Analyzing the Odds and Contenders for Super Bowl LI
The question many fans want to know every year, who is going to win the Super Bowl? I get asked often before and during the season, and again as the playoffs begin. The odds change during the course of the season, and you can locate value on teams that start slow, like Kansas City last year, who was 1-5 before finishing with 10 straight wins to make the playoffs. If you determine one conference has stronger teams at the top, you may consider betting a team or two to win the conference, rather that the Super Bowl.
As you narrow down the contenders, know the house take or 'hold' is substantial, so these futures bets to win the Super Bowl are not the best bets to make. But with Carolina rising to 15-1 last season on their way to a Super Bowl appearance at better than 60-1 odds to win, there is hope for teams that appear to have little chance on the surface as the season begins.
Here are 5 top contenders to consider for the Super Bowl this season. Odds courtesy of BookMaker Sportsbook.
Green Bay Packers (8-1). The Packers offense fell way off last season to No. 23 in total offense, as injuries including the loss of WR Jordy Nelson played a part in the poorer production. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers passed for 238 YPG; not even in the top-25 of the league. The offense scored 23 points per game (#15). But this year the offense should bounce back, and while it may not be to 2014 elite levels when Green Bay led the league in scoring (30 PPG), it will be productive with all five offensive linemen returning to provide continuity at the core. Running back Eddie Lacy should be more productive and QB Rodgers has his stretch receiver back to open up all levels of the passing game. A stronger defense that was average in both yards and yards per play last year is talented with top-8 potential and much depth in the defensive backfield. Green Bay has the sort of talent that will allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers complete flexibility to implement the creative third-down packages for which he's known. The Packers lost the division last year in the final week when the Vikings overtook them in a victory at Lambeau Field. But Green Bay still won a wild card game and advanced to the divisional round. A deeper run is expected this season with proven, cohesive coaching and a healthier and more productive core.
Arizona Cardinals (9-1). The Cardinals were the team that knocked the Packers out of the playoffs before getting buried in the NFC championship game with tons of turnovers leading to their demise. But this team is talented and loaded for a return trip to the playoffs after ranking among the top-5 teams from start to finish last year and finishing 13-3. They had the No. 1 offense and No. 5 defense on yardage figures. Quarterback Carson Palmer had a career year before the playoff disaster at Carolina, and he ranked No. 1 in Pro Football Focus QB gradings. The offense will be productive again, but it's the dominant defense that will lead Arizona to the playoffs and a potential Super Bowl. A strong secondary with elite cover corner in Patrick Peterson is now joined by some solid additions in LB Chandler Jones, guard Evan Mathis, SS Tyvon Branch and rookies DE Robert Nkemdiche, CB Brandon Williams and tackle DJ Humphries. All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu returns from last year's injury and the offense has all skill players back which provides cohesiveness and continuity in the system. A much more difficult schedule to navigate may not result in 13 wins again, but this talented team has more depth, strong coaching and is a contender to win it all.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1). After sneaking by Cincinnati on a Bengals blunder in the wild card round, the Steelers had their own giveaway at Denver in last year's divisional playoff round. Now they return this better this season with perhaps the NFL's most dynamic offense led by Big Ben at quarterback. Roethlisberger may still be underrated in the overall picture, and his body and the blows he takes will not having him playing into his late 30's. But the 34-year-old has complete control in coordinator Todd Haley's offense, and he led the league with 328 passing YPG last season. The offensive line is top-notch, and running back Le'Veon Bell is elite, but he went down with injury in week 8 last season, and he's suspended until week 4 this year. But his return will only add to the offensive firepower with WR Antonio Brown, a 100-plus reception receiver who finished No. 2 in receiving yards last year after leading the league in 2014. A rebuilt defense has several young stars emerging, and third year LB Ryan Shazier was their most impactful defender in their last season run in November and December. He can outrun wide receivers and hit like a safety. While the defense was mostly dreadful last season ranking No. 31 in yards against, they had a knack for big plays a year ago, ranking among the NFL's top five in sacks and rushing defense. The secondary figures to be improved and the Steelers have the potent offense to win the shootouts.
Minnesota Vikings (22-1). The loss of injured QB Teddy Bridgewater saw the Vikings Super Bowl odds rise to as high as 35-1 before dropping back down. That's a reaction to the addition QB Sam Bradford from the Eagles. But this team is a title contender because of its defense, which may be the NFC's best this season after finishing No. 2 in scoring defense last year. Seattle and Denver rode elite level defenses to Super Bowl wins in recent seasons, and the Vikings have that talent level on defense to dominate on the road and at home in their brand new super stadium. Minnesota rose from 7 wins to 11 victories and a surprising NFC North division title last season securing it on the road in Week 17 with a victory over rival Green Bay. A sickening chip shot missed field goal versus Seattle sent them frozen out of the playoffs, but there is no arguing the purple have the pieces to make it back to the playoffs and a deeper run. Bradford is expected to take over as starter quickly after he gets up to speed on the playbook. He can make all the throws and could thrive in this offense with a better offensive line, a dependable TE and some speedy targets to throw to including rookie No. 1 pick Laquon Treadwell and last year's emerging receiver Stefon Diggs. He'll have a terrific offensive coordinator to call plays in Norv Turner, and a super head coach in Mike Zimmer, who has surrounded himself with a strong staff that includes three former NFL head coaches. The Vikings offense still relies on a heavy ground game with last year's leading rusher RB Adrian Peterson, but the offense overall was not productive last season ranking No. 29 in total offense. Expect them to be much better with a healthier and improved offensive line plus the key addition of Alex Boone at guard. A more balanced and less conservative approach is likely. The defense made significant strides last season and has top units across all three levels with a solid front four, and star Pro Bowl players in LB Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith. The special teams units are also solid, and while a tougher schedule for Minnesota won't make it any easier, the Vikings are rising up to be a contender to reckon with led by an elite level defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars (53-1). Let's throw in a long shot and potential contender who could surprise. Jacksonville has been losing for years, and finished with just 5 wins last season following a 0-3 SU/ATS finish. But this team is on the rise with young talent and a division that is there for the taking in the AFC South. Third year QB Blake Bortles took a huge step forward last season under coordinator Greg Olson while finishing No. 7 in passing yards with 4,428 and tossing 35 TD passes. Bortles has two dynamic receivers in Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, who had 1,400 receiving yards and 14 TD's in his second season. A healthier and more productive Julius Thomas at TE adds to the firepower and RB TJ Yeldon and newly signed Chris Ivory give them a good ground game with improved offensive line play thanks to the signing of free agent LT Kelvin Beachum and less heralded RT Jermey Parnell. Head coach Gus Bradley had to rebuilt this team from scratch, and in his fourth season, the defense figures to show significant improvement after dismantling it following last year's disastrous performances which led to near bottom finishes allowing 28 PPG and 268 yards per game. It starts up front with the addition of free agent Malik Jackson and 2015 top pick DE Dante Fowler, Jr., who missed last season with a torn ACL. Roy Miller adds solid strength to the interior run defense and Jared Odrick completes the underrated front with rookie LB Myles Jack a good get in the second round. The Jaguars have the potential to surprise for certain and will be worth supporting as underdog on their way to a playoff run.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay