2018 AFC North Previews

Pittsburgh Steelers

Market Implied Wins: 10.2

The Steelers won 13 games last season but stumbled in the playoffs, a familiar feeling as of late. The Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh can be split into two sections: his first 7 years averaging 11 wins per season with 3 AFC Titles and the second half of his career averaging 10.4 wins per season with zero Super Bowl appearances. The postseason frustrations and lack of chemistry led to the firing of offensive coordinator Todd Haley after 6 seasons. Roethlisberger will be under pressure to perform with his guy former QB coach Randy Fichtner now calling the plays, but Big Ben’s production is underrated. According to our metrics, Roethlisberger finished as the 6th-most efficient quarterback last season and our QB model has him ranked 6th again for 2018. Fichtner will likely bring a more up-tempo style and I expect JuJu Smith-Schuster to thrive in an expanded role after finishing his rookie year with 2.16 yards per route run, ranking 9th among receivers with at least 50 targets. Le’Veon Bell is holding out and we are not sure when to expect his return, which means we may see more touches for unproven players in the backfield like James Conner and Fitzgerald Toussaint. After finishing as our 6th-rated offense in 2017, we have the Steelers ranked 5th for 2018, but there’s potential for a drop-off if Fichtner cannot call plays at Haley’s level.

Pittsburgh’s defense was significantly worse after losing Ryan Shazier last year, surrendering 5.3 yards per rush and 26.7 points per game without him compared to 4.1 yards per rush and 17.5 points per game prior to his injury. Shazier is replaced by the mediocre Jon Bostic, but I don’t expect the Steelers’ defense to continue playing that poorly because they’ve now had an entire offseason to prepare for life without Shazier. The Steelers were fortunate to finish 8-2 in one-score games last season, but we have them rated as the second-best team in the AFC again. Still, I would lean under on their win total due to the unknowns on both sides of the ball.


Baltimore Ravens

Market Implied Wins: 8.1

The Ravens were much better than their 8-8 record in 2017 ranking 6th in our end-of-season ratings, but a late 4th-down Andy Dalton touchdown pass in week 17 kept them out of the playoffs. Alex Collins progressively got more involved in the offense as the year went on finishing 3rd in success rate among running backs with at least 150 attempts. I expect Baltimore’s ground game to be solid with Collins getting touches from the onset and 5-time All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda back in the trenches after missing nearly all last season. Baltimore’s veteran quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off a bad season and will need to rely on an entirely new wide receiver core this year. Willie Snead ranked 1st in success rate among wide receivers with at least 200 targets during the 2015-2016 seasons but suspensions, injuries, and lack of playing time held him back last year. Michael Crabtree will provide a Redzone threat as his 25 receiving touchdowns the last three seasons rank 5th-most. John Brown struggled to stay on the field the past two years with a sickle cell condition but showed he’s a capable receiver when healthy with a 1000-yard season in 2015. The Ravens also used first and third round picks on tight ends in the draft. Our quarterback model rates Flacco 21st out of 32 starting quarterbacks so he’ll need his new receivers to play up to their potential this season if the Ravens want to be a good team.

Every defender who took a snap in 2017 is back except CB Ladarius Webb from a Ravens’ defense that allowed just 5.6 yards per pass play (4th in the league), but I still expect them to regress. Baltimore faced an extremely soft schedule of opposing quarterbacks with half of their games featuring DeShone Kizer (x2), E.J. Manuel, Mitch Trubisky, Matt Moore, Brett Hundley, Tom Savage, and Jacoby Brissett. The secondary will be without Jimmy Smith for the first four games, which is a blow considering that he has finished top-20 in yards allowed per cover snap each of the past two seasons (we value him at about a half point). Cornerback Tavon Young is coming back after missing all last season with a torn ACL and should be solid if healthy as he surrendered just 0.98 yards per cover snap in 2016 (20thamong CBs). The uncertainty surrounding Smith and Young puts pressure on second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who appears up to the task after not surrendering a touchdown his rookie season.

The Ravens are a .500 team with one playoff win since Flacco signed the huge extension 5 years ago, but this might be the end of the road. We expect Baltimore to miss the playoffs again in 2018 and we’re likely to see Lamar Jackson next season.


Cincinnati Bengals

Market Implied Wins: 6.8

A week 17 victory knocking the divisional rival Ravens out of the playoffs probably saved Marvin Lewis’s job as he’s been the definition of mediocre in his time with the Bengals going 125-119-3 including 0 for 7 in the playoffs since taking over in 2003. Cincinnati’s main issue last year was poor offensive line play after parting ways with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. The Bengals attempted to remedy the situation by turning the 12th pick in the draft into Cordy Glenn and the 21st pick. Glenn will be a significant upgrade at left tackle as he’s surrendered quarterback pressure on 5% of his career pass blocking snaps, which replaces the 9.2% pressures that Cedric Ogbuehi’s allowed. The Bengals then used the 21st pick to take Billy Price, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center.

Tyler Eifert is 2nd among tight ends in Redzone scores since he joined the league, despite playing in less than half of Cincinnati’s games and his health is questionable again going into this season. A.J. Green is now 30 years old, the age wide receivers typically begin to decline, and the rest of quarterback Andy Dalton’s weapons are uninspiring. We expect the Bengals to finish bottom-10 in scoring with little upside.

Cincinnati’s defense will be without Vontaze Burfict to start the season again as he’s suspended for 4 games. Burfict has missed 29 games in his career and the Bengals are 0.3 yards per play worse without him on the field. The good news is Cincinnati’s defense should force more turnovers. The Bengals finished with a 1.96% interception rate despite surrendering just 5.6 yards per pass play (3rd). A high-quality secondary is likely to finish with more interceptions moving forward. Furthermore, Cincinnati’s defense was unlucky to record a league-low 0.2 fumble recoveries per game, a figure unlikely to persist in 2018. We expect the Bengals’ defense to finish below average, even with an improvement in takeaways, meaning this team could be headed towards a top 5 pick and finally the last year of mediocre Marvin Lewis.


Cleveland Browns

Market Implied Wins: 5.9

Coming off the second 0-16 season in NFL history, the Browns added significant pieces on both sides of the ball this Spring. Tyrod Taylor comes over from Buffalo to start under center and he is one of the lowest variance quarterbacks in the league due to his 1.4% career interception rate, the best among all active players with at least 1000 attempts. Cleveland’s quarterbacks threw an interception on 4.9% of their passes in 2017, by far the worst in the league and nearly twice the average rate of 2.5%. The Browns never won the turnover battle last year, but they can feel much more comfortable with Taylor under center. The Browns also added WR Jarvis Landry and will likely have former star WR Josh Gordon available for a full season for the first time since 2014. Gordon has a career 2.16 yards per route run giving the Browns top-10-receiver level production when he is available. Cleveland’s offensive line loses 9-time All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas to retirement and signed league-average tackle Chris Hubbard to avoid playing Shon Coleman, who surrendered the second-most pressures in the NFL last season. Isaiah Crowell’s 32% success rate ranked last among running backs with at least 200 attempts in 2017 and I expect the ground game to improve with the additions of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb. The Browns should be much, much better offensively this season.

Cleveland’s defense wasn’t actually bad last season – they were just put in extremely negative field position situations by their turnover-prone offense – and they look to be improved in talent this season while playing under much better circumstances due to an improved offense. The Browns’ secondary is better after drafting cornerback Denzel Ward 4th-overall and signing CB E.J. Gaines, who is coming off a season where he surrendered just 0.82 yards per cover snap (11th among CBs). Cleveland also signed T.J. Carrie to play nickelback and safety Damarious Randall, who has 10 interceptions since joining the league in 2015 (11th-most). Our model has Cleveland rated as a slightly better than average defense heading into this season.

The Browns are 1-11 under Hue Jackson in one-score games, which is usually a sign of bad luck, but could be the result of incompetent coaching. Cleveland’s offense has a relatively high floor with Tyrod Taylor under center and we expect their defense to finish in the top half of the league. I would lean over on the Browns’ win total, but their new talent will need to overcome their coaching.


Dr Bob Sports NFL Best Bets Service

2016 was the first season using the new play-by-play model and my NFL Best Bets the last two seasons are a very profitable 137-101-2 (58%). Prior to 2016 my NFL Best Bets were based on situational analysis and my original math model, which performed very well for many years but offered very little value in later years. My NFL Best Bets were 57.8% from 1987 through 1998 but were just 50.6% from 1999 through 2012, which is when I decided to stop handicapping the NFL until I had a better model.

The new play-by-play model was introduced in 2016 with very good results and an improvement to the model was introduced starting in week 11 of the 2017 season that improved results (21-10-1 on Best Bets the last 10 weeks of the season). Work was done this summer to fine tune the model and the back-tested results were very good – particularly on totals, which have underperformed the last two seasons. I am very excited about the improvement to the play-by-play predictive model and look forward to a profitable 2018 season.

2016-17 NFL Best Bets were 137-101-2 (57.6%)  – 92-48-2 on sides, 44-48 on totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals.

2016-17 NFL Strong Opinions were 92-71-4 (56.4%) – 41-43-3 sides, 43-27-1 totals, 1-0 1st-half totals, 7-1 Super Bowl prop bets.

2017 NFL Best Bets were 37-32-2 (26-22-2 sides, 10-5 totals, 1-2 1st-half totals, 0-1 team totals, 0-1 teasers, 0-1 season win totals) and Strong Opinions were 28-19 (14-13 sides, 7-4 totals, 1-1 1st-half totals, 6-1 Super Bowl prop bets).

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Dr Bob College Football Best Bets Service

My College Football Best Bets are 2038-1679-64 (55%) on a Star Basis for +219.6 Stars Since 1999 (+222.7 Stars on Sides, -32.7 Stars on Totals, and +29.6 Stars on season win totals and futures) and the Strong Opinions are a profitable 637-560-15 (578-498-14 on Sides and 59-62-1 on Totals).

My 2017 College Best Bets were a decent 56-47-2 but I feel my level of handicapping was better than that record. My 101 Best Bets (excluding the 4 season win totals) combined to cover by a total of 229 points, which is an average of +2.3 points, despite my side Best Bets being -9 in fumble margin, which is random and worth about 36 points. A line differential of +2.3 points would normally equate to a win percentage of 56.1% winners, which is the best indicator of my handicapping level in 2016.

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