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Scott Shapiro's 2021 AFC Preview: Browns are poised for a Super Bowl run

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August 17th, 2021

The NFL regular season is still a few weeks away, but with a plethora of season-long future wagers available at TwinSpires Sports, it is a great time to share my thoughts on the 2021 campaign.

AFC Championship 2021/2022

Sun, January 30 2022, 5:00 PM

Kansas City Chiefs

+250

Buffalo Bills

+550

Baltimore Ravens

+650

Cleveland Browns

+750

Tennessee Titans

+1300

Indianapolis Colts

+1600

Los Angeles Chargers

+1600

Miami Dolphins

+1600

New England Patriots

+1600

Pittsburgh Steelers

+2200

Here is a division-by-division breakdown of the AFC, with some wagers I jumped in on for the 2021 NFL season.

AFC East

AFC East 2021/2022

Sun, January 9 2022, 6:00 PM

Buffalo Bills

-150

Miami Dolphins

+350

New England Patriots

+350

New York Jets

+2500

There is no doubt the Bills are a deserving odds-on choice to win their second straight AFC East title.

They have one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL, led by head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

Last season's second-team All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen has always had raw talent, but he has worked hard to become an accurate passer and is fortunate to have perhaps the best route runner in the game, Stefon Diggs. However, the Bills' offensive efficiency is all but certain to regress, after a massive step forward in 2020. Their lack of a pass rush is also still a concern.

I am not overly excited to bet against Buffalo, but I will take a small shot with the Patriots, who are listed as the co-second choice in the AFC East, along with the Dolphins.

Bill Belichick’s squad has a ton of talent back on defense, after a number of key contributors opted out of the 2020 season, and the Patriots spent a bunch of money on offensive, skilled-position players.

Whether it is Cam Newton at quarterback most of the way or first-round selection Mac Jones, they will win games with good coaching and quality defense.

The Patriots offer solid value at this price.

AFC East plays:

  • 1/2 unit Patriots to win AFC East (+350)
  • 2 units Patriots OVER 9 wins (-150)

AFC North

AFC North 2021/2022

Sun, January 9 2022, 6:00 PM

Baltimore Ravens

+120

Cleveland Browns

+145

Pittsburgh Steelers

+450

Cincinnati Bengals

+2400

While I believe the Steelers are getting disrespected, because of their awful end to the 2020 season, the AFC North will likely come down to the Ravens and Browns.

A couple weeks ago, I preferred Baltimore’s chances, since finally it appeared that Lamar Jackson would have the proper weaponry on the outside to vault the Ravens passing game to above average. However, the non-contact injury to first-round draft choice Rashod Bateman, along with other injuries to key Ravens wideouts, has me concerned that Baltimore will again struggle to throw the ball downfield with consistency.

On the other hand, the Browns appear poised to make a serious run to the Super Bowl in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s second year.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield took a big step forward a season ago and should develop further in 2021, with another year under his belt and Odell Beckham Jr. back from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 7.

Combine an improved passing attack with one of the league’s best running games and a much-improved defensive line, given the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson, and the Browns have a good chance to bring well-deserved joy to a city starving for a winner.

AFC North plays:

  • 1 unit Browns to win AFC North (+145)
  • 1 unit Steelers OVER 7.5 wins (-159)

AFC South

AFC South 2021/2022

Sun, January 9 2022, 6:00 PM

Tennessee Titans

-106

Indianapolis Colts

+140

Jacksonville Jaguars

+750

Houston Texans

+3000

Tennessee comes off a strong year on offense, led by the rushing of Derrick Henry and the efficiency of Ryan Tannehill. 

The Titans replaced Corey Davis with future Hall of Famer Julio Jones, which gives them one of the strongest wide-receiver tandems in the NFL, as A.J. Brown is ready to propel himself into the top tier in his third season.

That being said, I am unwilling to swallow the chalk, even though the Titans play in the weakest division of the AFC. They lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and have one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Titans are overvalued for the 2021 season.

The Texans are the worst team in the league, and while the Jaguars should do better in their first season under Urban Meyer, a jump to playoff contention is a lot to ask.

The Colts have had their issues during the lead up to the regular season, but it appears offseason acquisition Carson Wentz and three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson are likely to be back sooner than originally expected from foot injuries.

Despite the loss of Justin Houston and Denico Autry on the defensive line and concerns that Wentz will be a step back from Philip Rivers, my faith in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and head coach Frank Reich gives me reason to believe Indianapolis can find a way to win nine games and capture its first AFC South title since 2014.

AFC South plays:

  • 2 units Titans UNDER 9.5 wins (+110)
  • 1 unit Colts to win AFC South (+140)

AFC West

AFC West 2021/2022

Sun, January 9 2022, 6:00 PM

Kansas City Chiefs

-305

Los Angeles Chargers

+550

Denver Broncos

+700

Las Vegas Raiders

+2000

With Patrick Mahomes healthy and the offensive line bolstered by the addition of Orlando Brown at left tackle and others to provide much-needed depth, it should be no surprise that Kansas City is listed as the -305 favorite to win its sixth consecutive AFC West title.

I have no desire to lay that kind of loot, since an injury to Mahomes, Travis Kelce, or Tyreek Hill could spell doom, but otherwise it appears it is Andy Reid’s division to lose.

Despite my lack of desire to gamble on the Broncos or Chargers to dethrone the Chiefs, both have reason to be optimistic.

The Chargers have a loaded roster and got a massive upgrade at head coach when former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley took over.

The Broncos have tons of depth at the skilled positions and should have one of the best defenses in the league, led by head coach Vic Fangio. 

I prefer the value the Broncos offer in the futures market and would love to wager on them at +700 to win the division. But expecting Drew Lock to get the best of Patrick Mahomes seems like wishful thinking.

AFC West plays:

  • 2 units Broncos OVER 8.5 wins (-125)
  • 2 units Raiders UNDER 7 wins (-115)

The Chiefs and Bills are probably the likeliest to hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy, but the Ravens and Browns also have teams good enough to get the job done and offer greater value.

Let’s hope it’s a magical year for a franchise long overdue.

AFC championship pick: Browns (+750)

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