2020 AFC Conference Futures Bets
Pittsburgh Steelers to win the AFC +1300
FanDuel’s odds of an AFC Champion Steelers team are +1300, which I believe is baking too much recency bias about last season.
The 2019 Steelers lost their starting quarterback one game into the season, along with their primary wide receiver and running back for some of it. Additionally, they had poor backup quarterback play, bad touchdown luck, and they still finished 8-8.
Mike Tomlin has been the coach in Pittsburgh for 13 seasons and has never finished worse than 8-8. In all but three seasons, he’s finished at least 9-7. This is important because starting this year, seven teams will make the playoffs instead of six, so a 9-7 record would likely get them to the playoffs. They also have the seventh-easiest projected strength of schedule in the league.
All reports from training camp confirm that Ben Roethlisberger, Juju Smith-Schuster, and James Conner are all healthy. There is also offensive line continuity. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson will build on being the rookie with the most catches in the NFL last year. Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges will no longer weigh down this offense.
Their defense was already particularly good last year. Their front seven, led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, created constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and their mid-season trade for cornerback/safety hybrid Minkah Fitzpatrick paid immediate dividends. It’s not a stretch to think that a defense that was first in opponent turnovers, third in opponent passing yards, and second in Interceptions should be good again.
Provided everyone stays healthy, I see no reason why the Steelers can’t go toe-to-toe with the Baltimore Ravens or Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Championship game with their offensive firepower and stout defense. For that reason, +1300 seems like a value to me.
Indianapolis Colts to win the AFC +1000
The Colts are +1000 to win the AFC at FanDuel, and I think this represents value.
They’ll switch Jacoby Brissett for Phillip Rivers at quarterback, but there is continuity everywhere else. Overall, the Colts will return all five starters to their top-ranked offensive line, WR T.Y. Hilton (hamstring) recently came off the active/NFI list, and their entire coaching staff will be back. Rivers will have time to throw the ball, and the Colts have the personnel to suit Rivers.
They have a strong run-game with Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack, and a pass-catching back in Nyheim Hines.
Just as important, there is a path for them to end up the No. 3 seed and avoid Chiefs/Ravens in the first round of the playoffs. Their projected strength of schedule is the easiest in the league, and the AFC South appears weak again.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have all but admitted they’re tanking, the Houston Texans will likely take a big step back, and the Tennessee Titans have to pray that Derrick Henry stays healthy after logging nearly 400 carries last year, as I don’t believe that Ryan Tannehill will continue his torrid, outlier pace again this season. The path to their winning the AFC South could not be clearer.
The Colts’ defense is on the upswing and faces an easy slate of offenses to start the season. Most people know Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner, but they have company in other young stars. Linebacker Bobby Okereke was PFF’s top-graded rookie linebacker last year, and CB Rock Ya-Sin graded as above average. Justin Houston, the perennial pass-rushing specialist, is still there, and the team smartly took a flyer on former Minnesota lockdown corner Xavier Rhodes.
I think given the quarterback upgrade, easy strength of schedule, continuity in important places, and a young defense on the upswing, that +1000 is good value for the Colts to win the AFC.
Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC +300
While +300 isn’t a strong value, it’s still a decent payout for a team exceedingly likely to make the AFC Championship at least. Even with the likely touchdown regression of Lamar Jackson, there’s reason to believe the Ravens will be winning the AFC this year.
They have continuity and a culture that promotes buy-in. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is back, along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
The team comes first in Baltimore, as evidenced by their recent cutting of free safety Earl Thomas for punching another player during a walkthrough. These are great things in a coronavirus-ridden year that will reward cohesive teams more than most years.
They bring back the No. 1 special teams unit in the NFL and a top-five defense (which was the second-most injured defense in football last year and should be healthier this year), and that’s before accounting for additions like drafting LSU linebacker Patrick Queen to pair with emerging LB Matt Judon, as well as trading for Calais Campbell and signing Derek Wolfe on the defensive line.
Jackson’s first-round WR from last year, Hollywood Brown, will be healthy this year. Breakout tight end Mark Andrews will likely see his usage increase, as he only played 41% of snaps last year (and still put up 10 touchdowns doing so).
Last, the high-leverage weeks of the NFL season for playoff seeding set up very nicely to ensure the Ravens are in play for the bye week. Their last three games in weeks 15-17 are against the Jaguars, the New York Giants, and the Cincinnati Bengals. For these reasons, I think +300 is a fair bet.