AFC East - 1pt New England Patriots @ 1.341/3
In recent memory, this is seldom a division to get heavily involved in. The New England Patriots should win in a landslide and are priced accordingly (1.341/3 to back). They have lost many of their key cogs and while Tom Brady will keep the wheels turning, we've seen that any knock to this hardy perennial (a ruptured knee tendon left Brady rusting up on blocks for 2008) will leave their tower tottering. At long odds-on, it's a long way down.
Still, in the total absence of legitimate challengers (when Miami are second favourites, you know there's a paucity of ability on show) and an unswerving faith in Bill Belichick's trading skills, a token nod goes New England's way. Having wideouts like Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back running at top speed could even make them dangerous in the post-season.
AFC North - 10pts Pittsburgh Steelers @ 2.9215/8
Always provides a fiercely quarrelling quartet and this season should be no different. Long since removed from fruitful knee surgery - with a full 2013, where he took every snap, safely logged in the bank - Ben Roethlisberger should be in finer fettle to absorb the hits for Pittsburgh and scramble freely this term. That fact alone can restore Heinz Field to its former incarnation as a home fortress.
Cincinnati were my best divisional bet last season, but that selection was largely premised on potential deficiencies among their adversaries. Andy Dalton has not trained on under center as many in Cincinnati predicted. His expert receiving mob of wide men (headed by AJ Green) can get him out of trouble but a floundering D coupled to an unproven running back (Jeremy Hill unsurprisingly replacing old faithful BenJarvus Green-Ellis) means Dalton has little margin for error this time.
Baltimore will always play tough, Cleveland will inevitably lie down, but Pittsburgh can ultimately benefit from the fresh face of a squad with a clean bill of health. Disregard an uninspiring pre-season, Big Ben knows when it's game time.
AFC South - 6pts Houston Texans @ 3.65
Hands up, I backed the Houston Texans with confidence last year before they became mired in mediocrity. This mini-league really comes down to whether you buy into the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck or you don't. Indy believe they're channelling the spirit of the next Peyton Manning. I don't. I believe they've got an overrated quarterback in a substandard division. Plus Reggie Wayne can't live forever.
As a result, odds-on about the Colts looks terrible value and we simply must find an alternative with which to take them on. The Texans' roster has not emptied its deep well of capability overnight. However, there is debatably more balance and talent in Houston and the 3.65 to back definitely draws me in like a moth to the flame. Tennessee are a year away from finding the right continuity in personnel, while Jacksonville are a decade removed.
I never thought these words would pass my lips: it's time to trust Ryan Fitzpatrick to finally fulfill his latent potential.
AFC West - 6pts San Diego Chargers @ 5.59/2
Just where the tipping point of years lies in Peyton Manning's storied career only he knows. At the mature age of 38, though, now might be the time to take a chance on my favourite quarterback heading down that slippery slope over the hill.
Manning's mind continues in state-of-the-art condition, but upgrades to his physical package are not so easily acquired. The Denver Broncos may have an elite band of wide receivers but if you can knock out their missile-launcher (and let's face it, Seattle proved you can) they are rendered redundant. And they still don't have a reliable D to keep competing offenses off the pitch.
Give Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers a chance to redeem themselves instead. For reasons stated elsewhere, I think the Bolts are ready to embark on a long-shot championship challenge after some of their younger players have been granted time to integrate into Mike McCoy's exciting reboot.
An eloquent case in point is Keenan Allen, who has improved immeasurably in pre-season (after 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie, he didn't need to) and will tear up the likes of Kansas City (who will struggle to repeat the feat of last year's strong start) and unruly Oakland. You heard it here first: a big shock is on the cards.
NFC East - 2pts Washington Redskins @ 4.94/1
Having successfully tipped the Philadelphia Eagles at over 5.04/1 last year, I'm not inclined to double up at rates under 2.01/1. True, Nick Foles did step up for the sidelined Mike Vick to make the QB spot his own, while DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy maintained a rush-pass outlet with which to overrun any D. Nevertheless, with DJax now at their rivals in DC, it's never worth taking skinny quotes in this eternally competitive division where erratic gunslingers seem to slug it out every week.
Eli Manning and Tony Romo embody such characteristics. Yet even if they're on, their dodgy defenses will give every NFC East opponent a shot at matching stride. The Washington Redskins, however, have something closer to equilibrium on either side of the ball, albeit if they're anchored by the proverbial gift-or-curse proposition that is Robert Griffin III.
RG3 swiftly morphed from Rookie of the Year into an injured interception-machine in 2013 (Foles and his high bar should pay heed to this cautionary tale). But Griffin was wisely rested towards the end of the campaign and should return stronger for the patience extended his way. His twin-threat capacity offers the Skins their best chance of the play-offs. And if RG3 can cut out throwing cross-field into double coverage, heart-attacks in the Washington area should also fall to acceptable levels.
NFC North - 12pts Green Bay Packers @ 1.768/11
Seeing as I've picked the Green Bay Packers for the Super Bowl, it would be churlish to deny them the NFC North selection - and prices just short of the even-money mark to back make for nap appeal. Lambeau Field's holy trinity of custodians - Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson - consistently put the Pack in the play-off mix, but this is the year their foundations could reap their richest harvest.
Rodgers has been off the charts in pre-season, with his distribution to a crack receiving corps (led by the peaking Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson) both quick-fire and laser-like in its delivery. Elsewhere, RB Eddie Lacy provides impact running that can move the chains over three downs and offers variety to the long arm of Rodgers' law. Even the defense has gone up a gear and it will take a huge effort from any of their rivals to keep pace.
On a going day, Chicago may be able to do just that on offense, yet their defense is becoming progressively porous with each passing year. Adrian Peterson will continue to do his utmost in single-handedly dragging Minnesota over the money line (even though he's getting bored of trying, as evidenced by his off-season call to Dallas owner Jerry Jones), while Detroit's struggles are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. One day the planets must align for Matt Stafford and Co but mankind may not be around to witness it.
NFC South - 4pts New Orleans Saints @ 1.855/6
This foursome all have an element of the awesome on their team-sheets. Yet regardless of how you cut the deck, New Orleans keep coming up trumps. The Saints are 20-4 at the Superdome since 2011 and this hometown advantage can prove the kicker to a glaringly obvious wager.
Always renown as an offensive powerhouse, Sean Payton's resident playmakers like Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and Keenan Lewis have been boosted by the likes of Brandin Cooks and Jairus Byrd. Add to that a defense which still surprises with its agile blitzes and you have a well-balanced unit which can deliver on both sides of the scrimmage line.
Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa can each muster some D, but all look set to fall woefully short when it comes to chain-gang gains (Josh McCown anyone?). Play it safe and securely with New Orleans.
NFC West - 8pts San Francisco 49ers @ 2.9215/8
The home of the Super Bowl winners, if the betting markets are to be trusted. They certainly repaid that faith last term and the NFC West endures as probably the strongest all-round division out there, despite the St Louis Rams losing starting quarterback Sam Bradford to a torn ACL for a second successive year.
St Louis aside, any of the remaining troika can go deep into the post-season once more. But the percentages make it a match between those two aforementioned jollies, Seattle and San Francisco. No offence to Arizona's offense, where Carson Palmer and his boys are doing their best to belatedly validate their QB's Heisman Trophy gong.
At the current quotes, the Niners just shade it for me at 2.9215/8, having been pushed out in the markets by layers after an indifferent preseason. Colin Kaepernick has struggled to adjust to his new weapons on offense (the elusive Steve Johnson is proving too elusive even for his triggerman) while his reliable reads of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis have begun to resemble impenetrable page-turners.
Not to worry, despite just two field goals in seven warm-up drives, CK will have donned his cape and suited up for Superman by the coming Sabbath's opening gameday (a gentle opener against that leaky bucket more commonly referred to as Dallas).
The Hawks, as ever, present a formidable foe. These Super Bowl champs are no one-hit chumps. Nevertheless, they haven't done much beneficial trading of note, while their roster appears mindlessly biased towards defense (already league-leading) and receiving (seven aggressively average wideouts). Pete Carroll isn't often wrong, but I'll take a chance that this crusade proves an exception.