With the NFL 2014 season just around the corner, let’s analyse the AFC Conference by looking at some of the burning questions within each division in order to determine where top value NFL picks are before they head into the season.
Top Favourites in the AFC
Unsurprisingly, the top favourites in the AFC Conference are last season’s divisional champions. Denver Broncos (13-3-0) lead the pack as the +240 favourites, closely followed by New England Patriots (12-4-0) at +350. Indianapolis Colts (11-5-0) meanwhile ring in as the third favourites at +950 with the Cincinnati Bengals (11-5-0) nipping at their heels at +1000. The contenders in this Conference include the Baltimore Ravens (8-8-0), Kansas City Chiefs (11-5-0) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8-0), all matched at +1200, as well as the San Diego Chargers (9-7-0) at +1400.
Will the AFC be the Winning Conference?
Odds on winning conference are currently leaning towards the NFC (-150 odds) and not the AFC (+120). If the AFC were to defy the odds in Super Bowl XLIX betting, which team is the likeliest contender?
AFC East: Do Patriots have the Offense to Challenge for the Championship?
The Patriots have won the AFC East divisional title in 10 of the last 11 seasons; fittingly, they enter the 2014-2015 NFL season as the hot favourites at -300 to win the division again. Certainly, a repeat would seem on the cards. Divisional opponents strike a soft pose; all three are in some form of rebuilding and retooling mode, all while Patriots keep improving their already solid, divisional dominating pieces, augmenting defense around Tom Brady and tweaking offense with a young but talented receiving corps.
For Patriots offense to be effective this season and challenge for the championship, Rob Gronkowski needs to be healthy and, importantly, play all 16 regular season games, something he’s not been able to do since his monster season in 2011. Last season, Tom Brady’s offense was found wanting without Rob Gronkowski (ACL & MCL surgery). If Gronkowski succumbs to injury woes yet again, the Patriots won’t have enough offense to challenge for the championship.
AFC North: Is Andy Dalton a Super Bowl Calibre Quarterback?
Arguably, the AFC North is one of the most balanced divisions in the conference with three teams matched at top five favourite odds to win the conference outright. Cincinnati Bengals have the slight advantage at +1000 but the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are nipping closely behind at +1200. In division betting, the Bengals have the market cornered at +180 while the Steelers and Ravens are set competitively at +200 and +240, respectively.
The key to underscoring Bengals’ odds isn’t going to be the play of Andy Dalton alone. He’s a good quarterback, a smart one even, but he’s not a glittering star as his divisional counterparts Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are for example, never mind of the Peyton-Brady fold. He never will be either. That’s not to say the Bengals can’t win the AFC championship or, even, the Super Bowl. As World Cup 2014 Champions Die Mannschaft, what the Bengals lack in recognizable star power at centre, they more than make up for by team effort. For Bengals to win the AFC Championship and Super Bowl, it’ll come down to the combined effort on both sides of the ball and not the singular heroics of one player.
AFC South: Can the Colts Take the Next Step?
The development and growth of the Colts over the past two seasons with Andrew Luck at the helm has been the feel-good story of the NFL, from leading the Colts into the playoffs in his rookie season to winning the AFC South title last season and going two rounds in the playoffs. Now, the next step is to become a legitimate AFC contender.
First step would be to win the divisional title again, which does seem probable when pitting the quality of Andrew Luck against his divisional counterparts Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne and Jake Locker. To become an AFC contender however Andrew Luck would have to outdo the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady mainly, the class of the AFC Broncos and Patriots. Maturation and seasoning are tangibles that we can’t possibly qualify at this point in time. Only the season can reveal whether Andrew Luck finally arrives. It’s worth pointing out the NFL schedule isn’t all too bad, conducive to a big season and that, more than anything else, could send Luck and the Colts into the playoffs on a wave of confidence and optimism.
AFC West: Can Peyton Manning Outdo Himself?
The Broncos 43-8 defeat in the Super Bowl was a blip, an awful aberration on an otherwise record-breaking season for Peyton Manning. With the Broncos coming out of the pocket in the offseason, splurging in the free agency market in order to address some of the weaknesses that were exposed by the Seahawks, the outlook would appear to be favourable. Peyton Manning has the MVP betting markets cornered on +200 odds, a good distance away from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees (both at +750), and Tom Brady (+900).
The augmented defense and retooled offense of the Broncos largely explains the favourable odds on Peyton Manning. Undoubtedly, he’s in a league of his own when it comes to the quarterback position, but his forgettable Super Bowl performance could have easily taken the shine off him going into the 2014 season. That it hasn’t is telling.
What’s more, those same fortifications have the Broncos matched at whopping -350 favourites to win the division and top favourites at +240 to win the AFC Conference. Another nod to those fortifications is found in regular season win totals betting where bookies have chalked the line at 11.5, marking the highest win totals on the NFL board. All this doesn’t mean Peyton Manning and Company will be better than they were last season per se – run up the statistic sheets by posting bigger numbers and breaking more records (they might, of course) – but certainly bookies expect them to be close at least, if not just as good.