, including star running back Nick Chubb, elite wide receiver Amari Cooper and dominating pass rusher Myles Garrett as a centerpiece, but he’ll need Watson to return to the form he displayed in Houston when he was a Pro Bowler for the Browns to have success.

Playing in the AFC doesn’t do the Browns any favors, but Cleveland should benefit from some fairly soft out-of-division games against opponents including the Cardinals, Bears, Titans, Texans and Colts. The addition of receiver Elijah Moore from the Jets should help Cleveland’s offense, and the acquisition of defensive end Za’Darius Smith from the Minnesota Vikings should aid the Browns on defense, so there’s some reason to believe the team can improve on last year’s record. That will be vital for Stefanski’s future employment, as a third straight losing season after such a strong start could compel the Browns to make a coaching change. They can’t can Watson, but they can fire Stefanski.

“Cleveland has a lot of talent on their roster, and Deshaun Watson won’t have any shortage of weapons he can throw to,” Gable says. “Donovan Peoples-Jones and Amari Cooper are back, and Marquise Goodwin, Elijah Moore and rookie Cedric Tillman are new additions. Jim Schwartz is the new defensive coordinator, and I believe he’ll be able to put some pieces together and make this team create more turnovers. They only forced 20 turnovers last year. They’ll also be better at stopping the run. A lot is going to come down to Watson and his performance. If you think Watson will return to form, I think you have to like the over. I would lean under because again Watson looked rather rusty last year. I’m sure he’ll look better, but this is a very tough division.”

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