AFC North Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

RAVENS LOOK TO TAKE THEIR RIGHTFUL SPOT
ATOP THE COMPETITIVE AFC NORTH

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The Baltimore Ravens didn't win the AFC North last season. Many experts believe they were the best team though. The lack of experience of quarterback Joe Flacco in close games KILLED them, leading to a 9-7 record when something like 11-5 or 12-4 was more representative of their level of play.

We'll lay that out for you in today's preview of the 2010 outlook for the division. In a nutshell:

*Baltimore had the most impressive performance in our indicator stats

*Baltimore played the toughest schedule of anyone in the division

*Baltimore did the best job in the turnover equation, even with a relatively inexperienced second year quarterback calling the shots

*Baltimore struggled so much offensively in two games against eventual AFC champion Indianapolis, that some Las Vegas bettors didn't realize how well they were doing when not facing the Colts!

The Ravens weren't the best team in the AFC last year. Indianapolis was clearly superior, keeping the Ravens out of the end zone in two meetings (one in the playoffs). Who else was better than the Ravens? Tough call!

San Diego had a better record, but posted unimpressive indicator stats against a very easy schedule. New England had a better record, but lost badly at home to Baltimore in the playoffs. Cincinnati had a better record, but limped so badly to the finish line that nobody really thought of them as being better than the Ravens once the season was in the books.

Let's crunch some of these key numbers we've been referencing so you can get some context here. Then we'll talk about Baltimore's hopes to win the AFC North and the AFC as a whole.

2009 FINAL AFC NORTH STANDINGS
Cincinnati......10-6...even turnover differential....17th ranked schedule
Baltimore.......9-7.....+10 turnover differential.....10th ranked schedule
Pittsburgh......9-7......-3 turnover differential......26th ranked schedule
Cleveland.....5-11....-12 turnover differential......21st ranked schedule

Cincinnati started the season very well, then limped home against a relatively soft second half schedule to take the divisional crown. They sure didn't look like a playoff team in their home loss to the Jets. We'd argue the Bengals did look like a playoff team around the midway mark of the season. If they recapture that form...then watch out! If they just keep falling on the ground and punting, nobody will be talking about them once the allure of the Terrell Owens acquisition wears off.

You see how well Baltimore stacks up in the turnover differential and strength of schedule categories. Give everyone the same schedule, and they win the division. Not how Pittsburgh falls off the pace if you give them a league average schedule. That's important to remember for this year. They'll lose Ben Roethlisberger for awhile to suspension, AND the laws of math may jump up and bite them.

Cleveland had ugly numbers last year, but has cleaned house in management and at the quarterback position. We're not going to talk much about them in this preview. The first month of 2010 will tell you A LOT more about the Browns current hopes than anything from last year's debacle. For now, don't assume another debacle is imminent. Let reality paint its own picture.

Breaking things down a little further with the key stats you're surely accustomed to by now in this gauntlet of previews (if this is your first day at the website, Drive Points are those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more).

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Baltimore 14.9
Pittsburgh 14.9
Cincinnati 13.3
Cleveland 6.6
NOTEBOOK: Baltimore and Pittsburgh tied for best in the division, though Baltimore played a much tougher schedule. We've mentioned before that anything at 14 or higher is very strong. The true elites of the sport are up around 17 or more. Baltimore and Pittsburgh aren't Indianapolis and New Orleans, but they're much better than almost everyone else. Very good showings there.

Cincinnati grades out well too...but they just didn't match that level of performance when it mattered most late in the season. In fact, production fell off so much that many wondered if Carson Palmer was hiding an arm injury. If he was...and he's healthy again...then the Bengals may get back on the radar quickly. Last year's fade-out was so dramatic that you can't really draw conclusions until you see what Palmer does out of the gate in 2010.

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DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Cincinnati 9.0
Baltimore 10.3
Pittsburgh 11.9
Cleveland 13.9
NOTEBOOK: We've talked a lot about 'unreported stories'from last year during our summer previews. The caliber of Cincinnati's defense certainly deserves some recognition there. The mainstream media lost the ability to compliment the Ohio teams because there were so many years of ineptitude. Suddenly, the Bengals defense was very similar to Baltimore's defense in terms of toughness and impact...and nobody could believe it!

Remember that liberalized holding rules led to more long distance scoring last year than we had seen in the past. Fewer than 10 NFL teams held opponents in single digits in this stat. Cincinnati was one of those powerhouse stop units. Baltimore just missed the threshold, but was still obviously very good. They're not up with the Jets right now (7.1), so be careful linking those two together. Baltimore has actually lost a step from their very best defensive days.

Pittsburgh's a disappointment, considering their prior reputation. They lost two or three steps from where they used to be.

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Baltimore 42%
Cincinnati 41%
Pittsburgh 39%
Cleveland 33%
NOTEBOOK: You regulars know this is one of our favorite stats. Baltimore wins the division offensively and defensively (as you'll see in a moment). Flacco was the best in the division even if he couldn't figure out how to cash in opportunities late in close games. He's young. He's GOING to figure that out. When he does...which could very easily be September or October of this season, you're talking about a dominant AFC team. Indianapolis didn't have the stats of a 14-2 team last year, but they posted that record because they can execute late with the game on the line. Baltimore does that...and they'll post gaudy records.

Another strike against Pittsburgh. They still looked like they should be championship material. They still had names on the roster from their championship team. But...last year was surprisingly soft on both sides of the ball. They scored with big plays rather than by moving the chains. The defense wasn't scaring anybody either.

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Baltimore 37%
Cincinnati 39%
Cleveland 39%
Pittsburgh 42%
NOTEBOOK: Hey, let's say something nice about Cleveland here! The defense did rise to the occasion on big plays...which at least gives them some hope for improvement in 2010. This was a good defensive division in this category, with Pittsburgh again being a disappointment.

We mentioned at the top that Baltimore won the indicator stats. Let's show you the differentials now...

DRIVE POINT DIFFERENTIAL
Baltimore +4.6
Cincinnati +4.3
Pittsburgh +3.0
Cleveland -7.3

THIRD DOWN DIFFERENTIAL
Baltimore +5%
Cincinnati +2%
Pittsburgh -3%
Cleveland -6%

Now...remember that Baltimore played the 10th ranked schedule, Cincinnati the 17th, and Pittsburgh the 26th. THAT'S how you should remember the 2009 season!

2010 AFC NORTH OUTLOOK:
Obviously we're very optimistic about the Ravens. Flacco is going to improve given his spot on the quarterback learning curve. As long as the other elements of the team don't fall apart, this is a squad that should be considered among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl (along with Indianapolis and San Diego, as well as New England if they get their act back together).

Cincinnati is a question mark to us because we haven't officially resolved with our sources whether or not Palmer was hiding an injury late last season. If he was, then the Bengals could be a value team out of the gate. If the fluky part of last year was the early surge, then the addition of T.O. doesn't really matter much...and Cincinnati will drift back to irrelevance. We'll be watching this very closely in the coming weeks, particularly how Palmer throws in his preseason dress rehearsal game.

Pittsburgh was worse last year than many realized, and will now deal with the absence of Ben Roethlisberger for at least a month. Maybe he'll come back rejuvenated, and ready to be the consistent champion he's always had the potential to be. Or, maybe the franchise is drifting in the wrong direction, and it's going to take new leadership on the sidelines to get things righted. The Steelers will have to prove themselves to us this year after posting relatively generic stats vs. a soft schedule last year.

Cleveland could turn out to be a very interesting team. If Jake Delhomme fixed his yips, the Browns offer value right off the bat. If not, we're just going to be watching a different kind of train wreck.

That wraps up our look at the AFC North. Only the two Western divisions remain. We'll discuss the AFC West tomorrow, and the NFC west the day after. We hope you're printing these divisional previews out and saving them because they paint very accurate snapshot views of the transition between 2009 and 2010. You have a zillion magazines out there quoting coaches and scouts about personnel. DRIVE POINTS MATTER MORE THAN THAT STUFF!! And, the only place to get DRIVE POINTS is here in the JIM HURLEY NOTEBOOK.

And, the only place to get JIM HURLEY'S picks is from the man himself! You can do that online right here at the website. Game day releases can be purchased hours before kickoff with your credit card. You can also purchase seasonal packages with the click of your mouse. For more details about the service, or combination rates with baseball, call 1-800-323-4453.

If you take nothing else from our preseason previews this summer, remember that the Baltimore Ravens have the best 'key stat pedigree'of anyone outside the Colts in the AFC...and a young quarterback who may be ready to take the league by storm. This could well be THE YEAR OF THE RAVENS!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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