The AFC Conference is a wide-open race to the title with all six teams priced reasonably and competitively on the NFL odds board. Let's weigh in on the AFC field and analyse their betting prospects.
AFC Futures Overview
The AFC future odds to win outright are mostly in tune to the seeding hierarchy, with the top seed Patriots paving the way, followed by the second seed Broncos,...and so on. The only divergence from the pecking order is had at the bottom of the pile where sixth seed Ravens nudge slightly ahead of fifth seed Bengals; clearly, the hurdle of history is a major red flag for the Bengals.
Tom Brady and Company will look to reach a fourth straight AFC Championship game this season when they kick off the divisional round. Last season, they advanced behind an emphatic 43-22 win over the Colts only to lose 26-16 to the Denver Broncos in the Conference final game at Mile High. As top seed, the Patriots would host the game this season at the Foxboro, an edge they'll hope to capitalise on after finishing the season with a convincing 7-1 SU record; the only blemish a loss to the Bills (week 17) in a game that had little significance or bearing on the broad spectrum of the postseason.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos are desperate to exorcise the demons of last season's horrific Superbowl defeat to the Seattle Seahawks. To do so, they have to navigate a treacherous path to the championship game, potentially tougher than the course they enjoyed last season with the Chargers in the divisional round and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, all while enjoying home advantage throughout as the top seeds. This season, the Broncos could face a stern test from any of the three highest seeds competing in the wildcard round from No.3 Steelers and No.4 Colts to No.5 Bengals in the divisional round before taking on, most likely, the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at the Foxboro. The widely accepted projection is a course that includes the Steelers and then the Patriots, if all goes to plan.
Pittsburgh Steelers loom dangerously on the playoff horizon, the AFC North champions and a side capable of shaking things up they are no strangers to the playoff picture having surged from the wildcard round all the way to the coveted title in 2005 and 2008. Big Ben knows firsthand what it takes to win it all. He's had several bites at the cherry since arriving in Pittsburgh and that experience is an intangible that can't be underestimated. As such, they are fittingly priced in the triple-digit range, along with the Patriots and Broncos. Big Ben and the Steelers are riding momentum behind four wins into the playoffs and they have home advantage in the wildcard round that sets them up nicely to at least reach the divisional stage and a date with the Broncos. The last time the Steelers were in the playoffs was 2011 when they lost in the wildcard round to the Broncos 29-23 in overtime. In 2010, they were Superbowl runners-up to the Green Bay Packers after a 31-25 loss.
The Colts reach their third straight playoffs with Andrew Luck. In 2012, they were dumped in the wildcard round by the Baltimore Ravens (eventual champions) 24-9. Last year, they went one better, reaching the divisional round only to suffer a beat down at the Foxboro. It's a big strange to have the Colts sandwiched in between the Steelers and Ravens, both former Superbowl champions, on the NFL odds board. Given Luck's relative inexperience and lack of true success in the playoffs (1-2 SU), a +1200 price tag seems a bit too generous when the 2012 Superbowl champions, Baltimore Ravens, are priced at +1400. Clearly, this is down to their seeding more than quantifiable measures of worth.
Nobody doubts that Andrew Luck and the Colts have potential to hoist the coveted prize one day, as did Russell Wilson and the Seahawks last year. But two things go against Luck a) the AFC Conference is littered with elite quarterbacks such as Brady, Peyton Manning, Big Ben and Joe Flacco still in their prime and b) the Colts as a whole aren't built as tough as the Seahawks are. There's an argument to be had about the strength of the Colts against the rest of the field, particularly on the defensive-side of the ball where they have perceptible weaknesses.
The Baltimore Ravens are the quintessential dangerous floaters of the competition. They know intimately what it takes to surge from the wildcard round all the way to the Superbowl, having pulled off the feat just two years ago. Their rings are barely tarnished. This instalment of the Ravens is Ray-Lewis-less, which is a significant difference. In 2012, Ray Lewis almost singlehandedly rallied the Ravens, defying the odds, en route to the title. By Joe Flacco's own assessment, this Ravens team has a better offense than the 2012 championship winning Ravens. So it remains to be seen whether his words will prove sage. If the Ravens can pull off the upset at Heinz Arena (no reason why they couldn't beat their divisional foes Steelers), they would head to New England for the divisional round game. Flacco and the Ravens beat the Patriots two years ago 28-13 at the Foxboro in the Conference final before defeating the Niners in the Superbowl game.
The Bengals are getting no love from the odds makers and for good reason. Dalton and the Bengals have earned a reputation for choking in big games, as evinced by their 0-3 record in the playoffs over the last three seasons. Three years in a row they haven't advanced beyond the wildcard round, losing to Texans twice 31-10 and 19-13 (2011-2012) and Chargers 27-10 (2013). Not to mention, they also fritted away an opportunity to be seeded third for the playoffs only to lose in week 17 to the Steelers. Just too many red flags that can't be ignored and make it tough to buy what they are selling.
AFC Championship Prediction: Obviously, everybody's favorite NFL pick for this game is going to be a clash between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It's not only in line with the seeding in the AFC but also the sentimental NFL pick. Nothing better than two future Hall of Famers slugging it out. It's our top NFL pick as well. For an alternative scenario, we like the Broncos vs. Ravens as a bit of a surprising twist in the AFC Championship game.
NFL Picks: Broncos to win AFC at +200