Expert NFL Handicapping: Competitive Divisional Races
As is often the case at this point three-quarters of the way through the season, there are some division races that are over and some that are still very much up in the air. The Patriots and Steelers are running away with things as usual, and Philadelphia and Minnesota are ahead by daylight as well. That leaves four other divisions, and those are much more competitive. Here's a look at how each of the four break down:
AFC South: We have a two-dog fight here, with Tennessee and Jacksonville tied at 8-4. The schedule sets up as interesting in this one. Tennessee beat up on Jacksonville in the second week of the season to give them a solid edge. Those two teams meet again in Week 17, so there is a good chance that that will determine how things turn out. Before that Jacksonville has a tough home game against a Seattle team entrenched in a playoff battle of their own, but then they have very winnable games against QBs that their potent defense can really challenge - Houston and San Francisco. It feels like the team should go into the season finale at 10-5. Tennessee should also have the same record as they play at Arizona and San Francisco before hosting the Rams. The last week of the season can often be painful, so it is nice that it really seems like we are heading towards that showdown. Tennessee has that edge right now, but If I had to take a side I would take Jacksonville comfortably. Oddsmakers have little to add here - both teams are at -110 at BetOnline to win the division.
AFC West: This is the most heavily-contested race, which you shouldn't mistake for a good race. The winner of this division could easily have eight or nine wins, which is more than a little pathetic. This feels absolutely like a race to see which team gets the right to lose their first playoff game at home - though the sorry state of the wild card race in the AFC could give this winner a chance. Kansas City has lost four in a row and six of seven and just doesn't have anything going for them. Things are ugly, but the good news for the fans of the team is that things will be decided for them quickly one way or the other - they play Oakland and the Chargers at home the next two weeks, so they will either be in command or doomed in no time flat. If they can at least split those two games they could actually be in decent shape because they close with Miami and Denver - two really ugly teams. Oakland has won two straight, and they are doing well, but they have serious schedule issues working against them. After playing at Kansas City, they host Dallas then close out at Philadelphia and then at the Chargers. That last game could be very important, but Oakland would have to really look within themselves in order to get into position to make that trip to L.A. important. And the Chargers have won three straight and are the easiest to like right now. They also have the best schedule - Washington and the Jets are their non-division foes. Despite the struggles the Chiefs are favored to win the division at +100, with the Chargers at +150. Oakland, appropriately, is well behind at +400.
NFC South: Unlike the first two, this is not a case of having teams tied. New Orleans leads at 9-3, with the Panthers a game behind at 8-4. And there is a possibility that Atlanta could get back into things - they sit at 7-5 now. The odds suggest that it isn't really much of a race at all - the Saints are massive -400 favorites. Not only do they have a one-game lead, but they have already beaten the Panthers twice, so they functionally have a two-game lead. They have very winnable games against the Jets and Bucs, too, so 11 wins feels like a base. The only thing that makes things interesting is that the team still has two games left against the Falcons. If Atlanta were to sweep that series then they would suddenly be in the driver's seat to finish ahead of the Saints in the standings. The oddsmakers don't see that as any more likely than I do, though - the Falcons are just +650 to win. Carolina probably needs to run the table to have a decent chance, but they play Minnesota, Green Bay and Atlanta, so it's tough to imagine that happening. The odds are too low to bet on New Orleans, but they are justifiably favored here.
NFC West: This is another two-horse race, with the Rams at 9-3 and the Seahawks at 8-4. The race is even closer than it seems - Seattle won the first meeting and hosts the second game, so they are well positioned to have the crucial tiebreaker. It's a rough road for the Rams, who play a huge game against Philadelphia then visit Seattle then Tennessee before a relative gimme against the Niners to finish things out. Seattle, meanwhile, has a challenging path as well - at Jacksonville, hosting L.A., at Dallas, and then a gimme against the Cards. So it really isn't possible to overstate how important the game between these two in Seattle is going to be. Despite how easily either team could win, the Rams are strongly favored - they are at -170, with Seattle at +150.
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