2 weeks worth of games is hardly enough to start jumping to dramatic conclusions, but let’s not forget the NFL season is only 17 weeks long. Overreaction kinda comes with the territory. Some teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals have gotten off to surprising 2-0 starts, while others, such as the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers, have looked underwhelming thus far.
These things have a way of correcting themselves over the course of a full season. That said, teams that get off to 0-2 starts have historically had a tougher time bouncing back and qualifying for the playoffs. It’s early, but all of the games count the same. A loss in September isn’t any less meaningful than a loss in December.
The NFL playoffs see quite a bit of turnover every year, so there’s a strong chance at least one of the teams off to a surprisingly hot start will turn out to be the real deal. On the flip side, some of these teams off to ragged starts likely won’t turn it around and make a Super Bowl run. Let’s take a look at the NFC and gauge what sort of long-term betting value we can find.
Below were the preseason odds-on favorites to win their respective divisions:
- Philadelphia Eagles -160 (NFC East)
- Minnesota Vikings EVEN (NFC North)
- New Orleans Saints +150 (NFC South)
- Los Angeles Rams -110 (NFC West)
Here are the updated odds prior to Week 3 (per BetOnline):
- Eagles -175
- Vikings -110
- Falcons +180
- Rams -500
So, the Eagles, Vikings and Rams have all seen their odds at a division title improve, while the Saints have been replaced by the Falcons as the NFC South favorites amid a shaky 1-1 start for New Orleans. The Eagles and Falcons are also 1-1, while the Rams are a perfect 2-0 and the Vikings are 1-0-1 after a tie last week against the Packers.
The Eagles started the season with Nick Foles under center again, and the reigning Super Bowl MVP has struggled. He’s completed nearly 66 percent of his throws, but he has averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt and he’s thrown just one touchdown alongside one pick thus far. Philly got some good news, however, as Carson Wentz has finally been cleared to return to action after tearing his ACL late last season. Wentz, who would’ve won MVP last season had he remained healthy, figures to give the Eagles’ offense a necessary jolt moving forward.
One of the biggest surprises in the NFL early on this season has been the lackluster play of the Saints. New Orleans was a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick, but the Saints have gotten off to what should be an o-2 start. They were disappointingly throttled at home in Week 1 by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers before staging a last-second comeback to beat the Browns at home once again last week. The Bucs and Browns were expected to be two of the worst teams in football, so it’s not ideal to see the Saints struggling so much.
Most of their problems have come defensively. The Saints had arguably the most-improved defense in the league last year, but they haven’t looked the same through 2 games. There’s really no reason to believe the unit can’t reach the heights we saw last season, so I’d imagine this is just a case of some early-season rust.
One issue with betting the Saints is that the NFC South looks like the strongest division in the conference. Atlanta was a Super Bowl team just 2 years ago, while Carolina has been a consistent playoff contender for the last few years. The Bucs are an interesting case. Could Tampa Bay be the team that comes out of nowhere to challenge for a playoff berth?
As of this writing, the Buccaneers (+300) actually have better odds than the Panthers (+400) of winning the NFC South. Considering Tampa started the season as the biggest long shot to win a division in the entire NFC, that’s already quite a leap. Are oddsmakers actually buying Fitz-magic? Or are they simply responding to the team’s surprising start?
One question facing Dirk Koetter will be what to do when Jameis Winston returns from his 3-game suspension. Most believed Fitzpatrick would serve as a 3-game fill-in before Winston’s return. With Fitzpatrick having topped 800 yards passing through the first 2 games, however, can Koetter really bench him at this point? Benching a red-hot Fitzpatrick would not only start a mutiny among Bucs fans, but it may well do the very same within the locker room.
We’ve seen this kind of performance out of Fitzpatrick before. He has enjoyed solid 3-game stretches before turning back into a pumpkin in the past. At 35, he is who he is. That said, it’s also fair to say that these are the best weapons he’s ever had at his disposal. In Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, the Buccaneers low-key have one of the most talented groups of pass-catchers in the league. Fitzpatrick has always been able to throw the deep ball, and now he has the weapons to go and get it.
One aspect of the Tampa Bay attack giving me pause is the run game. Doug Martin is no longer here, and the Bucs are leaning heavily on the unproven Peyton Barber. Barber has averaged just 2.6 yards per carry through the first 2 games of the season, which certainly leaves plenty to be desired. Opposing defenses have a way of adapting to one-dimensional offenses, and Tampa is going to need more consistent production on the ground if they want to keep things rolling along. Barber amassed just 426 yards on the ground last season, which actually led the team. That’s not great.
The reworked defensive front is imposing, however. Perennial Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy is still here, while the Bucs also traded for Jason Pierre-Paul and drafted Vita Vea in the first round of the draft. The Bucs also pried Vinny Curry away from the Super Bowl champion Eagles. The team has 4 sacks through the first 2 games, but I do expect an improved defense moving forward. At +300 to win the NFC South, the Bucs are one of my very favorite value betting options on the board.
Another team to watch is the Chicago Bears. Most expected the Bears to be improved this season even before they made the robbery of a trade with the Raiders to land all-world pass rusher Khalil Mack. Mack has looked like an absolute terror through his first two games in the Windy City. It’s a stretch to say that one player can have such a transformative impact on an entire defense, but Mack looks the part so far. Through two games, Mack has 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown. Not a bad way to introduce yourself.
The questions with Chicago will come on offense, but I think there’s reason for optimism. Second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has shown flashes already, particularly in the team’s Week 1 showing against Green Bay. New head coach Matt Nagy looks like a breath of fresh air from an offensive creativity perspective, and I do expect the Bears’ offense to continue to improve as the season progresses. Chicago isn’t exactly loaded at the skill positions, but Jordan Howard is a legitimate every-down back, while Tarik Cohen is one of the more versatile weapons in the game. The team’s pass-catchers (Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Kevin White, Taylor Gabriel) are largely unproven, but there is still plenty of upside.
The only problem with the Bears is their division is tough. Most expect the Packers and Vikings to duke it out at the top, while the Lions have gotten off to a sluggish start. The Bears likely aren’t as good as either Green Bay or Minnesota, but I do think they can challenge for a playoff spot if they’re able to stay healthy. They are certainly a long shot at +400 to come out atop the NFC North, but stranger things have happened. There’s good betting value there, so I’d say Chicago is worth a flier.
Of the teams currently favored to win their division, I’d say the Atlanta Falcons are the riskiest. Obviously, the odds reflect that. The Eagles, Rams and Vikings are all fairly heavily favored at this point, while the Falcons are sitting at +180, narrowly ahead of the Saints at +225. As mentioned previously, there’s just a lot more competition in the NFC South than there is in the other divisions. The Rams look like a mortal lock already in the West, while there doesn’t appear to be a viable challenger to the Eagles in the East. I already discussed what I think of the North.
It’s not even that I think the Falcons are a fraud. They nearly won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, and they came to within seconds of knocking off the eventual champions in last year’s postseason. At full strength, Atlanta is really, really good. The problem is that we can say the same about the Saints, and there is reason to believe this hot start from the Bucs isn’t a mirage.
If forced to choose, I would still take New Orleans over Atlanta to win the division, but I don’t say that with a ton of confidence. New Orleans still has the best quarterback in the division in Drew Brees, and Alvin Kamara may well be the most dangerous player in the league with the football in the open field. Michael Thomas looks like a bona fide stud wide receiver, as well. As long as the Saints can get their defense in order, I’m still a believer in this team’s championship chances.
I’m also a bit wary of going all-in on the Eagles as Wentz is still coming off a torn ACL, but can you trust the Cowboys, Redskins or Giants to make a serious run at the division? No, no you cannot. The Eagles at -175 don’t carry a ton of betting value, but I expect those odds to get less profitable the deeper we get into the campaign.
Here are my favorite value options to win their respective divisions:
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers +300
- New Orleans Saints +225
- Chicago Bears +400
- Green Bay Packers +175
- Atlanta Falcons +180