NFL Divisional Winners Predictions
The NFL tries to create as much parity as possible, in particular when it comes to divisional schedules. Every team faces its division mates twice and each quartet plays all four teams in two other divisions. But that still leaves two games to be filled in, and who you draw in those two games – which I’ll call “disparity games” – can be crucial to your chances of winning your division. (In 2015, six of the eight divisions were decided by two games or fewer; the same applies to 2014, as well.)
Look at the 2016 schedules of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Both play the same four foes from the NFC East and the same four teams from the AFC South. However, the Vikes draw the Panthers (road) and Cardinals (home) in their disparity games (two division winners from 2015), while the Packers get the Seahawks (home) and Falcons (road).
The Packers get the easier matchups because they finished runner-up to Minnesota in the NFC North last year, and that boosts their chances of vaulting back to the top of the division this year. As Zack Garrison notes, the Packers actually have the shortest odds to finish with the best record in the entire league thanks, in large part, to their relatively weak schedule.
Strength of schedule is a bigger factor when looking at conference- or league-wide futures because there is greater disparity between teams’ slates. But it can’t be ignored when looking at divisional futures, in particular for the following divisions in 2016.
Since 2008, the Patriots have had a stranglehold on the AFC East. As everyone and their lawyer knows, the Pats enter 2016 without Tom Brady for the first four games. They draw fellow division-winners Denver (road) and Houston (home) for their disparity games. Meanwhile, the Jets get the Chiefs (road) and Colts (home).
That schedule is a blessing in a not-so-subtle disguise for the Patriots. The Broncos are going to be solid, but they lost some pieces on defense (Malik Jackson, Danny Travathan) and will have either a first-year starter (Trevor Siemien) or Mark Sanchez (no comment necessary) under center. The Houston QB situation isn’t any more promising with Brock Osweiler set to take the reigns. In sum, those are cushy disparity games for a reigning division champ.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs are a popular pick to dethrone the Broncos in the AFC West, and a revitalized Andrew Luck should have the Colts galloping. Jimmy Garoppolo will hand the job back to Brady with at least a 2-2 record, if not 3-1. From there, I expect the Pats to cruise. At -180 to win the AFC East, New England doesn’t offer a ton of value, but their disparity games only increase their chances of winning an eighth straight division title.
Washington won the East in 2015, but trail the Giants in the 2016 futures for good reason. The Giants, who shored up their defense and still possess a dangerous offense, get the Saints and Rams in their disparity games. Washington faces Arizona and Carolina. Ouch! The Cowboys’ disparity games – against the Buccaneers and 49ers – should give bettors some confidence. But the team emphasized the offense too much in the offseason instead of shoring up the D. Plus the Cowboys are frequently over-bet and, thus, have shorter odds than they deserve most years/weeks.
The Arizona Cardinals were obliterated in the NFC Championship Game last year, but won the NFC West for the first time since 2009 and carry a ton of momentum into 2016. Yet, it’s the Seattle Seahawks who are the favorites to win the division.
There’s no reason to expect regression from the Cards. They are a complete team on both sides of the ball. Their one hole on D last year was in the pass rush and they remedied that by bringing in Chandler Jones. Their disparity games are relative softballs: Washington (home) and Minnesota (road). (Fine, facing the Vikes on the road isn’t a “softball,” but I’ll be surprised if Arizona comes into the game as a ‘dog.)
Seattle’s disparity games, on the other hand, feature one gimme (Philadelphia at home) and one crucible (Green Bay at Lambeau). It’s debatable which pair of games is tougher, on the whole. But I see Arizona going 2-0 and Seattle earning a split. That gives me all the more confidence that the Cards can repeat in 2016 (this division is probably going to be decided by a single game), and their +125 odds only sweeten the deal.