Vegas Insider currently has the previous conference championship attendees (New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints) as the best bets to win in Miami. The Chiefs lead with 6/1 odds, with the Patriots, Rams, and Saints tied for second at 10/1. There is little to no surprise there. Nothing drastic has happened to any of these teams to disqualify them from contention, with the core of these football goliaths still intact. But who has a real chance at filling their spots?
Interestingly enough, the Cleveland Browns have the next highest odds at 14/1. This is truly remarkable considering that this is the same franchise that accumulated exactly zero wins in 2017. Baker Mayfield and Freddy Kitchens have lit a fire under this organization and they lead with passion. GM John Dorsey has reunited superstar Odell Beckham Jr. with his former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry, while also obtaining Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson. With the Steelers looking as vulnerable as ever, questions about the Ravens and Lamar Jackson’s legitimacy, and the Bengals’ inevitable doom, the AFC North may be ripe for the taking. Cleveland fans have been waiting for a spark from this team and this one seems legitimate. The hype train has been rolling along at full steam, but expectations should be tempered with an inexperienced team that has not reached the playoffs since 2002.
If any team should be considered as a serious challenger from the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts have to be in that discussion. Remember those questions about Andrew Luck’s shoulder? Career highs in passer rating and completion percentage to go along over 4,500 yards and 39 touchdowns quieted those quickly. The offensive line, which was criticized for not being able to protect their quarterback, has been rebuilt into one of the most feared groups in the league. Through magnificent talent evaluation from Chris Ballard and his staff, First Team All-Pro Quenton Nelson and his comrades have changed the culture. Mix that with a dynamic skill position group, an athletic defense lead by reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard, and Frank Reich, one of the most creative play callers in the game. However, is this the group that can vanquish their nightmares of Foxborough? Indy’s kryptonite is certainly waiting on the horizon, dressed in red, white, and blue.
As for the NFC, the Eagles (15/1 odds, tied with Indianapolis) and the Bears (20/1) are the next favorites to rise up. Let us not forget that the Eagles are only two years removed from a Super Bowl championship. Doug Pederson is still as crafty as ever with the offense, but its biggest question mark remains with Carson Wentz. He has been shut down two seasons in a row, but now Nick Foles is not there to save the day. The second-string position will be a training camp battle between Nate Sudfield and Cody Kessler, neither of which inspire much confidence. Wentz has the elite talent, both physically and mentally, to lead his team back to the big game if he stays healthy. Philly even regained Desean Jackson after a few years of separation and Zach Ertz is still a top 3 tight end. While the defense won’t be as intimidating as it has been recently, they will still be floating around the middle of the pack with one of the best starting defensive lines and a hungry secondary that is ready to put it all together. The durability of this team will be the true key to their success in January.
The last playoff moments for the Chicago Bears involved an infamous Cody Parkey kick that would have advanced them past the aforementioned Eagles, but ultimately fell short. However, it might have been a blessing in disguise. Parkey had to be replaced, that was a given. They were able to add a few weapons on the offensive side by drafting David Montgomery and Riley Ridley, and signing Cordarelle Patterson in the offseason. This will also give Mitch Trubisky more time to develop. The Bears were not a relatively good team when they were trailing and Trubisky simply made many errors trying to play savior. He truly is a good starting quarterback with untapped potential, but he just needs to pull it all together and slow the game down for himself. His biggest issue is inconsistency. Chicago did manage to get to Super Bowl in 2006 with unpredictable quarterback play and a stellar defense. However, Rex Grossman fell apart and it cost them a World Championship. Trubisky has the trust of Matt Nagy, who was outstanding in a 12-4 campaign as a first-year head coach, and Khalil Mack guiding the league’s best defense on his side. This season will prove how serious the Chicago Bears are at contending for championships.
The other top viable candidates appear to be the Los Angeles Chargers (19/1) and the Dallas Cowboys (22/1). The Chargers haven’t seen a roster this complete since the latter half of the 2000’s, which is why they haven’t reached the AFC Championship Game since 2007. Can Philip Rivers get over the hump? Can their offensive line even give Rivers a chance? The front does appear to be a benefit the Cowboys do have, especially with Travis Frederick returning to man the middle. Jerry Jones is adamant that Dak Prescott is his guy so its time to prove it. Even though they fell to the Rams in the second round of the playoffs, the pieces are there for a possible run. A few other teams appear close behind so the window is already closing quickly.