Before we look ahead to some NFL sleepers to win their divisions, let’s look back at the last five years. According to sportsoddshistory.com, two 2019 division winners came through at 4-1 odds, the Ravens and the 49ers. The previous year, four of the eight winners had preseason odds of 3-1 or higher. The Ravens, Chiefs and Cowboys were about 3-1, while the Bears were 8-1. In 2017, the Jaguars (5-1), Saints (6-1), Vikings (3-1) and Rams (15-1) made it to the window. In 2016, it was the Falcons (10-1). And in 2015, the Vikings and the Texans (each 5-1) along with Washington (35-1) defied the odds to reward their backers with division titles. Upsets happen, injuries happen and a 16-game season (for now) is a tiny enough sample that unpredictability can nudge into the equation. Now let’s meet our contestants in the AFC ...
The case: Mirroring the trajectory of the Cleveland Indians in “Major League” — designed to lose, embarrassing at first, but in the end scrappy and competitive. They delivered the most unlikely and impactful regular-season upset in recent memory. Winning at New England in Week 17 gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs a first-round bye, providing what ended up being home field through the conference finals. The Dolphins have added a lot of help on defense this offseason. They also have six of the first 70 picks in the draft, including three first-rounders, as well as an extra No. 1 and No. 2 next year. Should they feel the urge to trade up, they have the ammo. They are trending up, and Brian Flores looks like a potential home run hire as coach. But after all that, they still feel a year away. Ryan Fitzpatrick will soon have started games in three decades and played for eight teams but has yet to even be on a playoff team. Although the Dolphins will likely draft a quarterback, if they pick Tua Tagovailoa, chances are he’s not physically ready to contribute right away. They are tempting at 10-1 and should continue to improve, but with an unsettled quarterback situation, they seem a year away.
The case: Talent. They have flaws and were certainly overhyped entering last season. But ask yourself this: If Bill Belichick had coached this team, what would its record have been? 10-6? 11-5? They have players, they had a really rough schedule last year and they have quarterback Baker Mayfield entering Year 3. If he doesn’t bite this year, he probably never will, to paraphrase the old Bill Parcells quote. They also have two things the Browns have every year — a top-10 pick and a new coach. Could Kevin Stefanski be worse than Freddie Kitchens? Before the 2018 season, San Francisco was a popular sleeper pick. Then Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt and the season unraveled. Sometimes these teams pop the year after everyone expects. While I like the odds and the potential, I don’t trust the culture enough to make them a pick.
The case: They won the AFC East in 2002 and haven’t won it since. Until this year? Tom Brady is now in the NFC South, and for the first time in a long while, the division is wide open entering the year. Buffalo is good, but I’m not sold they have a good enough quarterback to run and hide in the AFC East. The Patriots can’t be counted out, and Miami is on the come, but chances are 10 or 11 wins will be enough to win it due to the balance of the four teams. Wide receiver is the Jets’ biggest need, and not only is this draft flush with talent, but that’s one of the few positions where top talent can be procured later. The Jets won seven games playing a large chunk of the season with a third-string QB who is more likely to be broadcasting Tuesday night MAC games in the near future than he is to start again in the NFL. Luke Falk was out of the league before and immediately after his stint as the Jets’ quarterback. Behind a strong defense and a quarterback in Sam Darnold whom Tony Romo touted as “potentially the best QB in the league” entering Year 3, I like them at 7-1.
The case: The fact that they entered Week 17 with a chance to be the last wild-card team is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s talent and concrete evidence that we do not need more playoff teams. The Steelers would have entered (and quickly exited) as the No. 7 seed had the new playoff format begun last season. Nevertheless, they have an absolute rock-solid defense, a stable of capable running backs, an exceptional ability to draft and develop wide receivers and the return of a quarterback who will end up in Canton. Add that to a coach who is Hall of Fame-caliber anytime his opponents are neither the Patriots nor the clock and this is a legit sleeper that will likely come out swinging trying to end a two-year playoff hiatus.
The case: On Jan. 21, 2018, I was listening to the AFC title game in my car. After I parked, I waited to hear the verdict on a Dion Lewis fumble that was under review ... Jacksonville ball! The Jaguars had a 10-point lead over the Patriots in the fourth quarter, and they had the football. By the time I got inside the house and turned on the TV, it was a commercial break and the Jags had briskly gone three-and-out. I found out later they had fallen 1 yard short of a third-down conversion. The rest of that game and the next 26 months went downhill in such horrific fashion that Jacksonville is now far more likely to be on the clock than in the playoffs. While general manager David Caldwell’s 36-76 career record is apparently good enough for owner Shahid Khan, it doesn’t impress the oddsmakers. Gardner Minshew had his moments last year, but the more he played, the more it was apparent the media darling was a better story than a player. This number is justified. While these odds are long, the season for Jaguars fans might feel even longer.
The case: Andrew Luck. No, I don’t think Luck is ditching retirement and demanding a trade to Cincy. In 2011 the Colts finished 2-14, drafted Luck first overall and improved to 11-5 the next season. That’s the blueprint to shocking the world for Bengals dreamers. Joe Burrow will get drafted and pick up right where he left off, carrying one of the all-time greatest collegiate seasons into the NFL. As good as Burrow was last year at LSU, and as good as he may be one day as a pro, this one is a reach. The AFC North is very tough. The Bengals will have no easy outs, and despite the promise and hope Burrow provides, they are more likely to be the easy out for their division foes.
The rest of the West
The case: On paper, the Chargers (8-1), Broncos (8-1) and Raiders (12-1) are playing for second place. Well, on paper and in reality. At the risk of getting overly technical, Kansas City has a gentleman named Patrick Mahomes who throws the ball quite far and quite well. Unless he misses a significant period of time, Super Bowl hangover or not, this is not a race. The Super Bowl MVP missed about a month last year yet the Chiefs still won the division by 5.5 games when the head-to-head tiebreaker is included. The outlook is bleak for the rest of the West for years to come. The Chargers are only a year removed from a 12-win season. The Broncos lost a handful of heartbreakers and hope they have finally found their franchise QB. The Raiders may host some distracted opponents as they move to Las Vegas and hope perhaps they found their Ryan Tannehill in Marcus Mariota, the man who got bumped by Tannehill last season. You’re not buying it? Neither am I.