AFC North Even More Dangerous In 2011

AFC NORTH PREVIEW

If ESPN was based in Pennsylvania or Maryland rather than the Northeast, the AFC North division would probably be the most celebrated in football. The Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the Super Bowl twice since the New England Patriots last played there...and three times in the last six years. Pittsburgh has won TWO Super Bowls since the last the time the Patriots won one.

The Baltimore Ravens, who host the Washington Redskins tonight in a dress rehearsal game on national TV, would have been a more hyped version of the New York Jets. Except, quarterback Joe Flacco has been further ahead on the learning curve than Mark Sanchez has.

Remember all the flurry around Chad Ochocinco in the best of times in Cincinnati? It would have been even crazier if he was in his PRIME with the Patriots rather than joining them after he lost a step or two.

Colt McCoy in Cleveland?

  • McCoy as a Rookie: 74.5 passer rating, 7.10 yards per attempt
  • Sanchez as a Rookie: 63.0 passer rating, 6.71 yards per attempt

That stat line for Sanchez is from two years ago. McCoy started eight games last year. Half of those came against the defenses of Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore, and the NY Jets. Yet, McCoy basically had the same numbers in 2010 that Sanchez did, even though it was Sanchez's second year as a starter. And, now he's about to play in an offensive schematic that better fits his style and experience.

We're not suggesting that the AFC East is a bunch of pretenders. New England is always a legitimate Super Bowl threat when healthy. The New York Jets didn't bribe anyone to reach the AFC Finals two years in a row. Our point is that the AFC North is also very strong at the top...and is as deserving as media hype as the guys in ESPN's backyard.

Let's run through the numbers from last year to help review why the AFC North powers are so dangerous. We'll also keep an eye on potential improvement from Cleveland this year as we go through the data. Note that three of the four teams you'll be reading about play their dress rehearsal games TONIGHT.

  • Carolina at CINCINNATI
  • CLEVELAND at Philadelphia
  • Washington at BALTIMORE

It would be good to take a refresher course on these teams before you make any final decisions. Pittsburgh doesn't play until Saturday Night, when they host Atlanta.

To the numbers...

2010 FINAL AFC NORTH STANDINGS

  • Pittsburgh: 12-4 (+17 turnovers, 10th schedule)
  • Baltimore: 12-4 (+7 turnovers, 12th schedule)
  • Cleveland: 5-11 (-1 turnovers, 9th schedule)
  • Cincinnati: 4-12 (-8 turnovers, 4th schedule)

Tough schedules for everyone here. Pittsburgh and Baltimore went 12-4 against slates that ranked comfortably in the top half of the league. Cleveland was probably a little better than that 5-11 record would suggest given their tough schedule and their ability to avoid turnover disasters against that kind of slate. Cincinnati sure didn't get any breaks last year. They didn't earn any either.

Barring injuries, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore should be able to make a run at 10-12 wins once again. Neither team is at a point where they should fall off the map when healthy. Baltimore's defense is getting long in the tooth...but quarterback Joe Flacco is at an age where he can counteract that by becoming more of an impact player in big games. Cleveland has a chance to rise up to Wildcard contending status. New coach Mike Shurmer has what it takes to make that offense hum. This isn't a division with humming offenses right now. Cincinnati has the look of a disaster movie at the moment. Last year was bad. 2011 is looking to be worse unless Carson Palmer volunteers to come back and get obliterated in the pocket.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME

  • Baltimore 10.5
  • Cleveland 10.4
  • Cincinnati 9.2
  • Pittsburgh 9.0

Notebook: These are points scored on drives of 60 yards or more per game if you're new to the site. The league average was around 12 last year. So, this wasn't a very good offensive division. Pittsburgh was surprisingly bad for a Super Bowl team. Baltimore was supposed to be much better than this given Flacco's experience curve. Yes, the tough schedules they played included some great defenses. And, yes, weather is an issue for these franchises in the second half of the season. New England plays in the cold and averaged 17.9 Drive Points per game last year. The New York Jets moved in fits and starts, but averaged 11.4 Drive Points per game in 2010. Poor numbers however you slice it.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME

  • Pittsburgh 7.2
  • Baltimore 11.8
  • Cleveland 11.8
  • Cincinnati 12.3

Notebook: This is where Pittsburgh jumps up to Super Bowl caliber. It's very difficult to drive the field on this defense. They ranked #1 in the NFL in this stat, with #2 being more than a full point behind at 8.4 in Green Bay (hmm...the two Super Bowl teams were the best two in Drive Point defense...where have you seen "defense wins championships" typed a thousand times...right here in the NOTEBOOK!). Baltimore didn't perform to the level of their reputation, or the intensity of their pre-game sideline head bashing. They're not going to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs until they get better on this side of the ball. The media tends to lump Pittsburgh and Baltimore together as if they're equal on defense. Our indicator stats make it clear that's not the case.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE

  • Pittsburgh 43%
  • Baltimore 39%
  • Cincinnati 39%
  • Cleveland 37%

Notebook: Pittsburgh really separates themselves from the division in this stat. They were the only above average offense, and that came against a tough schedule. The coaching staff deserves more credit than it gets...as does Big Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. It's a major strike against Joe Flacco that he can't break 40% this deep in his career. His learning curve didn't show much learning last year! A great way to evaluate McCoy's advancement this year (if it happens) is to see what the Browns are doing on third downs. It's one of the best "report card" stats for quarterbacks that we know of.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE

  • Pittsburgh 34%
  • Baltimore 38%
  • Cincinnati 38%
  • Cleveland 43%

Notebook: It's tough to see "differentials" in this format, so let's run those separately. Pittsburgh is clear of the field by a good bit on both sides of the ball in terms of production on critical chain-moving plays.

THIRD DOWN DIFFERENTIALS

  • Pittsburgh: +9 percentage points
  • Baltimore: +1 percentage point
  • Cincinnati: +1 percentage point
  • Cleveland: -6 percentage points

Poor fundamentals from the Browns, and their head coach got fired. We should mention this is a great "report card" stat for head coaches too! It's amazing that the Steelers can play in three Super Bowls over six years of the Brady-Manning era, but the media is still largely blind to what they do. Half the credit goes to Troy Polamalu's luxurious hair.

2011 AFC NORTH OUTLOOK

The PITTSBURGH STEELERS are still championship material. They actually have room to get a lot better on offense given their Drive Point numbers. Being neglected in preseason championship talk should keep them motivated too. Did they look motivated against the "dream team" of Philadelphia last week?

The fate of the BALTIMORE RAVENS seems to be in the hands of Flacco. He's always done a good job against bad teams. He has yet to impress consistently vs. quality...which kills the team in the playoffs. If he's already hit his big-game ceiling, Ravens fans are going to be disappointed. This is a team we'll be watching closely. They have a chance to rise up and be a true force. But...this could also be the year where they fall back to 9-7 because they haven't properly recognized weaknesses and dealt with them.

We like what we're seeing so far this Preseason with the CLEVELAND BROWNS. The offense should be better. Enthusiasm is a great thing with an up-and-coming team. That enthusiasm may have been pounded out of a team like the Miami Dolphins or Houston Texans. Cleveland has a chance to surprise some people this year. That being said...McCoy is still young, and young QB's make mistakes when they try to carry too big a load.

It's tough to see the CINCINNATI BENGALS doing anything this year. They don't have any great quarterback options. Thinking Andy Dalton out of TCU might be ready this year was borderline nuts. It's amazing that Vegas initially posted a projected wins mark for this team up close to .500. They were 4-12 last year and may have gotten worse.

We'll wrap up our NFL division previews Friday with the AFC South. That will get you ready for Indianapolis hosting Green Bay on CBS. Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Houston all play Saturday...so that article will precede all divisional action in that group. If you missed our earlier divisional previews, please check the archives. Our final college football conference previews will run Saturday and Sunday. It's the Sun Belt Saturday, then Independents on Sunday.

We're about to start a huge weekend of football action here at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK. You can go day-by-day online with your credit card...or sign up for longer term packages that will also include this weekend. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Maybe the AFC champion will come from the North once again this year. The WORLD CHAMPION in HANDICAPPING will definitely be JIM HURLEY!

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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