We are all victims of recency bias. We spend four months watching 32 different teams prove to us exactly who they are. So when it’s time to prepare for a new season in September, it’s tough to reset and detach ourselves from those very same results. How many times have we caught ourselves saying there is no way a team doesn’t win the division, only to watch a string of injuries or a down year from a key player derail it? That’s what makes the league so appealing to its fans. There is enough parity that teams can rebuild fast, but it doesn’t come at the cost of being without great teams that win consistently.
Every year we think the majority of division winners will repeat, although that rarely happens. Over the past five years, there was only one year (2019) in which more than half of the division winners reclaimed first place the following year. And that’s with the Kansas City Chiefs carved in stone at the top of the AFC West in all five seasons. It’s a remarkably consistent flow of just enough change, with the perfect balance of strong teams.
We know the surprises are coming each year, but never know where they are coming from. When looking at odds for the division winners, I like to focus on betting against favorites that do not have experience in that role. Here are the two divisions where I see a lot of upside for bettors to land value by wagering on a new team to finish on top.
NFC North Division winner
Current favorite: Detroit Lions +130
2022 winner: Minnesota Vikings +280
Best bet: Green Bay Packers +400
When Dan Campbell was hired, I never would have believed Detroit would be a +130 favorite to win the division entering his third year. I also wouldn’t have believed Campbell winning only 36.8% of his games as Detroit’s head coach has warranted the respect he is getting in the market. Yes, the Lions were a fun team to watch with an offense that took everybody by surprise, but I’m going to need more than a 9-8 season with a last-place schedule to get comfortable with Detroit as the favorite.
Minnesota is interesting at +280. The Vikings hired Kevin O’Connell to win all the close games former coach Mike Zimmer used to fumble away, only to see his team get labeled as a fraud for doing it too successfully. The Vikings are on the right track, but it’s going to take new DC Brian Flores until 2024 to get the defense where he needs it. In 2022, the Vikings were 25th in defensive success rate and allowed 30 points or more in many key games in the second half of the season.
That’s why I favor the Green Bay Packers at +400. Rodgers' removal from the organization is really going to allow Matt LaFleur to showcase his coaching chops. I am on him for Coach of the Year, and I think he is one of the most underrated coaches in the league. All the guy has done is win since he was hired. There will be a drop off at the most important position, but Jordan Love looked more than capable in limited action last year. He will get solid protection from his offensive line, and I’m confident LaFleur can build an offense around Love's strengths.
Green Bay saw its season end in the final week at the hands of the Detroit Lions, and I can’t help but wonder how much that one game impacted the odds we are looking at today. The Packers have the best defense in the division and a very favorable schedule. If I can’t justify the gap between Green Bay and Detroits' odds, that means the Packers are a valuable bet.
NFC South Division winner
Current favorite: New Orleans Saints +125
2022 winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers +750
Best bet: Atlanta Falcons +220
I can appreciate Carlton Davis’ energy, but Tampa Bay wasn’t a good football team with Tom Brady at quarterback. It’s not going to get better with Baker Mayfield. Last year, Tampa Bay finished the season with the worst point differential (-45) of any team in the NFC South. We will have new blood at the top of the division.
The hard part is figuring out which of the teams that failed miserably at unseating Tampa Bay will rise up and answer the call in 2023. I’m not sold Carolina got much better in the offseason. Historically, QB’s drafted in the top five that start at least eight games during their rookie seasons rarely win more than half their starts. Per Clevanalytics, Tua Tagovailoa is the only one to do so since 2012. I don’t think the surrounding cast is good enough to allow Bryce Young to be the second.
That gets us down to two rivals: New Orleans and Atlanta. The Saints have the better team on paper, so it makes sense they are the favorites. However, they have consistently found ways to lose to teams they shouldn’t under Dennis Allen. There was the inexcusable fourth-quarter collapse against Tampa Bay and the painful 10-7 loss to Carolina in the final week of the season. The Saints' defense held Sam Darnold to 43 yards passing and two interceptions as New Orleans squandered the game. New Orleans’ offense scored a total of 44 second-half points in the final six games.
The solution to the fourth-quarter collapses was to sign Derek Carr, who was released by the Raiders for blowing a bunch of big leads. Carr is tied for the most QB turnovers since 2017 and ranked 24th in QB DVOA in the fourth quarter last season. That’s not a situation I want to put my money behind at such short odds, despite the Saints having a relatively easy schedule in a weak division.
At the current odds, the Atlanta Falcons are the stronger bet. They used the eighth overall selection to draft Bijan Robinson, who can easily end up being the most dynamic player in the draft. It also gives them one of the most formidable rushing attacks in football. I don’t think you can win a Super Bowl playing the way the Atlanta Falcons will in 2023, but I don’t see why they can’t win enough games and take the division. Arthur Smith’s offense revitalized Ryan Tannehill’s career, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think he can develop Desmond Ridder into a serviceable option in the same mold. The Falcons' defense has a lot of new faces, but if Smith’s vision of the offense comes to fruition, it won’t be spending a lot of time on the field. Atlanta’s projected to be favorite in five of its first seven games and has the second-weakest schedule in the NFL.
Stats provided by PFF, Clevanalytics, and Football Outsiders.