Taking each division in turn and then forming a view on conference and Super-Bowl markets. A separate report will look at individual team and player sub-markets next week.
Prices in brackets are the best generally available divisional odds at the time of writing
AFC East: .New England Patriots (1/5), Miami Dolphins (8/1), Buffalo Bills (14/1), New York Jets (100/1)
The burning question in the AFC East is not whether New England will extend its NFL-record streak of consecutive division titles to nine. It’s whether the Patriots will do so with a perfect record.
The only club that looks to have a chance of catching New England is Miami, where the strategy will change now the starting quarterback is hurt and replaced by Jay Cutler (with a need to limit risks and run the ball) and odds-makers are not even forecasting the Dolphins to finish above .500.
The Bills have new management and coaching, a tough schedule and a six game Vegas Win Total. They have just traded away their top receiver and cornerback for players and future draft picks and are thinking of 2018 onwards.
This off-season the Jets traded or released or injued 11 of 22 starters from last season. Clearly if they are not “tanking” they are positioning the roster to rebuild from the bottom up, starting with they hope a franchise quarterback next April.
There is no obvious value outright bet to have here
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (12/5) Oakland Raiders (3/1) Denver Broncos (3/1)
Los Angeles Chargers (13/2)
This is one of the toughest divisions to predict. The Chiefs are favourites to defend their divisional title whilst many fancy Oakland to win its first division title in 15 seasons. Both have to stave off a Broncos team that should again field a top defense but might not have the offense to return to their form of two years ago. Their quarterback situation still looks uncertain and a likely drag on the win column. Even the Chargers could be dangerous after losing nine of eleven games last season by eight points or less in an injury riddled season. No bet here, I could make a case for all of them at the prices.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers (5/6) Baltimore Ravens (3/1) Cincinnati Bengals (100/30) Cleveland Browns (33/1)
The Steelers are always competitive and odds on to retain their title in what is always a rough and tough division. The Ravens just missed out on the play offs last season but have had a rough off-season suffering several notable injuries. 3/1 looks too short to me. The Bengals should bounce back from a six-win injury hit season after four prior years of double-digit wins. The squad has far more talent than six wins suggests and they are an interesting price to knock off the Steelers The Browns are a way off contending but should be more competitive this time round.
Recommendation Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North 100/30
AFC South: Tennessee Titans (5/2) Houston Texans (5/2) Indianapolis Colts (13/5) Jacksonville Jaguars (7/1)
Having been one of the league’s poorest divisions for several years the influx of talent into these four teams via the draft and free agency is changing the competitive landscape in the AFC. The Texans have a promising rookie passer and what could become the league’s best defense. The Titans have drafted well around their young star quarterback Marcus Mariota and are many people’s “sleeper” pick for the post-season. The Jaguars (on paper, at least) improved significantly on defense and are going to run the ball a lot to try to rid themselves of passing game mistakes last year. The Colts have Andrew Luck and have finally tried to draft some defense. Not an easy division to predict and no stand out value at the prices.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (6/4) New York Giants (9/4) Philadelphia Eagles (7/2) Washington Redskins (6/1)
This is the most competitive, highest-profile division in the NFL. In winning the division last season all three of the Cowboys’ regular-season losses came within the NFC East Since 2011, when New York went on to win the Super Bowl, all four teams have won this division, with Dallas and Washington earning two each. Famously, no team has won consecutive divisional titles for over fifteen years.
I would far rather make the value case for the Redskins at 6/1 than either of the two favourites here. The Cowboys have a really tough schedule and four top 10 2016 defenses in their first six games minus the suspended rushing champion Zeke Elliott (in 2016 the Cowboys were over 1.5 yards per rush less without him on the field and the knock on was a passer rating of 88 not 113 without him, defenses could key in more radilyon the apssing game).The Giants look stacked in places but not on the offensive line which would really make them tick. The Eagles should be competitive assuming Carson Wentz takes a step forward. The Redskins should have an explosive offense but as importantly have drafted heavily in both trenches to both support the skill positions and develop an under-rated defense. It is entirely possible the Redskins will bounce back strongly this year
Recommendation Washington Redskins to win the NFC East 6/1
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (4/9) Arizona Cardinals (12/5) Los Angeles Rams (20/1) San Francisco 49ers (40/1)
The Seahawks, who have won three of the last four NFC West titles, are the favorites to win it again. The Cardinals should be improved on last year when David Johnson apart the offense spluttered. The Rams and 49ers both have young new coaches, both can’t be worse than last year but both are in for long haul to become competitive again, and both are more ready on defense than offense in terms of their rebuilds. Seattle is seen as having a closing championship window because of defensive age. I expect it to be a very close battle between the top two teams here, and the Cardinals are the value
Recommendation Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC West 12/5
NFC North: Green Bay Packers (4/7) Minnesota Vikings (7/2) Detroit Lions (13/2) Chicago Bears (33/1)
This might be the year that one of the Vikings (very good defense, wrecked by injuries last year starting about twenty four hours after I tipped them, investments in the offensive line) or the Lions topple the Packers who routinely are sustained by one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. The Bears are rebuilding, a year or two away from contending. Tempted again by the Vikings but 7/2 looks fair
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons (15/8) Carolina Panthers (9/4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4) New Orleans Saints (6/1)
By all accounts, the Falcons are using that Super Bowl collapse as fuel for 2017. Good idea, because every team in this division has the goods to challenge them just to get out of the NFC South. There could be an immediate pay-off for the Panthers’ shake-up and they look like a play-off team to me .The Buccaneers are poised to break through three years after drafting Winston and Mike Evans. The Saints are hit-and-miss but with combinations of Brees, Peterson and Michael Thomas will be fun to watch. This is really not an easy division to price up.
The Conferences and the Super-Bowl
There’s NFL parity, and then there are the Patriots. In 2017, it would be an upset if New England, which has been to an unprecedented six straight AFC championship games, does not make it seven.
AFC Conference odds are: Patriots 5/2, Steelers 11/2, Raiders 8/1 Chiefs 10/1 Broncos 12/1
The difficulty in opposing the Patriots lies in the competitive landscape in the AFC East, which it is tough to see the Patriots not winning. With six games against the Dolphins, Bills and especially the Jets they have a head-start to home-field advantage for the play-offs.
There could be more to go at in the NFC. The other three divisions all look stronger overall than the NFC West, which gives Seattle or Arizona a path to home-field advantage. I have already indicated a preference for the Cardinals over the Seahawks in the weakest looking division.
NFC Conference odds are: Packers 5/1 Cowboys 5/1 Seahawks 11/2 Falcons 11/2 Giants 12/1 Panthers 14/1 Cardinals 16/1
Comparing the shape of the markets in the two conferences, we can see the NFC looks more open, and has more depth. I think my winners of the NFC West are the value here.
I wanted to give a bit more detail on this one. In the 2015 season the Cardinals reached the NFC Conference game, losing to the Panthers. I thought they would take the next step last year, but instead despite winning their final two games, the Cardinals ended the season with a losing record at 7–8–1.
So what went wrong? Part of the premise was fine. The excellent running back David Johnson rushed for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns, and his 2,100 combined yards led the league in all purpose yards. With that threat in the team defenses had to key in on him, crowding the box. This should have created opportunities for the Cardinals’ renowned big yardage vertical passing game to shred opposing secondaries. Here was the part of the premise that fell down. There were injuries in the key wide receivers (John Brown notably) and it emerged after the season that the Cardinals felt they overworked quarterback Carson Palmer in the summer before the season such that his throwing arm wore down during the season. So from on paper having a multi threat offense it basically became Johnson and not much else.
This time round with a combination of Johnson, Palmer at full pelt and big play receivers this should be the explosive offense it was in 2015.At the same time the defense is as stacked as ever, with pass rushers (Chandler Jones) and a really talented secondary (Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu) now supplemented by linebacker Hassan Reddick the first round draft choice who looks very promising in pre-season
The divisional, conference and super-bowl prices here reflect 2016’s problems but not 2017’s opportunities
Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC Conference 16/1
Super-bowl odds are
I prefer backing the Cardinals to win the NFC alone rather than the double of winning the NFC at 16/1 and then (possibly or probably) beating the Patriots at 6/4 (say) to win a one off game in the Super-bowl
Summary of Recommendations
Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North 100/30 7/2
Washington Redskins to win the NFC East 6/1 13/2
Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC West 12/5 49/20
Arizona Cardinals to win the NFC Conference 16/1 17/1