AFC North Betting Preview: How Should You Handle the Browns?
Training camps are under way, and the NFL season is fast approaching.
It's a great time to place some futures bets.
Let's take a look at the AFC North and see where there's betting value to be had.
Browns to Win the Division (+230)
As things stand, Deshaun Watson is going to be suspended for six games. While that could change with the news of the NFL appealing the suspension, we'll operate under the assumption it won't. Who knows if it will -- but the numbers for the Baltimore Ravens (+175 to win the division) and Cincinnati Bengals (+200) have barely moved (Baltimore to +170) since said news broke, so it seems like books aren't anticipating a drastic change to Watson's suspension.
With it, at times, looking like a year-long suspension might be the outcome, the news of a six-game ban has to be considered a win for the Cleveland Browns. The AFC North was already expected to be a tightly contested division, and now our numbers are backing the Browns.
Watson might be rusty after sitting out all of 2021, but assuming he eventually finds his groove, it's hard to overstate how much of an improvement he is over Baker Mayfield. Back in 2020, Watson's last season, he ranked fifth among all quarterbacks in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back with a clip of 0.28, meaning Watson gained 0.28 expected points for his team each time he dropped back. Mayfield, meanwhile, finished 2021 with a mark of 0.00 Passing NEP per drop back. Yes, 0.00.
Cleveland is getting a huge upgrade -- one of the game's elite -- under center once Watson is eligible to play.
Compared to their NFC North foes, the Browns also have an edge in the schedule department, slotting in with the eighth-easiest schedule in the league, per Sharp Football. Due to a third-place finish in the division last year, Cleveland gets same-place games versus the Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and Washington Commanders. Washington and Houston rank in the bottom 10 of the league by our nERD metric.
And a crucial component to the Browns' schedule -- it starts off pretty light, meaning they should be able to keep their head above water sans Watson.
Cleveland opens with the Carolina Panthers, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons over the first four weeks -- pretty dang nice -- before finishing up their non-Watson stretch against the Ravens and New England Patriots. All of those first four opponents sit 22nd or worse by nERD.
There are a lot of moving parts here, with the most obvious one being the length of Watson's ban. But if it holds at six games, the Browns are awfully appealing at this +230 price.
Our model has Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincy in a tight three-team race for the AFC North. We give no team better than a 32.5% chance to win it, but the squad with the division-best 32.5% chance, per our numbers, is Cleveland.
Steelers Under 7.5 Wins (-115)
One of the more stable franchises in the league, the Steelers haven't had a losing record since 2003. They face a tall task to keep that streak alive.
Our numbers have Pittsburgh as the clear-cut worst team in the division. The Steelers check in 22nd with a nERD of -1.92 -- which is their expected margin of victory against an average opponent on a neutral field. The three other AFC North teams are ranked 10th through 12th. Yikes.
In addition to a brutal in-division schedule, the Steelers' same-place games are rough due to their second-place finish in 2021, with Pittsburgh getting the Las Vegas Raiders, Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles. According to Sharp Football, the Steelers actually have the toughest schedule in the division (because they don't get to play themselves) and the league's fourth-most difficult schedule overall.
Pittsburgh starts with a tough eight-game run versus the Bengals, Patriots, Browns, Jets, Buffalo Bills, Bucs, Miami Dolphins and Eagles. Of those eight, the Jets are the only team ranked worse than 20th by nERD. It's just hard to find many games on the schedule where you can say, "Yep, that's an easy W for Pittsburgh."
On top of all that, this is a Steelers team that was due for regression. Pittsburgh won nine games last year despite a -55 point differential, a number which was the third-worst in the AFC. They had a Pythagorean expected win total of 6.9.
Guess how many wins we forecast for the Steelers this year? 6.9.
Pittsburgh should have a super stout defense -- we rank their D ninth-best -- but that will likely be more than offset by what we project to be the league's seventh-worst offense.
There's a decent chance Mitchell Trubisky and/or Kenny Pickett outplays the 2021 version of Ben Roethlisberger. But unless one of those two really takes a step forward and gets Pittsburgh's offense performing at an above-average level, it's hard to see how this team does well in 2022.