by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

AFC BEST BETS: While the marketplace seems slow to accept the fact the Pittsburgh Steelers (9 wins) might be in decline, times change; look at the hometown Pirates, ready to make the MLB playoffs for the first time in 21 years! Like it or not for Steeler fans, there are valid concerns at Heinz Field, not the least of which is keeping QB Ben Roethlisberger healthy, which has proven a major issue lately. And with Plan B at QB so uninspiring (journeyman Bruce Gradkowski), HC Mike Tomlin might as well give former reliever Charlie Batch another call should Big Ben go down again, as he has the past two seasons. Moreover, the usual punishing infantry, which disappeared a year ago when the Men of Steel sunk to 26th in NFL rush stats, hardly looks upgraded, especially after Michigan State rookie RB Le’Veon Bell’s injury-plagued August, while Big Ben is also minus preferred deep threat WR Mike Wallace, who escaped to Miami in free agency. And the OL (youngest in the NFL) continues in a transition phase. Remember, the Steelers missed the playoffs last year even with the league’s top-ranked defense. But now sage d.c. Dick LeBeau is minus longtime stalwart LB James Harrison (to the Bengals), and there are fewer and fewer big plays generated by S Troy Polamalu, who has missed 20 games the past two seasons due to injuries. While careful not to overreact to preseason, the Steelers in fact accomplished very little in August except keeping Big Ben healthy, winless in exhibitions for the first time under Tomlin. The Steelers might even have trouble avoiding the AFC North basement; it’s a clear “under” for us at Heinz Field.

Staying in the North, we can’t help but notice how the Baltimore Ravens (8 ½) have been discounted by the oddsmakers, which is nothing new for a defending Super Bowl champ. But the Ravens have been downgraded to a point they’ve never reached in five previous campaigns under HC John Harbaugh, whose worst mark has been 9-7 (and even then, in 2009, Baltimore won a playoff game, as it has in all five of Harbaugh’s seasons). True, there were a lot of high-profile departures in the offseason, especially the heart-and-soul of the defense (LB Ray Lewis retiring, while S Ed Reed and LB Paul Kruger left in free agency). But GM Ozzie Newsome pulled a couple rabbits out of his hat in free agency (such as ex-Bronco DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil and ex-Raider S Michael Huff). Let’s also not assume the Joe Flacco we saw in the playoffs was an aberration; sources say that by simply allowing Flacco to audible at the line of scrimmage, something predecessor Cam Cameron was loathe to do, o.c. Jim Caldwell proved a very good fit for the Raven “O” when elevated last December. We hardly expect Baltimore to drop off of the map this fall; it’s a definite “over” for us at M&T Bank Stadium.

We don’t want to seem fixated by the AFC North...but maybe we are. That’s probably because we disagree with the Steelers getting too much respect at the expense of the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals (8 ½), who look for a third straight playoff trip this fall. And we really see no reason for any dropoff for Marvin Lewis’ troops, not after the defense emerged as one of the nastiest in the conference when allowing barely 12 ppg in winning 7 of 8 over the last half of the 2012 slate, while the Bengals were also en route to accumulating a franchise-record 51 sacks. Better news in the offseason when respected d.c. Mike Zimmer barely missed on a couple of HC openings, remaining at the side of Lewis, and now pleasantly contemplating how to fit the aforementioned James Harrison into Cincy’s version of the 4-3. And though 3rd-year QB Andy Dalton might not be ready to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl, he has been good enough to steer them into the playoffs in his first two seasons. The modest 8 ½ number intrigues us greatly, although we recommend some serious shopping on that Bengals price, which we have seen quoted as high as -160 for the “over” at various Las Vegas wagering outlets. No matter, we think it still might be worthwhile to look “over” at Paul Brown Stadium.

OTHERS: It’s going to be tough for the Jacksonville Jaguars (5) to be much worse than they were a year ago when recording a 2-14 mark that not only got HC Mike Mularkey canned after just one year on the job, but also earned GM Gene Smith a pink-slip from owner Shad Khan, too. Enter Gus Bradley, Pete Carroll’s d.c. the past couple of years in Seattle but never before a head coach, to replace Mularkey. Yet the Jags were not very active in free agency and are gambling that holdover QBs Blaine Gabbert an Chad Henne might magically spark the offense, which attempts to switch gears into an uptempo spread. A healthy MJD will help, but key WR Justin Blackmon will be suspended into early October, and the pass rush was the NFL’s worst a year ago. Those issues and 2-14 are a lot for a rookie coach to overcome. We don’t think we’ll lose by looking “under” at EverBank Field...We also see some decent value in two other AFC South locales. The Houston Texans (10 ½) are being quoted at a plus price for the “over” at most Las Vegas sports books, but it looks to us as if Gary Kubiak’s squad has upgraded where it needed to in the offseason, adding a vet defensive presence in ex-Raven S Ed Reed and drafting what might be the long-sought complement to WR Andre Johnson in Clemson rookie DeAndre Hopkins. With not much competition in the South outside of Indy, the Texans could easily match last year’s 12-4 and go “over” again... Meanwhile, speaking of the Indianapolis Colts (8 ½) , there are apparently still plenty of non-believers in last season’s wild ride that resulted in an unexpected playoff berth. But all of those close wins in 2012 might not have been an accident, especially since 2nd-year QB Andrew Luck only figures to improve as a sophomore. And a now-healthy HC Chuck Pagano made a Luck-centric move by hiring Andrew’s o.c. from Stanford, Pep Hamilton, to the same job in Indy, replacing the valued Bruce Arians (now Arizona’s HC). Good prices to be had on the “over” for the Colts.

NFC BEST BETS: Do the St. Louis Rams (7 ½) really believe that they can replace star RB Steven Jackson (who skedaddled to Atlanta in free agency) with the combination of Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead? Preseason work hardly indicated as much, as the Rams “O” looks like it could be dangerously imbalanced this fall. Which would put more of a burden on 4th-year QB Sam Bradford, whose back-and-forth efforts to date have hardly suggested he is ready to ascend to elite status anytime soon. He’s also looking for a new safety blanket after favorite target WR Danny Amendola moved to the Patriots in the offseason. Sure, HC Jeff Fisher had the Rams playing better “D” and punching above their weight last fall, but there is no time to stand still in the NFC West, all of a sudden looking like the NFL’s toughest division. It’s an “under” for us beneath the Arch.

Much like the Steelers in the AFC, the Green Bay Packers (10 ½) have such a base of support that they are always at risk of being overvalued. Such appears to be the case this fall after the Pack endured a difficult summer in which it took some crucial injury hits (especially in the OL) and its supposedly improved running game, as upgrades now rest in the lap of Alabama rookie slammer Eddie Lacy, who might or might not be up to the task. There were also signs of erosion last year in Dom Capers’ 3-4 “D” that was brutally exposed by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the playoffs. What looks like an unforgiving schedule (with the tough AFC North providing inter-conference opposition) won’t help, either. We’re looking “under” at Lambeau Field.

We have spent the offseason closely analyzing the NFC East and are varying degrees of underwhelmed by all of the entrants. Except, perhaps, for the Washington Redskins (8 ½), who are being downgraded from their surprise playoff run a year ago. Sure, there are issues with RG III’s knees. But the Skins have plenty of cover at QB, and let’s not forget that HC Mike Shanahan is a two-time Super Bowl winner. Remember, too, that Jim Haslett’s “D” hung tough last fall without two key front seven components (LB Brian Orapko & DE Adam Carriker) for much of the season, but at least Orakpo is back in the fold for 2013 (Carriker a longshot to return after Thanksgiving from more knee surgery). With the division hardly as inhospitable as it has been in recent years, we suspect the Skins, who might have been the NFL's most impressive team in August, can at least get back above .500 and make “over” worth a long look at FedEx Field.

OTHERS: Not much price value to be found at the Vegas sports books when looking “over” with the Arizona Cardinals (5 ½) , quoted in the -150/155 range. But sources say the tone in the desert seems completely different under new HC Bruce Arians than in the last couple of years of Ken Whisenhunt’s regime. Although red zone efficiency was a concern in August, Carson Palmer looks a decent bet to solve the QB woes in Glendale that have endured since Kurt Warner’s retirement. Todd Bowles’ “D” looked mighty impressive in preseason, too. Prohibitive price or not, we look “over” with the Big Red...Another premium seems to have been placed on the New Orleans Saints (9) , with the “over” at -150 or thereabouts at most Las Vegas wagering outposts. Nonetheless, we’re bullish, as the return of HC Sean Payton reunites one of the league’s best game-planners with QB Drew Brees, whose supporting cast looks as strong as ever. If new d.c. Rob Ryan and his 3-4 schemes can upgrade a “D” that underachieved for the departed Steve Spaguolo in 2012, the Saints can win the South and continue the trend of no team repeating as a winner in the division since the league re-aligned in 2002. Bad news in Atlanta, good news in ‘Nawlins, but that’s the scenario we envision. Look “over” at the Superdome.

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