The 2021 NFL season has brought more surprising storylines and results than any in recent memory.
We've seen dominant starts from the presumed powerhouse teams, but then a cold spell seemed to hit all of those same teams in the middle of the season at once. With three NFL Wild Card spots available in each conference, the field is wide open for a surprise contender to make the playoffs.
Some teams are still in the lead to make the postseason from their early-season results. Recent weeks have brought significant bumps in the road for unexpected contenders. We'll break down the very best wildcard bets and dive into why I'm fading preseason favorites.
All odds to clinch Wild Card spots are courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.
AFC East Domination
The AFC East will certainly come down to either the New England Patriots (+100) or Buffalo Bills (+150), leaving the other in prime position to nab a playoff spot. The Patriots' sudden six-game win streak has put them in the lead, but a massive showdown awaits this week between the two. The Bills are a half-game behind, but a recent slump has left them trailing in net points (146-144).
I would still bet the Patriots to get the Wild Card between the two. The Bills are more talented overall and rank second in the NFL in point differential. It's also hard to look at how the Patriots' offense is creating points and believe they're some unstoppable force as they dink and dunk with rookie Mac Jones.
I also like the Miami Dolphins (+1200) despite their awful start to the season. They're on a 4-1 run, and the schedule gets pretty easy. It's possible Miami wins four or five of their remaining games and just barely slips into the playoffs.
Here Come The Bengals?
The Cincinnati Bengals (+150) are another great play with whoever doesn't win the AFC East. They're much better than the Browns (6-6), ranking sixth in points for and against after they injected young talent on both sides of the roster this past offseason. Credit must go to their coaching staff for elevating their level of consistency and finding an actual identity with their raw talent.
That said, their remaining schedule is brutal. The Chargers, 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns are left. They'll either drop out of the playoff race or enter the postseason as a real threat at the end of this.
Are the Chargers Dead?
The last spot will go to either the Indianapolis Colts (+150) or the Los Angeles Chargers (+175). I can't believe I'm saying this after what happened during the first month of action, but the Colts are the better bet. The Chargers, despite their coaching changes and relatively good health, aren't a cohesive team right now.
Los Angeles will either explode on offense or be terrible, and their defense is towards the bottom of the league in points against. Meanwhile, the Colts benefit from playing the AFC South and have suddenly found the recipe to win since Week 6. They'll also be favored in every remaining game except for two.
My picks: Patriots (+100), Bengals (+150), Colts (+150)
West Coast, Best Coast
The NFC West is topped by the No. 1 overall seed in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals, but the depth behind them is crazy. The Los Angeles Rams (-500) and San Francisco 49ers (-280) are heavy favorites to make the Wild Card round for good reason. The Rams are tremendously talented even if they're struggling as of late, and the 49ers have a solid lead over their peers at 6-5 and key head-to-head wins.
The Rams are basically a slam dunk, but the 49ers are not. None of their 5-6 peers are a top-11 offense and defense like they are, which is an ode to the 49ers' coaching staff. They simply must stay healthy and take care of business as favorites against Seattle, Atlanta, and Houston to lock themselves into Wild Card spot No. 2.
Fly Eagles Fly
That leaves the Philadelphia Eagles (+275) and Minnesota Vikings (+100) as the next two best candidates. Both teams are guilty of playing down to their competition and a lack of consistency. That is what happens with flawed rosters, and the last wildcard spot will go to a team with that description.
I certainly trust Mike Zimmer and the Vikings' veterans more than the Eagles, but the Eagles have a huge leg up in terms of their remaining schedule. They play the Jets, Giants, Washington twice, and finish with Dallas in Week 18. They should win out based on their highest level of play, leaving them with 10 wins and locking in their spot.
Minnesota will have to overcome a much tougher road to nine or 10 wins. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams, and Green Bay Packers won't just roll over since each has something to play for. Considering these teams have similar performance rankings, I have to take the more favorable schedule and benefit from the bigger return.
My picks: Los Angeles Rams (-500), San Francisco 49ers (-280), Philadelphia Eagles (+275)
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