Givin Futures: AFC South & NFC South

Tom Brady has won 32 of 35 games against the Bills, the Buccaneers' Week 14 opponent.
Image Credit: Max Gersh / USA TODAY NETWORK

Each week, BetPrep Sharp and NBC Sports Betting Analyst Brad Feinberg discusses expected win totals, division odds, Super Bowl favorites, and potential award winners with host and BetPrep Editor Michael Salfino of The Athletic and FiveThirtyEight. It’s the official futures podcast of BetPrep, a free sports betting research site that empowers bettors with the same tools both the sharps and the sportsbooks use.

Here are some highlights from the latest episode of the Givin’ Futures Podcast.

Let’s talk about the NFL Souths. We’ll start in the AFC with the worst team according to my metrics where I use play success differential and that, again, is play success measured by how effectively a play sets up the next down and distance or actually results in a first down/touchdown. The worst team in the AFC South last year was of course the Jacksonville Jaguars, also the worst record in football. New head coach, new quarterback, new coaching staff, new offensive system. So what are your thoughts about the Jaguars? 

Brad: You can get 6.5 with regular juice or 6.0 laying a little bit of juice, in the -140 area. I do have an over 6.0 ticket. This division was certainly very gettable in the sense that we have the Texans with the lowest over/under in football. With Trevor Lawrence, I thought the Jaguars just inherently improved. Having a good coach now in Urban Meyer, too—at least a good college coach. Even without Travis Etienne (foot), I think this team actually has a pretty nice group of wide receivers. I still say this team goes over six wins. +850 to win the division is probably not going to happen. +300 to make the playoffs, -400 on the no. Despite their horrible start to the preseason so far, I can’t help but be a little stubborn. Lawrence is a winner. I think Meyer is a winner. And I think that they’ll figure it out. This team will find a way to avoid going 5-12 or worse.

So the next team we have is the Texans, who were obviously much better in all of their statistics last year despite their poor record than we expect them to be this year because Deshaun Watson was their quarterback. And it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case at all in 2021.

Brad: On a number of this low, 4.0 wins, Watson better not play. That’s about as low as I can remember and that was in 16-game seasons versus playing 17. They’re 30-to-1 to win the division and 8-to-1 to make the playoffs. I’m not expecting Watson to play but now there have been some leaks that maybe he’ll be able to play based on like, a technicality?

To summarize, my understanding of the reporting is that the NFL exempt-list rules are for civil complaints. This is a criminal investigation. The NFL reportedly does not want to investigate yet because it doesn’t want to influence a criminal proceeding. However, since a criminal complaint is worse than a civil complaint, and since the entire NFL framework for putting people on the exempt list is to avoid a PR nightmare, I don’t see how the objectively worse situation of a potential criminal complaint would make it more likely for Watson to play. Then the NFL would suffer even greater PR blowback.

Brad: I can’t see how Watson is going to play either. With Tyrod Taylor at QB, they’ll be an underdog in all 17 games. But I’m not playing under four wins—it’s just too low.

So the next team is the Colts and this is a team that had a bevy of bad news early in camp that now is turning out to be not so bad news because Carson Wentz has returned to practice and it looks like star offensive lineman Quenton Nelson is going to be able to play to start the season as well. The last time we saw Wentz with Frank Reich (in Philadelphia) he was an MVP candidate. So what do you make of the Colts?

Brad: I did grab the Colts 30-to-1 to win the AFC before they got any quarterback. They had the most salary cap money of any team in the NFL but for the second-straight year, did not spend it. So lesson learned there. They had Buffalo beat in that playoff game. They were a good team. Having watched Carson Wentz play a dozen games last year, he was so bad…. but he was a really good player before last year. The Eagles had nothing around him.

He and Frank Reich are close, and he’s got a coach now that believes in him. So maybe that can rekindle some of the potential and actual results that everybody saw just a few years ago.

Brad: That’s very fair. Look at this team’s over/under: over 9.0 or under 9.5 with big juice. I know Wentz is back at practice but it’s another injury/setback. I don’t like the uncertainty. But my lean here would be Indianapolis over 9.0. There are four games against the Jaguars and the Texans. This was a team that had a good defense all last year. I still question the pass rush a little bit. And the guy they drafted, Kwity Paye… I watched all Michigan games (Brad is an alumnus of Michigan) and he never did much there. I don’t understand why people loved him. Indy is +160 to win the division and -120 to make the playoffs. I like the Titans in this division but Indy could sneak into the postseason by going 10-7, given the expanded field.

The Titans, even though their coach (who reportedly was vaccinated) got COVID and missed time, had a really good summer by all reports, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where they seem to have made great strides. Is this a team that you think can not only contend for the division but has reasonable Super Bowl aspirations?

Brad: One of the things I’ve talked about on this show: do I want to be right or do I want to be consistent? And when we first started talking about the over/unders we talked about the Titans and I said I bet under 9.5 wins. I really liked that bet. But as things have happened, I absolutely agree with you that the Titans have had a really nice offseason. And I bet over 9.0 wins when the line went down. I bet them at 20-1 to win the AFC, which is a very good number. But I found it. (Again, nothing raises your betting IQ like shopping lines). This is an explosive offense. Ryan Tannehill is a good QB. They have Julio Jones now. A good offensive line. You can get them, if you shop -105 to win the division. I’m obviously throwing out the Texans and Jaguars. So it comes down to them or the Colts right now and the most solid roster is Tennessee’s. They’re the value to win the division right now.

So we’ll transition out of the NFC and it’s perfect because the Titans’ former offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, who were worst in the NFC South in our play success differential metric last year. They’ve replaced Julio Jones unconventionally with a de facto tight end (who in my opinion is actually more of a wide receiver) in fourth-overall pick Kyle Pitts and their offense also gets a little bit of an upgrade at the running back position with Mike Davis, although not a huge upgrade. Their defense obviously is a big question mark but it was significantly better last year after the coaching change, although still not good. So what is your take on the Falcons?

Brad: The Falcons over/under opened at 7.0 and a lot of the sharps just really hammered that and bet that up. I was on the verge but just didn’t quite pull the trigger. Interesting schedule with them this year. They play eight at home and nine on the road, but one of their “home” games is against Jacksonville in England. So they really only have seven home games. I don’t like that aspect. Now, they’re over/under 7.5. I would be betting on Pitts, not against him. Mike Davis is a professional at running back, but not a difference-maker. This team is going to be right around the .500 mark. I don’t like that little quirk in the schedule but I do think Arthur Smith has a chance to be a good coach. They’re -240 “no” to make the playoffs, +210 to make it, and 9-to-1 to win the division. I’d say -240 on the no. Matt Ryan is decent.

He’s sort of the new Philip Rivers.

Brad: That’s a great comp. Perfect. I won’t even attempt to beat it because that’s it exactly. Well said. I think Atlanta wins seven or eight games.

The Carolina Panthers have a new quarterback in Sam Darnold, who we haven’t really got a chance to see thus far in the preseason. But you like the Panthers, correct?

Brad: I’ve become a big fan of coach Rhule. Look at what he’s done in his career; look at Temple. That program was Do Not Resuscitate. Then Baylor was down for the count, too. He’s changed the culture completely twice. I think that’s an incredible game-changer. I’m a believer in him. This is actually a team that I’ve bet over 7.5 wins getting +110. I bet 12-to-1 to win the division. +275 to make the playoffs. 100-to-1 to win the Super Bowl. I took this team in every single way that you can take them. I thought Darnold was a talented guy in a bad spot. I think he’s going to be good. Last year they lost seven one-score games. They get Christian McCaffrey back. I also took 25-to-1 odds on Tampa Bay first, Carolina second, Atlanta third, New Orleans fourth. I see them at 50/50 to make the playoffs and am betting that way.

The defending champion Tampa Bay Bucs returned everybody, which is very unusual in today’s topsy-turvy NFL. They are the favorites to win the division, which they failed to do last year. 

Brad: You can get -200 to win the division, which is probably cheap. The over/under opened at 11.5 and is up to 12, tied for most with the Chiefs. The Bucs are -750 to make the playoffs and +500 not to make it. If you took every team’s roster without the quarterback, I think this is the best team in the NFL. I think they have the best defense by far in the NFL. I bet them at 16-1 to allow the fewest points because I think that should be about 9-to-1. There’s not one player they couldn’t lose for the season besides Tom Brady, that’s how deep they are. They really are, “Next man up,” their team is that deep and that loaded. But I actually don’t think Tom Brady is that great anymore. I thought he was horrible in the Green Bay game (in the NFC Championship). So they are vulnerable in that regard. I did bet the -140 earlier to win the division with Carolina 12-to-1—daring one of the other two teams (Falcons and Saints) to beat me. I’m very comfortable doing that. I do think -200 is still a very fair price for this Tampa Bay team. I think there’s at least a two-in-three chance they win the division. I’m never taking over 12 wins. But if Brady plays well, they could go 14-3 and I wouldn’t blink an eye.

Now your pick to finish in last place in the division, Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints.

Brad: Yeah, well, now, let me make this clear, I do think Payton is an elite coach. But they’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul for a long time—living on a salary-cap credit card. And the last two years, without Drew Brees, they went 8-1 I believe. Brees was done. But I just don’t believe in Jameis Winston and I don’t believe in Taysom Hill. You have Alvin Kamara; but with Michael Thomas hurt, who is above average on this offense? (Thomas is expected to be out at least six games.) One of my biggest bets is under 9.5 Saints wins. They’re +350 to win the division. Obviously, I don’t like that. -125 not to make the playoffs. I do like that. And look I bet them at 7-to-1 to come in last in the division. I think they’re the most likely last-place team here, actually. I’m going to make Winston do something he’s never done before, which is to be good, to not turn the ball over. A leopard never changes his spots. They’ve had a great run. But this team is below average. And I would be very, very surprised if the Saints go 10-7 or better.

A pessimist on the Saints would ask how their offensive personnel without Thomas is better than, say, the Lions, generally expected to have the worst offense in the conference.

Brad: Swift is not as good as Kamara. But yeah, it’s pretty comparable. That’s scary.