Updated on 09/16/2011 8:52AM

Bettors must adjust to NFL's new alignment

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The National Football League's divisional structure has drawn criticism for years. Why were Atlanta and New Orleans in the West, while Arizona and Dallas were in the East? Now the NFL appears to have gotten it right with realignment this year.

With the new Houston Texans becoming the 32nd team in the NFL, the league was able to create a balanced divisional structure with eight divisions of four teams each.

This change means that handicappers have to adjust their way of thinking when trying to project how teams will fare. In the past, strength of schedule was very important. Some teams that won divisions would crash and burn the next season because they had to play a lot of other division winners. In addition, teams were able to go from worst to first because they benefited from a fifth-place schedule that allowed improving teams to beat up on inferior competition.

With only four teams in each division, there is no such thing as a first- or fifth-place schedule anymore. In fact, teams in the same division will only have two games that are not against common opponents. I no longer recommend considering strength of schedule as a handicapping tool.

With four divisions per conference and still only six playoff spots, there are now only two wild-card berths in each conference. It will be even more of a dogfight for those last playoff bids. Here's a quick glance at the division races.

AFC East

The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champs, but the Dolphins are the favorite to win the division after adding Ricky Williams. Both teams are 12-1 to win the Super Bowl, so Dolphins are an overlay since they're 6-5 to win the division.

Most likely winner: Dolphins (6-5)

Value play: None

AFC North

The Steelers are the class of the division, but even though the Ravens have been depleted by salary cap cuts, they could still make some noise. The Bengals and Browns are both on the improve, and could be in the race if everyone beats up everyone else. Don't expect a wild-card from this division.

Most likely winner: Steelers (1-3)

Value play: Bengals (7-1)

AFC South

If running backs Edgerrin James (Colts), Eddie George (Titans), and Fred Taylor (Jaguars) all return from their injuries, this could a great divisional race, but the Colts look to be the swiftest and will benefit from Tony Dungy taking over the defense.

Most likely winner: Colts (5-8)

Value play: Titans (6-5)

AFC West

This should be another wide-open race. Raiders have to adjust to the loss of coach Jon Gruden and their devastating playoff loss to the Pats on Tom Brady's non-fumble, and that could give the edge to the Broncos, who know how to win. Dick Vermeil is quietly putting together a dangerous team in Kansas City.

Most likely winner: Broncos (6-5)

Value play: Chiefs (4-1)

NFC East

The Eagles keep getting better and are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But how will they adjust to life on a pedestal? It's not easy when everyone's taking their best shot at you. The Redskins and Giants should challenge.

Most likely winner: Eagles (5-9)

Value play: Giants (4-1)

NFC North

The Bears weren't as good as their 13-3 record last year and will come back to the pack. The Packers are gearing up for one more title run for Brett Favre. The only thing that might slow them down is their propensity to lose in domes. They open indoors at Atlanta, and have games at Minnesota and Detroit.

Most likely winner: Packers (5-8)

Value play: None

NFC South

This is the weakest division in the league, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a wild-card team come out of it. The Buccaneers are the class, but the Falcons will be very dangerous as Michael Vick matures.

Most likely winner: Buccaneers (1-2)

Value play: Falcons (5-2)

NFC West

The Rams are a huge favorite, but realignment means they don't have road games in domes at Atlanta and New Orleans anymore. Instead, they play outdoors at division newcomers Seattle and Arizona (as well as San Fran). They could be a vulnerable favorite, and the 49ers are good enough to pull the upset.

Most likely winner: Rams (2-5)

Value play: 49ers (2-1)

NFL odds to win Division/Super Bowl

AFC EASTDiv.SB

Dolphins6-512-1

Jets11-520-1

Patriots 2-112-1

Bills4-150-1

AFC NORTHDiv.SB

Steelers1-36-1

Browns3-140-1

Ravens 9-218-1

Bengals7-1100-1

AFC SOUTHDiv.SB

Colts5-87-1

Titans6-515-1

Jaguars 5-130-1

Texans 15-1150-1

AFC WESTDiv.SB

Raiders 6-510-1

Broncos6-512-1

Chargers4-140-1

Chiefs4-135-1

NFC EASTDiv.SB

Eagles5-98-1

Redskins11-520-1

Giants4-130-1

Cowboys5-130-1

NFC NORTHDiv.SB

Packers5-812-1

Bears11-515-1

Vikings 3-130-1

Lions6-1120-1

NFC SOUTHDiv.SB

Buccaneers1-220-1

Falcons5-250-1

Saints7-225-1

Panthers6-1150-1

NFC WESTDiv.SB

Rams2-55-2

49ers2-110-1

Seahawks9-235-1

Cardinals10-160-1

All division winners determined by NFL tiebreakers; all bets are action despite relocation and/or name changes; teams must play 16 regular-season games for action.