Betting preseason games remains an exercise in interpreting information coming from training camps in the days leading up to the game. As we saw this past week, most lines in these early games are a field goal or less. Depending on when you played the games, there was a fairly even split between favorites and underdogs.
Rather than previewing the remaining preseason games this space is better used to preview the eight NFL Divisions over the next few issues with a look towards forecasting the Playoff field come January.
This week the AFC will be previewed with the NFC next week, followed by a final forecast of the dozen teams to make the Playoffs and how the season may end next Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
New England remains the team to beat in the AFC East but the gap appears to be narrowing as both Miami and the New York Jets are expected to present challenges to the Patriots. New England QB Tom Brady should be fully recovered from the injury that sidelined him for all but 30 minutes of football in 2008 and caused him to to play tentative at times in 2009. The supporting cast has changed and there have been numerous coaching staff changes in recent seasons. There are some concerns about the loss of leadership on defense but the Patriots are a strong organization that has been proactive rather than reactive and are the deserved favorites in the Division. Miami and the New York Jets should both battle the Patriots and will be Playoff contenders. The Jets have been a much hyped team and will continue to receive much attention over the next few weeks with their appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” True, they had a most impressive run in the Playoffs but let’s not overlook the fact that the Jets were a 7-7 team before winning their final two games against a pair of teams, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, who had nothing to play for at the end of the regular season. The Jets made some personnel decisions after last season that were considered curious by many, especially the jettisoning of Alan Faneca who provided great leadership on the offensive line. They also need to resolve the contract situation with CB Darrelle Revis to avoid it becoming too big a distraction as the regular season nears. They Dolphins should be an improved team on offense with the addition of WR Brandon Marshall and the development of QB Chad Henne. If the defensive help picked up in the draft shows immediate impact, Miami could be a surprise long shot to fare well and could be more of a challenge to the Patriots than the Jets. Buffalo should finish fourth as there are major QB concerns but look for rookie RB/KR C.J. Spiller to show signs of being an outstanding player in coming seasons. With the top two running backs injured in the preseason opener, Buffalo may have to rely even more on Spiller than they’d planned but this could turn out to be a plus. New England is a 6 to 5 favorite to win the AFC East with the Jets close behind at 7 to 5 and Miami at 3 to 1. Buffalo is the longshot at 25 to 1. Miami might present the best value as both they and the Pats were 4-2 in Divisional play last season whereas Buffalo and the Jets were each 2-4.
Cincinnati seeks to defend their AFC North title from last season and have added WR Terrell Owens to help boost what was a solid rushing offense but one that fared poorly through the air. T.O. should free up Chad Ochocinco to have a productive season if QB Carson Palmer can stay healthy and return to his form of several seasons back. The task to repeat will be tough as it is most unlikely that the Bengals will win all six Divisional contests as they did a season ago. The Bengals were just 4-6 outside the Division. Baltimore is considered as most likely to overtake the Bengals for the Division title. The Ravens figure to be a much improved team on offense with the acquisition of WR Anquan Boldin and continued development of RB Ray Rice. They still have one of the league’s best defenses, aging though it may be. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without QB Ben Roethlisberger for most likely the first four games of the season for his off-the-field behavior and those lost games could be the difference between contending for the Division title and making a run at the Wild Card. The defense will again be a strength, especially if S Troy Polamalu stays healthy. Cleveland played well at the end of 2009, winning 4 straight after starting 1-11 and thereby saving coach Eric Mangini’s job. Whether that momentum will carry over to 2010 is very much in doubt as the quarterbacks will be new and the defense still has major issues to address. Cincinnati was 10-6 last season, a game better than both the Steelers and Ravens. Pittsburgh should improve this season after just a 2-4 Division record last season (Baltimore was 3-3). The Ravens are favored at 5 to 7 to win the Division with Pittsburgh second choice at 9 to 4. At 7 to 2 the Bengals are not in favor with the lines makers. Quite naturally Cleveland is the Division longshot at 20 to 1. Although they are expected to fall back from last season the Bengals might be the best value. They had a very much underrated defense last season and made off season improvements to address concerns on offense. But value might only be value if there is a reasonable likelihood of cashing in. And both Baltimore and Pittsburgh seem to have better chances of winning the AFC North in 2010.
Until such time as Peyton Manning retires, or is injured, the AFC South remains the domain of the Indianapolis Colts. They seem well positioned to extend their streak of seven straight seasons of at least 12 wins and the coaching transition last season from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell went as smoothly as could have been envisioned. The Colts continue to be a model organization and have managed to win even with one of the league’s weakest running games and a defense that overcomes injuries season after season. They are prohibitive 2 to 5 favorites to win the Division title again. Tennessee rebounded from an 0-6 start to win 8 of 10 and finish .500 after having had the NFL’s best record in 2008. The Titans have a strong rushing game and a defense that was in transition early last season and should be in Playoff contention once again. Houston achieved a franchise first winning season in 2009 but could have had several more wins that would have gotten them into the Playoffs. They were 1-5 in Division games with two losses by a FG and the other three by 8 points or less. The Texans are as talented a team as there is but increasingly concerns about coach Gary Kubiak and his ability to coax the maximum from his personnel have arisen. Speaking of coaches on the hot seat Jacksonville’s Jack del Rio is near the top of the list. The Jags seemingly underperform more than they overachieve but manage to have a solid season every few years to lessen the pressure on the coach. The Jaguars are the Division longshot at 18 to 1. Houston, at 15 to 4 is held in higher regard than Tennessee (9 to 2). Titans coach Jeff Fisher is the longest tenured NFL head coach and at the price represents pretty good value. They were 13-3 in 2008, winning the Division, and have arguably the league’s best RB, Chris Johnson. Vince Young is finally firmly entrenched at QB and could have his breakout season in 2010.
The largest Divisional favorite in the NFL is in the AFC West where San Diego is a 3 to 1 favorite to win the title. The Chargers are arguably one of the most talented teams in the entire league but they have a habit of starting slowly under coach Norv Turner. Their talent showed last season when they started 2-3 but then won their final 11 games of the regular season. They then again bowed out of the Playoffs early, despite being the number two seed, losing at home to the Jets largely due to kicker malfunctions. They remain the top team in a weak Division. But there are numerous concerns on both sides of the ball entering the 2010 season, having made several key personnel decisions in the offseason. There seems to be little difference among the other three teams as both Kansas City and Denver are held at 13 to 2 odds to win the Division and Oakland slightly better at 6 to 1. Denver showed signs of immediate improvement last season with a 6-0 start under first year coach Josh McDaniels but were unable to sustain that initial success, going 2-8 the rest of the way to finish 8-8. They traded away perhaps their best player, WR Brandon Marshall and also got rid of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan who had success transitioning the defense. But they’ve now lost Pro Bowl LB Elvis Dumervil for the season and that loss cannot be overstated. Kansas City also had a first season coach, Todd Haley, but the Chiefs could fare no better than 4-12. But with a strong New England emphasis in the front office and on the sidelines (offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel) as well as at QB (Matt Cassel), a foundation has been laid for success. Whether it comes this season is uncertain but the Chiefs seem to be the best of the trio of teams behind the Chargers. Oakland showed some encouraging signs last season with a second straight 5-11 record but that record is a bit misleading. All 5 wins were by 4 or fewer points and the Raiders suffered 7 losses by at least 14 points. It has been a steep fall for this once proud franchise that has lost at least 11 games in each of the last 7 seasons. It’s hard to see any team other than San Diego winning this Division, but such was the case two seasons ago. Recall that in 2008 the Chargers won the Division with an 8-8 record, edging Denver on tie breakers. That followed a pair of seasons in which the Chargers had handily won the Division with 11-7 and 14-2 records. If the Chargers are sloppy and have difficulty in adjusting to the significant changes in personnel they could slip again in 2010 with Kansas City being the most capable of taking advantage. If the AFC West turns out to be a competitive Division it will be more likely due to a decline in play by the Chargers rather than by any of their rivals reaching 10 wins.
In next week’s column, the NFC will be previewed.