Summer is the eternal season of NFL optimism. Team’s have just completed OTA’s, and all the news you hear from local beat reporters is glowing. You’re certain your team’s first-round pick is a stud; all new hires look like geniuses; and any players coming off injury look “sharp.”
No wonder it’s around this time of year that oddsmakers release win totals. Everyone thinks so highly of their team. Looking at the upcoming schedule and circling easy wins leaves your team going “no worse than 12-4.” Those fans with a sunny outlook on every season: they’re always the victims of win total betting.
The fact is, win totals favor the under. There are only 256 possible wins in an NFL season and there’s usually about one tie per season (not to mention a rule change that could cause even more). Yet, this year, bookmakers released totals equalling around 259.5 wins. That’s why you typically see more teams hit the under than over.
In fact, in the last two seasons, teams are 25-35-4 against their regular season win total. Bettors need to have a healthy skepticism when looking at win totals for the 2017 NFL season. And if you aren’t capable of that level of mistrust, then you’re lucky I’m here.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll go through each division in the league and pick a win total bet for each team. And it won’t take too long for you to start noticing a trend with these picks.
[Editor’s note: once you’ve figured it out, and the season rolls around, you can make your wagers on any of our top-rated sites.]
Today we start with the AFC North.
AFC North Win Totals
Pittsburgh Steelers: Under 10.5
It’s clear why there’s such an appeal in betting the Steelers over: when the “Killer B’s” are all healthy, Pittsburgh should be unstoppable! Take it from someone whose fantasy team has lived and died with two of the “Big Three”: they aren’t unstoppable.
Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown managed to stay on the field together for 11 total games last season, compiling an 8-3 record. But the result was not exactly a juggernaut offense that mixed together a terrifying aerial attack and a dominant ground game. Instead, it was an offense that leaned on Bell to generate over 40-percent of its total yards, while Roethlisberger tried not to give the game away.
It may sound like harsh criticism for the future Hall of Fame QB, but he was not up to his usual standard last season, passing for just 7.5 yards per attempt and throwing interceptions at the same rate as Blake Bortles (2.6-percent). At 35 years old and in the back end of a career that has been riddled with injuries, Roethlisberger even mulled retiring over the offseason. Expecting some incredible, resurgent season in 2017 would seem like a stretch. This offense will go as far as Bell carries it.
Adding to concerns is the fact that Roethlisberger’s road splits continued to be dumbfounding in 2016. At Heinz Field, he had a passer rating of 116.7. Away from home, it was a lowly 78.4. Over the past three seasons, there’s been a 26.4-point difference between his home and away passer rating, by far the biggest mark in the league.
That inability to perform on the road makes the win-counting game difficult when looking at the Steelers schedule. You can’t automatically pen them in to beat unimpressive teams like the Bears or Colts, because that’s the spot where Roethlisberger has historically thrown three interceptions and cost them the game.
As for the Steelers’ defense, there’s a belief that the pass rush should be much improved this season, despite the fact that they continue to rely on 39-year-old James Harrison to contribute. Even with J.J. Watt’s brother (T.J.) joining the fray , the Steelers showed last season that they can’t effectively generate a rush without blitzing like crazy. Those exotic looks work well against inexperienced quarterbacks (they racked up 15 of their 38 sacks against the Browns and a Colts team quarterbacked by Scott Tolzien), but won’t consistently work against the league’s best.
The Steelers just seem to be a team of perennial underachievers. They never reach their lofty goals, and I don’t expect them to start now. Pittsburgh may very well remain the division winner in the North this year, but reaching the 11-win mark is not something I see this team repeating.
Baltimore Ravens: Over 9
After picking on Big Ben’s regression, it feels hypocritical to turn around and back a team led by Joe Flacco. Like Roethlisberger, the Ravens’ former Super Bowl MVP has been on the decline since 2014 — the last time Baltimore made the playoffs. However, Flacco’s struggles are slightly more defensible, since last season he was coming off an ACL tear and didn’t have nearly the same weapons as Big Ben.
Regardless, I’m not recommending the Ravens over because of lofty expectations for this passing game (although Danny Woodhead should make the most out of Flacco’s dump-offs). Instead, Baltimore is an attractive play because of defensive potential. Despite ranking sixth in defensive DVOA and tying for fourth in takeaways, the Ravens invested their first four draft picks on the defensive side of the ball: CB Marlon Humphrey, 16th overall; OLB Tyus Bowser, 47th overall; DE, Chris Wormley, 74th overall; OLB Tim Williams, 78th overall. And they added impact free agents Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson in the secondary.
Heading into the season, Baltimore’s defense appears to have the depth and star power to rank as one of the league’s best. The Ravens offense won’t need to score much to pull out games. Led by a powerful offensive line, this team should be capable of at least getting a push this season with nine wins.
As for random statistical nuggets that may help convince you to take the over, consider that the Ravens haven’t missed the playoffs in three-straight seasons since 1999. Also worth noting: since 2012, every AFC North runner-up has gone on to win the division the following season.
Cincinnati Bengals: Under 8.5
Ask yourself this: what went wrong with the Bengals last year? It wasn’t injury luck: they had the third-fewest adjusted games lost according to Football Outsiders. It wasn’t a huge down year for Andy Dalton: he posted the second-best passer rating in his six-year career. Their aging defense was worse, but it hardly fell off a cliff, dropping from 10th in defensive DVOA in 2015 to 18th last year.
All in all, Cincy appeared to just be an average team weighed down by a porous offensive line and a lack of playmakers on offense. The Bengals used three of their first five draft picks to solve the latter issue, but have done little to address the former. After allowing 41 sacks last season, Cincinnati lost its two best offensive lineman in free agency, and they’ll be in tough to replace that production.
Is the return of Tyler Eifert and a slew of rookies enough to boost this offense all the way back to losing in the Wild Card round? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. The Bengals need a three-win improvement to pass this mark, and I’m just not that high on their chances.
Cleveland Browns: Under 4.5
Though they’re coming off a one-win season, Browns fans have to be feeling pretty spectacular about the direction their team is headed. Cleveland has been stockpiling draft picks like mad over the past two seasons, and this year we’ll start to learn if any of them can play. Beyond Joe Haden and an offensive line of known blue-chippers (minus Cameron Erving), the Browns’ roster is basically one giant question mark.
That should make this a fun season for Cleveland fans. Instead of entering the season knowing your team sucks, you enter the year with cautious optimism that this could be the breakout season for guys like Corey Coleman or David Njoku. All these young unknowns make the Browns a tough team to forecast: maybe they’ll be substantially better than 29th in offensive DVOA?
Personally, I won’t financially back a team with almost no big-league experience at the skill positions to win five games; but I could understand if others want to. Most of these kids haven’t been around long enough to have the Browns’ losing stink on them, so they really don’t know any better. Perhaps a four-win improvement could happen in Hue Jackson’s second season … unless Brock Osweiler wins the starting job. If so, the over bettors have essentially flushed their money away.