Winning a division in this era of the expanded postseason field and a 17-game season may not be as important as it once was, but it's still the surefire way for a team to punch its ticket to the playoffs.
Division champions earn at least one home game in the postseason, and home teams are 335-164 in the NFL playoffs for a 67.1 winning percentage.
Winning a division is difficult, however, and it's even tougher to stay on top. Doing so requires a team to consistently beat rivals that are intimately familiar with them, which makes the New England Patriots' record-setting stretch of 11 straight AFC East titles from 2008 to 2019 so impressive.
For betting purposes, picking division winners can be difficult. Injuries and other factors often play major roles in shaping the standings, sometimes knocking squads that seemed like locks out of contention.
This happened to the 2020 San Francisco 49ers, who entered the campaign as odds-on favorites to capture their second straight NFC West title. The Super Bowl LIV runner-ups suffered a litany of injuries to key contributors early on and never recovered, missing the playoffs entirely.
Unheralded squads can also rise from the bottom to win an unexpected crown. Last year's Washington Football Team outlasted the competition in a weak NFC East despite starting the season with by far the worst odds. Washington parlayed a strong defensive campaign into its first divisional title in five years and a surprise playoff berth.
With that in mind, here is a look at the 2021 division odds and the best bet to win each. Note that a best bet isn't necessarily a heavy favorite; it represents the top value play on the board.
Buffalo Bills: -160
Miami Dolphins: +350
New England Patriots: +350
New York Jets: +2500
The Bills are defending the AFC East crown for the first time since 1996. Buffalo hasn't repeated division titles since it won four straight from 1988 to 1991. Led by quarterback Josh Allen—now the second-highest-paid player in football—and a strong defense, the Bills will be tough to dethrone.
At -160 odds, however, Buffalo isn't a great bet. Getting less than even money with a team that hasn't proved itself to be a perennial contender is poor value. With the Dolphins and Patriots posing threats to usurp the Bills, a more appealing option is to take either at +350.
Even the Jets at +2500 would be a better value play than Buffalo. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson looks as good as advertised, giving the franchise hope to emerge from the basement. New York doesn't appear likely to make a run just yet, though, as it still lacks talent at key positions. This is most apparent at cornerback and on the edge, where prized free-agent acquisition Carl Lawson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
Miami has made some strides since falling just short of a playoff berth last year. The team acquired wideouts Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to help second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa out, but it remains to be seen if this offense has done enough to be a viable contender.
The smart money is on the Patriots, especially after they released ineffective former starter Cam Newton. Newton led New England to a 7-9 record last year and had a rocky preseason, opening the door for rookie Mac Jones to take over. Legendary coach Bill Belichick is still leading this team, which restocked the cupboard with a free-agent spending spree.
New England will host Miami in a season opener next weekend with the chance to get a leg up on its 12th AFC East title in 13 years.
Best Bet: Patriots +350
Baltimore Ravens: +110
Cleveland Browns: +155
Pittsburgh Steelers: +500
Cincinnati Bengals: +2500
The AFC North has become one of the most competitive divisions, featuring three teams that each have a real chance to win the title.
Baltimore has a slight edge over the Browns, though both squads are close to even money. The Steelers are a bit behind at +500 but could be in the hunt thanks to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's decision to come back for another run.
Big Ben played poorly down the stretch last year, though, with age clearly catching up to the 39-year-old. He appeared rejuvenated in his lone preseason appearance, but banking on him to play well over a 17-game season isn't wise.
The Browns fell short of their first division title since 1989 last year but have the talent to improve on an 11-5 record. Baker Mayfield is emerging as a bona fide franchise quarterback, Myles Garrett is one of the league's great defensive players, and their secondary is loaded. They are still the Browns, however, an organization that hasn't strung together winning seasons in over three decades.
Cincinnati isn't a viable threat just yet but could be on the rise with Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase headlining an exciting young offense.
Baltimore is the best play. The team is flying under the radar following another disappointing playoff showing and regressing to 11-5 after going 14-2 in 2019.
The Ravens still have 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson behind center. The franchise's trademark defense will once again be good, regardless of the free-agency attrition on the edge. John Harbaugh is one of the league's most consistent coaches, going 129-79 in the regular season, making nine postseason trips and winning four AFC North titles since taking the reins in 2008.
At +110, there's great value that Harbaugh will add another division crown to his resume and lead Baltimore on a deep playoff run.
Best Bet: Ravens +110
Tennessee Titans: -115
Indianapolis Colts: +150
Jacksonville Jaguars: +650
Houston Texans: +3000
Bookmakers indicate there are only two contenders for the AFC South title.
It would be tough to argue that, especially with the lowly Texans present. Houston has the lowest projected win total in the league at four, a mark not far from the Jaguars'. Even with top pick Trevor Lawrence running the show, Jacksonville's total is 6.5 victories.
At +150, the Colts have a decent shot to win their first AFC South crown since 2014. But that will hinge on the play of Carson Wentz, who lost his job last year before being shipped to Indianapolis.
Wentz has already missed a majority of training camp and the preseason with a foot injury, losing precious time to build rapport with his new teammates. The Colts are also struggling to replace longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired and left a major void at the position.
The Titans are a great bet to build on last year's divisional title, their first since 2008. The price is a bit steep at -115, but they are still the least flawed squad.
Tennessee boasts a quality quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a strong supporting cast led by bruising running back Derrick Henry. The Titans revamped a defense that held them back by ranking 28th overall and 24th in points allowed last year. Free-agency additions Bud Dupree, Denico Autry and Jackrabbit Jenkins should make Tennessee much more competitive on that side of the football.
Betting on them is not going to result in a huge payout, but the Titans are clearly better than the Colts and should defend their AFC South title.
Best Bet: Titans -115