As the calendar turns the page to the month of July, we are just weeks away from the start of 2014 NFL training camps. Every year, in a league that has become known for its parity, there are always a few teams that rise above the ranks to win their division after missing the postseason the year before.
Using Doc’s Sports 2014 NFL futures odds as a guide, here is a look at five teams that have the best shot to pull off the feat this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2-1 Odds to Win the AFC North
The Steelers are coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons that have kept them out of the playoffs both years. The last time this non-playoff streak reached three years was all the way back in 2000, when they went 9-7 but still missed the postseason.
With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback running an offense that added some additional weapons in running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, this unit could be in for a dramatic turnaround from the one that was ranked 20th in the NFL last year in yards per game.
Houston Texans: 5-2 Odds to Win the AFC South
Houston’s unexpected fall from first to worst that saw it go from a 12-4 mark in 2012 to just two wins in 2014 was one of the most shocking developments in the NFL last year.
While many experts wanted to pin most of the blame on former Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, the entire team had a hand in losing 14 straight games after starting 2-0. The good news is that the stage is set for a rise towards the top of the AFC South, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick getting a chance to revitalize his career after getting cut by Tennessee.
The real reason for optimism is the addition of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the draft, which will only make a good defense that much better.
Atlanta Falcons: 13-4 Odds to Win the NFC South
The Falcons were another team that fell off the face of the earth in 2013, going 4-12 after three straight seasons of double-digit wins.
They still have Matt Ryan at quarterback, and the addition of free agents such as tackle Gabe Carimi and wide receiver Devin Hester should help this offense get back on track in 2014 after finishing last season ranked 20th in the NFL in scoring.
Atlanta also used seven of its nine draft picks to address a defense that was ranked 27th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
The last time the Falcons won just four games was in 2007, and they went on to win 11 games the following season under then first-year head coach Mike Smith.
Chicago Bears: 11-4 Odds to Win the NFC North
The race for the 2013 NFC North title came down to the wire, with Green Bay squeezing out the top spot at 8-7-1 over the 8-8 Bears, so it will probably take just a couple of additional victories to claim this year’s crown.
Chicago made two of the biggest splashes in free agency with the signing of defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, from Oakland and rival Minnesota, to address a defense that fell to 30th in the league in both points (29.9) and average yards allowed (394.6).
There are no pressing issues on the other side of the ball with an offense that scored an average of 27.8 points per game, the second-highest total in the NFL. This will be offensive guru’s Marc Trestman’s second season at the helm as the Bears’ head coach, so we could see even bigger and better things from this unit in 2014 under veteran quarterback Jay Cutler.
New York Giants: 3-1 Odds to Win the NFC East
The Giants dug themselves into a hole they could never climb out of in 2013 by losing their first six games under the weight of a multitude of turnovers. Quarterback Eli Manning cleaned up his act after throwing 15 interceptions in those first six games with just 12 picks the rest of the way, and New York responded with a 7-3 record in its final 10 games.
Assuming that the Giants avoid another disastrous start in 2014, it looks like 10 wins could easily win the NFC East this season. This is still a team with a veteran head coach in Tom Coughlin and a veteran quarterback in Manning, who have produced two Super Bowl titles since 2006, so a 2014 NFC East crown is well within reach.