-- LAS VEGAS - The Denver Broncos have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl 50 champions, and while plenty of winning bettors are cashing in their tickets made these past two weeks, there are also plenty of future-book bettors who are cashing much bigger tickets as they reap the rewards of their foresight.
The Broncos opened at 8-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook last January and were available during the spring and summer at odds of between 12-1 and 14-1 as we waited to see if Peyton Manning would be back in the saddle. They ended up entering the season at 9-1 to win the Super Bowl and 7-2 to win the AFC title.
So, you never know when the best price is going to be available. It's never too early to start looking at next year's future-book odds, which the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook actually opened four weeks ago on Jan. 11.
I'm going to list my best value bets as we sit here in early February and then also some teams who could be worth a flier if they are able to address their needs through the draft and free agency.
I'm passing for now on the favorites from Seattle, New England and Pittsburgh or other obvious contenders (Carolina, Denver, Green Bay and Arizona), as most of those teams will be available at around those same prices by the time the season kicks off in the fall.
Atlanta Falcons (40-1)
I'm going with the Falcons as my best value bet for the 2016-17 season. For the record, three years ago, I nailed Seattle at 12-1 before whiffing on New Orleans at 20-1 in 2014 and Pittsburgh at 20-1 this past season. (Though I really thought I made a great call on the Steelers, especially when they had the Broncos on the ropes in the divisional playoffs.)
My reason for liking the Falcons is a little similar to what put me on the Steelers last year. The trio of Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones is nearly as potent as Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, so I'm not too concerned with the offense. The defense is where the Falcons need the most help, but that's why we're getting 40-1. Head coach Dan Quinn is the former defensive coordinator in Seattle, so I have faith he'll continue to bring in players for his system, and frankly the Falcons weren't too bad in 2015, as they ended up No. 15 in the league allowing 344.8 yards per game. And let's not forget that the Falcons started the season 5-0 and many people thought that they were the best team in the NFC South and headed for a deep postseason run.
That didn't happen -- they lost seven of their next eight games -- but it shows they're not that far away. And the Falcons certainly showed their potential as the only team to beat the Panthers in the regular season. Granted, the Panthers are a young team that will be tough to topple next season, but at 40-1, I'll take my chances.
Houston Texans (40-1)
While the Falcons are my top pick, I also like to find a live dark horse in the other conference (last year, that pick was Arizona at 30-1, and the Cardinals made it to the conference title game). The Texans are that team this year.
The Texans made a huge step this past season in getting by the Indianapolis Colts and winning the AFC South. The defense, led by J.J. Watt, ranked No. 3 with 316.5 yards allowed per game and is in good shape. The offense needs some work, though it has rising star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Brian Hoyer will probably retain the starting quarterback job (though I'd prefer if they brought in a free agent to challenge him). The big question is whether they keep oft-injured Arian Foster as their lead running back or part ways with him and get some added money under the salary cap to address other issues.
Regardless, the Texans should be in contention again this season, and I'd expect their odds to drop during the course of the offseason, so 40-1 looks appealing now.
Other potential plays
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings look like an overlay to me at 20-1, especially since I'm not so sure they shouldn't have shorter odds than NFC North rival Green Bay, who they beat out for the division title. It appears to me that the Packers' brand is as much of a reason for the odds discrepancy as anything else.
Buffalo Bills or New York Jets: Both teams are 30-1, and both teams' biggest obstacle is that they're in the same division as the New England Patriots. However, both teams showed flashes this year that they could be closing the gap. Both have respected defenses, but it's the offenses that have improved (New York was No. 8 in total offense this season and Buffalo was No. 11) and both have a lot of upside as far as I'm concerned.
I'll be looking to see if their odds drift up or who I can get at a higher price to steal the AFC East.