AFC North Preview

CLEVELAND BROWNS STILL TRYING TO SOLVE QB ISSUES THURSDAY NIGHT VS. BUFFALO ON ESPN

We pick up again with our summer series of NFL divisional previews today by studying the AFC North. That will help get you ready for the first national TV game of the 2015 exhibition slate when the Cleveland Browns host the Buffalo Bills on ESPN...as well as a full weekend for the division that sees all four teams featured in live national telecasts.

Thursday: Cleveland hosts Buffalo on ESPN
Saturday: Baltimore visits Philadelphia on the NFL Network
Sunday: Pittsburgh hosts Green Bay on the NFL Network
Monday: Cincinnati visits Tampa Bay on ESPN

The big news at Cleveland is still the quarterback position. Johnny Manziel is getting better press these days. But, he was still largely ineffective last week except for a nice scramble up the middle that netted the Browns a touchdown. The Browns only managed 170 yards overall in a 20-17 loss to Washington though. They're not going to matter until they move the ball. Particularly in; the AFC North! Let's run last year's key numbers for additional context.

2014 AFC NORTH DIVISION STANDINGS
Pittsburgh: 11-5 (even in turnovers, #30 rated schedule)
Cincinnati: 10-5-1 (even in turnovers, #15 rated schedule)
Baltimore: 10-6 (+2 turnovers, #25 rated schedule)
Cleveland: 7-9 (+6 turnovers, #26 rated schedule)

Notebook: The most important thing to realize here is that the division played a very soft schedule (except for the Bengals). Pittsburgh was probably more like a nine-win team. Baltimore was a fringe Wildcard team at best (though they hit their stride in the playoffs). Cleveland was a 6-10 or 5-11 team that would have been exposed more with tougher challenges. The top three all made the playoffs...but none had turnover differentials you would associate with "playoff caliber." Some work to do on both sides of the ball in that regard for anyone hoping to chase down New England and Denver at the top of the AFC.

2014 YARDS-PER-PLAY
Baltimore: 5.7 on offense, 5.2 on defense
Pittsburgh: 6.2 on offense, 6.0 on defense
Cincinnati: 5.5 on offense, 5.4 on defense
Cleveland: 5.1 on offense, 5.2 on defense

Notebook: This stat showed Baltimore as the best in the division on a per-play basis...which bore fruit in the playoffs when they beat Pittsburgh by double digits on the road (Cincy lost by double digits at Indy, by the way). Once you adjust for schedule strength...not much to be too excited about overall. You can see how the Browns trail the pack. They would have been in the high 4's against a real schedule.

2014 THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Pittsburgh: 45% on offense, 38% on defense
Cincinnati: 40% on offense, 37% on defense
Baltimore: 41% on offense, 40% on defense
Cleveland: 30% on offense, 38% on defense

Notebook: We've told you often that veteran quarterbacks tend to shine in this stat. Great evidence of that here...as helpless Cleveland is way off the pace set by everyone else. Pittsburgh made up for a soft per-play defense with a decent mark at denying conversions. This is the stat that helped launch the Steelers and Bengals into the postseason when their per-play differentials weren't anything special. It's still the coin of the realm in modern football...you gotta move the chains!

2015 PROJECTED WIN TOTALS IN LAS VEGAS
Baltimore: 9 or 9.5
Pittsburgh: 8.5
Cincinnati: 8.5
Cleveland: 6

The market seems to be acknowledging both the strength of schedule issues from last season, and the reality that Baltimore found themselves in January in a way that could hold over into the new season. As you think about the Cleveland TV game Thursday night...it's tough to not notice that the Browns could be looking at something as bad as 1-5 or 0-6 in the division if they can't get production from the quarterback position. Can they win enough of their other games to reach six victories? Hey...if Manziel does start playing to his hype...do we suddenly have a FOUR team race that makes it impossible for anyone to reach 10 wins? Interesting division!

JIM HURLEY is looking forward to another big football weekend. You can always purchase game day BEST BETS in both football and baseball right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453 during normal business hours. The Dollars of August are waiting for you to grab them and stuff them in your wallet!

Our last two divisional previews will run Friday and Saturday. Be sure you're printing them all out! After that...we switch to TV previews for the rest of our NFL Preseason coverage. Here's what's on tap the next days in the NOTEBOOK...

Friday: AFC West Preview to get you ready for Kansas City hosting Seattle
Saturday: NFC South Preview to get you ready for New Orleans hosting New England
Sunday: NFL TV Preview...St. Louis Rams at Tennessee Titans on FOX
Monday: NFL TV Preview...Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Bucs on ESPN
Tuesday: MLB Series Preview...Chicago Cubs at San Francisco Giants

It's too early to say whether JOHNNY FOOTBALL is going to be a big story or just the latest bust. There's no doubt about who the world's best handicapper is though. For more than 25 years, that title's belonged to JIM HURLEY!!

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Nov

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