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One of the many subplots of the fast-approaching 2023 NFL season is the mystery of which teams will defy expectations and emerge as the best underdogs and dark horse contenders.
In 2022, the Jacksonville Jaguars turned around a 2-6 start and ended up hosting and winning a home playoff game just one year after they went 3-14. Which teams will follow in the Jags’ footsteps of defying expectations, and will any prove to be legitimate playoff threats?
Here are the WSN underdog teams to bet on this NFL season.
The outlook in Chi-town has been bleak for most of the past NFL seasons, excluding the double-doink year (which wasn’t a great closing salvo to a successful regular season). But times are changing for the Bears, and the effects of that will be felt this year.
The Bears transformed their offense when they took Justin Fields off the leash and allowed him to run the ball with regularity, much the same way Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts do. Fields set the all-time regular-season record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game (178) and finished the year with 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns.
But while Fields excelled on the ground, he couldn’t consistently get on the same page as his receivers and the Bears finished dead last in passing yards per game. Fields also tied with Russell Wilson for the most sacks taken with 55.
The Chicago hierarchy was hard at work lining up solutions to the ailments of the passing game and made several moves, including trading for wide receiver D.J. Moore and drafting tackle Darnell Wright with the tenth pick in the NFL Draft. Both should pay dividends this time around.
The defense is also set to improve drastically. The Bears beefed up the defensive line in free agency and made the move of the offseason by signing star linebacker Tremaine Edmunds from the Buffalo Bills. He will slot next to T.J. Edwards in the heart of the defense, giving Chicago the fifth and sixth-best linebackers in the league according to Pro Football Focus’ rankings.
The Bears’ win total is set at just 7.5 wins, and they are +172 to make the playoffs. Considering the Green Bay Packers lost their four-time MVP quarterback, the Detroit Lions have no experience dealing with positive expectations, and the Minnesota Vikings’ defense is a mess, they have a very strong chance of upsetting the apple cart of the NFC North and going over their win total.
There’s an old saying in Pittsburgh which is that as long as Mike Tomlin is in charge, the Steelers are incapable of having a losing season.
Okay, perhaps that saying is slightly fabricated, but it is true that Pittsburgh has never finished below .500 since Tomlin was handed the clipboard in 2007, and just when it seemed like that was going to end last year after a 2-6 start, the Steelers won seven of their final nine games and almost stole a playoff berth.
The major talking point of the Steelers is the defense. Despite being overloaded with the burden of covering for a toothless offense, the Steel Curtain finished the year 10th in points and 11th in yards allowed despite perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt missing half of the season with an injury.
The Steelers also upgraded their defense during the offseason, singing thumping linebacker Cole Holcomb and drafting cornerback Joey Porter Jr., the son of former Steelers legend Joey Porter.
Pittsburgh also signed wide receiver Allen Robinson II, giving them a nice trio alongside Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. Second-year QB Kenny Pickett showed improvement and confidence in the back half of his rookie year but needs to improve his play for the team to have a real chance to accomplish greatness, which for them would be winning the division.
The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in football, but the Steelers have a potential top-three defense and a young offense overflowing with potential. With Tomlin at the controls, this underdog certainly has its legs underneath it.
The Colts are in an interesting position as a franchise. While they have not found great success lately, they still have players that were on previous iterations of the franchise that were division favorites and also have a mix of young talent to boot.
The elephant in the room is when rookie quarterback and fourth-overall selection Anthony Richardson will be handed the reins to Lucas Oil Stadium. Richardson was not known as a lethal passer in college but is one of the most athletic prospects ever at the position and fits perfectly into the style of offense that successful teams in the league frequently run.
Richardson also will not have the be the driving force of the offense if and when he is plopped into the starting spot. Running back Jonathan Taylor was the Offensive Player of the Year runner-up two years ago and is in line for a bounce-back after being injured for the first time in his career.
The receiving options of Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Josh Downs, and tight end Jelani Woods are all young, and most of them are unproven, but all have game-breaking potential when they are at their best.
The defense, specifically the secondary, is the largest concern in Indy. What was already a thin unit following Stpehon Gilmore’s departure for the Dallas Cowboys was whittled down even further by the suspension of Isaiah Rodgers Sr., who was found to have breached the league’s gambling policy. That aside, the front seven can get after the quarterback, and linebacker Shaq Leonard is one of the surest tacklers in the league.
The Colts’ win total is set at only 6.5 games. Even if Richardson isn’t ready for the moment, or if he gets injured, Gardner Minshew is a more-than-capable backup. Indy will also get to play two very beatable teams, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, twice, and their out-of-division schedule could be much worse than it is.
The Commanders have been disregarded and essentially overlooked for the past decade or so as they have been unable to field a regular starting quarterback, find a steady head coach they trust, or make intelligent decisions in the front office.
With all of that being said, Washington has not been as bad as most people believe—it has actually won at least seven games in seven of the last eight seasons. The problem is that most of those seasons finish at or just above seven wins and they never break the level of mediocrity.
The man in charge of breaking those trends is second-year pro and former fifth-round pick, Sam Howell, a 6-foot quarterback from North Carolina. Howell only made one appearance last year but helped lead a 26-6 win over the Cowboys, and prior to that, was an outside candidate for the Heisman trophy. He’s a strong-armed risk-taker that will bring excitement, if nothing else, to the nation’s capital.
Luckily for Howell, he gets to play alongside playmakers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, and Curtis Samuel and has former Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy running the show. Regardless of Howell’s inexperience at the professional level, Bieniemy should make an impact on the offense similar to what Brian Daboll did for the New York Giants.
Washington’s defense is beyond question at this point. It finished eighth in points and third in yards allowed in 2022 and figures to be even better with the arrival of first-round pick and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, who gave up a passer rating of 1.4 in man coverage during his final collegiate season.
Washington is the obvious pick to finish last in the NFC East, according to the sportsbooks. But its win total is only set at 6.5, and as mentioned earlier, it has beaten that line in seven of the last eight seasons. The NFC East also has a weird phenomenon where no team has won the division in consecutive seasons since the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003-04, which, in theory, puts the Commanders in the running for the title.
What is more likely is the Commanders don’t win the division but do go over their win total and, depending on how the rest of the conference shapes up, challenge for a Wild Card spot.
The Jaguars were mentioned in the introduction as the underdog team of yesterday that today’s teams should strive to emulate. But doesn’t that mean that the Jags can no longer be underdogs?
On one hand, the Jags are the favorites to win the AFC South at around -160. But as far as we’re concerned, Jacksonville no longer needs to trouble itself thinking about the future of the division, and it should instead have its sights set on securing one of the best seeds in the conference and making a run to the AFC Championship Game.
The third seed in the AFC in 2022 was the Cincinnati Bengals, who went 12-4 in the regular season. That should be the target for a Jaguars team that has an ascending and already-great quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, a rangy and athletic defense, and a Super Bowl-winning head coach.
The Jags outscored opponents by nearly a touchdown per game during their win streak to close the season and looked like a truly complete team on both sides of the football. Their playoff win came against the Los Angeles Chargers and saw them rally from 27-0 down, and their loss was to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs, who only beat them by one score.
Of course, assuming the Jags’ success in 2023 is assuming they are the team that finished the 2022 campaign, not the one that started it. But with the added threat of Calvin Ridley and another offseason under the tutelage of Doug Pederson, this team should be viewed as one of the top dogs in the conference, not just any old division favorites.
For the record, the Jags are only +1500 to win the AFC, the eighth-shortest odds in the conference. They’re also just +2500 to win the Super Bowl, which for comparison, is behind the Detroit Lions.
Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.
In his free time, Grant can be found passionately watching sports, doing a workout, or searching for adventure with his friends.More info on Grant Mitchell
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