AFC Win Total – Best Bets

Denver Broncos (Over 8.5)

There is a short-term feel about almost everything with the Denver Broncos (8.5), from the ownership situation (Pat Bowlen's feuding heirs came to a truce before their lawsuit against the current trustees and interpretation of dad's will went to court, with the expectation that a franchise sale, endorsed by the league, is on the way), to team prexy John Elway (one more year on his contract, and he’s already relinquished GM duties), to HC Vic Fangio (11-21 in two seasons), to countless vets on the roster signed to one-year deals.

The latter means several players will be in contract years, never a bad scenario for upgraded performance. Injuries also decimated the 2020 Broncos, with key cogs like LB Von Miller and WR Courtland Sutton effectively missing the entire season. They’re now back, joined by some potentially valuable FA signings in the secondary including CBs Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, while first-round pick Patrick Surtain II from Alabama provides more depth on the corners.

Meanwhile, new GM George Paton might have stolen QB Teddy Bridgewater from the Panthers for a 6th-round pick; much of the “pundit class” deemed a 6th-rounder too high of a price, to which we say horse manure; how many sixth-round picks can step in immediately at QB and win games in the NFL?

If he stays in one piece, Bridgewater figures at least a slight upgrade on holdover Drew Lock, and the return of Sutton gives Bridgewater all sorts of downfield threats with second-year ex-Bama wideout Jerry Jeudy and big-play TE Noah Fant already in the fold. A major houseclean takes place if Denver doesn’t make a move into the playoffs, a main reason we think the desperate Broncos finally register an “over” this fall.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Under 6.5)

While we understand some of the excitement surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars (6.5) now that they have what seems a upper-tier head coach (Urban Meyer) and a future franchise QB (top draft pick Trevor Lawrence) in the fold, let’s not forget that both Meyer and Lawrence have yet to experience an NFL regular-season game as participants.

And even if both manage the transition smoothly from the college game, the Jags are being asked to improve six wins from a year ago to clear this 6.5 number. That seems to be asking a lot, especially as there are still plenty of questions marks beyond the aforementioned pair, beginning with a defense that was abysmal a year ago and needs to make upgrades in a hurry. Any ongoing inabilities to stop the run or provide an effective pass rush make reaching seven wins a lot harder.

Moreover, Meyer is already minus a weapon he was counting upon, Clemson rookie RB and Lawrence college teammate Travis Etienne, who went down in preseason with a foot injury that will keep him out until 2022. Already, Meyer has also made a few p.r. missteps, suggesting that an extended transition phase is much more likely in Jacksonville, and that the “mustache man” (owner Shad Khan) is going to have to wait a bit for these new investments to pay off. It’s an “under” for us at what they used to call the Gator Bowl.

Las Vegas Raiders (Under 7)

Sticking in the West, the Las Vegas Raiders (7) finally get to play in front of fans at their new Allegiant Stadium home after Wayne Newton, Celine Dion, Floyd Mayweather, and the rest of the locals were all kept outside a year ago. They didn’t miss much as the Silver & Black lost 6 of 8 in their new stadium in front of the empty seats.

But even Marie Osmond can tell that 4th-year HC Jon Gruden might be running out of time, long-term contract or not, yet to deliver a winning campaign amid late-season fades the past two seasons. It is hoped that new D.C. Gus Bradley can plug some holes in a defense that was way too permissive in 2020 when allowing 30 or more points on ten different occasions.

Gruden is also sticking his neck out for one more season with QB Derek Carr, yet to notch a postseason win (neither have the Raiders since 2002), who is hoping that a rebuilt OL will provide more protection. Our suspicion has long been that Gruden is now more of a caricature of himself rather than the top-line NFL coach he might have been nearly a generation ago, and some recent splintering in the front office might be a sign of cracks in the organizational foundation. We’re looking “under” across I-15 from the Luxor and Mandalay Bay.

Miami Dolphins (Under 9.5)

Full credit to HC Brian Flores for making the Miami Dolphins (9.5) relevant in two seasons after it looked as if he was going to be forced to endure a tank job back in 2019 that only NBA owners like Mark Cuban could fully appreciate. But Flores refused to surrender, got the Dolphins competitive by that season’s end, and last year stayed in the playoff race until the final Sunday of the season.

But we know that Flores and GM Chris Grier were contemplating after last season if they should really continue the commitment to QB Tua Tagovailoa, who was decidedly unimpressive as a rookie a year ago and outplayed by vet Ryan Fitzpatrick. Indeed, it was “The Beard” who was more responsible for getting the Dolphins in the playoff mix, though that evaporated in the finale at Buffalo when Fitzpatrick had to sit due to Covid and Miami was non-competitive with Tua, who seemed afflicted by “Paxton Lynch-itis” (meaning dinks and dunks and rarely looking downfield) too often in his maiden run.

Perhaps the recovery from the severe hip injury in his final year at Alabama had something to do with it, but Tua has to pick up the pace considerably if Miami wants to contend again in 2021. We’re not sure and suspect it might be new backup Jacoby Brissett in the lineup before the end of the season. In that scenario, ot if Tua proves an albatross around the neck of the offense, we doubt the Dolphins match last year’s 10 wins, even with the extra game on the schedule. “Under” for us at Hard Rock Stadium.

Pittsburgh Steelers (Over 8.5)

It’s about time for the Pittsburgh Steelers (8.5) to begin planning for life after Ben Roethlisberger. Now into his 18th season (where did the time go, anyway?), and two years removed from having three tendons replaced on his throwing arm, Big Ben is now a year-to-year proposition and hardly a long-term option; indeed, it’s said that the Steelers are thinking this might be the last rodeo for Roethlisberger, who himself has hinted that this might be his swansong year as well.

Of course, Pittsburgh won its first 11 with Big Ben in the fold a year ago before the season unraveled in December and a humbling Wild Card round loss to the Browns, and Roethlisberger still threw 33 TD passes in 2020. Obviously, this isn’t Johnny Unitas circa 1973 with the Chargers, and the Steelers can still be formidable with Big Ben at the controls.

After an adjustment phase to new O.C. Matt Canada in the offseason, sources say Roethlisberger is now totally comfy with the new terminology, even taking some unexpected snaps in preseason, and we think drafting Bama rookie RB Najee Harris in the first round (scoffed at by much of the know-it-all pundit class which doesn’t believe a first-round pick should be wasted on a runner) might be a stroke of genius if he can provide a dimension similar to another recent Crimson Tide big back, Derrick Henry.

There’s a new-look OL that must jell quickly, but as long as that doesn’t turn into a quagmire, the Steelers won’t go quietly, especially since a Mike Tomlin defense rarely gets overrun. If it’s to be Big Ben’s last hurrah, we suggest he at least goes out with guns blazing as the Steelers clear the “over” at Heinz Field.

Tennessee Titans (Over 9)

While Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cleveland seem to be the chic picks to knock off the Chiefs atop the AFC, we wonder why more people aren’t paying attention to the Tennessee Titans (9)? Who, Dr. Fauci might remind, seem to have gotten Covid issues with some of their key cogs (including shrewd HC Mike Vrabel) out of the way before the season begins.

Vrabel is just two years removed from steering the Titans to an unexpected AFC title game berth, and won the AFC South a year ago, so Tennessee has definitely been knocking on the door. The Titans are also looking at a potential three-peat NFL rushing champion in their midst; not since Emmitt Smith, and before that Earl Campbell, and before that Jim Brown, have accomplished what Derrick Henry has the potential to do this fall.

Adding Julio Jones to the receiving arsenal as a new big-play target for Ryan Tannehill (whose career revival has continued in Nashville) won’t hurt the offense, either, though new O.C. Todd Downing has some big shoes to fill after Arthur Smith moved to the Falcons as their new head coach.

Moreover, if GM Jon Robinson was really able to re-tool the defense in the offseason, and has found the pass rusher he desperately needed in FA OLB Bud Dupree (ex-Steelers), then the Titans have a legit shot at the Chiefs and anyone else in the AFC. It will help getting beyond nine wins to have expected doormats Houston and Jacksonville in the same division and likely worth four wins as well. It’s an “over” for us in Music City.

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