From NFC North to AFC South, Romilly Evans analyses the NFL division by division and illuminates some lesser lights to turn the tables on some listless perennials this regular season
"Carolina are heavy favourites in the NFC South but Cam Newton and Co are not to be trusted at odds-on"
AFC East - 1pt Buffalo Bills @ 11.010/1 or bigger
Can you realistically oppose the New England Patriots? Well, Tom Brady's out for the first four weeks, and perhaps Bill Belichick's unrivalled ability for making his components add up to more than some of their makeshift parts could finally register a regular season in the negative column.
If it sounds like wishful thinking, it probably is. Indeed, there's not much with which to take on the Pats, such is the paucity of collective application on offer elsewhere in their division. Miami have a new stadium, but the old flaw of living down to expectations - neatly embodied by their talented by error-laden quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. The Jets are also struggling to find a franchise QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick to partner up with their skilled receiving crew.
So let's chance Rex Ryan's Bills instead, whose team-sheet enjoys more balance than any of their rivals. Who knows, at some attractive pokes, Rex's last hurrah in Buffalo could go deep into the play-offs.
AFC North - 12pts Pittsburgh Steelers @ 2.56/4 or better
Typically provides a fiercely quarrelling quartet and this season should be no different. That said, Joe Flacco's got a dodgy left knee in Baltimore, Andy Dalton is still falling a wafer shy of elite status in Cincy, while Cleveland are clutching at straws by giving the infuriating Robert Griffin III the captain's armband.
It's a process of elimination which soon leads you to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is back in rude health (although the way Big Ben scrambles, it may never be for long) and holds the reins on perhaps the most potent offense in the game. Antonio Brown leads those wideouts and was unplayable at times last year. Then we have the matchless Le'Veon Bell, who will be back after his three-game suspension (for missed drugs tests, he's making Brady look good) and has rehabbed his torn knee in the meantime.
Heinz Field is a fortress and it will take a good one to stop them, even in play-off country. A strong selection, but one that's hardly the best-kept secret in this division or the NFL.
AFC South - 4pts Indianapolis Colts @ 3.02/1 or better
A woeful division, where Indy and a rejuvenated Andrew Luck can take full advantage. Luck's injuries (neck, shoulder, ribs, even back) read like "Dem Dry Bones" lyrics last year, but this standout rookie still has time to make good on his all-star potential. Especially behind a shored up offensive line which will grant him better protection this term. Also note the return of safety TJ Green too, who has been rejuvenating an ageing defense in practice.
Tennessee's own rookie find, Marcus Mariota, is overrated and should be found wanting this year. The same comment applies to Blake Bortles at Jacksonville, whose schedule won't be aided by their London "home" games. Houston may have Brock Osweiler under center, but their shining light remains the imperious JJ Watt, whose leadership of an improving and doughty D makes the Texans the Colts' biggest rivals.
AFC West - 6pts Kansas City Chiefs @ 3.02/1 or better
Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs are benefitting from his astute, stoic control. Alex Smith is solid and dependable at QB, his rushers are back in rude health, and Kansas' stingy defense does the rest.
Denver, however, may have the best D of all - Von Miller's No Fly Zone can hold a fiery candle to Seattle's Legion of Boom. But just where they go on offense without Peyton Manning and Osweiler is anyone's guess. Gary Kubiak's run-first instincts will tag in CJ Anderson more often than not, but that looks a pretty predictable strategy.
Oakland are many shrewd judges' dark horses. Nevertheless, I can't have Derek Carr and Latavius Murray proving a postseason chariot, while San Diego rate a regressive outfit. So play it probabilistically, and side with the Chiefs.
NFC East - 5pts New York Giants @ 4.03/1 or better
With Tony Romo out for the foreseeable in Dallas, Philly rebuilding after the Chip Kelly exodus, and Washington clinging to the fragile hope that Kirk Cousins is a safe harbour in a maelstrom of misfires at signal-caller, the logical conclusion - not matter how preposterous - is to entrust the selection to Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Let me upack that theory a bit for you - I probably need to. As erratic a read as the Book of Eli is (a mysterious, guilty page-turner, in a Da Vinci Code kind of way), don't forget Manning Jnr has won two Super Bowl rings in recent memory. Plus he now has wideout Victor Cruz back running at full pelt, following his crushing knee injury in 2014, to join the ascendant star of Odell Beckham Jnr. Even Big Blue's porous D has been beefed up a little.
Ben McAdoo, their new general, could be in for a thrilling debut ride without doing a lot.
NFC North - 15pts Green Bay Packers @ 1.9110/11 or better
Seeing as I've picked the Green Bay Packers for the Super Bowl, it would be churlish to deny them the NFC North - and prices around the 1.84/5 mark to back make them a lock selection. Any combination of Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy and a raucous Lambeau Field invariably puts the Pack in the play-off mix, but this is the year their patient foundations could reap the richest harvest.
Rodgers must rebound from his worst all-round statistical season to date. However, his handy receiving corps is bolstered (Jordy Nelson is finally back) while running man Eddie Lacy is back on the straight (attitudinally) and slim (dietary) to move the chains over three downs. Lacy also offers some variety to the long arm of Rodgers' law. The key differential is that Green Bay's defense has gone up a gear and it will take a huge effort from any of their rivals to keep pace.
Minnesota, the current divisional champs, are the most likely threats, but Teddy Bridgewater went down late preseason. Which means Adrian Peterson will have to do his utmost to single-handedly drag Minny over the money line. On a going day, the canon arms of Matt Stafford at Detroit and and Jay Cutler at Chicago can give any team a fright, but perhaps it's now time to file these two towering talents in the box labelled Underwhelming.
NFC South - 2pts New Orleans Saints @ 5.04/1 or better
This foursome all have an element of the awesome on their team-sheet, but generally speaking the variables outweigh the tangibles, so please proceed with caution.
For my part, I'm going to saddle up a re-contracted Drew Brees and his array of offensive options and ride them for a speculative shunt at a surprising price. Sure, they can't defend for toffee, but they can outstrip the best, particularly at the Superdome which could yield a vital head-to-head kicker in a tight division.
After last year's Super Bowl outing, Carolina are heavy favourites but Cam Newton and Co are not to be trusted at odds-on. Their 2015-16 season ended on a whimper when the Panthers had everything going for them.
Over in Atlanta, Matty "Ice" Ryan has had fewer breaks throughout the past few campaigns, but this is another multi-million dollar man falling short of his price tag. The Falcons should outperform disappointing Tampa Bay (for whom Jameis Winston isn't the answer) but I simply struggle to trust Ryan, despite the offensive weapons he has on display.
NFC West - 3pts Seattle Seahawks @ 2.56/4 or better
A few years ago, the NFC West was perhaps the strongest all-round division, but rumours of its demise - or at least two-dog town status - may have been greatly exaggerated.
True, the San Francisco 49ers look rudderless and lame. But Seattle and Arizona are always a championship threat, while the rehomed Rams of Los Angeles may yet surprise a few more fashionable names. The one-two punch combo of RB Todd Gurley and WR Tavon Austin are among the more exciting weapons in the league, and the Rams' staunch D always delivers opposing Os with a battering.
The Cardinals, of course, went deep into the postseason last year, yet the suspicion persists that Carson Palmer may have had his career year. Elsewhere, it's not as if his receivers or the Cards' front four are getting any youger or more explosive.
So instead, let's play the Hawks with confidence. The feared Legion of Boom has also been around a while, but Pete Carroll has retooled his squad cannily and Russell Wilson always gives this defensively-minded outfit a chance on the other side of the ball. Renown for their slow starts, Seattle can come out swinging this term.