The NFL experienced a power shift this offseason as talented quarterbacks, wide receivers and defenders left the NFC and bolstered the AFC.
Based on all of the offseason movement, it’s not entirely surprising that the three teams oddsmakers and sources around the NFL identified as the favorites to go from worst (in 2021) to first (this season) in their respective divisions all come from the AFC.
Over in the NFC, the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks are in the midst of rebuilds, the Carolina Panthers aren’t ready to overtake Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Detroit Lions are America’s darlings on Hard Knocks but not quite as talented as the Green Bay Packers (yet).
Here are the three teams with the best chances to go from worst to first in their divisions this season.
- 2021 wins: 8
- 2022 win totals odds: 9.5
- Odds to win AFC North: +140
The Ravens are actually the favorites to win the AFC North over the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
One AFC personnel executive believed they were the only team with a chance to go from worst to first this year.
The Ravens managed to win eight games last season despite season-ending injuries to a solid chunk of their projected starting lineup in running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, fullback Patrick Ricard, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, linebacker L.J. Fort, cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and safety DeShon Elliott.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was out for five games, also was among a handful of players to miss time during the season.
The Ravens simply experienced extraordinarily bad injury luck in 2021, and it feels impossible to believe that will happen again this season. While Edwards and Stanley remain on the PUP list and Wolfe, Fort and Elliott are no longer on the roster, Jackson, Dobbins, Ricard, Peters and Humphrey all have been practicing this summer. Baltimore also added safety Marcus Williams, offensive tackle Morgan Moses, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, running back Mike Davis, defensive tackle Brent Urban and cornerback Kyle Fuller in free agency and safety Kyle Hamilton, center Tyler Linderbaum, outside linebacker David Ojabo and defensive tackle Travis Jones in the draft.
Center Bradley Bozeman and cornerback Anthony Averett departed in free agency, and their biggest offseason loss came when they traded wide receiver Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals. Wide receiver remains among the team’s weakest spots, with 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman and recent unproven draft picks Devin Duvernay and James Proche projected to start.
“They had a hell of a draft I thought, but I don't know if they have enough receivers,” ex-Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told PFF this offseason. “They're gonna have to have some receivers step up for them.”
The Ravens face their stiffest competition to win the division from the Bengals (+170) and Cleveland Browns (+380). The Pittsburgh Steelers are +1000 to finish first in the AFC North.
The Bengals are coming off a Super Bowl loss but didn’t lose many pieces this offseason while re-tooling their offensive line with Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. The Browns added quarterback Deshaun Watson but will need to go the first 11 games of the season without him after he was suspended for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy for sexual assault and other offenses. The Steelers will have a new quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger retired, but it’s still to be decided whether that’s going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or rookie Kenny Pickett.
The Ravens are the only team to finish last in their division last season to be favorites heading into 2022. With regained health, Jackson at quarterback and John Harbaugh as head coach, it’s understandable why they have high expectations in 2022.
- 2021 wins: 3
- 2022 win totals odds: 6.5
- Odds to win AFC South: +800
The Jaguars currently have the second-longest odds to win their division, ahead of the Houston Texans (+3000). But there’s at least a reasonable path for Jacksonville to become this year’s version of the 2021 Bengals and go from bottom-feeders to playoff contenders.
We polled coaches, executives and scouts around the NFL earlier this offseason to find out which passer from the 2021 NFL Draft class they expected to emerge as the best quarterback after this season, and Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence came out No. 1 over Mac Jones, Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills and Justin Fields. It was nearly unanimous.
Much of the turmoil that surrounded Jacksonville last season should be gone with ex-head coach Urban Meyer fired. The Jaguars hired Doug Pederson to take his place and spent a record amount in a free-agency frenzy, adding wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, tight end Evan Engram, guard Brandon Scherff, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, cornerback Darious Williams and defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi. You can question how Jacksonville spent cap space, but the team certainly added more talent to a depleted roster.
The Jaguars also don’t exactly play in the most difficult division, unlike the last team on this list.
“The AFC South is wide open for Jacksonville,” an NFC analytics executive said this offseason.
The Tennessee Titans (+175) traded away wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Jacksonville Jaguars and opened up a future quarterback controversy when they drafted Malik Willis in the third round. The Indianapolis Colts (-130) look in good shape after adding quarterback Matt Ryan, edge defender Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Stephon Gilmore this offseason, but their success is largely dependent on a 37-year-old quarterback who finished 16th among at the position with a 74.7 PFF grade last season. All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard also remains on the PUP list.
There’s a reason why the Jaguars only have the third-best odds to win the AFC South, however. Ultimately, it’s still an unlikely premise, but there’s major room for improvement at quarterback and head coach in Lawrence and Pederson — even bigger than what the Bengals experienced in 2021 with Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor.
- 2021 wins: 7
- 2022 win totals odds: 10
- Odds to win AFC West: +260
The Broncos play in what should be the most difficult division in the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs (10.5) and Los Angeles Chargers (10) also have win totals set at 10 or higher. The Las Vegas Raiders have an over/under of 8.5 wins.
The Broncos hired a new head coach in ex-Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, but their most important offseason addition came via trade when they acquired Russell Wilson and a fourth-round pick for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, quarterback Drew Lock, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant. Now the Broncos go from starting Lock and Teddy Bridgewater to one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Wilson.
“They're playing in one of the toughest divisions, if not the toughest division, in the NFL and they got a new coach, first-time head coach,” Spielman said earlier this offseason. “But Russell Wilson, that’s why they traded for him.”
That alone vaults them into playoff contention, though they have the third-best odds to win the division behind the Chiefs (+175) and Chargers (+220).
The Broncos also added defensive end Randy Gregory, defensive tackle D.J. Jones, cornerback K’Waun Williams and offensive tackle Billy Turner, among others, in free agency. Their defense already ranked 12th last season in EPA per play.
“Denver was worst in their division but weren’t a bad team like the 2020 Bengals,” an NFC personnel executive said this offseason.
Denver lost wide receiver Tim Patrick to a torn ACL in training camp but did have excellent depth at the position with Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton still expected to start and K.J. Hamler ready to step in. The Broncos also have a two-headed monster at running back in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon and talented young tight ends in Albert Okwuegbunam and Greg Dulcich.
The Chiefs lost considerable talent this offseason, and the Chargers didn’t make the playoffs in 2021. The Raiders have a new head coach in Josh McDaniels and acquired wide receiver Davante Adams and edge defender Chandler Jones this offseason.
That the AFC West odds are so close is telling, and the Broncos, despite finishing last in the division last season, are right in the mix.