AFC and Awards Gambling Preview

Football is getting closer which means it’s time to do your gambling homework. Here are my predictions and bets for the upcoming season for the AFC and a few awards.

A * means that I would actually put money on it. O/U odds via Oddsharks from 6/10 and Awards via Caesars.

AFC

Ravens- Over 11.5* (-115)

So a team that won 14 games from a season ago and has the easiest strength of schedule in the entire league won’t win twelve games or more this season? I can’t see it happening. Maybe teams figure out Lamar Jackson and let’s say hypothetically he doesn’t repeat last season’s performance, the Ravens may still have the best roster in the league. Their defense was only one of three from 2019 to have a top ten pass and rush defense and they upgraded at linebacker (Patrick Queen) and defensive line (Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe) and saw no major losses on either defense or offense. Week 3 against the Chiefs is the only game that legitimately scares me in terms of taking a loss and they face the Cowboys, Colts, Titans, and Steelers twice who are all tough opponents, but I think at worst they go 3-3 in that stretch, meaning that a twelve win season is a strong probability. They also play all of the aforementioned teams (minus one of the Steelers games) at home, which adds even more likelihood of a great season in Baltimore.

Bills- Over 9* (-140)

This one is almost near-unanimous by most experts that the Bills will hit the over. They are tied for the fifth toughest schedule in the league, but the AFC East this year is very winnable and is the Bills’ division to lose. Despite the tough schedule, they have only six games against teams that made the playoffs a season ago, including two against the now Tom Brady-less New England Patriots who most expect to have a down year by their standards. The addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs finally gives Josh Allen, who showed a lot of development last season, a true WR1, and Devin Singletary seems primed to become a superstar. I predict a ten-win season, but even if they do hit nine wins then it’s a push. When you’re placing this bet, you’re believing that they do better than an 8-8 season and for a team that I predict to win the division and who finished with ten wins a season ago, I’m willing to bet the over once again here. 

Bengals- Under 5.5* (-110)

Good news for Bengals fans, they have the 27th strength of schedule. Bad news for Bengals fans, they are facing a lot of teams who are much improved from last year. The Steelers, Colts, Browns, and Eagles all figure to see their win total from a season ago go up, plus they have to play the Ravens twice. They are slowly building a potent offense, but still a lot of work needs to be made on the offensive line that gave up 50 sacks in 2019. The last thing a rookie quarterback needs is to be running for his life. They do have two winnable games, Washington and Jacksonville, and two other possibilities with Miami and New York. So, even if they go 4-0 in those games, it would be tough to pull off two upset wins over teams with more talent and better roster structure. Hell, I think a 5 win season would be considered a success for a team that won two games from a season ago, but even that wouldn’t get them to the 6 they need. Hammer the under. 

Steelers- Over 9.5* (+110)

Of all the ones I have listed here, this is the one I’m most unsure about. I do love the fact that the Steelers have the second easiest schedule and are returning Ben Roethlisberger from a team that won eight games last year. They return a very similar team from 2019 which was lead by their defense that had the most sacks in the league and was third in pass defense. Trips to Dallas, Tennessee, and Buffalo will be difficult but have four games against some of the worst teams from a season ago. Of their eight losses from 2019, five of them were by one score or less and if they had a competent quarterback then you have to imagine two or three of those losses go their way. In his 13 year career as head coach of the Steelers, Tomlin has never gone three straight seasons without a playoff appearance and I don’t think you’ll be seeing it anytime soon, meaning the Steelers are going back to the playoffs in 2020. As long as Roethlisberger can stay healthy, eleven wins is a realistic expectation so do yourself a favor and go with the over here. 

Titans- Over 8.5 (10)* (-125)

The Titans were 9-7 a season ago but finished 7-3 down the stretch and the offense really began to click when Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback. They have a favorable schedule (12th easiest) and play six games against playoff teams from last year, two of which are the Texans who traded away their best receiver this offseason. Vrabel seems to have created a blue-collar identity in Tennessee, playing solid defense and a run-first offensive approach. This works out well for them since half of their games come against defenses that were in the bottom twelve against the run a season ago and seven games against teams that were in the bottom ten in scoring. Without a true offseason this year, I value continuity more than ever. The team did lose solid right tackle Jack Conklin but replaced him with their first-round pick Isaiah Wilson. Besides that, the team returns the rest of its starters from 2019. I think the AFC South is up for grabs and should the Titans continue the momentum of last year’s playoff success, a nine-win season should come with relative ease. 

Here are the rest of my predictions, I wouldn’t bet any of these but wanted to include it just to show how much I dislike your favorite team:

Browns- Under 8.5

Broncos- Over 7.5

Texans- Under 7.5

Colts- Over 9

Jaguars- Under 4.5

Chiefs- Over 11.5

Raiders- Under 7.5
Chargers- Over 7.5
Dolphins- Under 6.5

Patriots- Under 9

Jets- Under 7

AFC Division Predictions

East- Bills 13/10*
Patriots are a wild card, don’t know how they’ll look with no Brady and I think they’ll finish in second. The Jets haven’t done much to help Sam Darnold and I don’t think Gase is a good head coach that can lead this team to the promised land. Brian Flores is a heck of a coach but the Dolphins are a year away from being considered for a divisional title. Bills are the easy pick here.

North- Ravens 4/9

Best roster in the league. Simple.

South- Colts 13/10

Too many variables here for me to put money on it, but I think the Colts bounce back in a big way this season. However, the Titans or Texans can be argued as well and I’d agree. Pass on this one, but I lean Colts.

West- Chiefs 11/50

No explanation needed. 

MVP

Mahomes +400*

Wilson +600*

Watson +2000

In my eyes, Mahomes is the best player in the league and the Chiefs are elite because of him. He missed some time last year with an injury, but a 40+ touchdown season is within reach. The Chiefs figure to be near the top of the AFC and he’ll put up the stats needed to get his second MVP award. The fact Wilson hasn’t even received an MVP in his career is an embarrassment to the award. He’s truly the most valuable player to his team in the league, more so than Mahomes or Jackson even. You take him off of the Seahawks and they don’t make the playoffs in seven of the eight seasons he’s been in the league. I’m putting money down because he’s overdue for at least some votes. Watson is a good darkhorse. If the Texans can win the division and put up good offensive statistical numbers without DeAndre Hopkins and an unreliable receiving corps, Watson will be at the center of their success. 


Comeback Player of the Year

Roethlisberger +275*

Green +900*

Trent Williams +4000

Big Ben is the easiest choice here. In fact, I’d be surprised if he didn’t win. Green will have the advantage of missing all of last season and figures to be on a team that’s going to be behind a lot so he’ll see plenty of chances for targets. Unfortunately, he’s on a one year contract and could be used as trade bait. If he does get traded, then that puts a setback in him getting this award. The wild card is Trent Williams, who has crazy odds. He is one of the best left tackles in the league and will be on a presumably good team in San Francisco. The downside is that an offensive lineman has never won the award. If Ben struggles, I think it leaves a wide-open competition that allows a guy like Williams to sneak in. 

Coach of the Year

Reich +2000*

Right now Belichick and Arians are the odds on favorites for this award, but I have reason to be skeptical of both. I don’t think the Patriots make the playoffs, which is almost a prerequisite for this award pretty much, and the Buccaneers replaced Jameis Winston with Tom Brady which is good for three extra wins right there. The Colts have a good chance to get into the playoffs this year and Reich is one of better play designers in the league. If they can get consistency at quarterback and continue to run the ball well, they could secure a top-three seed in the AFC.

NFL Film Breakdown: Juju is Primed for a Big Year

Juju Smith-Schuster’s first year taking over for Antonio Brown didn’t quite go as planned. Ben Roethlisberger went down in week two and it was a carousel of Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph for the rest of the year. Throw in a knee, an ankle, and a head injury and after catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in 2018, he caught just 42 for 552 yards in 12 games in 2019. Did Juju suffer because of poor quarterback play, or is he not the guy that the Steelers hoped he would be?

Sep 24, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) runs the ball during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Smith-Schuster is incredibly strong at the catch, understands how to open himself up in zones, and is aggressive and physical after the catch. While the Steelers made an effort to scheme him open and he was able to find space, he also struggled to create separation at times.

Juju does a great job at attacking the ball in the air. He has an elite ability to maintain focus and strong hands throughout contact. Even if he’s covered, he’s still open. As a result, though he is a little more dependant on good QB play. The absolute best receivers in the league attach their eyes to the ball all the way through the catch. You can watch his eyes and helmet on the catches below and see how they track the ball all the way in. It seems simple, but every week you see guys pulling their eyes off so they can run or because they are getting contacted.

Juju also does a great job of understanding the space around him which fits perfectly with an experienced quarterback that can read and dissect defenses quickly. He sits perfectly in zones and makes himself available to the quarterback – drifting away from defenders to allow room for yards after the catch and easier throws.

The below is a great example of Juju clearing traffic and rubbing off his defender before throttling down in front of the safety to the bottom of the screen to provide a window for Rudolph to throw to. If he continues running, he opens himself up to a big hit and a potential interception or incompletion.

In the below gif, the Dolphins are in man coverage and as he comes out of his break and feels the defender stay with him, he starts to work towards the middle of the field to give a window for the quarterback. Rudolph instead throws it back hip towards where his initial stem is and it results in an incompletion. Plays like this happened all the time to Juju. He may find space and work open, but he and the quarterback just weren’t on the same page or the throw wasn’t good enough.

The Steelers also try to work him open with scheme. They love running him on shallow crossers to get him the ball on the move and allow for yards after the catch.

If all else fails, they’ll find a way to get him the ball in the run game.

While he is physical at the point of the catch, this is sometimes out of necessity because he can struggle to create separation naturally – especially in man. His speed doesn’t really threaten anyone and so many DBs will sit on his routes because they aren’t worried about getting beat over the top. Combine that with inconsistent quarterback play, and corners just did not respect any deep sell by Juju. When contacted during his route, he can be thrown off or slowed down even more. In addition, he really didn’t work to sell any route other than what he was running. This doesn’t mean always doing a double move, but he lacked stems and set-ups to open himself to route space. It’d be great to see him push DBs one way and get them to open their hips before planting and exploding the other way, but it was rare to find on film this year.

This fade is a perfect example. The defensive back expects nothing but the fade and isn’t threatened by any inside move that Juju gives. As a result, he stays in his hip and defends the pass.

You can see below in the first gif how the defensive back over Juju in the slot barely even turns his hips to run even though Juju is up on his toes.

At the top of the screen you can see Juju working on Marcus Peters, a corner known for his aggressiveness in jumping routes. Juju is working a stop and go on him and doesn’t give hip turn or shoulder turn to indicate or sell any part of the stop except for a little foot fire. Peters doesn’t bite on it at all and keeps his vertical cap and the play is dead in the water for Juju. For a 3rd year player, you’d hope to see more developed route technique and understanding.

Juju has a great feel for coverages and the ability to find soft spots despite his struggles defeating man. His knack for high pointing and winning contested balls makes him a little more dependent on QB play than some other receivers that rely on pure speed or athleticism. Juju’s connection with Roethlisberger, the Steelers desire to get him involved in yards after catch scenarios, and his understanding of zones and coverages set him up for a bounce-back year in 2020. In a contract year, he may not hit over 100 receptions, but will be an incredibly reliable target who is fearless over the middle, can break a tackle after the catch, and can give the Steelers offense life.

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