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Here is the 2021 pro football betting guide preview for the AFC East.
THE FAVORITE: BUFFALO BILLS
Once ruled by the New England Patriots, the AFC East has a new favorite in the Buffalo Bills. At -150, the price implies that Buffalo has a 60% chance to win this division, and it is hard to quarrel with that. Should Josh Allen maintain his level from last season, in which he completed 69.2% of his passes and threw for 37 touchdowns, it would be hard to make a real case against the Bills. They have questions with defensive personnel, but given the status of other teams in the division, the AFC East still runs through Buffalo.
However, the division has improved from top to bottom. Miami is coming off a 10-win season, and big things are expected from second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with a full offseason under his belt. The former Alabama quarterback was somewhat disappointing as a rookie, posting the third-lowest PFF grade (65.4) among quarterbacks who appeared in 10 or more games. New England revamped its offense completely, reverting to the two-tight-end set it employed to terrorize the NFL 10 years ago. Cam Newton, who threw 10 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes, will need to improve, but the Patriots should push for a playoff spot.
The New York Jets will not likely reach those heights, but there is no denying the offensive personnel is solid. They have two first-round picks along the offensive line, perfect for breaking in rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets also have plenty of weapons at the skill positions for first-year coach Robert Saleh. Buffalo deserves its place on top of the division, but this will not be the same AFC East that took the field in 2020.
LIVE DOG: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Many will point to Miami (+ 350) as the live underdog in this division, but New England (+ 350) should be the first team to consider.
The Patriots boast one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL, and with tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in the fold, this offense could be good if the quarterback play is solid. On defense, two high-caliber players return. At the forefront is linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who opted out, and pass rusher Kyle Van Noy, who returns after a year with Miami. The Dolphins have a somewhat weak offensive line, which will not go well with a quarterback who needs to take a step forward in his development. The defense is due for some regression as well. In 2020 the Dolphins led the league with 29 takeaways, and 18 were interceptions. Ten came courtesy of a single player, Xavien Howard, and it masked an average pass rush led by Andrew Van Ginkel. Will this defense be able to replicate the explosive success it had last season?
PROP PLAY: DAMIEN HARRIS TO LEAD LEAGUE IN RUSHING (75-1)
The Patriots’ running back was excellent last season, finishing as the second-highest-graded rusher (90.3) to Derrick Henry, according to PFF. Part of Harris’ success is due to an offensive line that is one of the best in the NFL in run blocking. PFF graded this unit as the sixth-best run-blocking group in the league (76.2) in 2020, and according to Football Outsiders they were third in adjusted line yards per carry (4.82). Bill Belichick has been vocal in his support of Harris, and given the shape this offense is taking, bettors can expect a focus on the running game. I took this at 100-1 and it’s down to 75-1, but I still like the value.
PROP PLAY: MIAMI DOLPHINS TO MAKE PLAYOFFS (NO -140)
Too many signs point toward a regression for Miami. This defense led the league in takeaways and interceptions, which does not tend to repeat. The Dolphins have no dominant pass rusher, and their defense against the run in 2020 was lacking. Football Outsiders ranked them 22nd in defensive rush DVOA, and their front seven was 22nd in defending power situations, 19th in second-level yards allowed per carry and 16th in adjusted line yards allowed per carry and rate of opponent runs stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. If this defense takes its expected step back and Tua Tagovailoa continues his current trajectory, there is no reason to believe this is a playoff team.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Tampa Bay at New England (Oct. 3)
Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough will be one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory. We will finally get an idea of who was really responsible for New England’s dominance, Brady or Bill Belichick.
Buffalo at Kansas City (Oct. 10)
Last season the Bills were run over by Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the Chiefs in the regular season, and then again in the AFC championship game. This game could go a long way toward deciding the top seed in the AFC.
Miami at Tennessee (Jan. 2)
Will the Dolphins be a playoff team this season? If they are, this game in the penultimate week of the season will carry a lot of weight. Tennessee looks like it will be gifted a division title, but the Titans will likely still need to win late, as will Miami.
New England at Miami (Jan. 9)
Both teams figure to be in the hunt for a wild card. What if this is the game that decides which team will punch its ticket? It could be just that, and it’s the second consecutive week the Dolphins could be playing faux playoff football.
For the first time in a long while, Buffalo enters the season as the division favorite and a Super Bowl contender. This is due to one of the best offenses in the NFL, led by quarterback Josh Allen, who made an ungodly leap in his production last season. It is fair to question whether what bettors saw from Allen in 2020 is sustainable, and that is the biggest question this offense faces. Not many quarterbacks leap from a 56.3 completion percentage and a 1.43 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first two seasons to a 69.2 completion percentage and 3.7 TD-INT ratio in one year. But Allen did just that as he finished 2020 as the third-ranked quarterback in DVOA and the fifth-best quarterback by PFF grading (90.9). He has a real chance to replicate that success due to the return of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and the addition of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Should Allen regress, though, this team’s hopes worsen drastically.
Defensively, Buffalo has some issues that really could lead to its downfall, especially if the offense cannot find the same highs it did a season ago. First and foremost, the front seven has some real problems defending the run, and little was done to address this. In 2020 the Bills finished 17th against the run by DVOA standards, and PFF graded their run defense as the fifth-worst unit in the league (42.5). This unit gave up the most second-level yards per carry (1.48). Matt Milano is back, but he is a much better pass rusher and blitz specialist than run defender. Besides Justin Zimmer, who was their highest-graded run defender along the defensive interior, Buffalo has no real run stoppers. Questions also surround this team’s ability to generate a consistent pass rush. Jerry Hughes is a rock-solid edge rusher who finished with an 86.5 PFF grade and 54 pressures on 454 pass-rushing snaps, but he ended up with just 4.5 sacks. A.J. Klein and Joe Giles-Harris graded highly as edge rushers, but that was over a combined 123 pass-rushing snaps, hardly a reliable sample size.
Still, it is not impossible to see the Bills reaching 11 wins, their posted win total. They face the ninth-easiest schedule based on forecasted win totals, and that gets slightly easier when you factor in the unsettled QB situation with Indianapolis, their Week 11 opponent. The front seven, arguably this team’s biggest weakness, will not get tested frequently, as it faces the 11th-easiest schedule in terms of opponents’ running game efficiency. However, these numbers do not factor in improvement. New England, which they face twice, is better, and they face seven opponents who ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Given that, and the probability that this defense could struggle against quality offenses, it is hard to expect 12 or more wins.
Like many teams, Miami’s prospects rest squarely on the shoulders of its quarterback. Tua Tagovailoa was less than impressive in 10 games last season, posting a PFF grade of over 70 just twice and getting benched twice. Tagovailoa’s problems were twofold — his play and his offensive line. Tagovailoa was often careless with the football, committing 13 turnover-worthy plays in 326 drop-backs. A full offseason free of limitations due to the pandemic might help the second-year quarterback reduce those negative plays, but the offensive line could get in the way.
VSiN host Michael Lombardi reported in the second week of August that the Dolphins were looking to acquire a quality offensive tackle, a negative sign for a line that was already a massive question mark. Miami did attempt to address the unit in the offseason with the addition of Matt Skura, but the veteran center has found himself with the second team. In his 10 games, opposing defenses pressured Tagovailoa on 29.1% of his drop-backs, and that seems unlikely to improve.
The Dolphins do have some really intriguing weapons at the skill positions. DeVante Parker has caught 135 balls for 1,995 yards over the last two seasons, and Will Fuller comes in as the 11th-highest-graded receiver by PFF. They added Jaylen Waddle with their first pick of the draft, and Mike Gesicki is one of the most reliable tight ends in the game. However, if the line cannot hold up, this offense has a very low ceiling.
Defensively, the Dolphins were dynamic a season ago. They leaped from 32nd in defensive DVOA to 11th, according to Football Outsiders. The catalyst was turnovers. Miami led the league in turnovers forced (29) and interceptions (18) while tying for fourth in fumbles recovered (11). These statistics tend to fluctuate season to season, and it is hard to believe the Dolphins will replicate such production, especially since Xavien Howard was responsible for 10 interceptions. If those turnovers regress to average, this unit’s weaknesses become more apparent.
Pass-rushers Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson are gone, and they were responsible for 10 of Miami’s 41 sacks last season. Andrew Van Ginkel was their highest-graded pass rusher by PFF’s standards, and Emmanuel Ogbah (nine sacks) is still with this team, but Miami has not addressed the lack of a dominant edge rusher. The team drafted Jaelan Phillips, but relying on a rookie to provide a presence along the defensive edge is not a game plan for success. The defensive front also had issues against strong running games. Miami ranked 16th in adjusted line yards per carry allowed (4.41), 19th in second-level yards per carry allowed (0.66) and 26th in defending power situations (71%). Regression is likely coming in turnovers, which means Miami will take a step back.
Miami has a manageable schedule when opponent win totals are factored in (10th easiest), but too many factors are working against this team. Even if Tagovailoa shows some of the ability of his draft-class contemporaries, a bad offensive line and a defense due for regression will likely hold back Miami from achieving double-digit victories.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The crown jewels of the offseason are at tight end, where New England added Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Both are dynamic receiving threats, with the former catching the third-most touchdown passes among tight ends last season. Henry has had injury problems but posted PFF grades of over 83 in his first two seasons. Both should thrive in Josh McDaniels’ offense, and they get paired with a fantastic offensive line. In 2020 the Patriots were one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL. By PFF standards, they were sixth best, and they had the 10th-best rushing offense. Football Outsiders placed them third in adjusted line yards, and they converted 78% of their power situations. With this line, Smith and Henry in the fold and an emerging running back in Damien Harris, this is likely to be one of the best run games in the league. And the floor is raised even more should they get quality quarterback play, which did not happen a season ago.
Cam Newton is penciled in as the starter, but one has to think his leash is short. Newton threw just eight touchdown passes to 10 interceptions while finishing with a 67.8 PFF passing grade and the fourth-lowest average depth of target (7.3) among quarterbacks who appeared in 10 or more games. His first preseason game was more of the same, with an average depth of target of just 0.7 yards. Those numbers will not cut it for a team ready to make a playoff push, and waiting in the wings is first-round pick Mac Jones. The former Alabama quarterback is reportedly nipping at Newton’s heels in camp, and while many can quibble about his ceiling, his floor is surely higher than most rookies. Whoever plays quarterback will likely be the deciding factor in whether this team goes to the playoffs.
Making a playoff push also depends on New England’s defense improving. The Patriots ranked 14th in total defense, 19th in PFF defensive grading and 26th in defensive DVOA. Dont’a Hightower is back after opting out last season, and the Patriots added edge rushers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in the offseason, so this team looks better than it was. One of the most impactful areas in which the Pats should be better is pass rushing. New England pressured quarterbacks at the fifth-highest rate in 2020 but finished with just 24 sacks. Judon and Van Noy, along with Josh Uche and Chase Winovich, will be able to maintain the rate of pressure while adding to the sack total. Look for this team to be one of the better pass-rushing units in the league. The real improvement needs to come against the run. The Patriots ranked 30th or lower defensively in three of the six rushing categories that Football Outsiders tracks. Most of the Patriots’ best run defenders in 2020 were corners or safeties, which must change.
New England owns the 19th-hardest schedule in the league when evaluated by opponent win totals, and much of that is due to a good division. They have a massive question mark at the most important position but are largely improved on offense and defense. Belichick has a quality offensive line and pass rush, two things necessary to win in the NFL. Given the weapons around them, Newton and Jones should provide enough to make it back to the postseason. However, New England’s betting market win total is 9.5 shaded to the Over with a -125 price tag. This team should be much better, but to say New England has a 55.6% chance to win 10 or more games is too high.
NEW YORK JETS
New York arguably has the widest range of possible outcomes in the division, and where it lands completely depends on the play of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets are all in on Wilson, and that is apparent on their depth chart, where Mike White is listed as the primary backup. No quality veteran is present to bring Wilson along slowly or spell him when he struggles, but New York has quietly put together an offense with some very strong pieces.
Wilson’s blindside should be in relatively safe hands with Mekhi Becton at left tackle and fellow rookie Alijah Vera-Tucker at left guard. Morgan Moses could snatch the right tackle spot, giving Wilson an offensive line well within the top half of the NFL. If Wilson is made comfortable, this offense could flourish under coordinator Mike LaFleur given the weapons at almost every skill position. Corey Davis, who signed in the offseason, was the 10th-highest-graded receiver by PFF in 2020. Jamison Crowder is a steady presence at wide receiver who caught 59 balls and dropped just two last season. He will start with Davis, and behind them is talented depth, including Denzel Mims and Keelan Cole. Michael Carter, the rookie running back from North Carolina, will have a massive role as well, and veteran Tevin Coleman is in the backfield alongside him. New York’s offense has plenty of talent, and if Wilson can realize his potential, this unit could be a problem for opponents.
The same could also be said of this defense. Despite finishing 24th in total defense and 26th in scoring last season, this unit had some real potential. Very quietly, New York had one of the best front sevens against the run, finishing eighth in run defense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. The Jets allowed the fifth-fewest adjusted line yards per carry, ranked seventh in second-level yards per carry allowed and stuffed 20% of opponent runs behind the line of scrimmage to rank eighth. Most of their interior defense is back this season, with Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi leading the way. C.J. Mosley returns after opting out last season and will add to this strength.
Do not be surprised if the Jets are one of the best run-stopping units in the NFL. Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers and Vinny Curry provide some real danger for opposing quarterbacks, but their workload will be immense as the Jets’ biggest weakness is in the secondary. The cornerback room is one of the youngest in the league, as none of New York’s personnel at the position has more than five years of professional experience. Poor secondaries have been the bane of many an NFL team’s existence, and this approach could be enough to keep the Jets from reaching certain goals in Robert Saleh’s first season as coach.
New York’s roster is littered with talent at almost every position. The problems one could foresee limiting the Jets are below-average quarterback play from Wilson and a secondary that could be one of the worst in the league. However, with a schedule among the easiest in the league and with what Wilson has put forth in camp and the preseason, the Jets have all the pieces to surprise some bettors this season.