The AFC North is one of the most tightly-contested and densely-talented divisions in the NFL. In 2020, three members represented the AFC North in the Playoffs, the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns. Two of those teams won their first-round matchup, but failed to reach the AFC Championship Game. It’s highlighted by strong rushing attacks and young quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, and Baker Mayfield.
Baltimore and Cleveland are some of the most dangerous upstart teams in the league that should continue to contend for years to come. The AFC North is ready to strike again in 2021. This page will break down the landscape of the division, look back on 2020, and lay out the past 11 division winners.
Before diving into it all, a word of advice: shop around. Just because one site offers the Steelers at +325 doesn’t mean that’s the best offer out there. Looking at different outlets such as DraftKings Sportsbook, FanDuel Sportsbook and Caesars Sportsbook can maximize earnings with just a few minutes of browsing.
2021 AFC North odds
2020 AFC North results
At a glance, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a very successful 2020 season; they finished 12-4 and secured another AFC North crown. However, Steelers fans can’t help but feel disappointed and pessimistic about the future after seeing the team collapse late in the year. Week 12 saw Pittsburgh stand 11-0 and looking like clear favorites to contend with the defending-champion Chiefs. They proceeded to drop four of their last five games and were bounced at home in the AFC Wild Card round to arch-rival Cleveland. Ben Roethlisberger looked spent (though he opted for another season) and star JuJu Smith-Schuster was viewed as a distraction more than a help. Regardless, Mike Tomlin continues to exert his dominance as one of the top coaches in the NFL.
Lamar Jackson didn’t replicate his 2019 MVP numbers, but the Ravens’ rushing attack was one of the most dangerous in the league in 2020. Baltimore finished 11-5 and managed to get revenge on the Titans, who knocked them out of the 2019 playoffs. It was Jackson’s first playoff victory– erasing a stigma that’s been following him since his rookie season. The Ravens also fielded one of the most efficient defenses after signing multiple studs like Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. There’s still unfinished business that John Harbaugh needs to capitalize on while his corps is still young, but the Ravens continue to be a threat week-in and week-out.
The story of the 2020 division nationally was the emergence of the Cleveland Browns. Under eventual-Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski, the Browns were able to piece their talent together and find the winning formula. They finished 11-5– their best mark since returning to Cleveland, landed their first playoff berth since 2002, and their first playoff win since 1995. Their backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt gave opposing defenses nightmares and Myles Garrett put together an All-Pro season. No story about the 2020 Browns would be complete without mention of their stellar offensive line, which was ranked the best unit in the NFL by PFF. For once, the horizon is bright for Cleveland.
Optimism reigned supreme for the Cincinnati Bengals after Heisman winner and first overall pick Joe Burrow appeared to be working out. That is, until Burrow was lost for the season with a catastrophic knee injury. 2020 was always supposed to be a learning year for the Bengals under Zac Taylor, but the final six weeks of the season felt like Cincinnati had checked out. The goal moving forward was clear– protect the franchise quarterback and get him a WR1.
2021 AFC North outlook and predictions
The 2021 season feels different for the Ravens. After a couple years of figuring out how best to utilize their offensive personnel, Baltimore appears to be capitalizing on strengths and addressing weaknesses. Their lack of pass catchers put a damper on their Super Bowl hopes, so the Ravens went and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round. Some of their older defensive pieces were going to hold up cap space, so the Ravens parted ways with Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. Lamar Jackson is undoubtably back and the Ravens are geared for another AFC North title, being listed at . However, the hurdles of the Chiefs, Bills, and now division-rival Browns are tall.
For the first time in decades, the Browns have finally struck the balance between respect and hype. Storylines surrounded this team for the past three seasons, but two of those ended in Browns-esque duds; finally 2020 provided proof that this team is headed in the right direction. Like Baltimore, the weaknesses of the Browns were clearly addressed this offseason, namely the lack of depth in the defensive secondary. In comes John Johnson, Troy Hill, and rookie Greg Newsome to sure-up their talented existing corps of Denzel Ward and Grant Delpit. To the chagrin of offensive lines everywhere, they also landed Jadaveon Clowney in free agency to play across from Myles Garrett. For the first time in decades, the Browns are seen as a legitimate threat, and they now have a season of credibility to back them up.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Steelers aren’t looking much different in 2021. After coming off a 12-4 season, that must be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Glaring problems down the stretch of last season are still ever-present, including the now-expired arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the lack of a good offensive line. They also lost stars on defense like Bud Dupree. However, the number-one lesson learned in the NFL is to never count out established veterans; like Tom Brady in last year’s Super Bowl. Mike Tomlin has proven time and time again that he is capable of creating a winning football team no matter the circumstances. This year, they also bring in one of the most dangerous rookies drafted, Najee Harris. The re-introduction of an effective run game could turn the page of the 2020 Steelers and turn that 12-4 into a playoff-winning 12-4.
With the fifth pick in the NFL Draft, the Bengals were at a can’t-lose fork in the road: All American offensive tackle Penei Sewell or generational pass catching talent Ja’Marr Chase (they went with the latter). Joe Burrow gets back his favorite teammate from the 2019 LSU Tigers who posted 20 touchdowns in just 15 games. Reports from camp say that Burrow will be 100% coming off his gruesome knee injury suffered in Week 10 of 2020. They also sured up the offensive line with Riley Reiff and the defensive secondary with Mike Hilton and Ricardo Allen. While Cincy isn’t expected to make a playoff run, it appears their years of total ineptitude and misfortune are behind them.
Past AFC North division winners
* Super Bowl champion
How to bet on NFL division winners
To reiterate advice given here, shop around before diving headlong into the first bet you see; different outlets offer different odds and a minute or two of your time could result in some more money coming your way.
When reading an odds table, there’s several numbers of note. The first is the odds, which tells you who is favored (lower numbers are favored) and how much a successful bet would earn you. For example, a $100 bet on Cleveland (+145) would win you $145 with a total payout of $245. Next is the handle, which tells you what percentage of the total amount bet on the AFC North division winner each team commands. For example, the Bengals have 3% of the handle– meaning 3% of all money bet on the AFC North winner has gone to the Bengals. Last is the percentage of bets, which refers to the number of bets– not the amount– wagered on each team. The Ravens have 56% of all bets, which doesn’t reflect how much was bet (the Ravens have 48% of the handle, meaning smaller betting amounts are being placed on the Ravens).
The variability in the AFC North is what makes it so fun to watch– Lamar Jackson looks like a Madden create-a-player and the Browns look like a Madden fantasy draft franchise (if you skewed the order). The betting is fairly straightforward, but could reap serious benefits should the cards lay right. Regardless, it’s must-watch football.
NFL division betting previews
|AFC East||NFC East|
|AFC North||NFC North|
|AFC South||NFC South|
|AFC West||NFC West|