Over the past week, I’ve given you some of my favorite player props for the 2021 NFL season, and today, we move over to the team side of things. We’re going to be looking at divisional props as I pick a few nice bets to be 2021’s surprise teams.
There are a couple divisions that are tough to play. The Kansas City Chiefs are appropriately favored in the AFC West, while divisions like the AFC North and AFC South don’t offer a ton of value with essentially two co-favorites in each, although I don’t mind the Baltimore Ravens to win as a play.
On the NFC side, the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tough to bet against, while the NFC West looks like the most competitive division in football and may come down to who stays healthiest. That leaves a couple of divisions where I do like an underdog at their price, plus a couple of other interesting plays I think are worth looking at.
AFC East Winner — New England Patriots +360
Look, I think the Buffalo Bills are going to be very good again, and they should be clear favorites to win the division. They are a forward-thinking team willing to be pass-first and have intelligently built around Josh Allen’s unique skill set. They also have a fairly soft schedule with a lot of games where they look like solid favorites.
That said, Buffalo does have a couple particularly tough ones. They play at Kansas City in Week 5. They play at Tampa Bay in Week 14. Their Thursday night game is on the road in New Orleans on Thanksgiving. There are also some small regression concerns for the team as a whole where something like an 11-6 season wouldn’t be crazy.
But this would be better classified as a bet on the New England Patriots. I don’t think Bill Belichick has some type of magic spell, but it’s worth noting New England was hit hardest by opt-outs last season, then they had some key injuries — particularly along the offensive line — and clearly weren’t able to execute their plan for 2020. It’s somewhat notable they still went 7-9, especially considering they had some late losses in Seattle and Buffalo where they had a chance to score and take the lead very late in the fourth quarter in each.
This year, New England is starting rookie Mac Jones, who had a strong preseason, but they are going to get back to a run-based offense behind a strong offensive line and hope to grind out games. Health on the line will be key, and some of the schedule quirks don’t do them favors — a late bye, facing three teams coming off a bye — but this is a solid number on the idea the Patriots might have had more of a plan than they get credit for with their offseason spending spree, and Belichick can navigate the ups and downs of the regular season as well as any coach. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising to see New England churn out a 12-win team, and one way to play this bet is to hedge a little by adding over 9.5 wins or +180 to finish second in the division.
NFC East Winner — Washington Football Team +260
The markets are buying into Dak Prescott’s return and have the Dallas Cowboys as the favorites to win the division, but I’d argue are undervaluing the run Washington went on late in 2020. The important part of their roster is the defense, which was dominant at times last year and boasts perhaps the best defensive line in football.
The Cowboys get the edge on the offensive side of the ball, but Washington has made significant strides there, too, particularly in their underrated addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Washington showed they could be a winning team last year with a ball-control quarterback in Alex Smith making smart decisions and keeping them on schedule. Still, Fitzpatrick offers more upside offensively, particularly in his willingness to be aggressive down the field.
It’s easy to think that a great defense pairs better with a quarterback like Smith, but Fitzpatrick offers an ability to help Washington get out to leads that will be very difficult for opposing teams to come back from. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick’s propensity for throwing interceptions is perhaps mitigated a bit by a defense that can turn short fields into three points instead of seven, force a punt, and get the offense more chances if the turnover happens on the other end.
Fitzpatrick’s offenses, particularly later in his career, have scored points, and his aggressive style has kept his team in games even when they fall behind. He’s surrounded by a much deeper skill position group than Washington has had in years, all the way down to two somewhat-overlooked rookies in wide receiver Dyami Brown and running back Jaret Patterson — both were analytics darlings who had great offseasons and provide upside depth in 2021. If the defense can play to a very high level, you can see Washington benefiting from more of the good side of Fitzpatrick’s play style than the bad.
And the division is wide open. The New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles don’t look likely to seriously contend. At the same time, while Dallas has the superior offense to Washington, perhaps the gap on defense is even wider, with Washington holding more of an advantage there. At worst, I think these teams should be viewed more as co-favorites, but I think I’d still like Washington in that scenario.
NFC South Bets to Consider
- NFC South To Finish 2nd — Carolina Panthers +325
- NFC South To Finish 3rd — Carolina Panthers +200
- NFC South To Finish 4th — Atlanta Falcons +140
I mentioned at the top the Bucs are tough to bet against, but it’s worth noting they were a Wild Card team just last year when they won the Super Bowl, finishing with an 11-5 record. Some of the early hiccups were perhaps Tom Brady needing a little time to settle into his new digs, but it’s at least a little uncomfortable expecting a 44-year-old to play perfectly consistent football all season.
Part of why it’s difficult to bet against the Bucs is there’s not a solid challenger in this division. The Saints will be without Drew Brees this year for the first time in over a decade. While Sean Payton is sharp, they will also start the season with Michael Thomas on the PUP list and the unfortunate real-life impact of Hurricane Ida which will force them to play their Week 1 home game in Jacksonville, and may keep them from a true home game until Week 8. If they are able to navigate the early part of their season and then play well down the stretch to finish 11-6 or even 10-7, it would be hard to call that anything other than a success.
And then there’s the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, and the Panthers are the team I’m interested in here, while the Falcons are entering a rebuilding stage with some real issues on defense especially. Atlanta should have some highlight moments offensively, though.
The Panthers enter 2021 with a young defense full of former high draft picks at key spots that could really emerge. Their defensive line is deep and talented, while they took the first defensive player in April’s draft when they selected cornerback Jaycee Horn at No. 8. He’ll pair with 2018 second-round pick Donte Jackson, who is coming off a strong 2020, to create a solid cornerback duo. Offensively, Sam Darnold is probably a liability, and that makes it tough to really buy into a big season. But the skill position talent is there in spades, and there’s even some offensive line upside. We also have some coaching upside in that Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady were looked favorably upon in the 2020 offseason as potentially innovative thinkers from the college ranks, but a forgettable 2020 has stifled that narrative a bit this year.
There are a few ways to play this because the Panthers are projected to finish last in the division. I’m not sure they can seriously contend to win it with Darnold at quarterback, but throwing a small wager on the Panthers to do that at +1200 covers all bases. Of course, Matt Rhule to win Coach of the Year at +1600 might be the better longshot play that overlaps with a lot of those outcomes. Instead, my favorite bets here are throwing fractional units on the Falcons to finish last as well as Carolina to finish second and third.