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What To Look For When Betting NFL Division Futures

One of the aspects of the NFL that makes it so entertaining to watch is the fact that there is so much change. A team can go from outhouse to penthouse in one offseason. Not only does that make for great stories, it presents some valuable betting opportunities.

From 2010 to 2010, we saw about 5.6 teams that made the playoffs the previous season miss the playoffs the following season. In the following decade, that number inched up to 5.8. Over the last couple of seasons, we’ve seen a whopping seven teams make the playoffs one year and miss the next. That’s a lot of turnover. That being the case, there are openings to bet on division futures and make some money.

The question is: how do you pick the right teams? That’s what we’re taking a look at to delve deeper into how to find these hidden gems.

What To Look For When Betting NFL Division Futures
What To Look For When Betting NFL Division Futures

Trust What You Know

There is a lot of change and turnover in the NFL, but one of the best things you can do with this prop is trust what you know. There are certain teams and quarterbacks that deliver a level of consistency. You can bank on that – or at least decide if you want to based on the odds.

A good example of this is the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs. For a while now, bettors have been waiting for this team to fall off and trying to predict who’ll have next in the AFC West. The Las Vegas Raiders were a sleeper pick once they acquired Davante Adams, many thought the Los Angeles Chargers were a team on the rise and even the Denver Broncos got love after Russell Wilson came over. At the end of the day, the Chiefs have now won the AFC West seven times in a row with Reid on the sidelines. Prior to that, they missed three times in a row but were second each time. If you bet the Chiefs, you might not get great odds but you know that they’re probably going to be in the competition to win the division.

There are now several coaches and teams that you can probably trust. The Buffalo Bills look solid, the Cincinnati Bengals are have a reliable coach-quarterback duo and the Baltimore Ravens – when healthy – are usually pushing for double-digit wins with Jim Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson leading the way. In a league where there is so much change and so many unknown variables, you want to stick with what you know to give yourself a shot to win.

How Did The Team Finish Last Season?

One of the best ways to find a team that’s on the rise is to note how they finished the previous season. With so much turnover year to year in the NFL, there is often a changing of the guards. The first signs of this shift happens in the final month or weeks of the previous season. What you’re looking for are teams that are either putting it together with wins or a winning streak, or showing signs of being far more competitive and competent than they had been.

A great example of this was the 2021 Philadelphia Eagles. This was a team that was in their first year under head coach Nick Sirianni and showed great improvement as the season progressed. They were just 3-6 after nine games. However, a light bulb seemingly went off in the middle of November as the team ended the year on a 6-2 run. That carried over into a strong offseason followed by an incredible 14-3 campaign in 2022. A lot of people were surprised by the Eagles emergence in 2022 but those who followed them in the second half of the 2021 weren’t as shocked. That’s exactly the type of thing you’re looking for to find the next division winner.

Change Can Be A Good Thing…

One of the best ways to find value for NFL division futures is to look for a team that’s flying under the radar. The Patrick Mahomes-Andy Reid Kansas City Chiefs or Tom Brady-Bill Belichick New England Patriots were stellar squads that everyone knew about. As a result, they were quite regularly favored to win their division and there wasn’t much value there. What you do want to find is teams that have endured a lot of change. That’s where you usually find the mismatch.

Change can often be a good thing when teams are making the right moves to address their needs. For example, if a team allowed the most sacks in the NFL the previous season, you would hope they address their offensive line. If they sign a couple of tackles of free agency and then use their first-round pick on a guard, that would seem to make sense. You generally want to see teams plugging holes and finding better support for the team that they have.

A good example would be the Miami Dolphins in the 2021 offseason. They made a head coaching change to Mike McDaniel and then made a number of moves on their offense to build around Tua Tagovailoa. They traded for wideout Tyreek Hill and signed tackle Terron Armstead and running back Raheem Mostert. It’s no surprise that the team improved drastically on offense as Tagovailoa – when healthy – looked awesome – and the passing game was electric. These are the types of moves that make sense. Armstead became a Pro Bowler while Mostert led the team in rushing.

When you see these kinds of changes and things sync up, teams like this become a good value bet to win their division – even if other teams are favored. This is the kind of change that is exciting and inspires a lot of confidence in a team. And then there’s the type of change that does the opposite.

…Or Change Can Be A Bad Thing

When you’re looking at NFL division futures and evaluating teams, you have to be careful with teams that made a lot of change that’s not being viewed positively. A good example right now is the Las Vegas Raiders, who have made a number of head-scratching moves in free agency in the 2022 offseason. To start, head coach Josh McDaniels benched heart-and-soul leader Derek Carr to end last season and then traded him away in the offseason. That clearly irked the team’s top wide receiver in Davante Adams. In Carr’s place, McDaniels traded for San Francisco 49ers passer Jimmy Garoppolo, who might save the team some money but probably doesn’t make them a significantly better team. A swap from Carr to Garoppolo doesn’t really move the needle. At tight end, the team traded away former Pro Bowler Darren Waller but spent a high draft pick on former Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer. The team also picked up Jakobi Myers and Philip Dorsett. On defense, the team looks like they’ll be about the same. Does this sound like a team that’s really addressed their issues?

When betting a team to win a division, you want to see a lot of good, positive change that makes sense. Change for the sake of change rarely helps a team turn things around. As a handicapper, your best bet is to review the offseason reviews of the team’s previous season and assess what their biggest weaknesses were. Then you have to assess whether the team has addressed those weaknesses or not. If the answer is ‘no’, you shouldn’t put money on them to outperform expectations and win their division. It’s just not likely to happen.

Consider Waiting To Make Your Bet

There’s often an ego thing when it comes to these NFL futures bets. People not only want to be right but they also want to tell you that they were on the bandwagon before there even was one. Sure, it’s fun to be the one who knew but if you’re trying to make smart betting decisions, you might want to be careful betting these types of futures too early.

Injuries are a part of the NFL but they can often be quite impactful to a team’s success. Everything might look good on paper until a team losing a star to a ligament injury in training camp or preseason action. And if you’ve been betting on the NFL or playing fantasy football, you know that this happens every single season. Bets and fantasy football teams get derailed.

One good example that comes to mind is the 2015 Green Bay Packers. In 2014, they finished 12-4, won the NFC North and made it to the NFC Championship Game. In preseason action right before the 2015 regular season, the Packers lost star wide receiver Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL.  Nelson led the team with 1,519 yards in the 2014 season along with 13 touchdowns. Think losing him had an impact? Consider that the Packers finished that season 10-6 – a game behind the Minnesota Vikings, who finished 11-5. Having Nelson could have pushed them over the top.

Injuries like this happen every single year in the NFL and in some cases, they’re worse than this. You’d rather miss out on some early summer value in the line but protect yourself from the downside risk. If you can, wait until the end of the preseason to make your call. That way you know the roster that you’re betting on is healthy – at least as the regular season is about to get underway.

Doing Your Homework: That’s How You Beat The Odds

At the end of the day, there is, in fact, good opportunity to make a good payday with these division futures. The key is to put in the work and to do your research, so that you know where the edge lies. You have to spend some time in the offseason tracking transactions, watching the NFL Draft, making sense of the moves each team is making. Then you have to cross-reference that with how they finished the previous campaign. Along with that, watch how the team is playing in preseason games and what the beat reporters are saying about training camp. And lastly, make sure they’re healthy going into the season.

When all of those stars line up, that’s when you have a good wager on a team for a divisional futures bet.

Outlier Team
August 4, 2023
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