AFC North Preview

NFL ALERT! AFC NORTH WAS PROBABLY THE MOST OVERRATED CONFERENCE IN 2013

Because the mainstream media and public pay so little attention to strength of schedule, it’s easy for teams (or full NFL divisions) to be much better or worse than is generally realized. That appears to be the case with the AFC North last year. Despite Pittsburgh and Baltimore having recent Super Bowls on their resumes…and despite Cincinnati outclassing those teams on the way to the division title…what was seen as a “power” division was actually a big disappointment.

Be sure to pay special to the strength of schedule rankings that we post every season in our previews based on calculations done by Jeff Sagarin of USA Today…

2013 AFC NORTH STANDINGS
Cincinnati: 11-5 (+1 turnovers, #27 rated schedule)
Pittsburgh: 8-8 (-4 turnovers, #32 rated schedule)
Baltimore: 8-8 (-4 turnovers, #30 rated schedule)
Cleveland: 4-12 (-6 turnovers, #26 rated schedule)

Notebook: One of the biggest shockers of our whole 2013 evaluation process comes from the realization that the AFC Central was under .500 as a group despite playing a ridiculously easy schedule. They managed to dodge most of the landmines out there in the rotations. How could Pittsburgh and Baltimore BOTH fail to post winning records…while losing the turnover category…against such pathetic schedules?! When you see those numbers, it’s not surprising that Cincinnati fell apart so badly in their home playoff game against San Diego. The AFC North may have been a division of pretenders.

2013 YARDS-PER-PLAY
Cincinnati: 5.4 on offense, 4.7 on defense
Cleveland: 5.0 on offense, 4.8 on defense
Pittsburgh: 5.3 on offense, 5.2 on defense
Baltimore: 4.5 on offense, 5.2 on defense

Notebook: Remember to mentally penalize Cincinnati because of schedule strength, and then really MARVEL at how badly Baltimore performed at the point of attack despite playing one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. On a per-play basis, Baltimore’s offense was worse than Jacksonville’s! And the Jags played the #11 ranked schedule. If this group had played a league average schedule, Cincinnati probably would have still graded out as playoff caliber. The others would have been net losers.

2013 THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS

Cincinnati: 41% on offense, 33% on defense
Baltimore: 36% on offense, 34% on defense
Pittsburgh: 38% on offense, 40% on defense
Cleveland: 35% on offense, 45% on defense

Notebook: It’s a good sign for Cincinnati that Andy Dalton graded out so well here. They just signed him to a huge contract after all. It should be remembered though that recently published stathead studies suggest that Dalton really falters when pressured by good defenses. He probably wouldn’t grade out well here within a subset of playoff caliber teams that only played against each other. Everyone else was worse than Dalton! One of the rare highlights for Baltimore was its third down defense. Cleveland had trouble getting opponents off the field, which became a major problem in crunch time of toss-up games.

2014 PROJECTED WIN TOTALS IN LAS VEGAS
Cincinnati: 9 wins
Pittsburgh: 8.5 wins
Baltimore: 8.5 wins
Cleveland: 6.5 wins

The Browns got a boost based on the assumption that they’ll have decent quarterback play from either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both in “shoulder shrug” territory given the respect they carry over from the past, but pessimism caused by last year’s disappointments. The market seems a little too discouraged about Dalton and Cincinnati. They did establish superiority over lesser teams last year…and should once again have a manageable schedule in this weak conference. The Bengals strike us as an 10-11 win team (by softer AFC standards) that will disappoint in January rather than a pretender who will disappoint in the 16 games leading up to that.

Here’s what the AFC North has on tap this weekend:
Saturday: Baltimore at Dallas on the NFL Network
Saturday: Cincinnati hosts the NY Jets
Saturday: Pittsburgh hosts Buffalo
Monday: Cleveland visits Washington on ESPN

JIM HURLEY is likely to have a big play in at least one of those…and he’ll definitely have a TV thriller in Monday’s marquee matchup. You can always purchase game day BEST BETS in both the NFL Preseason and the MLB pennant races right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions about longterm service in football or baseball, call us in the office Saturday or Sunday before first pitch at 1-800-323-4453.

Our eighth and final divisional preview comes tomorrow when we wrap things up with the AFC West in front of those must-see TV games. Here’s the two-sport NOTEBOOK schedule for the next few days…

Sunday: AFC West Preview: (Denver/SF on NFLN, Kansas City/Carolina on FOX)
Monday: NFL Big Game Preview: Johnny Manziel vs. RGIII in Cleveland/Washington!
Tuesday: MLB Big Game Preview: Atlanta at Pittsburgh
Wednesday: MLB TV Preview: LA Angels at Boston

Saturday presents one of the biggest Preseason schedule days of the whole NFL exhibition slate. Stop dragging your heels waiting for the regular season to get here. Make SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIAL at JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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