AFC North Over/Unders: Playing Chicken with the Cleveland Browns
Bryan: Hello and welcome back to Scramble for the Ball as we wrap up the last of our over/under articles for the year. Sad times, I know. Soon we'll be forced to talk about actual things that have happened rather than things that might possibly happen, and who wants that?
We wrap things up with the AFC North, and if we haven't necessarily saved the best for last, we have saved some of the most interesting. I hesitate to call the North the best division in football, but I will go out on a limb and say that it's the division with the most potential in football. I can see logical paths for all four teams to be contenders in 2021—some longer and less likely than others, but I don't think there's a guaranteed flop in the bunch.
Andrew: I agree that there are three teams here who have a viable path to contention. I find your perspective on the fourth intriguing, and sense impending disagreement.
Bryan: The fun thing is, I have no idea which of three possible teams we could be disagreeing on! Always nice to save some contention for the very end.
Note: "Last Over" and "Last Under" below list the last time each team went over this year's over/under number. Yes, that's awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. We're waiting for the commissioner to respond to our angry letters.
Baltimore Ravens (11)
Last Over: 2019 (Head Coach: John Harbaugh; Quarterback: Lamar Jackson)
Last Under: 2018 (John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco)
Bryan: I'm going to take a wild guess that you agree that the Ravens are contenders. Along with the Buccaneers, they're one of two teams that Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 projects to finish in the top 10 on both offense and defense. There's not a game on their schedule where I'd be surprised if they won—not that they're favorites in every single matchup, mind you, but nothing that looks insurmountable.
Andrew: Right. The Ravens were already one of the handful of teams who would have been considered a contender this year, even before they addressed their biggest weakness with both their first-round pick and a free-agency acquisition from their major conference rival. They have, for my money, the best defense of any AFC contender, and they have won at least 10 games in every season since drafting their current quarterback. Said quarterback is just 24 years old and already has a league MVP to his name, and now has a better set of targets than he has had in any of his first three seasons. There's nothing not to like, here.
Bryan: Right. I don't see any realistic path, barring massive injury, that would end up with the Ravens having a losing record in 2021. I can make a case for the possibility of them being merely OK-to-good rather than Super Bowl contenders, in the worst-case scenario. With a double-digit line to work with, that could be relevant.
The Ravens' lack of success throwing outside isn't just a narrative; it has been a real issue compared to their efficiency everywhere else. The Ravens are counting on Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman to help widen Lamar Jackson's proverbial passing cone, but it's at least conceivable that Jackson could continue to struggle there; he had the 35th-highest completion rate outside the numbers last year, which isn't what you expect from a player who is MVP-level in so many aspects of his game. They have lost Orlando Brown and Matt Judon, and they're notably thin at edge rusher. You can poke holes in the roster if you are inclined to do so.
Andrew: However, even with those issues, Jackson is still an electrifying player. The Ravens have usually drafted well enough that they have replacements ready when players leave in free agency, particularly on defense. Given an extra game to work with for a team that usually wins two-thirds of its games, 11 wins is pretty much the floor of the team's performance over the past three years. They're comfortably better than six of their opening seven opponents, and four of their final 10. It's possible that I'm relying too much on track record rather than the current roster, but this coaching staff has a pretty strong track record.
Bryan: Having a great head coach and a great quarterback does pave over a lot of concerns, doesn't it? When you're running out John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson, you can kind of trust a lot of the rest of things to take care of themselves.
Andrew: Plus, like you said, there isn't a game on the schedule it would be a surprise to see the Ravens win. Both of their toughest contests are at home, against Kansas City and Green Bay. It's arguable that the Rams will be their third-toughest opponent outside the division, and that game's at home, too. Every road game is winnable. They won't win them all, but they'll win enough of them. When 10 wins is the floor, there's not enough room to fall under this line. Even if the division is better than last year, which I'm not sure it will be, a relatively COVID-free season makes this an over.
Bryan: Yeah, my argument for the Ravens being merely good was more devil's advocate than anything else. I think this is the easiest pick in the division this year. They'll lose a few games that they could win, finish 13-4 or so, and comfortably hit the over.
Cincinnati Bengals (6.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Marvin Lewis/Andy Dalton)
Last Under: 2020 (Zac Taylor/Joe Burrow)
Bryan: The path to contendership is Joe Burrow taking that leap into the kind of player the Bengals assumed he would be when taking him first overall, Ja'Marr Chase and the receiving corps flashing, and Cincinnati winning a lot of 40-30 games on their way to 10-7 or so.
Andrew: The path to contention? I don't see it. At all. For me, the path to being kinda competitive against other bad teams is Burrow taking a leap forward. That might just about overcome the hot mess that is the rest of the Zac Taylor Bengals.
Bryan: The other path, of course, is that the Bengals' offensive line is made of Swiss cheese—and worse yet, the offcuts from the block of cheese that other teams didn't want. Burrow spends all his time on his back, the defense is about as firm as Jell-O on a hot day, Taylor continues to fail to show anything that would make you understand why he was hired as head coach, and Cincinnati falls to 2-15 and are drafting first next year.
So, you know, two roads diverging in a yellow wood and all that.
Andrew: Joe Burrow started 10 games last year. He played quite well. The Bengals went 2-7-1 in those 10 games. This year, he's rushing back quicker than expected from a multi-ligament knee injury, major surgery that reportedly still had him looking uncomfortable in training camp.
Bryan: The fact that Burrow still looks uncomfortable shouldn't come as a huge surprise, considering his knee injury was bad enough that there were some doubts as to whether he'd start 2021, or even play at all in the worst-case scenario. It also dampens the path to that best-case scenario even further!
Andrew: Right. While rehabilitation now is better than it used to be, historically, quarterbacks have taken about 18 months to get back to their previous level after ACL surgery. Burrow's previous level is "rookie on a bad team." Chase might turn out to be a great pick in the long term, but right now he's playing (understandably) like a guy who has barely seen the field for 18 months. I like Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, but as you say that's no use if Burrow's flat on his back. There's no evidence that Taylor and this offensive staff can keep him upright.
Bryan: Stay tuned for our hit spinoff game show, Why Did Team X Pass On Penei Sewell?
Andrew: In our NFC North article, I alluded to Matt Nagy being one of the coaches who I think could be first to vacate his position in 2021. The only reason Taylor isn't ahead of him is I don't expect the Bengals to make that move midseason. This line is 6.5 wins. That's the total from Taylor's previous two seasons combined, after inheriting a roster that hadn't fallen below six wins since 2010 under Marvin Lewis. Our old rookie coaches article from Taylor's first season noted that good head coaches will usually show something in their first year or two that marks them out as a good head coach. What is that with Taylor, because I just don't see it?
Bryan: No, I'm with you there. The joke when Taylor was hired was that he once stood in line for coffee behind Sean McVay, making him the league's hottest head coaching hire. Since then, there has been nothing worth writing home about, nothing the Bengals have done that should inspire any confidence from anyone. Taylor has a worse record than David Shula had with the Bengals after his first two seasons, and that took some doing. I will point out that the Bengals have had some injury trouble and problems outside of Taylor's control, but that happens to every head coach to one level or another. Good coaches show the ability to overcome poor situations. We have yet to see Taylor do that. He has talked plenty about building a culture, but at some point, that culture has to develop into wins, and so far, nothing.
Andrew: Now I'll concede that it's not all doom and gloom. There's some talent on this roster, headlined by Burrow and the receiver group, but also Jessie Bates, D.J. Reader, and Trey Hendrickson. The trouble is that those are good players, not good units. I don't see anything, save a miraculous recovery from Burrow, that I can point at and say, "that's where Cincinnati will contend this year." Joseph Ossai would have been a key part of the edge rotation opposite Hendrickson, but he's possibly out from the year with a meniscus injury. Logan Wilson could develop into something, but even if he develops into Ray Lewis the defense is likely to be bad. The Bengals would be better off taking this season the way the Jets will: get as much around the franchise quarterback as you can, see how much of that sticks, and hope for signs that 2022 will be better. They're at best the fourth-best team in the division, and at worst the fourth-worst team in the conference. Under.
Bryan: I hold out a tiny more candle of optimism than you do, but it's a faint, flickering light based on some Panglossian levels of quarterback-to-receiver optimism. Joe Burrow (or his injury replacements) will get sacked 50 times, the Bengals will stumble to double-digit losses, and the Bengals ownership will check to see if Sean McVay knows anyone named Millard Fillmore to take over as head coach next year. Under.
Cleveland Browns (10.5)
Last Over: 2020 (Kevin Stefanski/Baker Mayfield)
Last Under: 2019 (Freddie Kitchens/Baker Mayfield)
Bryan: Two weeks ago, commenter Yeizzo made an effort to predict how we would predict the teams in the final four divisions; the sort of meta commentary which catches my attention. They're batting .500, as we have been a little less predictable than they would have hoped, but they doubled down on Cleveland, saying with 100% confidence that we would both take the under.
Andrew: Is this where you take the over just to spite him, the over comes in, and you claim it was more foresight than for spite?
Bryan: Only one of us has to take the over to prove him wrong! I think what we may have here is a game of chicken, seeing which of us will bite the bullet and make the argument for an 11-6 Cleveland Browns team.
Andrew: The argument for an 11-6 Cleveland Browns team is very straightforward. The Browns have the best rushing game in the league, and they're not afraid to use it. Kevin Stefanski, freed from the shackles of Mike Zimmer, is a much smarter coach than we thought he was, empowering Baker Mayfield to play like the best version of himself with optimal designs and strong situational play calling. The defense, which we expect to be the weak point, is being grossly underestimated, as historic performance is outweighed by the frankly excellent additions they have made on that side of the ball. They get to play each of the Texans, Bengals (twice), and Lions, three of the four worst teams in the sport. They only need to come out one game ahead against the rest of their schedule to hit the over.
Bryan: It's easy to see why the Almanac disagrees. Despite their first playoff win since 1994, the Browns still had a negative DVOA last season, clocking in at -5.7%, the second-worst 11-5 team in DVOA history. They put up just 7.7 estimated wins. By the numbers, last year's team was lucky to be anywhere near contention.
Then again, that may not be the best way to judge them. Their season-long DVOA last year is being destroyed by two early-season losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as well as their Week 16 COVID-induced loss to the Jets, the game in which they had zero wide receivers to work with. While we have never found any evidence that throwing out an outlier game gives us a better estimate of a team's true talent, you can make the argument that the team got better as the year went on and Stefanski and company got more comfortable with one another, after a very difficult offseason to be starting with a new offensive regime. The team moved in the right direction over the course of the year, which—coupled with those excellent defensive additions in Jadeveon Clowney, John Johnson, Troy Hill, and so on—have bolstered the team sufficiently enough to shut down the Factory of Sadness for good ... right?
Andrew: I'm going to be slightly more guarded in this paragraph than I was in the previous and note that I do think the Browns are getting slightly ahead of themselves when they take aim at the Chiefs, Bills, and even the Ravens. Cleveland finished third in the division last year, getting into the playoffs thanks in part to a weaker-than-expected wild-card field. They're not the finished article yet.
However, I'm not just playing devil's advocate with what I said before: the Browns roster is significantly better this year than last. Johnson and Troy Hill are fantastic additions to the secondary. The young cornerbacks haven't put it all together yet, but I'm confident somebody will emerge from the group. Anthony Walker is a big addition at inside linebacker, and the ability to rotate Clowney and Takk McKinley situationally should help get the best out of both. We tagged the defense as the biggest reason to be concerned about the Browns, but for me, it's one of the reasons to fancy their chances.
Bryan: If this was a 9.5-win line, maybe you could talk me into the over. I think Stefanski has moved the Browns out of the era where they were laughingstocks, which is a hell of an accomplishment considering where this franchise has been for 20 years. I don't see the Browns having double-digit losses this year barring injury, and the last time we could say that with any confidence was ... what, when Marty Schottenheimer was running the team? The trajectory is upwards, but it's not there just yet for me. I think this is a 9-8, 10-7 sort of team that is more in the mix for a wild card than they are for that Super Bowl berth their fans are climbing on board for. It's an under for me, as the line's just a win too high.
Andrew: To me, they're pretty clearly the second-best team in the AFC North. They have a higher ceiling than the Steelers, albeit probably a lower floor. The schedule opens with a tough trip to Kansas City, but they're comfortably better than five of their next six opponents, and that's before they play Cincinnati (twice) or Detroit. The Browns aren't losing every game they play against the Steelers and Ravens, so I'm happy to credit them with 10 wins. Whether they get to 11 is more tricky, but I believe the defensive additions mean they can be good enough to win two-thirds of their games. So what the heck, on a tough line, I'll be optimistic on the Factory of Analytics. Over.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8.5)
Last Over: 2020 (Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger)
Last Under: 2019 (Mike Tomlin/Mason Rudolph)
Bryan: I picked the Steelers as the most likely team to underperform last year, and so obviously they started out 11-0 and made me look like an idiot for three months. I'm not going to say there was some schadenfreude in seeing them getting blown out of the postseason in shock-and-awe style, but I'm not not going to say that, either.
Andrew: Pittsburgh is, for me, a really tricky team to peg. Ben Roethlisberger's toast, sure, but just two seasons back they went 8-8 with Mason Rudolph at quarterback. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season as a head coach. Detractors will say that he has had a Hall of Fame quarterback for all of that run, but as I just mentioned, he hasn't had Roethlisberger for all of that run. There's a huge amount to be said for a coach whose team is always "there or thereabouts," as we say in the other type of football.
But that offensive line ... ick.
Bryan: The Almanac forecasts the Steelers' offense to rank 21st, second-worst among teams projected with a winning record. The only team below them, the Colts, are starting the Idea of Carson Wentz at quarterback, so I suppose the question there is whether that is better or worse than the Ghost of Roethlisberger's Arm.
And yes, ick on that offensive line. Three new starters, and not in a "ooh, look at these great players we brought in" sort of way. Trai Turner, starting right guard, is probably not something that should be uttered in 2021.
Andrew: However, their defense should remain very good indeed, the receivers remain well above average, and while Roethlisberger is nowhere near the player of old, he can just about Chad Pennington them into contention. Their schedule isn't a murderer's row, so defense and ball control may well do the job.
Bryan: My concern with the Steelers is whether last year's late-season offensive swoon is partially a factor of Roethlisberger's age and something that might happen again this season, or just a bad stretch of games that could happen at any time. If the Steelers are going to fade down the stretch again, home games against Tennessee and Cleveland are going to be a lot harder in December than they would have been in September.
Ultimately, that defense provides a pretty solid floor, and an 8.5-win line isn't an exceptionally high bar to clear.
Andrew: Whatever you think about the chances of a December swoon, the Steelers should have at least seven wins heading into Week 13. (I hate counting chickens before they hatch, but we kinda have to do that in these articles.) You're asking if they can go 2-4 down the stretch, and I'd have to say yes to that. If they have the eight wins that I project before their tough run-in, then they'll only need one win from the final six. I don't think the Steelers are championship contenders in what I surmise will be Ben's final year. I'm not even certain that they're playoff contenders. But they're a tough out for any opponent, even the likes of Buffalo and Green Bay. Ten wins might be the ceiling, but eight wins looks to me like the floor. That's enough for me to lean very slightly over, again giving the benefit of the doubt to a coaching staff that I believe has earned it.
Bryan: I had the Steelers penciled in between eight and 11 wins, so we're very much singing the same tune here. I think this line is a little depressed due to how bad Pittsburgh looked the last time the public saw them. That's fair, but it's not like the performance from Week 1 to Week 12 suddenly doesn't matter anymore. If the defense is as good as we think it will be, Pittsburgh only needs to be average on offense, possibly even a little worse than average, to have a winning record. I think that's an entirely reasonable proposition. Over.
Andrew: I admit, I haven't really been keeping track of how many overs and unders I have picked, but I have the general impression that I expect the good teams to be really good, and the bad teams to be really bad.
Bryan: I have been keeping track of how many over and unders we have picked, because if I don't have four spreadsheets open at any given time, I start breaking out in hives.
For the record, I took 17 overs and 15 unders. You are incrementally more optimistic than I am, with 18 overs and 14 unders. The Texans and Lions sopping up lots of losses push a lot of things to close overs for you, I imagine!
Andrew: I'm pretty sure my slightly broader optimism is also in keeping with our usual custom. Though yes, I expect this season's have-nots to show just how much not they have.
... or something like that.
Bryan: We end up disagreeing on nine teams, which I believe is a new record for orneriness and contrarianism in Scrambletimes. It took us six years, but we're beginning to get a hang of this format.
Andrew: We'll have our own slot on FS1 in no time.
|Over/Under Disagreements, 2021|
|Washington Football Team||8.5||Under||Over|
|Los Angeles Rams||10.5||Under||Over|
That finishes off the over/unders, but Bryan and Andrew return to their usual Wednesday timeslot for the rest of the year, starting off next week with their stat and award predictions for 2021. Is Patrick Mahomes a shoe-in for MVP? Can anyone top Derrick Henry's rushing yards? And what is the identity of the strange man on the bicycle who repeatedly disappears without a trace? These questions and fewer answered next week, same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.