AFC North Over/Unders: Can Bengals Change Their Stripes?
NFL Preseason Week 2 - Bryan: Hello and welcome back to Football Outsiders' final over/under review for the 2022 season! It doesn't take a genius to figure out why we have left the AFC North for last, but there are a lot of interesting storylines lurking here. Are the Bengals more like last year's Super Bowl runners-up, or the mediocre team our numbers portrayed during the regular season? Will the Ravens recover from the injurypocalypse to once again be serious AFC contenders? What the heck does a Pittsburgh team look like without Ben Roethlisberger? All great things to talk about. Three out of four ain't bad, right?
Cale: The AFC North is home to a former MVP quarterback, a reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and last year's AFC champions. It has seemingly escaped actual NFL analysis when it might be one of the more fun divisions in football this year.
Bryan: Yeah, there are a lot of positive things to talk about here, with a lot of really fun potential. We'll focus on those things to begin with and save the rest for the end.
Baltimore Ravens (9.5)
Bryan: Well, they have to be healthier than they were last year, right? That's positive!
Cale: Don't jinx them, Bryan. Record-breaking Adjusted Games Lost is not lightning that should ever strike a team twice in franchise history, let alone in back-to-back seasons.
The defense is certainly going to benefit from Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey coming back, at least by our projections. The Ravens defense jumps from 28th in DVOA in 2021 up to 11th in our forecasts, a return to the top half of the league after a brief, injury-riddled hiatus.
Bryan: Is it weird that I'm more interested in what Baltimore does after 2022 than during it? That includes the ongoing Lamar Jackson contract saga, which is still unresolved as we write this, with articles coming out suggesting the Buccaneers are looking to make a play for him in a post-Tom Brady world. Jackson hasn't had positive passing DVOA since his MVP season in 2019, and while there are a lot of caveats and provisos to that statement, at some point Baltimore would like to see his advanced numbers bounce back before signing a contract worth $Montana.
If Jackson signs a contract in the next couple weeks, it's a regular story. If Jackson doesn't, then every single pass he attempts will be under a microscope as the NFL world starts revolving around the future of the 2019 MVP (which, honestly, would probably end up being the franchise tag, but let me dream here). We can talk all we want about him standing on his head considering the flaming wreckage that was Baltimore's roster last season, and I still am very much on the side considering Jackson one of the top quarterbacks in the game. But I can also understand why there's some skepticism around him, with 2019 looking more and more like an outlier with each passing year.
Cale: In Jackson's defense, he's not exactly working with a lot in that soon-to-be highly scrutinized passing game. Rashod Bateman is coming back from injury and seems promising for someone who played hurt all season. Mark Andrews has ascended to top-five tight end status. Beyond them, though, he's got, what, Devin Duvernay? Demarcus Robinson? Tylan Wallace? Isaiah Likely as TE2, at least. It's not a stretch to say this could be the weakest receiver corps Jackson has had thus far, and he has never exactly had a lot to work with at the position. If Arizona calls up and offers a first for Hollywood Brown, you take it every time, but the short-term loss at the position is tough to navigate. At best, Baltimore is betting on a lot of young, yet-to-be-proven commodities in the passing game.
Bryan: There are a lot of young, yet-to-be-proven commodities around the entire team, with Baltimore uncharacteristically using all 11 draft picks this season rather than shunting them into the future. Only one, Tyler Linderbaum, looks primed to start this season—another reason why the Ravens are more interesting to me going forward than in 2022 specifically—but that's a lot of young replacements marching in. The fact that they chose to use every pick despite usually being one of the better teams about trading implies to me that they saw weakness on their roster above and beyond just everyone getting hurt all the time. It will be interesting to see how the flotilla of highly drafted defensive talent slowly works its way into snaps over the course of the season, the kind of thing that would be fun to keep track of on a week-by-week basis if I were writing a Ravens blog.
I'm not writing a Ravens blog though, I'm doing over/unders. And it's hard for me to look at a team with an MVP-caliber quarterback and a coach with such a long track record of success as John Harbaugh and not think the floor here is a winning season. Even with the questions at wide receiver, I like the Ravens to win the division and go over their total this year. And if not, next year's contract negotiations will be all the more interesting.
Cale: This roster doesn't scream "double-digit wins" to me, but neither had most of the rosters of the Jackson era. I think this is a team set up for some growing pains in 2022, but Baltimore has also done a good job of developing young players, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Baltimore also has an easier schedule, which should help, so this is going to be a very uncertain over call for me. This team is too good to go below .500, and I have faith in Jackson making any receiver corps work just enough to get by.
Cincinnati Bengals (10)
Bryan: If I'm picking the Ravens to win the division, that must mean I'm disrespecting your AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. This over/under line reflects their postseason run; it does not really reflect the team that was 17th with a -0.1% DVOA during the regular season. They rise to 13th and 5.3% when you include the postseason, but that still leaves a pretty solid gap between what our numbers said about the Bengals last year and what expectations have been put upon them from their January run.
Cale: While the Bengals' playoff run certainly put them on the map, the moves they have made this offseason solidify their status among the conference's best. They re-invented the entire right half of their offensive line, immediately addressing their biggest need after Joe Burrow took a league-high 51 sacks. Preventing Burrow from getting hit was top priority, and adding Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La'el Collins addresses that priority and then some. Now Burrow will have all the time in the world to throw to one of the best young receiving trios in the league. Now Bengals fans get the benefits of Option A while still having Ja'Marr Chase! Best of both worlds!
Bryan: We often warn people not to put too much weight into early-versus-late splits, and that just because a team finishes strong or weak doesn't mean that streak will continue into the next season. And normally that makes sense, but I'm 100% buying into Cincinnati's offensive blossoming over the last half of last season being signal and not noise. Keep Burrow upright more and this is a top-10 offense at the very least—and, I'd argue, probably a bit higher, even if our projections aren't bold enough to claim that yet. Burrow might be the most valuable asset in the league in the moment as he plays on his rookie contract (it's between him and Justin Herbert, take your pick), and the talent of Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd out there make Cincinnati a fun and dangerous team to watch. And using those extra Burrow Bucks to keep your franchise quarterback's jersey clean is a great plan, and I'm fully on board with it.
I'm less convinced that the defensive improvements we saw at the end of last season will stick, and I'm not sure throwing four draft picks at the unit is going to be enough to bump them into "OK for a contender" status for me. It feels like Cincinnati is going to be involved in a lot of 34-30 games this season, which as a neutral fan, I look forward to seeing.
Cale: The only thing I'll push back on there is that I think the Bengals will have a defense good enough where their offense can make up for it. That's contingent on Jessie Bates actually playing on the franchise tag, but if he does, Cincinnati has Bates, Trey Hendrickson, and decent enough playmakers on all three levels of the defense. Do you want to lean on Eli Apple in the Super Bowl? Not necessarily. But is he good enough to get by in the regular season? Sure.
I'm going over on Cincinnati just because of my faith in the offense. There aren't a ton of really formidable defenses on the Bengals' schedule. Especially in-division, I think their offense is good enough to take on any defense, and the defense won't have to sweat too much to keep up with the rest of the talent. I could see this bet really coming down to that final seven-game stretch: at Tennessee, hosting Kansas City and Cleveland, at Tampa Bay and New England, then hosting Buffalo and Baltimore. Nothing but fireworks until the playoffs start.
Bryan: An Apple a day keeps the over away. I feel like while the Bengals are on a rapidly increasing upward trajectory, they arrived at the Super Bowl a year or two ahead of schedule and still have a little bit more work to do on the defensive side of the ball before they're regular contenders. With a top-10 strength of schedule working against them, I think it's reasonable to expect this to be something of a consolidation year. I'll take the under.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7.5)
Bryan: We have seen what the Steelers look like without Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, but that was accidental. Now we get to see what the Steelers look like intentionally without Roethlisberger for the first time since 2003. It has been a bit!
Cale: While there's no official starting quarterback in Pittsburgh yet (although it appears Mitchell Trubisky is trending toward a Week 1 start), the group around whoever is throwing the ball is pretty loaded. The receiver corps is well-stocked, as it always seems to be in Pittsburgh. The trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and George Pickens is going to make work a lot easier for Trubisky, and Najee Harris is of the heels of a season with over 1,600 all-purpose yards. The only concern I have is in a weak offensive line that has been minimally addressed despite being a growing concern the last few seasons.
Bryan: And that's assuming Trubisky starts. Kenny Pickett looked sharp in his opening preseason game (we're writing this before he takes the field for a second time, so if he ends up throwing 17 interceptions against the Jaguars, you can all point and laugh at me), getting the ball off quickly and showing command of the offense. A dink-and-dunk offense, mind you, with Pickett taking what the third-string Seahawks defense was willing to give him, but there was poise and decisiveness there that I think bodes well going forwards. Plus, Pickett-to-Pickens-in-Pittsburgh is just too good to not be a thing as soon as possible, right? The writer in me likes the way that flows.
Cale: Be careful with that, Bryan. The second he gets a little interception-happy, they'll start calling him Pick-It. It'll haunt him like Sam Darnold's "seeing ghosts" comments.
Bryan: I'm sure offensive coordinator Peter Piper can get all that sorted out lickety split. If not, he'll be out selling seashells by the seashore in no time.
Cale: Regardless of the starting quarterback, the strength of this team will lie in the defense. T.J. Watt is coming off the heels of a Defensive Player of the Year season where he nearly set the single-season sack record. Top-to-bottom, this is a loaded group. Adding Myles Jack, Larry Ogunjobi, and Levi Wallace to an already-strong defensive roster adds quality veteran play at all three levels of the field.
Bryan: Despite how loaded they looked on paper, the Steelers were only 14th in defensive DVOA last season; they were less than the sum of their parts. But I agree with you—there are a lot of solid additions here, and I think the top-line talent of Watt and Cameron Heyward and company should help them bounce back to the level we have come to expect. Maybe they won't hit "best in the league" like they were in 2020, but I would subjectively have them closer to the best than midtable. Our projections have them second behind only New Orleans, which sounds like the right ballpark.
I'm a little worried about the schedule; it's a tough division in a tough conference. There are a number of tough three-game stretches to fight through—the Saints, Bengals, and Colts right after the bye week; the Raiders, Ravens, and Browns to finish the year; and so on. But if they get even average play out of the quarterback position, I like the Steelers to surprise some people. I'll take the over here. Not a huge ceiling—10-7 would be about their max, I think. But 7.5 is a low enough line that I'm comfortable with it.
Cale: 7.5 wins is a tough, tough number. You're basically betting whether Mike Tomlin will have his first losing season as head coach of the Steelers, a bit I unfortunately will take. I think the Steelers need one year to re-tool post-Ben. The pieces are all there for me on paper, but the division and the conference are both too tough for me to map out a winning record with this road. Honestly, had order in the schedule shook out a bit better—if those Buffalo and Tampa Bay games weren't back-to-back, if they didn't open their year on the road in Cincinnati—I'd be more inclined to lean on Tomlin as a coach to make things happen. But with uncertainty at quarterback, I'm taking the under.
Cleveland Browns (8.5)
Bryan: For context, we're writing this the day after the NFL announced Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension, and the subsequent Watson press conference where he declared his innocence and sent his apologies to anyone triggered by the investigation. It has not been a fun offseason to talk about the Browns.
Which is why I'm going to keep my part of this short, I think. I don't think Jacoby Brissett—or whoever is starting at quarterback—is going to lead the Browns to a 9-2 start in the 11 games of Watson's suspension. Thus, for this to hit the over, I'd have a monetary stake in Watson succeeding on the field. Right now, I don't feel right doing that. Thus, under.
Cale: There's a lot more reasons for me to go under than just Brissett. Cleveland is playing the fifth-hardest schedule in football by our projection, and the majority of those tough games come during Watson's suspension. Whomever is at the helm is basically working with just Amari Cooper at receiver—I don't have much faith in Donovan Peoples-Jones or David Bell to really be quality secondary receivers. If Cleveland honors Kareem Hunt's trade request, things turn south at the running back position too. Nick Chubb can work more effectively with a comparable back beside him; Cleveland would just trade Hunt if they had faith in either D'Ernest Johnson or Demetric Felton Jr. to take a meaningful share of carries alongside Chubb.
Plus, from a football perspective, Watson has not taken meaningful reps in 20 months. Reports out of camp and early preseason games have reflected that fact. Now, Watson will leave for suspension August 30 and won't be back until November 14. I don't care how easy the back stretch of games is, he's not going to be ready to play well in those games.
Bryan: 32 teams up, 32 teams down—and 23 agreements, as the hive mind remains undefeated. That does leave nine teams where Cale and I disagreed, which we have listed below for your perusal.
|Over/Under Disagreements, 2022|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10.5||Under||Over|
|Los Angeles Chargers||10.0||Under||Over|
|San Francisco 49ers||10.0||Under||Over|
Cale: Good to know there's so much agreement when predicting the NFL, a league notorious for always going chalk and never having any surprises!
Bryan: It looks like most of our disagreements came with you being more comfortable to go for the extreme outcomes—teams winning or losing 13-plus games, while I stuck with the more conservative approach. What do you mean, not everyone's going to finish 9-8?
Cale: Both our Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 predictions and Vegas lines have kept team predictions closer to center than previous years. The way I see it, there are always teams that bottom out, and there are always teams that win 13, 14, 15 games. At that point, it's just making educated guesses on which teams are falling on the polar ends of the spectrum. When you're putting money on it, though, the conservative approach may be the better way to go in the long run.
Bryan: Well, that's only true if you're wrong! And, because these over/under pieces are the definitive explanation of exactly what will happen on the field this season, I'm looking forward to the both of us basking in our winnings come February.
Though I suppose we'll let them at least play out the regular season. Seems like a bit of an anticlimax after these prediction articles, but I guess it's for the best.