The Ravens are perceived to be the most likely champions of the AFC North. As usual, I turn to the odds for my cue.
A pair of online sportsbooks have installed Baltimore as low-priced favorites to win its division for the first time since 2006. The Ravens are minus-145 at sportsbook.com and minus-125 at thegreek.com. The sportsbook.com odds give the Ravens slightly better than a 59 percent chance to win the division, while thegreek.com odds peg the Ravens as better than a 55 percent favorite to win the North.
I understand the logic of installing the Ravens as the division favorites: They have had an outstanding offseason, while rival Pittsburgh — the second choice to win the North at both online sportsbooks — has not. What's more, the Bengals, rated as the third choice on the betting line at both sportsbooks, are not a team that captures the betting public's imagination in most seasons. Moreover, while the Bengals are defending division champions, not many are picking them to repeat. (Note: The Ravens are picked to win the AFC North in the Yahoo! Sports / Pro Football Weekly Preview 2010 magazine.)
While I would not be surprised if the Ravens win the North, and I believe they are the most logical winners of the division, I hold that the Steelers (plus-225 at thegreek.com, plus-240 at sportsbook.com) also have a fighting chance to capture the North for the third time in four seasons, and the Bengals (plus-285 at thegreek.com, plus-350 at Sportsbook.com) will also be competitive. (Also, let the record show the Browns are plus-825 at thegreek.com and plus-1800 at sportsbook.com.)
So let us consider the Steelers and Bengals for a moment. We know the knocks against the Steelers' playoff chances. They will be without QB Ben Roethlisberger for at least four games. They traded talented WR Santonio Holmes for a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft because of off-field issues. Their defense showed signs of regression last season. Last, and something not to forget, they gave up four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009.
The constant dwelling on the Steelers' negatives has been one of the noteworthy trends of this offseason. After all, little good news has come out of Pittsburgh in the spring and summer, with the latest blow being ORT Willie Colon's season-ending Achilles injury. Nevertheless, I believe the Steelers are still division-title contenders, flaws aside. There is still a lot of talent on the roster, and they will have had plenty of time to adjust to their personnel losses. But I can understand why someone wouldn't wholeheartedly endorse the Steelers as contenders, given the tumult they have endured.
Which brings us to the Bengals. They haven't had a controversy-free offseason, what with RB Cedric Benson facing a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a May 30 incident at an Austin, Texas, bar. But they have certainly had a better offseason than the Steelers. Cincinnati has improved its passing game, perhaps significantly if WR Antonio Bryant plays like he did two seasons ago and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham is ready to be a 40- to 50-catch target right off the bat. The defense, the team's strength in 2009, has improved its depth and could be poised for another stellar season under the leadership of coordinator Mike Zimmer.
The Bengals swept the AFC North last season, and though that is unlikely to happen again, there is no reason the Bengals can't hold serve at home vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh and aim to win both games against Cleveland. A 4-2 division mark would be an accomplishment and perhaps the decisive factor in what figures to be a contentious battle for the North title. Note that half of the NFL's eight division winners in 2009 had precisely 4-2 records vs. divisional opponents.
The Bengals have not won a playoff game since defeating the Oilers in the 1990 wild-card round, and the general sense is that they will fall back rather than hold their place at the front of the AFC North. Their poor showing in their wild-card round loss to the Jets in January may be proof they are a tier below the conference's best. But their chances of repeating in the North can't be completely discounted. They might end up being the third-best team in the North as the odds have them pegged, but I can't see them being a nonfactor, going away quietly as Baltimore and Pittsburgh stake their claims for the division crown.
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