The Burning Question: Can the Ravens hold on to win the AFC North?
Welcome to The Burning Question, where three of our NFL experts give their thoughts on a big talking point coming out of the past week’s football action.
Week 13 saw a new name as the #1 seed in the AFC, but it was a familiar one, with the New England Patriots now at the top of the pile in the conference. Last week’s Burning Question focused on how far the Patriots could go this season, and after Monday night’s win over the Buffalo Bills they could be set to go all the way.
But the team that lost that #1 seed was the Baltimore Ravens, who fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-19 to drop to an 8-4 record. Just two wins separate the Ravens from the last-place Browns in the AFC North, and now all the talk in the division is revolving around whether Lamar Jackson can rally his team to ensure it holds onto that top spot.
Do the Ravens have what it takes to win the AFC North, or is their offense in decline after failing to score more than 19 points in their last 4 games? If Baltimore can’t hold on, will it be the Bengals, Steelers, or Browns who leapfrog them and win the division? Our NFL experts — Jared Smith, Andrew Ortenberg, and Ricky Dimon — give their thoughts on the Ravens and the AFC North as a whole.
Jared Smith: No, because Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren’t walking through that door
The Ravens have played their worst football over the last few weeks and are fortunate to still have a lead to protect in this wide-open AFC North. Things won’t get any easier, the Browns are rested and ready off a bye this past week to host the Ravens in Cleveland, then the depleted Baltimore secondary will have to face Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford down the stretch before the return engagement against the Steelers in Week 18.
There’s no doubt Baltimore has the pedigree and talent to win this division, but I fear they do not have enough petrol left in the tank to reach the finish line. They suffered another key loss in the secondary this week with CB Marlon Humphrey going down for the season due to a torn pec, and Lamar Jackson has more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (5) since November 1.
I would look to Cleveland (+550) or Cincinnati (+270) as viable candidates to steal this race. Pittsburgh has the longest odds (+1200), but its schedule is too tough down the stretch with games against the Titans and Chiefs still looming in December to have value.
Check out Jared Smith’s Back to the Futures column, where he gives his best futures bets ahead of Week 13
Andrew Ortenberg: Can they? Yes. Will they? Ehhhhhh
Look, there are only five games left and the Ravens are in the lead. None of the competition has been particularly impressive lately. So it certainly won’t surprise me if they hold on and end up hosting a home playoff game. But I’m skeptical this team won’t collapse further. The offense is just completely out of sync right now, and the defense keeps taking repeated blows. The injury to Marlon Humphrey this past week is absolutely massive.
They’re on the road against the Browns this week, and I expect Cleveland to win. If that happens and the Bengals prevail over the 49ers, all of a sudden they’re no longer in first place. The Ravens also have a road game against Cincy and dates with the Packers and Rams from Week 15-17. It’s a tough road ahead, and at the current prices, I like the Bengals the best at +270.
Check out our Pickswise Power Rankings, where there are new names in first and last place!
Ricky Dimon: Can’t bet against Lamar Jackson in the regular season
Since entering the league in 2018, Jackson has led the Ravens to a pair of AFC North titles in three seasons. The only exception was last year, when they compiled a stellar 11-5 record — only getting edged out by the 12-4 Steelers. I’m not betting against Jackson and company this time around, especially not when they have a 1-game lead in the division over Cincinnati while being 1.5 games clear of Pittsburgh and 2 ahead of Cleveland. This is effectively a 2-horse race, and you have to like Baltimore with a game in hand over Cincy.
The Ravens don’t have any slam-dunk wins left on their schedule, but neither do the Bengals. I like Baltimore’s home-and-home closing stretch against the Rams and Steelers, especially since this team is 5-1 at M&T Bank Stadium so far in 2021. Cincinnati is actually worse at home (3-3) than it is on the road (4-2) this year, so I’m not too worried about the Ravens’ upcoming visit in Week 16. I’m just not sold on this Bengals team that in its last 5 games has a loss to the Jets plus blowout losses to the Browns (41-16) and Chargers (41-22). The Ravens are banged up, but they have been overcoming injuries all season long. As long as Jackson is on the field, they are the best of the bunch in the AFC North. You can get them at -150 at DraftKings; it’s worth a play.