I don’t normally like betting on Superbowl winners this far out, so much can happen in the interim. Still, there is some value in the market now if you don’t mind your money being tied up for the long term. The three best value bets in my opinion are.
Houston Texans- $14 (Betfair)
This Texans side made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year, as they took advantage of a Peyton Manning-less division to seize the AFC South. They smashed the Bengals in their first ever playoff game and then pushed the Ravens all the way in the Divisional round despite the fact they were playing with third string quarterback, T.J.Yates under centre. With a fully fit Matt Schaub, hopefully throwing to a fully fit Andre Johnson, this Texans side should pose more of an offensive threat than the one that ended the 2011 season. Johnson is undoubtedly one of the very best receivers in the league and it is imperative that he remain fit and manage more than the 7 games he played last season. If he does, then this passing game has the potential to keep opposition safties occupied, allowing more room for their real strength.
That real strength is of course the ground game, stud running back Arian Foster is one of the best running backs in the league. His number dropped slightly in 2011 after his breakout 2010 campagin, but he still managed 1224 Rushing Yards, 612 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing the first three weeks of the season with a hamstring complaint. Ben Tate is a more than servicable back up and compliments this very balanced offence. They can get you with both Passing and Rushing games making them a handful for any defence.
The Texans Defence was very strong last season, allowing the 4th least points against and was one of the major reasons for their success. It was all the more impressive given that the team only had a limited time to learn the new Wade Phillips 3-4 scheme due to the extended lockout of last season. This defence is red hot, it has big playmakers like J.J Watt and Brian Cushing who will bring the pain for opposition quarterbacks. Watt was a particular standout in his rookie season and has a very bright future in the game. They have lost Mario Williams to Buffallo but he only managed 5 games for the side anyway, so this I don’t think is an issue. If anything this defence is going to be stronger than it was last year and that is a scary prospect.
With big play makers on offence and one of the leagues best defences it is not hard to see why they are currently 3rd favourites for the superbowl. With a division that they should win comfortably, their starting price is likely to be as good as you will see all season, so back them in early and hope that they can snare a 1-2 seeding in the playoffs.
Baltimore Ravens- $23 (Betfair)
The Ravens were a Lee Evans stripped catch away from the Superbowl last season, and he needed only hold for it a split second longer. That missed chance was followed up by a now infamous choke from kicker Billy Cundiff on a short range chip shop, which culminated in their elimination at the hands of the Patriots. Seven months on and that image still haunts Ravens fans as they dream of what might have been. Whether it can provide inspiration for the players to go further this year remains to be seen.
On offence there is no doubt who the star is, Ray Rice is for my liking, the best Running back in the NFL. This is a predominantly ground based offence, and the fortunes of this side hinge largely on the shoulder of this 5 foot 8 dynamo out of Rutgers. About to enter his fifth season in the league, Rice will be critical to his sides fortunes and following a combined 2000 yard/ 15 touch down season there is lot of expectation on him to produce similar numbers.
Any improvement on offence is going to need to come from the passing side of the game. Joe Flacco has copped a lot of criticism for his comments that he feels he is an elite quarterback, yet similar eyebrows were raised when Eli Manning made similar comments at the start of last season and we all know how that ended! I am not suggesting that he is going to come out and start playing like Eli did last year, but preseason, and indeed late last year he has shown positive signs. In Torrey Smith he has an emerging stud reciever and if he can improve to that next level then it may be enough to give them Ravens that edge they lacked, when they just fell short last year. it is putting it lightly to say that Quaterback is tough position to play in the NFL and it takes time to master the craft, now entering his 5th season, Flacco is going to be expected to lift.
Ultimately this team doesn’t need to have a truly elite offence though, because it’s defence is it’s great strength. They can keep their opponents in check meaning that 20 points is often enough to win the game for them. They were the number 1 defence in football last season and appear set to be very close to that crown once again this season. They have suffered a massive blow with Terrell Suggs potentially season ending achilles injury dealing a major obstacle, but it is still a defence filled with quality players even without him. Ngata is the best defensive end in the league, and the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed make this a defence to be feared.
The injury to Suggs is a blow, whether he can get back is sketchy at best, but even without him, this is a strong side, and some improvement on offence could well negate a slight defensive regress. I am still not convinced by Cam Cameron as an offensive play caller, but I like the big odds on a side that really should have been in the Superbowl last season. They have a tough schedule which has inflated the price, but I think they are a better side than the Steelers and will take the AFC North crown and be placed nicely for another playoff run.
Chicago Bears- $30- (Betfair)
The Bears have become some what of a hyped team preseason, taking on the role as a popular roughie pick and have shortened after opening at odds closer to $40. They still remain good value and there is no way they should be the 12th favourites as they currently are. The Bears defence was pretty good last season, they continually restricted opposition to low scores and somehow managed to stay in matches despite having nothing offensively, and finding themselves spending far too long on the field once Cutler and then Forte went down. They slumped from a promising 7-4 start to end 8-8 but there are reasons to be optimistic for their prospects this season. If the defence can recreate their form from last season it will go a long way to providing success, the health of Brian Urlacher which remains up in the air will be crucial, he simply must get out on the field for them. He is the inspirational leader of this defence and that is saying something considering it contains players of the ilk of Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs. This is a mean defence that can get after opposition quarterbacks, which in a division containing Rogers and Stafford is going to be vital.
In Matt Forte they have an elite running back to allow them to base the offence around the ground game. Forte is a genuine star, and is showing no long term damage from his knee injury looking good in preseason. Michael Bush adds another weapon and should serve well as a red zone back, an area in which Forte struggled last season, and an ailing Marion Barber was of no use at all. This double headed rushing attack will be tough to deal with.
The big addition to the offence though, and the thing that has me talking up their prospects comes in the passing game. Cutler was quite good last year despite having very little to throw to in the way of reliable wide outs. He now has his favourite weapon from his Denver days back in the form of Brandon Marshall. Marshall presents a dangerous red zone threat and they chemistry they have is obvious. He has looked very comfortable throwing to his old friend in Bears preseason games and you can expect many yards and touchdowns to come from this combination.
There are still some very valid concerns to take into consideration however.
The Bears offensive line is still relatively weak, protection for Jay Cutler was a massive issue early in the season and I am not convinced they have strengthened enough to deal with better pass rushes in the league. They also have the disadvantage of being situated in a division with the Packers. Despite their shortcomings in the playoffs last season, there is no reason to expect anything less than another dominant season from the Boys from Lambeau. This will make it hard for the Bears to win their division and claim a playoff seeding.I still think at 30’s they are worth a small play as a long term smokey. The Giants showed last season that if you are good enough and are playing good football at the right time of year then you don’t need a playoff seeding and home field to triumph.