We are all victims of recency bias. We spent four months watching 32 different teams prove to us who they are. So when it’s time to prepare for a new season in September, it’s hard to reset and separate ourselves from the same results. How many times have we caught ourselves saying there’s no way a team can’t win the division, only to watch a series of injuries or an off year from a key player derail it? That’s what makes the league so appealing to its fans. There is enough consistency that teams can rebuild easily, but it doesn’t come at the cost of not having more teams consistently winning.
Every year we think most of the division winners will repeat, although that rarely happens. In the last five years, there was only one year (2019) where more than half of the division winners regained first place the following year. And that’s with the Kansas City Chiefs etched in stone at the top of the AFC West all five seasons. It’s a remarkably steady pace of considerable change, with a perfect balance of strong teams.
We know surprises come every year, but don’t know where they come from. When looking at the odds for the division winners, I like to focus on betting against the favorites who have no experience in that role. Here are two divisions where I see a lot of upside for bettors to get value by betting on a new team to finish on top.
Won the NFC North Division
When Dan Campbell was hired, I couldn’t believe that Detroit would be a +130 favorite to win the division entering his third year. I also can’t believe Campbell only won 36.8% of his games because Detroit’s head coach warranted the respect he earned in the market. Yes, the Lions are a fun team to watch with an offense that surprises everyone, but I need more than a 9-8 season with a last-place schedule to be comfortable with Detroit as favorite
Minnesota is interesting at +280. The Vikings hired Kevin O’Connell to win all the close games former coach Mike Zimmer used, but saw his team labeled a fraud for doing so successfully. The Vikings are on the right track, but it will take new DC Brian Flores until 2024 to get the defense where he needs it. In 2022, the Vikings were 25th in defensive success rate and allowed 30 points or more in several key games in the second half of the season.
That’s why I’m favoring the Green Bay Packers at +400. Removing Rodgers from the organization will really allow Matt LaFleur to show off his coaching chops. I’m with him for Coach of the Year, and I think he’s one of the most underrated coaches in the league. All the guy has done is win since he was hired. There was a drop off at the most important position, but Jordan Love looked more than capable in limited action last year. He’ll get solid protection from his offensive line, and I’m confident that LaFleur can build an offense around Love’s strengths.
Green Bay saw its season come to an end last week at the hands of the Detroit Lions, and I can’t help but wonder how much that one game will affect the odds we’re looking at right now. The Packers have the best defense in the division and a very favorable schedule. If I can’t justify the gap between Green Bay and Detroit’s odds, that means the Packers are a valuable bet.
Won the NFC South Division
I appreciate the strength of Carlton Davis, but Tampa Bay is not a good football team with Tom Brady at quarterback. It doesn’t get any better with Baker Mayfield. Last year, Tampa Bay finished the season with the worst point differential (-45) of any team in the AFC South. We have new blood at the top of the division.
The hard part is figuring out which of the teams that failed miserably to unseat Tampa Bay will step up and answer the call in 2023. I’m not sold on Carolina getting better in the offseason. Historically, QB’s drafted in the top five who start at least eight games in their rookie season rarely win more than half of their starts. According to Clevanalytics, Tua Tagovailoa has been the only one to do it since 2012. I don’t think the surrounding cast is good enough to allow Bryce Young to be second.
That brings us to two rivals: New Orleans and Atlanta. The Saints have the better team on paper, so it makes sense that they are the favorites. However, they have always found ways to lose to teams they shouldn’t under Dennis Allen. There was an inexcusable fourth-quarter collapse against Tampa Bay and a painful 10-7 loss to Carolina in the final week of the season. The Saints defense held Sam Darnold to 43 yards passing and two interceptions as New Orleans put the game away. New Orleans’ offense has scored a total of 44 points in the second half in its last six games.
The solution to the fourth quarter collapse was to sign Derek Carr, who the Raiders let go for blowing too many big leads. Carr tied for the most turnovers by a QB since 2017 and was 24th in QB DVOA in the fourth quarter last season. That’s not a situation I want to put my money on such short odds, even though the Saints have an easy schedule in a weak division.
At the current odds, the Atlanta Falcons are the stronger bet. They used the eighth overall pick to draft Bijan Robinson, who could easily be the most dynamic player in the draft. It also gives them one of the most formidable rushing attacks in football. I don’t think you can win a Super Bowl playing the way the Atlanta Falcons will in 2023, but I don’t see why they can’t win enough games and take the division. Arthur Smith’s offense has revived Ryan Tannehill’s career, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think he can develop Desmond Ridder into an option that can be used in the same mold. The Falcons defense has a lot of new faces, but if Smith’s vision for the offense comes to fruition, it won’t spend much time on the field. Atlanta is projected to be the favorite in five of its first seven games and has the second-weakest schedule in the NFL.
Statistics provided by PFF, Clevanalytics, and Football Outsiders.