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Steelers strong favorites to win AFC North, but are Bengals far behind?

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The Bengals may not be favored to win their division, but are the Steelers really that far ahead of them?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Bengals primed for a bounceback 2017 season?

After they went 6-9-1 last year, it’s hard to project just how good of a team Cincinnati is right now. The offseason losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler made it more likely that six wins was about what the Bengals would finish with in 2017.

However, a great NFL Draft class has Cincinnati back on the rise. Will it be enough to have a winning season? The guys at Football Outsiders (via ESPN) seem to think it’s enough to put the Bengals right on the cusp of a winning record, but aren’t quite willing to go past an 8-8 projection.

They projected the entire outcome of the NFL schedule for the 2017 season, and while Cincinnati improved by two wins from the 2016 campaign, it was only enough to finish in a tie with Baltimore for second-place in the division.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers: 13-3 (12.9 mean wins; SOS: 27)

Baltimore Ravens: 8-8 (8.2 mean wins; SOS: 25)

Cincinnati Bengals: 8-8 (8.2 mean wins; SOS: 26)

Cleveland Browns: 5-11 (5.2 mean wins; SOS: 16)

Pittsburgh and New England come out far ahead of the rest of the league in our forecast, with the Steelers powered by the best offensive projection in the league. Pittsburgh has exceptional offensive line continuity, as all five starting linemen have been with the Steelers for at least four seasons. Pittsburgh may have the best running back and the best wide receiver in the league, and we can expect some rebound from Ben Roethlisberger after an inconsistent 2016 season. Baltimore has moved up a bit from our April projections and Cincinnati has moved down, a function of what's written above about defensive draft picks vs. offensive draft picks. (The Ravens used their top four picks on defensive players, while the Bengals took wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon with their first two selections.)

It’s hard to see Pittsburgh being five wins better than the Bengals, but that’s what Football Outsiders seems to think.

Elsewhere, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook released season win totals for every NFL team, and they too have Cincinnati trending in the .500 abyss. Here’s how they have the entire AFC North shaping out:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers: 10.5 wins
  • Baltimore Ravens: 9 wins
  • Cincinnati Bengals: 8.5 wins
  • Cleveland Browns: 4.5 wins

It’s safe to call Pittsburgh the favorite in the AFC North, being that they won the division last year and return most of their roster, including Martavis Bryant off his season-long suspension last year. Knocking them out of first place will be a tall task, but it’s not like Cincinnati was that far behind them.

When the two rivals squared off in Week 2 last year, the Bengals were without two of their best players in Tyler Eifert and Vontaze Burfict. They were also still relying heavily on the enigmatic Jeremy Hill at running back, who finished that game with 43 yards on 20 carries (2.2 avg.). That was against a defense that finished 19th in yards per rush allowed (4.3). Simply upgrading Hill with a more talented back like Mixon could be a major swing in how this matchup plays out.

That’s not even accounting for the impact that Eifert will have if he’s able to play in both matchups with the Steelers. He not only missed the first matchup last year, but he was limited by a back injury in the rematch that ultimately led to him going on I.R.

Adding Mixon and first-round receiver John Ross will only make the Bengals’ offense more explosive, which would have them easily topping the 16-point dud they put up in Pittsburgh.

And lest we forget, A.J. Green missed the second matchup, a game which Pittsburgh stole in the final minutes. Green playing probably would have been enough for the Bengals to win that game.

All of this shows why the Bengals are not as far behind the Steelers as all the so-called experts want you to believe. As long as Cincinnati remains healthy and gets good production from their rookies, they’ll be in the hunt for a division title.

Here’s another look at some odds, via Bovada, for the AFC Champion and AFC North winner.

2017-18 AFC Champion

New England Patriots: 2/1

Oakland Raiders: 7/1

Pittsburgh Steelers: 7/1

Denver Broncos: 9/1

Houston Texans: 9/1

Kansas City Chiefs: 12/1

Indianapolis Colts: 14/1

Baltimore Ravens: 20/1

Tennessee Titans:20/1

Cincinnati Bengals: 25/1

Miami Dolphins: 25/1

Los Angeles Chargers: 33/1

Buffalo Bills: 40/1

Jacksonville Jaguars: 40/1

Cleveland Browns: 100/1

New York Jets: 100/1

Odds to Win the 2017-18 AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers: 11/10

Baltimore Ravens: 7/4

Cincinnati Bengals: 5/2

Cleveland Browns: 33/1