The AFC North was the only division last season to send three teams to the playoffs. The Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals scrapped it out, with Baltimore ultimately winning the division with a 12-4 record, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati secured wildcard spots. Cincinnati’s five-win improvement in one year has a lot of people talking about the Bengals heading into this season, but oddsmakers still believe that Cincinnati is a step behind Pittsburgh and Baltimore, as seen in the odds comparison below.

The Steelers and Ravens are in a dead heat in odds, with different sportsbooks listing different favorites for the division, while the Bengals implied probability is roughly 20 percent.The 35/1 odds being offered at most sportsbooks are nowhere near enough to warrant a bet on the Browns. Cleveland is just downright bad. Even if Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson become elite talents in their first year, their schedule is so ridiculously difficult that they’d be lucky to finish 8-8, which isn’t going to cut it in the AFC North. The Browns open their season in order against the Eagles, Bengals, Bills, Ravens, and Giants. Best case scenario is that they win two of those games, and even that’s a huge stretch. The combination of a complete lack of talent and a difficult schedule will see the Browns in the mix for the first overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

The real question in the AFC North is whether or not the Bengals can give the “Big Two” a realistic push for the division crown, and I’m of the opinion that they won’t. There are simply too many question marks surrounding the Bengals, and it starts at the quarterback position.

I’m not quite sure why the general population is infatuated with Andy Dalton, who proved to be a serviceable quarterback in his rookie campaign, but contrary to popular belief, he was nothing more than that. In 17 games last season (including Cincy’s playoff game @ HOU), Dalton posted a quarterback rating above 100 only four times, while also posting an overall completion percentage under 59 percent. Those are simply aren’t playoff caliber numbers.

The only reason that the Bengals actually made it to the postseason last year is because they feasted on one of the NFL’s easiest schedules. In fact, none of Cincinnati’s nine wins in 2011 came against a team that qualified for the playoffs. I think that an implied probability of 20 percent to win the division is a reach for this Bengals team. There are certainly a number of talented players on their roster, but I think that this season for Cincinnati is more likely to be a regression than a progression.

The AFC North looks to be a two horse race between the Steelers and the Ravens once again in 2012, and for most people, trying to separate these two teams is nearly impossible. Both teams are fairly evenly matched, but there are a couple of factors that lead me to believe that Pittsburgh has a slight edge over Baltimore.

The first and most obvious factor is the injury to Ravens’ outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles in early April and will be sidelined for at the majority of the season. That’s 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles from last season that the Ravens won’t have on the field this year. Paul Kruger is a capable replacement at outside linebacker, but he undoubtedly will not be able to match the production of Suggs, and that will ultimately be a huge blow to the Baltimore defense, especially when you consider that the production of aging veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed is likely to drop off as well. On the other side of the ball, I’m not quite sold on the self-proclaimed top five quarterback Joe Flacco, but he did lead the Ravens to 12 wins last season, and put a ball in Lee Evans’ hands that would have had the Ravens representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Aside from the concerns that I mentioned above, Baltimore is solid all around. The biggest issue I have with the Ravens has nothing to do with personnel—it’s their ridiculously difficult schedule. Other than a couple of probable wins against the Browns, the Ravens don’t have another game that you could mark down as a win on their schedule.

Pittsburgh, on the basis of finishing second in the division last season, still gets stuck with a difficult schedule, but benefits from getting to avoid games against New England and Houston. In a division that’s likely to be scratch and claw until the end of the season, the Steelers really luck out by dodging those tough games. In addition to their slightly easier schedule, I feel that Pittsburgh will get a boost in an area that was their biggest weakness last season: their offensive line. The selections of right guard David DeCastro and left tackle Mike Adams with their first two picks in the NFL Draft will not pay immediate dividends as DeCastro blew out his knee in the team’s third preseason game, but Adams will battle Trai Essex for the starting job at left tackle and will provide much needed depth.

Meanwhile, Ramon Foster is slotted back in at right guard. He’s started 26 games in his first three seasons with the Steelers, plus three playoff games during their Super Bowl run two seasons ago, so there’s some familiarity there. Last year’s second-round pick Marcus Gilbert is back at right tackle with a year of experience under his belt, while Willie Colon is finally healthy and will start at left guard, further solidifying the offensive line next to stud center Maurkice Pouncey. Ben Roethlisberger should have much more time in the pocket this season, and we all know what Big Ben is capable of when he has time in the pocket.

The lack of running back depth is a little bit of a concern for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh has consistently shown the ability to perform well through injuries in past seasons, so the concern is a minor one. Pittsburgh also has a concern of their own on defense with linebacker James Harrison expected to miss the start of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, but in comparison to the blow that the Ravens suffered with Suggs, the Steelers come out on the winning end.

Here’s how I see the AFC North breaking down:
1.    Pittsburgh (10-6) – Super Bowl contender. Lack of depth could prove costly if injuries arise.
2.    Baltimore (9-7) – Elite team with an absolutely brutal schedule.
3.    Cincinnati (7-9) – Slight regression, and they won’t be able to prey on easy schedule this season.
4.    Cleveland (4-12) – In the running for the No. 1 overall pick next April.

In respect to the odds to win the division, I think Pittsburgh is the only bet here. As outlined earlier, the Steelers have some distinct advantages over the Ravens heading into this season, making them more likely to win the AFC North.  I’d say that the Steelers probability of winning the AFC North is somewhere in the 50-60% range, making them worth a small wager at +140 at Sportsbook.com.