NFL Handicapping: Tight Division Races
by Trevor Whenham - 12/17/2013
With just two weeks left in the NFL season, we certainly can’t complain about a lack of drama in the playoff race. The wild cards are basically down to three teams for two spots in both leagues, and that has certainly been interesting in the past. There are five divisions, though, that still have the potential to come down to the last game of the season. That’s one of the things that makes the NFL so great. Here’s a look at how each of the five races break down, and what betting implications they could have:
After Philadelphia lost, the Cowboys were given a gift on a silver platter. It is the Cowboys after all, though, so they blew it. Now the Eagles have a one-game lead with two to play. Things should get interesting, though. The Eagles have a brutal game against the Bears this week, while Dallas plays the terrible Redskins. Then it’s a showdown in Dallas between these two teams. Unless the Eagles win and the Cowboys lose this week, that game will be for all the marbles. The Eagles and their creative offense could be an interesting playoff longshot at 33/1 to win the Super Bowl but only if they can make the playoffs. The wild card is basically off the table for both teams, so they need to win to get in. I like the Eagles a lot more than the Cowboys, but Dallas is actually in the better position.
This race is far more interesting than it looked like it might be. The Bears have the lead at 8-6, but the Packers are just a half game back, and the Lions are behind by a full game. This has become tight because Chicago and Green Bay have won two in a row while the Lions have dropped two straight. Detroit is in the worst position, but they have the softest schedule — at home to the Giants and at Minnesota. They are quite likely playing for coach Jim Schwartz’ job, so that could be an extra level of motivation. The Bears have a brutal path — at desperate Philadelphia, then at home against the Packers. Green Bay hosts Pittsburgh then travels to Chicago. I think the Bears are the best team, but this just seems like a race for the right to lose a first-round playoff game, so it’s hard to get too excited. If that Green Bay at Chicago game turns out to be for the division, though, it will be a hugely public game — and a very interesting betting opportunity.
This race looked to be all but over two weeks ago when the Saints beat up on the Panthers in New Orleans, But then New Orleans flopped against the Jets, and now the teams are tied again. To add to the drama, they play in Carolina this week in perhaps the game of the week. Both teams are likely playoff bound, but the stakes are still huge here. Winning the division means a bye and at least one home game in the playoffs. Losing means playing on the road in a wild-card game. That opponent wouldn’t be great — the NFC North or East champ — but for the Saints it doesn’t matter who they play away from New Orleans. They are just 3-4 on the road and have looked particularly lousy lately. Both teams have gimmes in the final week, so this game will determine the division winner. It also determines which team is more attractive in Super Bowl futures. New Orleans at 14/1 could be a bargain if they get that home game, but that price would be terrible if they are a wild-card team.
Thanks to the Bengals being the Bengals, what should have been a cakewalk has become interesting. The Ravens are getting hot at the right time — just like they did last year — while Cincinnati is flat. Now the Bengals have a one-game lead. They also have the easier path to the title. Next up for them is a pesky Minnesota team, but that game is in Cincinnati. Then they host the Ravens. Baltimore needs to beat New England at home and then win in Cincinnati. The Ravens beat the Bengals once already this year, though, so they have a big edge in the tiebreaker. The Bengals can clinch if they win this week and the Ravens lose. Any other combination of outcomes, though, means the last game decides it. The loser is in good shape in the wild-card spot, though, so the stakes aren’t quite as high as they could be. Interestingly, there are multiple scenarios where that Week 17 showdown could be a preview of the wild-card game between the same teams. Given the Ravens recent postseason experience and the challenges of the Bengals under pressure, it seems easier to find value in Baltimore at 33/1 than Cincinnati at 18/1. That Baltimore price could really get interesting if they beat the Patriots.
This wasn’t supposed to be a race, either — the Broncos beat the Chiefs twice, after all. Some mortality in Denver, though, has tightened things up. Since Denver does own the tiebreaker, the scenario is simple for the Chiefs — they need to win more games in their last two than the Broncos do. They host an Indianapolis team that has been more than a little inconsistent lately, then they travel to play a San Diego team that Denver knows can be dangerous — and which they have already lost to once. Sadly for the Chiefs, things are much smoother for the Broncos. They play twice on the road, but at Houston and Oakland, so it is hardly stressful. The stakes are particularly massive here because the division winner is also likely to have the top seed in the AFC through the playoffs, while the loser has to open on the road in the wild-card round. You’d have to downgrade the team that doesn’t win in the futures market.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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