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Panthers may spring upset in NFC South

By William Hill  () 

The division of MVPs. One came, one left and two others remain. While the Saints have dominated the NFC South the last three years, the Panthers and Falcons have reached the Super Bowl more recently, encapsulating how topsy-turvy the division has been the last decade. After the 2015 Panthers recorded one of only seven NFL regular seasons of at least 15 wins, the Falcons dethroned them in ’16 as + 1000 long shots. The Panthers’ stretch of three consecutive division crowns from ’13-15 was lucrative, as + 550, + 500 and + 250 were the Panthers’ preseason prices in those title-winning years, respectively, according to sportsoddshistory.com. The Saints’ recent run of three in a row began in ’17, when they cashed in + 600 tickets for their believers. You get the point. This division is typically unpredictable and thus ripe with opportunity.

 

While most see this as a two-team race between the Saints and Bucs, one can poke holes in either team’s case. Neither is without flaws, perhaps opening the door for a dark horse to sneak in. The Saints have a 40-year-old quarterback, and their recent South banners have been accompanied by intense postseason heartache. Last year in the final week of the season, the Seahawks had first-and-goal from the 1 against the 49ers. If they had gotten into the end zone, it would have put the Saints in the second round with a playoff bye. But the Seahawks never got there, and neither did the Saints. That one inch the Seahawks needed forced the Saints to play the Vikings in the wild-card round, and they were eliminated in overtime as nine-point favorites. This was the least painful of their recent playoff defeats. The no-call on pass interference against the Rams in ’18 and the Minneapolis Miracle in ’17 trump last year’s disappointment. The most unsettling thing if you’re a Saints fan? Most of the offense against the Vikings came with Drew Brees off the field. Is he still capable of driving the ball down the field? Are the Saints capable of climbing the mountain once again and putting their January failures behind them? One has to wonder how many times a team can get off the deck. Perhaps their championship window has closed.

 

As for the Bucs, they seem to defy every betting angle that qualifies for a team with value. Profitable teams are often unsung, under the radar and provide value by exceeding expectations. Betting successfully is like shopping for bargains: The most expensive item in the store is unlikely the best deal. That is how I view the Bucs. A lot of hype, attention and big names, but does the star power still match the players’ ability? Tom Brady finally started to look his age last year, posting the worst numbers of his career. Rob Gronkowski has always relied on his superior physicality, but he retired after the ’18 season, citing the toll the myriad injuries had taken on his body. Sound like a player who’s going to dominate two years later? These are your two co-favorites, so I am inclined to look for a dog that might bark in ’20. Let’s see if we can find one in the best bets.

 

Panthers to make the playoffs: Yes + 550. Coach Matt Rhule has a history of turnarounds, and his new team might not be as far off as everyone thinks. As much as anything, this is a way to fade the two division favorites without going all in and picking the Panthers to finish first. I think the two games against the Falcons are up for grabs and the four against the Saints and Bucs will be more competitive than most suspect. The last time we saw Teddy Bridegewater, he was the starting quarterback for an 11-5 team and was watching Blair Walsh’s 19 yard gimme putt of a field goal sail wide, keeping Bridgewater from being a win from the NFC title game. Bridgewater is your best friend if you’re an underdog bettor. He has started 24 games in which his team has been the dog, and his teams have covered an astounding 20 of them. He will have the most productive back in the league lining up behind him in Christian McCaffrey and an underrated duo of receivers in Robby Anderson and DJ Moore. While the other side of the ball is a concern, the Panthers at least attempted to address it in the draft. All seven draft picks came on defense, including perhaps the best player in the draft, defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Some team always comes out of nowhere and plays into January, and with an extra spot, the Panthers are worth a stab here.

 

Christian McCaffrey rushing yards: Under 1,231.5. The Panthers secured their investment by signing McCaffrey to a lucrative long-term extension last spring. Perhaps now it’s time to protect that investment. Matt Rhule has already said he sees McCaffrey as “more than just a running back” and hinted that his monstrous workload from ’19 might be scaled back to keep him productive for the duration of that contract. Unders on player props typically have value because some people bet what is fun to root for. Lots of yards and points is more exciting than 3-yard runs and punts. The books know that and shade the line accordingly. The potential for injury always looms over player prop bets, and even something as innocuous as a pulled hamstring or a sprained ankle that would sideline him for a week or two would get the Under to the window. Expect this new regime to think long term: Take the Under.

 

Bucs to make the playoffs: No + 110. I tipped my hand earlier, but I think all my concerns are valid. At the risk of oversimplifying, I just don’t know that a 43-year-old quarterback can lead a team to the playoffs. The fact that it’s even being considered is a tribute to the incredible career Brady has had. He has had nine Super Bowl appearances and has won six titles. But I think it’s over. His yards per attempt were the lowest of his career last year. He ranked 27th in the league in not only that category but also in completion percentage. We all love coach Bruce Arians. He is candid, charming and great with the media. However, he is a significant downgrade from Bill Belichick, as is the drop-off from Josh McDaniels to new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Furthermore, the Bucs’ schedule is loaded with prime-time appearances, leaving them with less rest than their opponents a league-high five times. An older team facing lots of short turnarounds? Plenty of reason to be bearish on the Bucs.

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