AFC North Preview

PITTSBURGH AND BALTIMORE STILL AT WAR IN PHYSICAL AFC NORTH

It's telling about how physical play is in the NFC North that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is already talking about a shoulder injury before the season even starts! He recently told the press about a small tear in his rotator cuff that he plans on playing with this year. Playing hurt. That's what you do if you're in uniform for the Steelers or the Ravens.

Those two teams tied for first place last year with 12-4 records. Pittsburgh, playing with several injuries, was stunned by Denver in the first weekend of playoff action. Baltimore drew shorthanded Houston in its first game before losing to New England 23-20 in the AFC Championship game. You may recall Baltimore missed a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left that would have sent the game to overtime.

The winner of the AFC North is typically Super Bowl caliber. Maybe this will be the year Baltimore finally gets there. Let's run through our indicator stats from 2011 to see what might be in store for 2010. Note that we're dealing with fairly stable situations in this division. All four head coaches return (the only place that's true in this week's AFC write-ups), and the only pending QB change is at Cleveland...where one Big 12 phenom with misleadingly huge college passing stats is likely to replace another.

2011 FINAL AFC NORTH STANDINGS
Baltimore: 12-4 (+2 turnovers, 22nd rated schedule)
Pittsburgh: 12-4 (-13 turnovers, 28th rated schedule)
Cincinnati: 9-7 (even turnovers, 21st rated schedule)
Cleveland: 4-12 (+1 turnover, 17th rated schedule)

Notebook: The surprise last year was Cincinnati, who managed to post a winning record with The Red Rifle Andy Dalton showing surprising poise, leadership, and arm strength. Any team that can manage an even turnover differential with a kid quarterback is doing a lot of things right. The projected doormat of the 2011 season almost made the playoffs!

What first jumps out at us in that stat block is the strength of schedule issues. Pittsburgh played a very easy schedule. In fact, they all did when you throw out the games they played against each other. The Steelers have to be embarrassed that they posted such a lousy turnover differential against a weak schedule. The offense shouldn't have been that sloppy. The defense should have done more damage. That's something to look for in September. Is Pittsburgh returning to Super Bowl form? Or, are is the Mike Tomlin era showing signs that it's starting to crumble?

The second key to us is that the division as a whole was -10 in the turnover category. Nobody sparkled in that stat. Three generic teams and one surprise disaster. Either Baltimore or Cincinnati could jump up a few points in Power Ratings if they can better manage their risk/reward ratio. For the Ravens, that means jumping up to Lombardi Trophy caliber.

OFFENSIVE YARDS-PER-PLAY
Pittsburgh: 5.9
Baltimore: 5.2
Cincinnati: 5.0
Cleveland: 4.5
Notebook: Pittsburgh was fourth best in the AFC. And, if you stuck them in a dome with the likes of New Orleans, or in balmy weather with the likes of San Diego, they'd be better respected nationally on this side of the ball. They home games on slow, ugly turf...and half the season in cold weather. Yet, the offense is among the elite in the league.

Baltimore was one of the few contenders of note who was this bad at moving the ball. They were basically San Francisco once you adjust for schedule strength (no surprise since brothers coach those two teams!). And, San Francisco's biggest offensive weapon was the punt! You can win with defensive-minded football in the NFL. We expected more out of Joe Flacco than we've been getting to this point. He's been around too long to flounder this much vs. below average schedules. Everyone but Pittsburgh has some work to do here.

YARDS-PER-PLAY ALLOWED DEFENSIVELY
Pittsburgh: 4.5
Baltimore: 4.6
Cincinnati: 5.0
Cleveland: 5.1
Notebook: This is a defensive-minded hard hitting division. Stellar numbers there. Pittsburgh and Baltimore graded out as the two best in the whole NFL, not just this division. You don't think of Cleveland has having a great defense because they struggled to win many games. Just remember that a lot of those losses were low scoring punt battles because their defense was doing such a good job of shutting down opponents. Yes, these numbers are helped by Ice Belt weather in the winter. Still, a lot of teams play in the Midwest and Northeast and can't post numbers like this.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Pittsburgh: 46%
Baltimore: 42%
Cleveland: 39%
Cincinnati: 36%
Notebook: This is where Dalton still needs to do a lot of work. He avoided turnovers...but he still couldn't move the chains as much as was needed. Roethlisberger is basically Tom Brady when it comes to game management. He needs to start getting more credit for that. Yes, he takes too many hits because he holds onto the ball too long. He doesn't look like Brady. But, on paper, their production ends up looking very similar...particularly vs. quality opposition (Pittsburgh sits on big leads while New England runs up the score). Flacco's 42% actually grades out pretty well for the league given the trend toward defenses in this stat. He still needs to do better as a veteran.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Baltimore: 32%
Cincinnati: 36%
Pittsburgh: 39%
Cleveland: 41%
Notebook: Baltimore clearly has championship numbers here. Cincinnati has numbers you should respect. That's probably one of the important lessons of the day...nobody ever expects anything from Cincinnati...but they were a legit .500 type team at least last year with a young group. Pittsburgh's relative softness here and lack of high impact turnover forcing plays might be a red flag combination. Cleveland's bend but don't break approach could be a bit more aggressive.

The 2011 season wasn't one that had a true super-team in the AFC. New England made it to the Super Bowl despite a crappy defense. Baltimore just missed because of a disappointing offense. Pittsburgh had some sloppy numbers against a weak schedule. And, those are the only three AFC teams who won more than 10 games! Two of those three teams are in today's AFC North discussion...which means this may be the group that launches the next conference or league champion. Let's see what the markets are saying about projected wins in the regular season...

AFC North Regular Season Win Projections
Pittsburgh 10
Baltimore 10
Cincinnati 8
Cleveland 5 of 5.5

When the numbers first went up, the 10's struck us as a little low. The markets think BOTH of those annual powers are going to fall from 12-4 to 10-6? Upon completing this preview, it still seems a bit odd. As best we can tell from our sources offshore and in Las Vegas, that's a result of the AFC North drawing the NFC East this year. If you have to play Philadelphia, NYG, Dallas, and to a much lesser extent Washington, it's hard to pencil in 12 wins overall. Understood. We'd go with 10.5 rather than 10 given the recent pedigrees of those franchises.

The most interesting team to us is Cincinnati. It's easy to make a kneejerk assumption that they'll go 0-4 vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh and then1-3 at best vs. the NFC East. That's 1-7 right there, meaning they'd have to run the table vs. everyone else to surpass eight victories. The market is telling you that Cincinnati should be expected to fare better vs. the North powers and the NFC east than your knee is expecting.

If you're like most Las Vegas bettors, your kneejerk assessments are particularly bad in the NFL Preseason. JIM HURLEY has a great lifetime history in NFL exhibition games, including a 71% success rate the last nine years. You can purchase game day releases all through the month right here at the website. Or, sign up for the full "Dollars of August" program to earn money that will multiply itself over several times between now and the Super Bowl.

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Back with you Wednesday to preview the AFC South, where Houston is expected to run roughshod over a weak field. Thursday, we'll look at the AFC West just before San Diego takes the field against Green Bay in a national TV game on ESPN. Our NFC divisional previews will run next Monday through Thursday.

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