Best Bet for Each NFL Division Winner in 2021

Alex KayContributor ISeptember 5, 2021

Best Bet for Each NFL Division Winner in 2021

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Winning a division in this era of the expanded postseason field and a 17-game season may not be as important as it once was, but it's still the surefire way for a team to punch its ticket to the playoffs.

    Division champions earn at least one home game in the postseason, and home teams are 335-164 in the NFL playoffs for a 67.1 winning percentage.

    Winning a division is difficult, however, and it's even tougher to stay on top. Doing so requires a team to consistently beat rivals that are intimately familiar with them, which makes the New England Patriots' record-setting stretch of 11 straight AFC East titles from 2008 to 2019 so impressive.

    For betting purposes, picking division winners can be difficult. Injuries and other factors often play major roles in shaping the standings, sometimes knocking squads that seemed like locks out of contention.

    This happened to the 2020 San Francisco 49ers, who entered the campaign as odds-on favorites to capture their second straight NFC West title. The Super Bowl LIV runner-ups suffered a litany of injuries to key contributors early on and never recovered, missing the playoffs entirely.

    Unheralded squads can also rise from the bottom to win an unexpected crown. Last year's Washington Football Team outlasted the competition in a weak NFC East despite starting the season with by far the worst odds. Washington parlayed a strong defensive campaign into its first divisional title in five years and a surprise playoff berth.

    With that in mind, here is a look at the 2021 division odds and the best bet to win each. Note that a best bet isn't necessarily a heavy favorite; it represents the top value play on the board.

AFC East

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills: -160

    Miami Dolphins: +350

    New England Patriots: +350

    New York Jets: +2500

    The Bills are defending the AFC East crown for the first time since 1996. Buffalo hasn't repeated division titles since it won four straight from 1988 to 1991. Led by quarterback Josh Allen—now the second-highest-paid player in football—and a strong defense, the Bills will be tough to dethrone.

    At -160 odds, however, Buffalo isn't a great bet. Getting less than even money with a team that hasn't proved itself to be a perennial contender is poor value. With the Dolphins and Patriots posing threats to usurp the Bills, a more appealing option is to take either at +350.

    Even the Jets at +2500 would be a better value play than Buffalo. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson looks as good as advertised, giving the franchise hope to emerge from the basement. New York doesn't appear likely to make a run just yet, though, as it still lacks talent at key positions. This is most apparent at cornerback and on the edge, where prized free-agent acquisition Carl Lawson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

    Miami has made some strides since falling just short of a playoff berth last year. The team acquired wideouts Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to help second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa out, but it remains to be seen if this offense has done enough to be a viable contender. 

    The smart money is on the Patriots, especially after they released ineffective former starter Cam Newton. Newton led New England to a 7-9 record last year and had a rocky preseason, opening the door for rookie Mac Jones to take over. Legendary coach Bill Belichick is still leading this team, which restocked the cupboard with a free-agent spending spree.

    New England will host Miami in a season opener next weekend with the chance to get a leg up on its 12th AFC East title in 13 years.

    Best Bet: Patriots +350

AFC North

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens: +110

    Cleveland Browns: +155

    Pittsburgh Steelers: +500

    Cincinnati Bengals: +2500

    The AFC North has become one of the most competitive divisions, featuring three teams that each have a real chance to win the title.

    Baltimore has a slight edge over the Browns, though both squads are close to even money. The Steelers are a bit behind at +500 but could be in the hunt thanks to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's decision to come back for another run.

    Big Ben played poorly down the stretch last year, though, with age clearly catching up to the 39-year-old. He appeared rejuvenated in his lone preseason appearance, but banking on him to play well over a 17-game season isn't wise.

    The Browns fell short of their first division title since 1989 last year but have the talent to improve on an 11-5 record. Baker Mayfield is emerging as a bona fide franchise quarterback, Myles Garrett is one of the league's great defensive players, and their secondary is loaded. They are still the Browns, however, an organization that hasn't strung together winning seasons in over three decades.

    Cincinnati isn't a viable threat just yet but could be on the rise with Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase headlining an exciting young offense.

    Baltimore is the best play. The team is flying under the radar following another disappointing playoff showing and regressing to 11-5 after going 14-2 in 2019.

    The Ravens still have 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson behind center. The franchise's trademark defense will once again be good, regardless of the free-agency attrition on the edge. John Harbaugh is one of the league's most consistent coaches, going 129-79 in the regular season, making nine postseason trips and winning four AFC North titles since taking the reins in 2008.

    At +110, there's great value that Harbaugh will add another division crown to his resume and lead Baltimore on a deep playoff run.

    Best Bet: Ravens +110

AFC South

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Tennessee Titans: -115

    Indianapolis Colts: +150

    Jacksonville Jaguars: +650

    Houston Texans: +3000

    Bookmakers indicate there are only two contenders for the AFC South title.

    It would be tough to argue that, especially with the lowly Texans present. Houston has the lowest projected win total in the league at four, a mark not far from the Jaguars'. Even with top pick Trevor Lawrence running the show, Jacksonville's total is 6.5 victories.

    At +150, the Colts have a decent shot to win their first AFC South crown since 2014. But that will hinge on the play of Carson Wentz, who lost his job last year before being shipped to Indianapolis.

    Wentz has already missed a majority of training camp and the preseason with a foot injury, losing precious time to build rapport with his new teammates. The Colts are also struggling to replace longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired and left a major void at the position.

    The Titans are a great bet to build on last year's divisional title, their first since 2008. The price is a bit steep at -115, but they are still the least flawed squad.

    Tennessee boasts a quality quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a strong supporting cast led by bruising running back Derrick Henry. The Titans revamped a defense that held them back by ranking 28th overall and 24th in points allowed last year. Free-agency additions Bud Dupree, Denico Autry and Jackrabbit Jenkins should make Tennessee much more competitive on that side of the football.

    Betting on them is not going to result in a huge payout, but the Titans are clearly better than the Colts and should defend their AFC South title.

    Best Bet: Titans -115

AFC West

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs: -250

    Los Angeles Chargers: +450

    Denver Broncos: +600

    Las Vegas Raiders: +2200

    The AFC West has belonged to the Chiefs for the last half-decade. The team finished atop the standings by a mile last year and is well positioned to make it six titles in a row.

    Unfortunately for bettors, Kansas City's dominance is reflected in the -250 odds.

    The Chargers could challenge the Chiefs, but their chances of doing so aren't exactly great. The Bolts would have to shock the world while developing reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert into one of the league's top quarterbacks. Herbert has the talent to hang with K.C. superstar Patrick Mahomes but must harness it more consistently.

    The Broncos are intriguing after upgrading behind center. The club brought in Teddy Bridgewater to push third-year signal-caller Drew Lock, and the veteran beat out the incumbent. Bridgewater doesn't have much upside, but the 28-year-old is a solid game manager and has a good roster surrounding him. He proved he can excel in such situations during his tenure with the Saints.

    The Denver defense should rate among the league's best. The team revamped its secondary, acquiring veteran cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in addition to top-10 pick Pat Surtain II. The squad now employs quality talent across the unit but still lacks the firepower to contend with Kansas City.

    The Raiders are trying to make their first playoff appearance since Jon Gruden rejoined the team in 2018. They have improved in each of his three seasons but have yet to finish above .500. Las Vegas has some fantastic players and beat Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium last year, but it's not good enough to top the division.

    Bettors won't get much of a return on investment, but the Chiefs are still the class of the AFC West and won't lose their grip on the division in 2021.

    Best Bet: Chiefs -250

NFC East

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys: +150

    Washington Football Team: +200

    New York Giants: +400

    Philadelphia Eagles: +500

    The NFC East is a highly competitive division internally, but none of its four teams appear to pose a threat to the rest of the league. This division lacks a clear favorite among its flawed contenders, though shops are giving the slightest edge to the Cowboys.

    Dallas is coming off a disappointing campaign but seems ready for a bounce-back year. The club accomplished its top offseason goal by securing a long-term extension with quarterback Dak Prescott, who appears healthy following a season-ending right ankle injury.

    Defending NFC East champion Washington should only fare better this year too. The team returns many key players on defense and acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick. The veteran is a much more reliable quarterback than the four players Washington deployed last year.

    The Giants are going into Daniel Jones' crucial third year as the starting quarterback. Jones looked brilliant at times during his rookie season but regressed and suffered from a weak supporting cast in 2020. Big Blue brought in support for their signal-caller, drafting Kadarius Toney and signing Kenny Golladay to revamp the receiving corps.

    Philadelphia is the longest shot to win the NFC East this year, but it still has a chance despite some significant holes. The Eagles are trying to figure out what they have in second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, who got a boost with the drafting of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

    This is arguably the toughest division to handicap, so getting so much value with a team such as the Giants is ideal. The G-Men would return $4 for each $1 risked and have the pieces in place to be competitive. Even with 17 games on the schedule, the NFC East may not have a double-digit win team again this year, so back New York to come out on top by a small margin.

    Best Bet: Giants +400

NFC North

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers: -160

    Minnesota Vikings: +250

    Chicago Bears: +550

    Detroit Lions: +2800

    The NFC North is Green Bay's to lose. Earlier in the offseason, it appeared that the division would be up for grabs, but the return of Aaron Rodgers—who reportedly didn't want to play for the Packers anymore a few months ago—changed that.

    It'll be a challenge to knock off Green Bay, which is coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances and consecutive divisional titles. The Packers made it a priority to keep the band together in free agency, with their only notable loss being 2020 All-Pro center Corey Linsley. They reinforced some areas of need via the draft, including cornerback with first-round pick Eric Stokes.

    The Vikings have the best odds of overthrowing the Packders. Minnesota has competed well against Green Bay in recent years, going 6-4-1 since the last game of 2016. These teams split their series last year, but the balance of power could tip back in the Vikings' favor should their defense—which head coach Mike Zimmer called the worst he has ever coached—take a step forward.

    Detroit is a non-factor, starting a new rebuild under head coach Dan Campbell. The team is years away from being a playoff contender, especially after having traded veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    Chicago is the wild card. The team let former starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky walk before signing veteran signal-caller Andy Dalton in free agency. It also traded up to get top prospect Justin Fields in the draft, setting the club up with a potential franchise quarterback.

    Even if Fields eventually earns the starting job—he was named the backup, at least for Week 1—he would have his work cut out for him to try to keep the Bears in contention in this competitive division.

    Go with the safest pick and take Green Bay to win its third consecutive NFC North title. Even if the Packers struggle against the Vikings, they are too good to drop enough games to hand a rival the division.

    Best Bet: Packers -160

NFC South

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers: -200

    New Orleans Saints: +350

    Atlanta Falcons: +900

    Carolina Panthers: +900

    The NFC South is projected to have a new champion after four straight years of the Saints topping the division.

    The Buccaneers are the heavy favorites to capture their first crown since 2007, a testament to how well they have played since their bye last season. Tampa Bay didn't lose a game after that Week 13 break, ripping off eight consecutive victories and bringing the organization its second Super Bowl title.

    Bookmakers are giving New Orleans the best odds of finishing ahead of Tampa Bay, but the club just lost future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees to retirement.

    The Saints elected to turn their offense over to Jameis Winston after a competition against Taysom Hill. Given Winston's track record as a starter—he went 28-42 in five years with the Bucs—he isn't a great signal-caller on whom to make even a +350 bet. New Orleans parted ways with several other veteran contributors this offseason, making it a team to avoid until Winston proves himself as a successor to Brees and the many new additions show they are capable.

    The Falcons and Panthers lack the experience to contend. These teams are relying on a new head coach and a new starting quarterback and need more time to figure things out. Both have promising pieces but must improve before they can hang with the league's best.

    Considering the Bucs still have Tom Brady at quarterback, a slew of elite skill position players and a veteran-laden defense that boasts one of the game's most dominant pass-rushing units, it's hard to envision a scenario in which they won't win the NFC South.

    Best Bet: Buccaneers -200

NFC West

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers: +180

    Los Angeles Rams: +190

    Seattle Seahawks: +275

    Arizona Cardinals: +650

    The battle for the NFC West title will be as fierce as any this year. This division is arguably the toughest in the NFL, featuring four teams that have hopes of making the postseason.

    Even the Cardinals at +650 could very well come away with the crown. The team narrowly missed making the playoffs last season and has improved significantly. Arizona added multiple veterans, including J.J. Watt to augment the pass rush and A.J. Green to give rising star quarterback Kyler Murray another sure-handed target.

    Seattle has finished second or better in all but one season since Pete Carroll took the reins in 2010, a stretch that includes five division titles. Despite this, bookmakers have given the Seahawks only the third-best odds as they look to repeat as NFC West champs.

    One reason is surely Seattle's quiet offseason, which included just three draft picks and a handful of minor free-agency pickups. The Seahawks should still be competitive, but the rest of the teams in the division improved noticeably.

    The Rams shook up the division's power structure by trading for Matthew Stafford. The upgrade from Jared Goff behind center could get Los Angeles over the hump. The team hasn't been able to replicate its successes from 2018—when it reached Super Bowl LIII—due to a slumping offense. With a defense that ranked atop the league in points and yards allowed last year returning mostly intact, L.A. will be a force this time around.

    The 49ers are back in the hunt after suffering through a Super Bowl hangover of their own. The team was ravaged by injuries last year, culminating in a disappointing 6-10 finish. With Trey Lance, the No. 3 pick, set to push Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting quarterback job, the sky's the limit.

    It's a difficult division to handicap, which is why the Cardinals stick out as the best value on the board. Murray seems ready to make a leap in his third year and will lead a team that would net bettors $6.50 for each $1 staked. If Murray has an All-Pro type of season, Arizona will win the division.

    Best Bet: Cardinals +650

                    

    Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.

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