It’s difficult to say anything about the South returning to its former glory without conjuring images of the Confederates. But in the context of the NFL, it’s worth an attempt, because the NFC South was the league’s punchline in 2014 before Carolina rose up and commanded league-wide respect with a 15-1 record last season.
Now, the AFC South would like to follow suit after being represented in the playoffs by the 9-7, Brian Hoyer-led Houston Texans last year.
Betting-wise, the two South divisions couldn’t be more different, with one dominated by a clear favorite and the other a seeming toss up. After breaking down the North and West divisions, we now search for value in the deep South.
Indianapolis Colts: 13/10
Houston Texans: 9/4
Jacksonville Jaguars: 3/1
Tennessee Titans: 10/1
Three teams entered Week 15 last season with a chance to claim the division, and it was the Texans who outlasted the competition. But now with the optimism and assumed health that comes with a full offseason, the Indianapolis Colts enter the year as favorites to come out of the AFC South. It’s not a real surprise that Andrew Luck’s group is the favorite: after all, it’s a quarterback driven league.
It is weird, though, that the natural reaction to Houston winning the division at 9-7 is to assume this year is a wide-open race. After all, seven of the last ten teams to win their division title without hitting double-digit wins went on to win the division the following season, as well. So even though Houston has a new, unproven quarterback, they have to be taken seriously as a contender.
After all, the Texans are the only team with an established defense. The rest of the teams ranked in the bottom-third of defensive DVOA and lacked the offensive efficiency to make up for it. A healthy Luck masks a lot of Indy’s deficiencies, but it’s tough to buy into Jacksonville doing a complete 180 on both sides of the ball, even with a high-priced offseason overhaul. Throw in the fact that the Jaguars have never won the AFC South in its 14-year history, and they seem like a clear stay-away at +300.
Despite Brock Osweiler not inspiring a ton of confidence this preseason, Houston is solid value at +225; they’re much less susceptible than the Colts to being derailed by an injury to one player.
Carolina Panthers: 4/9
Atlanta Falcons: 5/1
New Orleans Saints: 6/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 7/1
After 12 straight seasons of change at the top of the division, the Carolina Panthers finally brought some stability to the NFC South. The Panthers have won three-straight titles, and just about everybody expects a fourth to come in 2016. The defending NFC champion isn’t giving off much value at -225, but is there any reason to think they might not be able to do it again?
Well, for starters, there’s the threat of a Super Bowl hangover. Ten of the last 15 Super Bowl losers failed to win their division the following season. But it would have to be a bachelor party-level hangover for a team that finished seven games ahead of second-place and crushed their contemporaries in DVOA (Carolina finished fourth; Tampa was the next closest in 21st) to slip that far.
Of course, major injuries can always derail the Panthers’ chances (although that was supposed to happen last year when Kelvin Benjamin went down). That means putting a little money on a South longshot could be worthwhile. But which team is worthy of backing?
Atlanta rode an easy schedule to an over-inflated 8-8 record last year, but couldn’t handle their own, going 1-5 within the div. New Orleans had an embarrassment of a defense last year, and didn’t make any drastic changes to suggest it will be better this year.
If there is another team worth backing, it would be the upstart Buccaneers. Led by second-year QB Jameis Winston, Tampa has a ton of offensive potential, finishing fifth in total yards last year; and they can hold their own on defense, ranking tenth in yards allowed. It’s still a young team learning to win, but Tampa going worst-to-first is easier to envision than a Falcons or Saints run; and +700 is a pretty good deal on a team many expect to make the leap.
Photo credit: Phillip Hendon (Flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/].
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