It?s not entirely fair to compare Joe Flacco to the CEO who signs off on a $10 million personal-performance bonus while at the same time signing pink slips for his minions in the name of company-wide belt-tightening. Then again, it?s not entirely fair that I can?t call Steve Wynn daddy.
With respect to Flacco, the Ravens quarterback gambled on himself in a big way last year and hit the jackpot, parlaying a Super Bowl victory and MVP into a six-year, $120.6 million contract, complete with a $29 million signing bonus. Great for Joe; not so great for Joe?s teammates. Because after Flacco cashed in, several key Ravens were forced to check out. Among the departed: receiver Anquan Boldin, linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, perennial All-Pro Ed Reed and fellow safety Bernard Pollard. And then there?s center Matt Birk and linebacker/team leader/Jesus disciple Ray Lewis, both of whom retired.
Now you know why the projected win total for Baltimore, which has won at least nine games in all five seasons since Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh arrived, is just 8?. I?m sure this is keeping Flacco up late at night?well, either that or the waves crashing against his yacht. Can the overhauled Ravens gel quickly enough to become the seventh straight defending Super Bowl champ to win at least nine games the following season? Read on, as I continue my division-by-division NFL win-total recommendations with the AFC North (note: I?m using the best available odds from the LVH, William Hill, Cantor Gaming and Station Casinos) ?
Browns (6 wins): Whoever is responsible for engraving office-door nameplates over at Browns headquarters deserves a raise. In the last year, Cleveland has welcomed a new owner, CEO, general manager, head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators. (No news on the water boy?s status.) While such upheaval is usually ridiculed in the NFL?where the phrase ?organizational stability? is eclipsed only by ?you?re under arrest??it was a must for the Browns, who in the last five years have won just 23 games (by comparison, the Ravens have won 22 over the last two years, playoffs not included).
Given the leadership makeover and the fact Cleveland has won more than six games just three times since 1999, the ?under? looks to be a lock. But I believe in the Browns? defense (which was solid last year and will be even better in 2013). I believe their early schedule is favorable (four of their first six games at home, all winnable). And most of all, I believe the oddsmakers are trying to tell us something with this number. The play: OVER (-130, LVH).
Bengals (8?): How?s this for a start to the season? Bears (road), Steelers, Packers, Browns (road), Patriots, Bills (road) and Lions (road). Now, how?s this for a stat? The Bengals, who went 9-7 in 2011 and 10-6 in 2012, haven?t posted three straight winning seasons since 1975-77 ? back in the days of 14-game schedules. If that?s not enough to fade the Bengals, there?s this: They have to face quarterbacks Flacco (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. Also, just three of Cincy?s 10 wins last year were against opponents that finished with a winning record. The play: UNDER (+120, Cantor).
Ravens (8?): 33-7. That?s Baltimore?s regular-season home record in the Flacco/Harbaugh era, including at least six victories in all five seasons. So let?s say that streak continues in 2013?plausible, in that the Ravens figure to beat the Browns, Bengals, Jets and Vikings at home, and at least split against the Texans, Packers, Steelers and Patriots. At that point, Baltimore would need three road wins to get to 9-7?and its travel itinerary includes stops in Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland and Detroit. Note, too, that the Ravens are an underdog in just two of their first 15 games. Plus, I?m sure Ray Lewis left his deer-antler spray spirit in the locker room. The play: OVER (-130, William Hill).
Steelers (9): Three things you don?t see very often in Pittsburgh: treadmills, supermodel photographers and back-to-back subpar seasons from the beloved Steelers. To that latter point, Pittsburgh, which went 8-8 last year, has had consecutive non-winning seasons just once since 1987! Not counting their six divisional contests, the Steelers have five gimmes in 2013 (Titans, Vikings, Jets, Raiders, Bills), two additional very winnable home games (Lions, Dolphins) and just two tough road trips (New England, Green Bay). And of their final eight opponents, only three (Ravens, Bengals, Packers) made the playoffs last year. The play: OVER (-135, Station).
Best Bet: Steelers-OVER
Next Week: AFC South