NFL

NFL Playoff Odds for Every Team at the Start of July

Nick KostosContributor IJuly 1, 2014

NFL Playoff Odds for Every Team at the Start of July

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The calendar has officially turned to July, and that means the opening of training camps are now just a few weeks away. It’s been a long, arduous wait, but real football—the kind with hitting and pads—is nearly upon us, and that’s reason to look ahead to what’s sure to be an outstanding season.

    So, in that vein, it’s time to assess the playoff odds for every team.

    In this piece, you’ll find the teams ranked from worst odds to best. Again, these are my rankings. They're based on my thoughts on each team’s offseason and their projections headed into this year. To provide context, I’ve also included Odds Shark's over/under wins total for each team.

    While Vegas and I agree on some teams, we wildly differ on others—which should provide a fascinating exercise with the season a little more than two months away.

    It’s important to note the disparity between the two conferences, as the NFC is far superior. This means that the elite teams in the AFC face much better odds of making the playoffs. Clubs like the Patriots, Broncos and Colts shouldn’t find much opposition on their way to January, while superior NFC squads like the Seahawks, 49ers and Packers will face significantly tougher competition.

    Just because an AFC team is listed ahead of an NFC team here doesn’t mean that they are better; it just means that they have an easier road to the postseason.

    Here are my NFL playoffs odds for every team at the start of July.

     

    Win totals courtesy of Oddsshark.com.

Oakland Raiders

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    Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 19-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 4.5

    Despite the talent level in Oakland having been markedly improved since the end of the 2013 season, the Raiders possess my worst odds to qualify for the postseason. 

    The deciding factor in the Raiders coming in last over the Jaguars is that the AFC West is significantly tougher than the AFC South. Even the most optimistic Raiders fan would be hard-pressed to believe that the Silver and Black are good enough to contend with the likes of Denver, San Diego and Kansas City.

    But unlike the iterations of 2012 and 2013, this Raiders team has the look and feel of a legitimate NFL franchise. General manager Reggie McKenzie has done an admirable job in improving the 53-man roster, having brought in players like quarterback Matt Schaub, defensive end Justin Tuck, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, receiver James Jones and running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

    Plus, McKenzie added pass-rushing phenom Khalil Mack with the fifth overall pick in last month's draft, and Mack appears set to add a new dimension to head coach Dennis Allen's defense. The Raiders also nabbed the team's potential quarterback of the future, Derek Carr, in Round 2 of the draft.

    Unfortunately, all of those moves won't be enough to push the Raiders into the playoffs. The division is just too good. It's more likely that owner Mark Davis will be hiring a new coach and general manager next January than the team playing in a wild-card game.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 19-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 4.5

    The only reason that the Jacksonville Jaguars didn't finish last in my playoff odds is because they play in the putrid AFC South and thus have an easier opportunity than the Raiders.

    While optimism is currently running rampant in Duval County—the result of ultra-energetic coach Gus Bradley—the on-field talent level just isn't there yet, and this is clearly a club built for 2015 and beyond.

    General manager David Caldwell spent the third overall selection in last month's draft on Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, and Caldwell was later asked in an interview with ESPN Radio (via John Breech of CBSSports.com) when he envisioned Bortles joining the starting lineup. He replied:

    To be honest with you, probably 2015. We'd like to give Chad (Henne) this whole year and go with Chad this year. Blake's got some development to do. We're going to be getting him ready, so come 2015 he's ready to compete for that spot.

    If the Jaguars are serious about trotting Chad Henne out for 16 games at the quarterback position, the playoffs remain a bigger pipe dream than Uruguay's Luis Suarez being named Sportsman of the Year.

    The pieces are in place for the Jaguars to contend. It just won't come this season. They won't qualify for the tournament.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 9-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 6

    The gap in overall quality between the NFC and AFC is as considerable as it's been in recent memory. I would rank the Minnesota Vikings over the Raiders, Jaguars, Titans, Browns and Jets, but because the Vikings play in the NFC, they come in third-to-last on this list.

    I just can't put Minnesota above any other team in the NFC as it concerns playoff odds. That's how loaded the conference is.

    But the pieces are in place for the Vikings to potentially surprise in 2014. General manager Rick Spielman had a solid draft, netting pass-rusher Anthony Barr at No. 9 overall and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32, and the team has a new coach in Mike Zimmer.

    Add in weapons like running back Adrian Peterson, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and safety Harrison Smith, and the Vikings could be cooking with gas.

    But as of now, the Vikings look like the worst team in the NFC. 

Tennessee Titans

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 9-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7

    The Tennessee Titans are the most nondescript team in the NFL. And no, Titans fans, that kind of moniker doesn't normally translate to playoff appearances.

    The club has a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt, but there isn't an established identity. With the addition of tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round of last month's draft (No. 11 overall), the offensive line appears to be solid, but Jake Locker represents a major question mark at the quarterback position. Locker has missed 14 games over the past two campaigns and has failed to dazzle when healthy.

    Expect greenhorn running back Bishop Sankey (second round, No. 54 overall) to become the focal point of the offense, as it would be smart to lean on the running game in an effort to protect Locker.

    The defense has the potential to be better under new coordinator Ray Horton, but there are holes in the secondary. In addition, it's difficult to see how a pass rush will be consistently generated.

    The silver lining for Titans fans is that the club plays in the dreadful AFC South. But make no mistake about it: It'd be another Music City Miracle if the Titans found themselves playing next January.

Cleveland Browns

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 9-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 6.5

    It pains me to rank the Cleveland Browns so low on this list. It really does.

    I'm the same guy who wrote that the Browns could be the Cinderella team of the 2014 season. I think the team got a steal in head coach Mike Pettine, and the drafting of quarterback Johnny Manziel was an inspired move by general manager Ray Farmer.

    But the impending suspension of star receiver Josh Gordon is a killer. When on the field, few players possess Gordon’s game-changing ability, and if the team is to be without him for a significant chunk of time, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Browns finish out of the AFC North’s basement.

    If the Browns played in the AFC East or AFC South, they’d be ranked higher, but the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens are all better.

    If Gordon wasn’t facing suspension, the Browns would be much higher on the list. But with a rookie quarterback likely to start (don’t believe the hoopla surrounding journeyman signal-caller Brian HoyerManziel will be under center in Week 1), this likely won’t be the year the Browns break into the postseason for the first time since 2003.

    But with a host of young talent on both sides of the ball, the future is bright in Cleveland. If Manziel can develop into a fine passer, the Browns could be a perennial playoff contender in 2015 and beyond.

Dallas Cowboys

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    LM Otero/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 4-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8

    I’m sure that Dallas Cowboys fans will be up in arms over their ranking on this list, but I don’t care. As currently constituted, the Cowboys cannot be ranked over any team in the NFC except the Vikings.

    While owner and general manager Jerry Jones slammed the club’s first-round selection out of the park with Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin, the Cowboys defense has more holes than a particularly moldy piece of Swiss cheese.

    The unit that finished dead-last in the NFL last season lost its top two pass-rushers (future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware and tackle Jason Hatcher), and stud linebacker Sean Lee will miss the season with a torn ACL.

    And did I mention that 34-year-old quarterback Tony Romo is coming off the second back surgery of his career, and his likely backup will be Brandon Weeden?

    That sound you just heard was women and children in Dallas gasping in fear at the thought of Weeden starting critical games this fall.

    If Romo is able to stay healthy, the Cowboys do have the makings of a very dangerous offense, keyed by stud receiver Dez Bryant. But the defense will be bad, and that will prevent the Cowboys from reaching the playoffs, resulting in the inevitable ouster of coach Jason Garrett.

St. Louis Rams

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 4-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7.5

    The St. Louis Rams are another team that are a prisoner of their division.

    If the Rams played in the NFC East, AFC East or AFC South, their playoff odds would be much better. But because they’re in a division that features three teams that earned double-digit wins in 2013—including the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—the Rams cannot be ranked any higher on this list.

    Despite that fact, there’s a lot to like about the Rams. Head coach Jeff Fisher is excellent at his job, and the defense, keyed by 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Robert Quinn, has the potential to be dominant.

    But ultimately, it’s difficult to have faith in quarterback Sam Bradford to deliver a playoff appearance. In his four years in the Gateway City, Bradford has failed to sparkle and is coming off a torn ACL. In order for the Rams to contend for the postseason, Bradford simply must elevate his level of play.

    Don’t expect that to happen. Despite possessing the kind of overall talent that would have them ranked much higher in a lesser division, the Rams are the fourth-best team in the NFC West.

New York Jets

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 4-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7

    The New York Jets are an improved team from last year's 8-8 outfit, but questions at the quarterback position will likely hold them back from the postseason.

    General manager John Idzik added talent at the skill positions with the signings of receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson, and the drafting of tight end Jace Amaro, but can whoever wins the quarterback competition between Geno Smith and Michael Vick (likely Smith) play well enough to turn the offense into a competent unit?

    The defense, led by head coach Rex Ryan, should once again be among the league's best. First-round safety Calvin Pryor is a bone-rattling hitter and will add an intimidation factor in the secondary. The team also features a pair of stud defensive linemen in end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Damon Harrison.

    But ultimately, it'll be the play at the quarterback position that determines the fortunes of Gang Green. Unless either Smith or Vick takes a stranglehold of the position and plays well, the Jets will once again find themselves on the outside of the tournament. 

Miami Dolphins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 4-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8

    Last season, the Miami Dolphins couldn't protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as he was sacked a league-high 58 (58!) times.

    The good news is that the offensive line appears to be much improved. New general manager Dennis Hickey signed tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith, and drafted tackle Ja'Wuan James in the first round of last month's draft. 

    But the torn labrum suffered by center Mike Pouncey is a devastating blow, as he's expected to be out for three months. 

    The Dolphins crashed and burned to end the 2013 season, losing their final two games in hideous fashion to miss the postseason. Head coach Joe Philbin failed to inspire confidence with both his in-game management and handling of the locker room in the wake of the Bullygate scandal.

    But if Tannehill can continue to progress, the Dolphins loom as a potential playoff team in the watered-down AFC. For more on how Tannehill can ascend to the next level, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey.

Houston Texans

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 4-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7.5

    Despite finishing with the NFL's worst record in 2013 (2-14), the Houston Texans have a legitimate chance to contend for a playoff berth in 2014.

    The fact that the club was able to draft defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick has a lot to do with that.

    Houston's defensive line has the potential to be extremely disruptive with Clowney joining star J.J. Watt, who is the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. Clowney and Watt will form one of the NFL's most devastating pass-rushing duos.

    But the offense is another story entirely. While new coach Bill O'Brien inspires confidence, starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick does not. Fitzpatrick owns a career record of 27-49-1 and too often plays hot potato with the football. He isn't a playoff-caliber signal-caller.

    Plus, there's the holdout of star receiver Andre Johnson, which is a situation that no one in Houston wants to deal with.

    It's possible that the Texans could make a playoff run on the strength of their defense and because they play in the weak AFC South, but Fitzpatrick's shortcomings make it a long shot. The smart money is on fourth-round passer Tom Savage being elevated to the starting lineup once the team falls out of playoff contention.

Washington Redskins

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7.5

    The Washington Redskins should be much improved from last season's 3-13 squad, but in the ultra-tough NFC, it might not be enough to push them into the postseason.

    Much will depend on the continued development of quarterback Robert Griffin III, who should be much better in 2014 after being hampered by the effects of a torn ACL in 2013. I’m on record stating that Griffin is set to author a monster campaign, especially with the weapons added on offense (receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts). Tight end Jordan Reed also profiles as a potential star.

    The defense should be better as well, but the unit still isn’t up to snuff compared to the better teams in the NFC.

    If Griffin can reclaim the form he flashed as a neophyte in 2012, the Redskins could challenge for a playoff berth. But as of right now, new head coach Jay Gruden’s squad appears to be on the outside looking in.

Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8.5

    The team that the books and I disagree on the most is the Detroit Lions. I'm simply not on as bullish on the Lions as Las Vegas is. 

    Last season, with injuries suffered by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, the stars aligned for the Lions to capture their first division title since 1993. But inept decisions from deposed coach Jim Schwartz and a lack of discipline and consistency led to a massively disappointing 7-9 finish.

    The Lions made the right move in dismissing Schwartz, but bringing in Jim Caldwell as the new coach didn’t exactly set the world ablaze. Caldwell was a decent option, but he doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

    The offense should be explosive, particularly if quarterback Matthew Stafford can finally claim a level of consistency that has seemingly eluded him for the majority of his career. But the defense is a major question mark, particularly in the secondary. It seems as if the Lions will need to win a lot of shootouts to reach the postseason, and that’s never a recipe for success.

    Odds Shark sees the Lions as a potential nine-win team. I’m currently forecasting a seven-win campaign.

Buffalo Bills

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    Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 7-3
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 6.5

    It’s been 14 long years since the Buffalo Bills have qualified for the postseason, the longest current streak in the NFL. But optimism currently abounds in western New York, and for good reason: These Bills are an improved outfit capable of ending the longstanding playoff drought.

    The defense, which accumulated 57 sacks last season, should once again be solid. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore looms as a potential breakout player.

    While I didn’t like the draft-day trade to acquire receiver Sammy Watkins, there’s no question that he’ll immediately improve the offense. With Watkins and fellow receivers Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Mike Williams, plus running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills have the makings of a potentially excellent offense.

    Ultimately, it will all depend on the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. If Manuel can stay healthy (he missed six games last year) and play well, coach Doug Marrone’s team could absolutely contend for a playoff berth.

    But if Manuel struggles or succumbs to injury, a 15th consecutive season out of the postseason is likely.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-1
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8

    Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs set the NFL world ablaze with their 9-0 start, only to sputter down the stretch and collapse in epic fashion on Wild Card Weekend.

    But still, the Chiefs weren’t expected to qualify for the postseason, which speaks to the job performed by head coach Andy Reid in his first year on the Kansas City sideline. Unfortunately for Reid, the team will face a tougher haul this season to make the tournament.

    And that’s because of the emergence of the Chargers.

    San Diego is my pick to finish second in the division behind the Broncos, leaving the Chiefs in third. That would mean the AFC West would have to send three teams to the playoffs for the Chiefs to make it, and while that isn’t impossible (it happened last year), it isn’t likely—especially when considering teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have all improved.

New York Giants

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 7-3
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8

    The New York Giants suffered through a miserable 2013 season, finishing 7-9 to miss the postseason for the second consecutive year.

    In the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning era, the Giants have won games by running the football, keeping Manning upright and getting at the opposing quarterback. Big Blue did none of those three things last year.

    The offensive line and running game should both be better, but the pressure the team can put on opposing passers remains a question mark. If defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul can’t reclaim the form that made him one of the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers, the Giants will likely struggle to stop opposing offenses.

    Manning was dreadful at quarterback in 2013 (tossing a league-high 27 interceptions), but the hiring of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo should help, as should the drafting of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The expectation should be that Manning bounces back.

    But even if that happens, the Giants have too many question marks to be considered either the NFC East favorite or a likely playoff team.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 13-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7.5

    Despite winning 10 games last season in the tough-as-nails NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals missed the postseason.

    Unfortunately for Cardinals fans, the same fate might once again befall the team, as Arizona remains the third-best team in its division behind the Seahawks and 49ers.

    The offense, led by quarterback Carson Palmer, will be solid, especially if third-year receiver Michael Floyd continues to break out. And the defense will be solid, with cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu keying the secondary.

    But in order to make the playoffs, head coach Bruce Arians’ team will need to take the next step and ascend to the same level as Seattle and San Francisco. Right now, I don’t see that happening.

Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 13-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8.5

    The Atlanta Falcons were perhaps the NFL’s most disappointing team in 2013, finishing 4-12 despite entering the year with Super Bowl aspirations.

    But a solid offseason has Odds Shark believing they’re due for a bounce-back campaign, setting the team's over-under at 8.5 wins. General manager Thomas Dimitroff has improved both the offensive and defensive lines, drafting offensive tackle Jake Matthews, and signing guard Jon Asamoah, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

    It stands to reason that quarterback Matt Ryan will be better in 2014, especially if star receiver Julio Jones can stay healthy.

    However, the Falcons’ defensive shortcomings—particularly as it concerns the pass rush—are too great for me to consider them a playoff team. The loss of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the season with a ruptured Achilles could be too much for the unit to overcome.

    Right now, the Falcons look like the third- or fourth-best team in the NFC South. That won’t be good enough to qualify for the playoffs.

Carolina Panthers

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    MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 13-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8.5

    Last season, the Carolina Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games to finish 12-4 and capture the NFC South title.

    Unfortunately for Panthers fans, I don’t see them repeating that feat again, as they are behind the Saints in the division and don’t appear as good heading into 2014.

    The receiver position represents a major question mark. First-round rookie Kelvin Benjamin will be the top option, and behind him are Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. That’s not good.

    While the defense, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, will once again be fantastic, it’s unclear if quarterback Cam Newton has enough around him to get the club back to the postseason.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-2
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 7

    This offseason, perhaps no team has improved as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    New coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht have keyed an overhaul spearheaded by the signings of quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner. The club only selected offensive players in the draft, starting with receiver Mike Evans (first round) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (second round).

    Evans (6’5”) and Seferian-Jenkins (6’6”) will join receiver Vincent Jackson (6’5”) to give the Bucs a titanic trio of pass-catchers. McCown should find immediate success lobbing the ball up to them and handing off to backs Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims.

    Smith will bring his Tampa 2 defense back to where it began, and linebacker Lavonte David projects as a major star in the middle of the unit.

    I’m currently projecting the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South behind the Saints and make the playoffs. I’m more bullish on them than Odds Shark is.

San Diego Chargers

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-2
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8

    Last year, the San Diego Chargers were a surprise entrant to the postseason.

    This year, they will shock no one if they qualify.

    Head coach Mike McCoy did an outstanding job in his first season on the job, helping to coax a phenomenal year out of quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers remains one of the league’s finest passers, and under McCoy’s tutelage, he should author another fine campaign and continue to develop a rapport with star receiver Keenan Allen.

    The secondary is improved with the drafting of cornerback Jason Verrett (first round) and signing of Brandon Flowers. The pass-rushing unit should be better with linebacker Dwight Freeney returning from a torn quadriceps and the drafting of linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu (second round).

    The running game was excellent last year, and the team will roll out another three-headed monster at the position this season, with incumbents Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead joined by free-agent addition Donald Brown.

    The Chargers will be better than the Chiefs, and right now, they are one of my six AFC playoff teams.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-2
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8.5

    Last season, for the first time in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era, which began in 2008, the Baltimore Ravens missed the postseason.

    And general manager Ozzie Newsome aggressively upgraded the club’s areas of need in an effort to return them to the playoffs.

    The signing of left tackle Eugene Monroe was huge for the offensive line, and bringing in receiver Steve Smith was a masterstroke. With tight end Dennis Pitta also returning on a new five-year, $32 million deal, Flacco has some nice weapons in the passing attack.

    Newsome selected linebacker C.J. Mosley in the first round, who’ll start from day one. The defense should be solid once again.

    The only issue for the Ravens is that they play in the highly competitive AFC North, and it’s unclear where they stand compared to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Right now, I have them ranked slightly behind both the Steelers and Bengals and on the outside of the postseason looking in.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-2
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 9

    The Cincinnati Bengals have qualified for the postseason in each of the past three campaigns and are the defending AFC North champions. But improvements by division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore will make it tough for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance to come to fruition. 

    Quarterback Andy Dalton has largely performed well in the regular season, but too often he plays hot potato with the football in critical spots. He must play with a greater level of consistency. If he can ascend to the next level, the Bengals will qualify for the postseason.

    But that’s a major “if,” and one that has prevented the Bengals from signing Dalton, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, to a big-money extension.

    The Bengals do possess one of the deepest and best 53-man rosters in the league, highlighted by star receiver A.J. Green. There is certainly enough talent to send the team on another playoff trip.

    But Dalton’s inconsistencies could be too much for the Bengals to overcome, particularly with the Steelers and Ravens champing at the bit to return to the tournament.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-2
    • Odds Shark Wins Total: 9

    Head coach Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off an NFC East championship, and nothing this offseason would indicate that the club won’t repeat in 2014.

    Kelly did a tremendous job in Year 1, calling the shots of the league’s second-ranked offense. Quarterback Nick Foles was a revelation, tossing 27 touchdown passes against only two interceptions, and is putting together a sterling offseason. Running back LeSean McCoy, the reigning NFL rushing champion, looks to dominate once again.

    The defense should be better with the addition of pass-rusher Marcus Smith (the club’s first-round draft pick), and it’s important to note that the unit started to come on at the end of last season.

    While the possible suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, as reported by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, would hurt, the team’s offensive line is good enough to absorb that potential blow and still emerge as NFC East champions.

    The Eagles wouldn’t be the favorite if they played in another NFC division, but they remain the class of the East.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 11-9
    • Odds Shark Wins Total: 8.5

    Like most pundits around the league, Odds Shark isn’t quite sure what to make of the AFC North, as the Bengals are installed as slight favorites ahead of the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.

    But the Steelers are the best team in the division and will reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

    General manager Kevin Colbert injected some badly needed speed and athleticism into the defense with the drafting of linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round. Shazier is the fastest linebacker to enter the league since Brian Urlacher, and he’ll allow defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to get creative with his blitz schemes.

    Running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown are both excellent, and the club still employs head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

    While things are obviously subject to change, the Steelers are currently my favorite to capture the AFC North title.

Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 2-3
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 8.5

    Odds Shark projects the Chicago Bears as a borderline playoff team, but you’ll find no such consternation from me: I believe the Bears are headed for the postseason.

    Last year, the defense was the albatross slung around the club’s collective neck, as the Bears allowed a preposterous 5.3 yards per carry on the ground and couldn’t stop anyone.

    This offseason, general manager Phil Emery has done a fantastic job of improving the unit’s talent level, adding defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, and drafting cornerback Kyle Fuller in the first round.

    Head coach Marc Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler will have the offense humming, especially with Cutler putting together a fabulous offseason. Running back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tight end Martellus Bennett provide Cutler with outstanding weaponry.

    Right now, I view the Bears as the fifth-best team in the NFC behind the Packers, Saints, Seahawks and 49ers. That will be enough to push them into the postseason for the first time since 2010.

New Orleans Saints

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 9.5

    Although the NFC South contains four potential playoff teams, one stands above the rest as the favorite to capture the division title: the New Orleans Saints.

    Head coach Sean Payton’s club will once again be devastating on offense, led by star quarterback Drew Brees. The running game promises to be more effective this season, with back Khiry Robinson looming as a breakout star. Brees has no shortage of weapons in the passing game, with tight end Jimmy Graham and receivers Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and speedy rookie Brandin Cooks on the payroll.

    Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a lot to work with on that side of the ball, especially with the free-agent signing of stud safety Jairus Byrd. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is a monster and is coming off a 12.5-sack season. He could be even better in 2014.

    Barring any kind of major injury, the Saints are nearly a lock to return to the postseason.

Green Bay Packers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 10.5

    Despite missing star quarterback Aaron Rodgers for nearly half of last season, the Green Bay Packers still managed to win the NFC North and nearly knocked off the 49ers in the Wild Card Round. And they’ll be even better in 2014.

    The signing of free-agent pass-rusher Julius Peppers will be a major boon to the defense, and he’s already drawing rave reviews from teammates. The first-round selection of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will improve the secondary, and if the team’s young defensive players can continue to ascend, the Packers could field their best unit in years.

    The offense, led by Rodgers, will be fantastic. Running back Eddie Lacy is a beast, and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb form one of the best pass-catching duos in the league. Green Bay will put up a ton of points.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson are both superb at their jobs and will once again have the Packers in position to make the playoffs. As of now, Green Bay is the clear-cut favorite to win the NFC North for the fourth consecutive season.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 10.5

    As Al Pacino famously opined in Any Given Sunday, football is a game of inches, and that’s a lesson the San Francisco 49ers learned the hard way in last season’s NFC Championship Game.

    If quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s pass to receiver Michael Crabtree had been just a few inches farther, the 49ers would be the defending NFC champions, not the Seahawks. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the 49ers were left to lick their wounds after yet another crushing playoff defeat.

    But the good news for 49ers fans is that the team is once again good enough to return to the postseason. Kaepernick, armed with a big-money extension, should have an excellent season, and the rest of the roster is loaded. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is among the best in the league and will have his team ready to play each and every Sunday.

    Out of respect to the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, the 49ers are listed slightly behind them in my playoff odds, but no one should be surprised if San Francisco finishes ahead of Seattle and captures the NFC West.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 3-7
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 11

    The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have my best odds of any NFC team to the reach the postseason, and if you watched them eviscerate the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, you aren’t surprised.

    The Seahawks are absolutely loaded and possess arguably the deepest and best 53-man roster in the NFL. Quarterback Russell Wilson is an absolute stud, and the running game, keyed by backs Marshawn Lynch and Christine Michael, should be dominant. Having receiver Percy Harvin healthy for a full season will add a new dimension to the offense.

    The defense will once again be outstanding, led by cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. The combination of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider is as good as it gets in the NFL.

    The Seahawks are too good to suffer a Super Bowl hangover. It will be a massive upset if they aren't playing next January.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 1-4
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 9.5

    The Indianapolis Colts aren’t one of the three best teams in football, but because they play in the putrid AFC South, their playoff odds are the third-best.

    Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the finest young passer in the game and has already led the team to back-to-back playoff appearances in each of his first two seasons. His ascent should continue in 2014, and it should surprise no one if Luck makes a strong case for league MVP.

    The Titans and Jaguars are both bad teams, and while improved, the Texans aren’t yet ready to challenge the Colts for the division title.

    The brilliance of Luck will carry the Colts to a second consecutive AFC South championship.

New England Patriots

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 1-4
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 10.5

    While I wouldn’t rate the New England Patriots as one of the five best teams in the NFL (the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, Packers and Saints are all better), they are clearly the class of the AFC East and project to capture the division title for the sixth consecutive season.

    That’s why they possess the second-best playoff odds.

    Bill Belichick is perhaps the finest coach in all of professional sports, and despite what anyone says to the contrary, Tom Brady is still a top-five quarterback. The signing of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner should greatly help the defense. If tight end Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy, the Patriots should once again field an explosive offense.

    There’s just no way that the Bills, Jets or Dolphins can usurp the Patriots for AFC East supremacy. New England is ticketed for another AFC East championship and home playoff game.

Denver Broncos

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press
    • Kostos' Odds: 1-9
    • Odds Shark Win Total: 11.5

    The NFL team with the best odds to reach the postseason is last year’s AFC champion, the Denver Broncos.

    And while the fact that they play in the AFC certainly helps, the Broncos would be near the top of the list if they played in the NFC, too. That’s how much general manager John Elway improved the team in the offseason.

    Elway watched as the Seahawks physically manhandled and throttled the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and he aggressively upgraded the defense in order to elevate his team. The free-agent signings of pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward will greatly help in that regard, as will the first-round selection of cornerback Bradley Roby.  

    The offense, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, should once again be a juggernaut and light up scoreboards like a pinball machine.

    Last year, the Broncos were the AFC’s best team, but the Patriots weren’t far behind. This year, it isn’t even close. The Broncos are the clear-cut class of the AFC.

    And given the relatively weak nature of the AFC, the Broncos have the best overall odds to make the playoffs.

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