Branded Bets 2019 NFL Preview: AFC North

Our 2019 NFL Season previews continues with one of the toughest divisions in the game to handicap; the AFC North. The Steelers endured the loss of Le’Veon Bell last season due to his infamous hold out, but rebounded nicely to put themselves in position to make a run. But after starting 7-2-1, they stumbled across the finish line and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Can they rebound without Antonio Brown? Is JuJu Smith-Schuster ready to take over as the number 1 option? Or will he be exposed now that defenses don’t have Brown to worry about?

The Ravens snuck into the playoffs last season, but their near future depends on how QB Lamar Jackson progresses as a passer. If he can get better, this team is going to be very tough. If he continues to throw like Tim Tebow, defenses will catch up to their unique run-first approach. The Browns may be the most interesting team in the league, but are they getting too much love for a team that hasn’t proven anything yet?  And the Bengals….yeah, they are probably going to stink. Not much more to say about them here, so without further ado, let’s get into the overviews. I know that when you read a preview piece like this, you want strong, definitive takes. Unfortunately, you won’t get too much of that from me here, because I don’t do anything for clicks; the truth is that there are way too many questions surrounding every one of these teams to make too many “bold” statements with any real confidence. Except for the Bengals, they are definitely going to suck.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Overview: The Steelers completed melted down in the final phases of last season after it looked like they may be able to withstand star running back Le’Veon Bell’s hold out. James Connor gave the Steelers most of the production they had come to expect from Bell, and it looked like the Steelers were going to ride their offense to another playoff birth. Then December happened and the team fell apart, losing four of their last six games and making headlines more for the dysfunctional relationship between QB Ben Rothlisberger and WR Antonio Brown. It certainly seems like this created a distraction off the field that the team could not overcome. Could losing Brown end up being addition by subtraction? It isn’t impossible, but as great as JuJu Smith-Schuster has been in his first two NFL seasons, he has yet to have to carry the load as a number 1 WR at the highest level. But he sure is fast

This team is now without the two players that helped make this offense so dynamic for so many years, and unlike guys like Brady and Brees, Rothlisberger has had instances where he has shown his age. It is tough to bet against somebody with his pedigree, but I think it is more likely this team continues to regress than it is that they are rejuvenated. But I am not confident enough in that statement to make any bets on it. It will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out for the Steelers; it could be the beginning of the end of the Tomlin/Big Ben era, or it could end up that not having a QB and WR fighting like children every day at practice improves the team’s vibe, and they return to playoff form.

Spots to Bet or Fade: I am pretty certain I will be getting involved with New England week 1. Pittsburgh is a fade in my opinion until they can show that they are not trending backwards, and I could see the Pats creating widespread panic among Steeler Nation by opening the season with a blowout. Six is a lot of points to lay against a team with a pulse, so I may end up getting involved with a teaser or moneyline parlay instead of laying the points, but I definitely do expect the Steelers to lose week 1.

It is not unreasonable to think that this team could get off to a slow start, not just week 1 vs New England, but they then have a home game against Seattle followed by a trip to the West Coast to play the Niners. If they end up 0-3 or 1-2, and there appears to be panic in the organization, look for Week 4 at home against the Bengals to be a spot where they come back fired up and take out all of their frustrations.

Season Win Total: 9 with the over heavily juiced to -150 As I have made crystal clear, I see a wide range of possible outcomes for this Steelers team. However, it is tempting to take the under here at +120. That line is decent considering it is very possible that this could be a nightmare season where the Steelers realize it is time to retool, and it is not crazy to think that they may choose to see what they have in backup QB’s Mason Randolph or Josh Dobbs by the time the season is over. They also play the NFC West which is a tough division. They play the Bengals twice, which should be two wins, but it is always tough to win on the road within your division. They play at Arizona and home against the Bills and Dolphins, which should be wins. Aside from that, there are not many easy wins for Pittsburgh. If you really want to bet this one way or another, take the +120 on the under. 8-8 or worse is very possible here, and for you to lose they would have to get to 10 wins, which is a very tall order based on the schedule.

 Baltimore Ravens

 Overview: In a league where passing rules all, the Ravens saved their 2018 season by doing what no other team was doing; running the ball down opponents throats. This was just as much because rookie QB Lamar Jackson was not ready to be a consistent passer in the NFL, and his skill set lended itself well to a heavy rushing attack. The big questions coming into this season are whether or not Jackson can improve enough to at least be a threat with his arm, and if defenses are going to be able to adjust to their rushing and force them into using Jackson closer to the way most QBs are used in 2019. This is truly a unique team, with Jackson, Gus Edwards, Mark Ingram and rookie Justice Hill, they have the dogs to be a pain in the ass to stop. But Jackson’s limitations as a passer were on full display in the playoffs last year against the Chargers, and if he hasn’t improved, they sure did show the league the blueprint to beating the Ravens; dare Jackson to beat you.

One tip for fantasy players: I am huge on Mark Andrews. I think he could be a top 6 Tight End in the league this year, and he costs next to nothing in auction leagues. If you don’t want to reach for one of Kelce, Ertz or Kittle, Andrews could provide you the best value among the rest of the pack.

 Spots to Bet or Fade: The Ravens get a pretty easy start, going to Miami week 1 (although this is not a gimme) and then getting the Arizona Cardinals at home week 2. It is very possible for them to be 2-0 and have some fans drinking the kook aid. Then they go to KC week 3. Unless Lamar Jackson made significant changes to his game, I can’t see any chance of him being able to keep up with the Chiefs offense. Anything under 10 will be a likely play; as good as the Ravens defense may be, KC just seems like they have an unstoppable offense.

 Season Win Total: 8 with the over juiced to -145 This is a good total, and I really don’t see value on any side based on the fact that there is so much unknown. The schedule is certainly not easy, but this team feels like anything from 7-9 to 9-7 is possible. No reason to guess here.

Cleveland Browns

Overview: One example of how we are living in a bizarre world and quite possibly inside a matrix is that the Cleveland Browns are public darlings. Ever since I can remember, they were the Doo Doo Browns. Well, there was what one fluke Derek Anderson year, but for almost my entire life, this organization was the laughing stock. And now, they have turned themselves into one of the most fun teams in the league, on paper at least. It is yet to be seen how Odell Beckham Jr fits in, and if Bake Mayfield and build on a very impressive rookie season. We also have to see if Nick Chubb can handle the load of being a bell cow back. This team is extremely young and very inexperienced, but on paper, they should be very hard to beat.

In the coming weeks, many sharp gamblers have discussed how the public perception of this team has actually shifted too far in the other direction; a team that the public used to auto-fade might now be getting too much love. To a degree, they have a point; at one point in the last month their odds to win the Super Bowl were all the way down to +900, which is ridiculous for a team that has still not proven anything on the field. But I am not jumping too far off the bandwagon; the talent on this team is extremely apparent and it would take an injury or a meltdown for them not to be very competitive. The NFL agrees; after a seemingly boring Week 1 home game against the Titans, we will see them on national television three times in the next four weeks. Get used to these guys; we’ll be seeing a lot of them.

 Spots to Bet or Fade: As I posted in my AFC East preview, the Browns Week 2 prime time game in Jersey against the Jets could be a tricky spot. Like the Browns, I think the Jets are set to take a big step forward this year, and a prime time home game might be an opportunity for them to show the country how far they have come. I may look to fade Cleveland there, depending on how they do week 1 and, of course, what the line is.

I don’t see any clear spots to play the Browns at the moment, but they will surely pop up throughout the year. This team should have the offensive fire power to be able to cover spreads against bad teams and keep games close against good teams. You’ll have to stay tuned and continue to follow us throughout the year to see when we are going to bet on them though.

 Season Win Total 9 with the over juiced to -125 and the under juiced to -115 I hate when the books do this; it should be illegal for them to juice both sides! But somewhere between the enormous hype train, and sharps taking back some action on the under, the line has settled here, and it does feel about right. On one hand, if every single thing goes right for this team, they could be an 11 win division winner. But they are still the Browns; the NFL gods don’t like them. And they still may need one more year of seasoning before they are a real threat. No need to pick a side here.

 Cincinnati Bengals

 Overview: With the Browns going from a yearly lock to finish last in the division to an exciting team with all kinds of potential, the Bengals have taken over the title of “team you know is going to finish last in the division.”  This is crazy; that title belonged to the Browns for decades! Speaking of decades, the Bengals FINALLY got rid of Marvin Lewis as their head coach. Lewis, who had been there for 19 years because the organization rewards mediocracy, was replaced by Zac Taylor, one of those “he knew Sean McVay” hires of the off season. Still, this team is not going to be any good this season, and they very likely need a few years to rebuild. The team just doesn’t have any talent aside from star WR AJ Green, who is injured, and RB Joe Mixon, who has to deal with a terrible offensive line.

Andy Dalton is exactly what you don’t want from a QB if you are a fan; good enough that the team never gets rid of him but not good enough to ever have a ceiling higher than one Wild Card playoff game. Talented TE Tyler Eifert is a walking ACL tear, and I guarantee you haven’t heard of most of the other WRs on the roster. This team is really, really bad, and I would be surprised if by November or December they aren’t throwing rookie QB Ryan Finley out there to see if he has starter potential. Finley actually seems exactly like the type of QB who could develop into that same type of QB Dalton is, so the Bengals likely have another decade of .500 football to look forward to.

 Spots to Bet or Fade: AJ Green is likely out for the first month or so, and the rest of the offense is still learning a new system under Taylor, so look to fade this team early and often. They start their season off on the road in Seattle, and the Seahawks are 9 point favorites. I would almost always advise taking the points during week one, but I can’t even recommend that with this team. This team reeks of “start out 0-4 and throw in the towel for the season,” but week 5 at home against the Cardinals might be a decent spot to bet on them. But that is only because I am actively trying to figure out when they could get their wins; there will be more money to be made fading the Bengals then playing them this year.

Season Win Total: 6 with the under juiced to -135.

Look, if this is a 7 win team, I will walk naked from Philly to Cincinnati. Actually, no I won’t, because I don’t want to get arrested, but the under has to be a play here. When you combine the fact that they will be missing AJ Green to start the season with the fact that they will likely be taking and seeing what they have in Finley come December, there is really not a sure fire win on their schedule. This team will be closer to the number one pick than 7-9, book it.

Best bet of the division: It has to be the Bengals. Unless I am missing something, this team is staring 3-13 or 4-12 in the face, and the very best case scenario for them should be 6-10 which would get you a push.

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