Calling the AFC South and AFC West the weak links in their conference would be like calling Khloe the weak link in the Kardashian empire. After all, between the two divisions, only Houston (10-6) and Tennessee (9-7) finished last year with winning records. What’s more, the West featured a three-way tie between 8-8 squads, with Denver winning the tiebreaker despite allowing 81 more points than it scored.
Now, the optimist would quickly point out that this is the NFL, where the only thing more certain than parity is a slew of players getting arrested on the eve of training camp. However, the pessimist would counter with this nugget: Take away the Payton Manning-led Colts, and only two AFC South squads won at least 10 games from 2008-11. During that same four-year stretch, only two teams in the West—the Chargers in 2009 (13-3) and the Chiefs in 2010 (10-6)—cracked the double-digit win barrier.
Now you know why only one of eight teams (Houston) is projected to win at least 10 games. Well, count me among those who believe the Texans will eclipse their projected win total … and they won’t be alone. (Note: Win totals and odds are from three local sportsbooks—Cantor Gaming, MGM Resorts International and the LVH. For this exercise, I took the most favorable numbers that support my recommendations.)
Colts (5): After nine straight double-digit win seasons (and 11 out of 12), the 2011 Colts crashed and burned without Manning. My take? Nobody in Indy believed for a second that Manning would miss a single game, let alone the season. And once it became clear that the savior wasn’t coming back, it paralyzed the entire team (which started 0-13). This year, there’s a new coach (who can’t possibly be worse than the last one), a new franchise quarterback (Andrew Luck is the real deal) and, most importantly, absolutely no expectations. The Colts definitely have four winnable games (two vs. the Jaguars, plus home contests vs. the Browns and Vikings), meaning if they can steal two others, the “over” cashes. The play: OVER (MGM Resorts, Even)
Jaguars (5½): The good news for the Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew is still in the backfield. The bad news: the other 10 players lining up in front of Jones-Drew. When your quarterback controversy involves Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, you spend your top draft pick on a wide receiver of questionable skills and character (and he gets popped for DUI six weeks post-draft), and your most dependable pass-catcher is tight end Marcedes Lewis, you’ve got problems. Answer me this: How can a team that’s a 4½-point underdog in Week 1 against the Vikings and might be favored just once all year be expected to win six games? The play: UNDER (MGM Resorts, -145)
Texans (10): This win total is all over the place, ranging from 9½ (“over” -185) at the LVH to 10½ (“over” +120) at MGM. I’m opting for Cantor’s number because the odds are reasonable—I don’t like to lay more than -160—and because Houston is a lock for 10 wins. Hell, the Texans went 10-6 and won a playoff game last season even though injuries forced rookie T.J. Yates under center after Week 11. Now Matt Schaub is healthy, and his weapons include the NFL’s most productive running back (Arian Foster) and a Pro Bowl receiver (Andre Johnson). Also, Houston’s defense is so good and so deep that former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams was allowed to walk. The play: OVER (Cantor, -150)
Titans (7½): How in the world did the Titans go 9-7 last year—especially when stud RB Chris Johnson had easily his worst season as a pro? I think I found the answer: Only two wins came against opponents that finished with winning records (Ravens and Texans, the latter by a single point in a meaningless season finale). Tennessee’s other victims were the Broncos, Bucs, Bills, Jaguars, Panthers and Colts (twice). This year, the Titans have just five games that could be considered gimmes (Jaguars and Colts twice, and Vikings). Assuming they don’t stumble in one of those, they’d still need three more victories to get to .500. Can’t see it. The play: UNDER (LVH, -120)
Broncos (9): NFL betting rule No. 1: Make sure you have very sound logic before wagering against a healthy Peyton Manning (in the regular season, at least). NFL betting rule No. 2: Ignore rule No. 1 when that “healthy” Manning is 36 years old, has had (reportedly) four neck surgeries and missed all of last season because of said neck problems. Hey, maybe Manning is near 100 percent and ready to prove all the skeptics wrong. Or maybe he takes one shot from the Steelers in Week 1 and never sniffs the field again. The play: UNDER (MGM Resorts, -120)
Chargers (9): Don’t think I can be objective when analyzing my underachieving, horribly coached Chargers? I’m about to surprise you (and myself!). San Diego’s win totals for the last eight seasons: 12, 9, 14, 11, 8, 13, 9, 8. In other words, despite Norv Turner’s best efforts, the Chargers haven’t been prone to back-to-back stinkers recently. Keep in mind that if not for a Philip Rivers fumbled snap in Kansas City—the biggest gaffe in what was a mistake-prone season for the Pro Bowl quarterback (career-high 20 interceptions)—the Bolts would’ve gone 9-7 and won the division. The silver lining in finishing second is San Diego avoids both New England and Houston this year. Meanwhile, several of its toughest games (Falcons, Ravens, Bengals, Panthers) are at home, where the Chargers are 37-11 since 2006. Wait for it … The play: OVER (LVH, Even)
Chiefs (7½): Last year I predicted the Chiefs, after going 10-6 in 2010, would take a big step back and finish “under” eight wins. I was right … barely. K.C. started 0-3, somehow won its next four and ended up 7-9, despite a coaching change and a rash of injuries to several key starters. Yes, the Chiefs could’ve gone to the local Sizzler and found a better head coach than Romeo Crennel. But after a brutal start to the season (vs. Falcons, at Bills, at Saints, vs. Chargers, vs. Ravens), K.C. gets a break down the stretch, starting with three straight home games (Bengals, Broncos, Panthers), followed by the Browns (road), Raiders (road), Colts (home) and Broncos (road). The play: OVER (MGM Resorts, -145)
Raiders (7½): Congrats to the silver and black, which after seven straight losing seasons has posted consecutive 8-8 records. Then again, last year’s 8-8 doesn’t look so good considering the Raiders started out 7-4. And after going 5-3 on the road last season, Oakland this year has non-divisional road games at Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Carolina. Now is when I mention that the Raiders’ top two quarterbacks are Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart … which would be great if the year was 2002 and the place was USC. The play: UNDER (LVH, -150)
Best Bets: AFC South – Texans OVER; AFC West – Broncos UNDER. (Aug. 9 issue: NFC East, NFC South.)