The race for top spot in the AFC North may be the toughest division battle to call ahead of the 2014 NFL season.
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers hold the early edge in betting circles, each with odds of 2/1 to claim the AFC North title, according to OddsShark.com.
The Bengals dominated the AFC North in 2013 with an 11-5 record, including a perfect 8-0 home record, to finish three games ahead of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but it's hard to imagine the Steelers and Ravens both stumbling to .500 campaigns once again.
The Bengals expect another step forward from fourth-year quarterback Andy Dalton
, who threw for over 300 yards on five occasions last season, including a five-touchdown performance in a 49-9 destruction of the New York Jets
in Week 8. After crashing out of the postseason on wild-card weekend, the Bengals locked up their signal-caller on a six-year extension that will keep him in Cincinnati for as long as he meets the team's ever-growing expectations. Despite an offense that should once again be one of the league's most potent units, the Bengals' regular season win total is pegged at just nine in NFL props wagering, with odds of 4/5 to finish under that total. They open with a tough road test in Baltimore and are just 1-6
against the spread in their past seven divisional road games.
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The Steelers are looking to return to the postseason after a two-year absence and enter 2014 with strong Super Bowl odds of 28/1, well ahead of the Bengals and Ravens, who both sit at 40/1. Pittsburgh has shown patience while rebuilding the past two seasons, and it may pay off in 2014. The Steelers have posted back-to-back 8-8 seasons but took a major step forward in the second half of 2013, winning six of their last eight games while averaging 26.6 points per game over that stretch.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown fueled the Steelers’ second half surge, and with former running mate Emmanuel Sanders now with the Broncos, Brown enters 2014 with solid 16/1 odds of emerging as this season’s receiving yards leader in NFL player props wagering.
The Ravens took a step back in 2013 following their 2012 Super Bowl-winning campaign, losing six of their first 10 games to quickly fall out of contention. Baltimore rebounded in the second half, winning four of its last six games, and start 2014 as a 10/13 bet to post over eight regular season total wins.
Former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco
will need to improve on his brutal numbers from 2013, when he threw 22 interceptions against just 19 touchdowns. Flacco gets NFL MVP consideration in player props wagering, but as a 100/1 longshot.
Rounding out the division are the Cleveland Browns, with 5/1 odds to claim their first division title since 1989. The Browns finished 4-12 in 2013, the fifth time they've posted that record in the past 10 years. However, Cleveland's 2014 regular season win total is set at 6.5, with the over favored on moneyline odds of 20/27.
Fueling optimism in Cleveland is the arrival of rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. Drafted 22nd overall in May's draft, Manziel will watch from the sidelines as veteran Brian Hoyer leads the offense in the season's opening weeks, but if the Browns struggle, he could be thrown into the action to keep fan interest high. Manziel is among the top early candidates to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, with 25/1 odds available in specials betting that Manziel will be the NFL’s top rookie and lead the Browns to a playoff berth in 2014.
2014 NFL division preview: AFC North
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks previews the AFC North for the 2014 NFL season.