The six-month offseason is a long slog for NFL fans, but with preseason now underway, football fever is officially in the air.
For punters, Super Bowl betting is popular right throughout the year, but this is a crucial time to pay attention to the odds. Training camp and preseason injuries go hand in hand – a recipe for disaster if you’re betting on an outsider – while strong rookie performances and convincing quarterback play can see some dark horses emerge.
To help you out, I’m previewing all eight NFL divisions throughout the preseason, detailing each team as well as their Super Bowl odds ahead of September.
Up next, the toughest division in football – the NFC South.
Other Betting Previews:
Two simple numbers doomed the Falcons last season: 34-28.
The blown Super Bowl loss to the Patriots haunted Atlanta throughout the entirety of 2017, resulting in the Falcons finishing third in the NFC South with a 10-6 record.
It was bitter disappointment for a team that has so far failed to utilize the best years of quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. The two have been together now since 2011, and so far have only one Super Bowl visit and a handful of playoff wins to show for it.
In a move to try and push the team in the right direction, the Falcons brought in offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian last season in an attempt to kick-start the offense.
Unsurprisingly, drastic personnel changes can take a while to ferment, evident in Atlanta’s drop from the highest scoring team in the league in 2016 to 15th in 2017.
As so often is the case though, things tend to turn around as time goes on. Matt Ryan in particular has a strong track record during the second year with a new offensive coordinator, having thrown for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns (an MVP season) during Kyle Shanahan’s second year with the Falcons in 2016.
In terms of good news, that’s about as good as it gets for the Falcons. Now they just need to rely on Jones playing a second consecutive full season, as well as Mohamed Sanu’s continued rise among No.2 wide receivers in the league.
But what about the rest of the offense? Is there enough to carry the Falcons all the way?
One of 2017’s biggest problems was Devonta Freeman’s on again/off again troubles with concussion. The battle cost Freeman the final two weeks of the season, as well as a handful of carries against Miami and Dallas, but at age 26 the former fourth round pick still presents as a Top 20 running back entering Week 1.
Outside of the ground game, there was one other glaring hole on offense last season: tight end. Austin Hooper no doubt has the receiving and blocking skills to contribute on a weekly basis, but head coach Dan Quinn opted to start Hooper only eight times last season, resulting in a measly 500-yard season.
Looking forward, the Falcons could really benefit from Hooper in the red zone. Jones is a defensive target, but if Hooper could develop into one of Ryan’s go-to options on play action passes, Atlanta’s offense could really take the next step.
Speaking of options, it was great to see the Falcons address their need at receiver in the draft. Calvin Ridley, the Falcons first round pick, caught for 967-yards with Alabama last year, and has so far wowed coaches in camp.
With an option like Ridley and so many veterans returning on offense, there’s no reason the Falcons offense can’t lead the league again this season. Since 2011, Ryan and Jones have hooked up for 1,000 yards in each and every season, while the schedule itself figures as one of the easiest in the league.
Winning their first Super Bowl is Atlanta’s goal, and they have a chance to do just that in front of their home town fans. It’s a tough division, but this is not only an NFC South favourite, but also a serious Super Bowl contender worth your money.
Like the Falcons, the Panthers have failed to make the most of what they have.
Quarterback Cam Newton is in the prime of his career, and on defence, Luke Kuechly continues to project as a Top 10 inside linebacker.
There’s no doubt the talent runs deep on this roster, but there’s still some questionable areas on the depth chart that need addressing.
First, who is Cam throwing the ball to?
Returning for his fourth season with the team, Devin Funchess figures to be Cam’s go-to guy, but on the heels of a 840-yard, eight touchdown season, his numbers don’t exactly scream franchise receiver.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver, Devin Funchess.
Second, can Cam actually throw the ball?
Sounds stupid, sure, but after an MVP season in 2015 and shoulder surgery to begin the 2017 season, we’re yet to see Newton show the usual razzle dazzle with his feet and pinpoint arm accuracy we came to know in years prior.
And finally, how will the run game shape up?
Gone is Jonathan Stewart, but we all know 2017 first round draft pick Christian McAffrey shapes up as a future star in the making.
What will be interesting to see is how Carolina decides to split the carries. McCaffrey predominantly did his best work in the air, tallying more receiving yards than he did on the ground. This season, though, McAffrey should see more of the ball on the ground, and with the addition of C.J. Anderson, the two could develop into a lethal one-two combo.
Defensively, it might seem like a lot hangs on Kuechly, but the Panthers still managed to finish third in the league in sacks last year despite their leader struggling with minor injuries.
Speaking of injuries, the Panthers will also welcome back Greg Olsen this year from a foot injury. The veteran tight end will be an enormous edition to the receiving game should he stay healthy, as well as playing mentor to first round draft pick (and receiver) D.J. Moore.
There’s still a lot of unknowns about the Panthers – like how they replace offensive tackle Andrew Norwell – but overall, this is perhaps the most optimistic we’ve felt about Carolina since their Super Bowl run in 2016.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have been a popular Super Bowl pick, and as the slight favourite to win the division, it’s not hard to see why.
Offensively, New Orleans are bubbling with talent. This might be Drew Brees’ last hurrah under centre, but the future looks bright with Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas leading the way.
Defensively, things are equally on point. Cameron Jordan, fresh from a 13 sack season, leads the way down front, while cornerback Marshon Lattimore is one of the very best in the business.
So how does all of that translate to wins?
On the back of an 11-5 season, one that ended in heartbreak against the Minnesota Vikings on one Case Keenum throw, the Saints already have a proven formula for success.
There are some questions surrounding how the running game will cope with Mark Ingram serving a suspension to start the season, but overall, this Saints offense is about as strong as it’s ever been.
Led by Brees, one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league, there’s no doubt the Saints will rank toward the top half of the league in scoring again this year. At 39-years old, Brees will look to his favourite wide receiver Michael Thomas in the red zone again this season, one of the top scoring and yards-after-the-catch threats in the league.
On defence, the Saints look just as scary. There’s so much youth and depth for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to exploit, and we received a taste of what’s to come with blitz-happy schemes and an aggressive approach in the secondary last season.
So what is the Saints’ biggest weakness?
Easy, the schedule. Things start out relatively smooth against the Bucs and Browns, but three key games to close out the season against the Panthers, Steelers, and yep, the Panthers again, await in the final few weeks.
Still, we’ve seen New Orleans get going when the going gets tough before, and although you can make a case for the Falcons and the Panthers, the Saints are still the safe pick with hardened playoff experience.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After finishing 5-11 last season, the Bucs have made some strides toward turning this wayward ship around.
In terms of the draft, April was a big success for Tampa Bay. The running game ranked as one of the worst in the league last season, but General Manager Jason Licht addressed his teams needs by drafting Ronald Jones II in the second round.
With Doug Martin long gone, Jones figures to be a breakout running back to keep an eye on this season. After allowing the most yards-per-game, the defence needed plenty of work too, which is where the addition of tackle Vita Vea and second round corners M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis should fit in nicely.
Since this is a work in progress though, expect plenty of the same growing pains from the Bucs this year. It also doesn’t help when your starting quarterback receives a three-game suspension to start the year, especially following a season that drew plenty of criticism after the Bucs finished as one of the top passing offenses in the league.
Jameis Winston is no doubt the starter, but he’ll need to work a lot harder to keep the scoreboard ticking. Despite cracking 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive season, star wide receiver Mike Evans had a quiet season by his usual standards. After tying a career high with 12 touchdowns in 2016, Evans found the red zone only five times last season.
Wide receiver Mike Evans is the key to the Bucs’ success.
The same could also be said for DeSean Jackson. The tape don’t lie, Jackson was wide open on plenty of occasions last year, but Winston failed to find the 10-year veteran when it mattered most.
In a division that is so competitive and so reliant on offensive playmakers, it’s no wonder the Bucs have faded into irrelevance. This time last year, optimism was high, but expectations have since been tempered after last seasons failures.
With the ground game improving, all eyes now focus on the defence. Aside from the draft, the Bucs also made some waves in free agency, signing two Super Bowl champions in Beau Allen and Vinny Curry from the Eagles to sure up the defensive line.
While that should equal more sacks, it also takes the pressure off star defensive end Gerald McCoy. Left with the majority of the workload last season, McCoy still managed to tally six sacks and 33 tackles in his seventh NFL season.
To add further excitement, the Bucs also signed former Giants defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul. After missing a handful of games in 2016, JPP bounced back with a huge season for New York last year, compiling 8.5 sacks and 48 tackles. His addition also creates room for the Bucs to allocate designated pass rushers.
But while there’s so much room for optimism, sure enough, the Bucs opening schedule dashes any hopes of a winning season.
Games against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers loom large in the first three weeks, while the end of the season doesn’t come any easier with games against the Cowboys and Falcons.
Playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl, are a long stretch for the Bucs, and the odds more than reflect that.