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Sep 1, 2017
Sep 1, 2017

Outright NFL betting: Divisional contenders

Analysing the main contenders for each division

Which is the most competitive division in the NFL

How to use Pythagorean expectation in betting

Outright NFL betting: Divisional contenders

The regular NFL season is just weeks away and for those who prefer to take a longer-term view with their wagers, betting on the various divisional and conference winners could offer potential value. Which teams have the best chance of making it to the Super Bowl? Read on to find out.

Winning your division is the only guaranteed route to the post season, so while every game is important in a 16 game season, a divisional game has the added incentive of putting a loss into the record of often your bitter rivals, along with strengthening your own position within the division. 

Just four of the 32 franchises have failed to win their division since 2002 and with the sole exception of the New England Patriots (13 titles), no side has won more than nine divisional titles over the 15-season period.

Denver are perennial contenders in the West and their nine wins in 2016 was deserved and neither deflated nor inflated by unsustainable factors.

Similarly, only the Steelers, Patriots and Seahawks have avoided propping up their division even once and only the Cleveland Browns have regularly disappointed their fans with 12 fourth place finishes.

Talent, along with randomness of a short series of matches plays a part in a successful campaign and the former doesn’t entirely disappear in a single year.

Around 40% of divisional winners do go on to repeat their success the following season. But this list is populated by a few dominant teams, such as New England, Indianapolis and Green Bay and a significant 15% of 4th placed sides are able to leap from the bottom to the divisional crown in a season.

A similar rate of churn is found where divisional winners fall to the bottom of the pile in the space of 12 months. 

This reputation for the AFC South being the weakest current division is further enhanced by the average number of wins per team.

So while last year’s record is a good starting place to judge potential divisional winners, history tells us that few teams can be entirely discounted, as transient good or bad fortune becomes less extreme subsequently and results see a correction. 

Traditionally, the two most competitive divisions have been the NFC East and the South, where each of the eight sides have lifted their respective title at least twice since 2002. Converesely, the two least competitive divisions are the NFC North and AFC East.

NFC South

The NFC South’s Atlanta Falcons represented their conference in last year’s Super Bowl and but for an unprecedented comeback by a Tom Brady inspired New England, they would be the current world champions. The psychological impact of such a monumental loss could weigh heavily on the Falcons in 2017.

They also slightly overperformed compared to their Pythagorean expectation, although their record in close matches was an unexceptional 4-4. However, their turnover differential was +11; the equal fourth best in the NFL - something that may have helped boost their regular season wins to 11 and may not be readily repeated in 2017.

Only twice since 2002 has the NFC South winners followed up by taking the division title in the next season, Carolina in 2014 and 2015 and the median number of wins for a defending NFC South title-holder is just seven. None of their three opponents can be readily discounted - Tampa Bay chased Atlanta home in 2016, but they have a negative points differential and appear to be the weakest threat in 2017.

New Orleans underperformed their Pythagorean expectation, had two more narrow losses than wins and a small negative turnover differential. The same applies, only more so to Carolina, particularly their six narrow defeats and just two similar wins.

The most common scenario in this division is for a side to clinch the title whilst improving by around four wins from their previous season; Carolina look best placed to continue this tradition.

NFC East

The NFC East is another division where consecutive titles are rare, Philadelphia last achieving the feat twice since 2002 in 2003 and again the following season.

The Eagles scored 36 more points than they conceded and lost five more narrow matches than they won under similar circumstances.

Dallas leapt from fourth to first in 2016 but also relied on a series of often unsustainable events. They overperformed their Pythagorean by over two wins, claimed seven narrow wins compared to just two such losses and had five more takeaways than giveaways.

Their nearest challengers, the New York Giants, also benefitted from a large positive differential in close matches so it might pay to side with fourth placed Philadelphia. The Eagles scored 36 more points than they conceded and lost five more narrow matches than they won under similar circumstances, but still came within one win of a 0.500 season. 

NFC North

Green Bay has dominated the NFC North winning all but one title since 2011 and being an ever present in the post season during that period.

There is little in Detroit’s statistical breakdown to suggest they might improve on their nine win 2016 season and Minnesota appear the most likely challenger to the Packers, although their reliance on turnovers is a concern.

Chicago is likely to improve on their 2016 record, but they begin at a very low level of just three wins. 

NFC West

The NFC is completed in the West, where a two horse race seems assured - the newly relocated LA Rams may swap places with last year’s fourth placed San Francisco in a battle to be the third best team in the division.

Arizona had only a slightly inferior Pythagorean compared to strong title favourites, Seattle and enjoyed less success than their rivals in close matches. Neither of the two sides had a lopsided turnover differential and the contest for the title may be closer than anticipated. 

AFC West 

Over in the AFC West both Kansas City and Oakland made the 2016 post season, but in doing so recorded the league’s highest positive turnover differential of +16 and both had more narrow wins than losses. Both also had win/loss records that exceeded their Pythagorean win expectations.

Oakland welcome back injured quarterback Derek Carr, but have indicated they will move to Las Vegas in the near future whilst San Diego begin their season newly relocated in LA, both of which may be a distraction in 2017.

Denver are perennial contenders in the West and their nine wins in 2016 was deserved and neither deflated nor inflated by unsustainable factors. A year of development from the offence and their signature Super Bowl defence makes them at least the equals of last year’s playoff representatives. 

AFC South

The weak AFC South looks to be a three-way fight. Outsiders Jacksonville have the profile of a likely improver, but the same was broadly true last season when they actually dropped wins and they have recorded double digit losses every season since 2011.

The Colts have a relatively benign opening schedule should Luck’s close season surgery require more time to heal and it is mid-October before they face a divisional rival.

Division winners in 2016, Houston were the beneficiaries of five narrow divisional wins and their post season progression in the wildcard round should be viewed in light of the Raiders loss of their starting back up. The Texans were then well beaten by New England in the divisional round of the post season.

Tennessee were a 0.500 Pythagorean side who edged an extra win to finish at 9-7 partly due to a +3 differential in narrow wins to losses.

This reputation for the AFC South being the weakest current division is further enhanced by the average number of wins per team. Since 2010, AFC South teams have averaged at least a full win fewer per season than the sides from the seven remaining divisions. 

So the division may not take much winning and Indianapolis, alone of the three major contenders had fewer actual wins than their points appeared to merit and could return to the post season if fully fit Andrew Luck receives more protection than has recently been the case.

The Colts have a relatively benign opening schedule should Luck’s close season surgery require more time to heal and it is mid-October before they face a divisional rival.

AFC East

In the AFC East, New England are deservedly short priced favourites, especially despite Brady reaching an age where most quarterbacks have opted to retire. This is mostly down to their main divisional rivals, Miami, being flattered by their ten wins in 2016. 

Outright conference or Super Bowl odds may appeal more to those who wish to side with the Brady/Belichick combination.

AFC North

In the North, Pittsburgh also campaign with an ageing quarterback, but stand as justifiable favourites but they may be pursued by last year’s third placed Cincinnati, who will hope for better fortune in close games and a record that better reflects their points scoring and concession.

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