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Premium on balance in new-look AFC East

The AFC’s most lopsided division over the last two decades is now its most balanced. Only 2.5 games separate the top of the AFC East from the bottom in season win totals. Co-favorites Buffalo and New England are projected to win only nine games each, as low as any division favorite on the board. For the first time in a decade, New England’s division odds bear a plus sign (+ 130). According to sportsoddshistory.com, the 2010 Patriots were + 135, slightly ahead of the ground-and-pound New York Jets, who were + 140 and fresh off a trip to the AFC championship game. The last time the Patriots failed to get hats and T-shirts recognizing them as division champs was 2008, when Miami at + 2500 stunned the football world and took advantage of a team lacking an injured Tom Brady to steal the division. New England (-900) was coming off the only 16-0 regular season the league had seen, while Miami improved from 1-15 to post the biggest one-year turnaround in NFl history, winning the division on a tiebreaker.

 

New England has won an astounding 17 of the last 19 division titles, but what gets overlooked is that in the two years the Patriots didn’t win, they had the same record as the division champs. They are just a couple of tiebreakers from winning 19 in a row. In ’08, their 11 wins weren’t enough, and in ’02 they were on the short end of a three-way tie for first at 9-7. The 2002 AFC East final standings are remarkable, as the Brady era was just beginning, and I believe they offer a preview of life in the division post-Brady. In ’02, the three-way tie at 9-7 was just one game better than last-place Buffalo at 8-8. While that season is the most extreme example of a balanced division, I believe the upcoming season will be similar. This division sent two teams to the playoffs last season, but before the clock struck midnight on wild-card Saturday, both had been eliminated. New York and Miami have reason for optimism, while oddsmakers anticipate regression for Buffalo and New England.

 

The lack of sports due to the pandemic has forced sportsbooks to be clever and think outside the box. To lure action, many books have expanded their menus to offer original propositions, such as odds on where teams will place in the division. Also available are win-range bets, in which you can wager on which tier a team will finish the season, such as 0-4 wins or 5-8 wins. These are fairly popular and widely available, and they offer additional opportunities to capitalize. Here are a few I like. 

 

Buffalo to win between 5-9 games (-130). Most books have the Bills at nine wins for their season win total. If you can get a 9.5, I recommend playing the Under. But if you can find only nine, I think this win-range bet is the better way to go. If they win exactly nine, you win instead of push. Even the most ardent Buffalo skeptic would admit there’s no real danger of winning four or fewer, so it’s a way of getting an extra half-win of value. The Bills are likely to be in close games most of the season. Their running and defense are too good to let them get blown out, but their offense is not good enough to pull away. Ten of their 16 games have spreads of a field goal or less. Last year’s 10-win season was largely because of a pillow-soft schedule and good luck in close games. They will hover at or below .500, with the two teams that finished behind them poised to improve. 

 

Bills to finish fourth in the division + (800). Hate to pick on them, as they have one of the most loyal fan bases in the league and it’s fun when they’re good, but this is a great value. Miami had 14 picks, has an excellent young coach and won five games when the front office didn’t care if it won any. Miami will be better. New York had a season from hell and still won seven games. New England’s sideline is still patrolled by Bill Belichick. Not much separates Buffalo from any of these teams. The 26th-hardest schedule last year will turn into the fifth-hardest schedule. In a passing league, the Bills have virtually no deep passing game. Josh Allen did not complete a pass that traveled more than 30 yards until Week 12 last year. He is more athlete than quarterback, and perhaps an extra year of defensive coordinators studying his weaknesses will help drop Buffalo to the bottom of the division. 

 

New England to win the division (+ 130). After they got throttled in Kansas City on “Monday Night Football” early in 2014, I said it, and I will continue to say it: I am always going to assume New England will win 11 or more games every year until they don’t. The next week the Pats destroyed Cincinnati as home dogs, and they went on to win the Super Bowl. Coaching, continuity and culture will take on an even greater significance this year due to all the uncertainty. They still have the best coach, the best culture and the best defense among the four teams. New England is favored in 10 games. It will likely adjust to its personnel and lean on a run-heavy offense and elite defense. It has a stable of capable running backs in Sony Michel, James White and Damien Harris and will likely use all of them to control the clock and the pace of the game. In a division in which the games and the race will be tight, I will take the team that expects to win at plus money. 

 

Dolphins to make the playoffs + (400). Ryan Fitzpatrick has played for a quarter of the league’s teams in his 15-year career. One team he’s never played for is a playoff team. Until now? “Tanking for Tua” is catchier than “Playing hard as hell and still landing Tua at 5,” but either way, here we are. After beating New England in Week 17, coach Brian Flores congratulated his team on its hard work and firmly told his players: “There are more of these moments coming. Trust me.” I trust him. The 5-4 finish was remarkable. At one point last season, the Dolphins were only + 250 to go winless. To put that in perspective, Jacksonville, the league’s worst team according to oddsmakers, enters this season about + 2500 to go 0-16. Miami’s porous offensive line was addressed in the offseason with first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks spent on linemen in addition to signing guard Ereck Flowers as a free agent. A ground game for which Fitzpatrick led the team in rushing spent none of its 14 picks on a running back. Instead, the Dolphins chose the committee approach, trading for Matt Breida and signing Jordan Howard. The emergence of wide receiver DeVante Parker and the return of impressive undrafted second-year wideout Preston Williams from injury make Miami better at every level on offense. The defense adds Kyle Van Noy and Byron Jones, 8-8 or 9-7 is attainable and, with an expanded playoff field, it could be enough to get Miami a shot at its first playoff win since 2000.

 

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