In less than two weeks, it will be NFL season. That is cause for celebration, of course, but also cause for wild speculation about the fortunes of the various teams in the four months of regular season action that are about to unfold. And when we want to properly prognosticate, the best way to do it isn’t to break down rosters or follow the details out of training camp—though those things never hurt—but to look at what the people whose entire business model is rooted in being right about what’s going to happen in sports, and see what you can learn from the odds they’re offering.

So let’s take a look at what the oddsmakers think of the chances of the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans to try to determine which of the Texas teams (we’ll leave the Raiders off the list for now) is set up for the better year. All odds come from (we aren’t endorsing gambling is illegal and this is for for entertainment and speculative purposes only).

The Overall Record

Regardless of your feelings toward gambling as a hobby, we can tell that the oddsmakers aren’t particularly high on either team—but they’re lower on the Cowboys. Part of that is relative: each team has an over/under for total wins at 7.5, which means that if you pick the “over,” and the team goes 8-8, you’ll win money. If you take the “under,” anything less than a .500 record is going to pay you money. For Dallas, going 7-9 or worse would be a step back—the Cowboys over the past three seasons have finished 8-8 each year, making them the NFL’s very model of mediocrity. Slipping into “bad” territory would be a disappointment for the ‘Boys. 

Going 7-9, meanwhile, would be great news for the reeling Texans, who are coming off of a 2-14 season—and who lack a proven starter at quarterback, are learning new schemes on both sides of the ball, and have severe questions on defense in the secondary. Texans fans would probably be disappointed with a 7-9 season—they’re still suffering from some lingering disbelief over the 2-14 implosion last year after winning the division in each of the previous two years—but winning five more games over the previous season would be a big step up—and in a crappy AFC South division, could be enough to potentially make the playoffs.

Looking at the playoff odds is where the Texans and the Cowboys start to separate, in fact. Both the Cowboys and the Texans play in divisions without clear powerhouses, but the bookies seem to think that the Texans are more likely to claim the AFC South than the Cowboys are to take the NFC East. 

The Cowboys are at +600 for the NFC East crown—meaning that every $100 you bet on them to take the division pays you $600 if they pull it off. The Texans, meanwhile, are at +290, which suggests that a playoff berth is more likely to happen in Houston than in Dallas. 

There are other metrics by which one can measure the teams’ relative potential, according to Vegas: The Cowboys are +10000 to win the Super Bowl—meaning your $100 bet will win you a whopping ten grand if Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones hoist the trophy in February—while the Texans are +6300, which is still not exactly favorable, but a real step up over the Cowboys. (Fans who are convinced that Super Bowl XLIX will feature a Texans/Cowboys matchup, meanwhile, could put a thin dime on that outcome and walk away with $130, at +130000 odds.) 

Who Will Stand Out

Things get more interesting when you stop looking directly at the potential record for each team and start looking at which players are likely to stand out. Looking at the odds for who might be the league MVP is an inexact science (no player has odds better than +350, which Peyton Manning receives, and outside of “big four” quarterbacks of Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady, no player is better than +1500), but it’s still telling about how much faith the bookies have in various players.

The league MVP has been a quarterback six of the past seven years, which makes it likely that one will hold the position again this year—but if you want to bet on a Texas quarterback, your only option is Tony Romo, at +5000. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the week-one starter for the Houston Texans, is not exactly locked in to that position for the entire season, and the odds on MVP candidates only go as far as 30,000-to-1 (where Cowboys running back Demarco Murray resides). Non-quarterbacks are typically disadvantaged in this category, but Cowboys wide receiver is the first player from Texas to make the list, at +3000; also a candidate is Texans defensive end JJ Watt, at +7500; and Arian Foster, at +15000. 

Reading between the lines there, it’s clear that the oddsmakers anticipate a monster year for Bryant, given that a wide receiver has never won league MVP honors in the NFL. (If you’re determined to find somewhere you can bet on Ryan Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, he’s at +10000 to have the most passing yards at the end of the season; Romo is at +2000 in that category.) 

The sportsbook also expects a bounceback year from Texans running back Arian Foster, who is +1500 to have the most rushing yards at the end of the season (good for fifth among backs; Murray, by comparison, is 11th at +3000). 

Probably the surest bet for Texans fans who want to put (hypothetical—remember, gambling is illegal) money on one of their players is Jadeveon Clowney, who is at +300 for Defensive Rookie of the Year. It’s a good bet for a few reasons—Clowney has looked like a monster in the preseason, he’s playing opposite one of the league’s best defensive players in J.J. Watt, and awards like Defensive Rookie of the Year tend to go to players who rack up stats like sacks, and Clowney, as a pure pass rusher, has a great chance of putting up big numbers there. No one can predict health or even success, but 3:1 odds for Clowney seem like a bargain.

Clowney is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as well, though that award is rarely earned by rookies. Still, with a +10000 chance to win, it’s clear that the big things expected from the first overall pick put him on a big stage. 2013 DPOY J.J. Watt, meanwhile, is a safer bet at +800 (second only to last year’s winner, Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, who comes in at +650). 

In other words: If you want to know who the oddsmakers like on each team, it’s the offensive stars in Dallas, and the defensive stars in Houston. All of which puts this in the hands of Cowboys head coach and offensive mastermind Jason Garrett, and Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. 

The Bad News

Here’s a mean place you can put your money: a category called “First Coach Fired.” In today’s NFL, you can win money for having the foresight to predict that an impatient owner or GM (or, ahem, owner who likes to play GM) is going to put a coach on the unemployment line. If you wanted the easiest money you could make there? Poor Jason Garrett, the beleaguered head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, is staring down a measly +200 odds that he’ll be the first coach dumped by his team in the 2014 NFL season. 

It’s easy to see how that could happen: The only real changes the Cowboys made to their atrocious defense during the offseason were to release cornerstone pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, and to lose star middle linebacker Sean Lee to injury. Garrett’s seat is hot as they come, and the Cowboys’ defense could be bad enough to see them drop their first four games. If that happens, a team with a former head coach in a coordinator position (defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who brought the Lions to their perfect 0-16 season in 2008) could well find themselves making an early switch. 

Bill O’Brien’s Texans might be bad, too—another 2-14 year seems unlikely, but it was unlikely last year, too, and the team’s offense could be especially bad if Ryan Fitzpatrick plays like the same quarterback he was in his stints with the Rams, Bengals, Bills, and Titans; if stars like Arian Foster and Andre Johnson start showing their age; and a team that didn’t make many big improvements on that side of the ball continues to struggle. First-year head coaches rarely get fired, but the Cleveland Browns parted ways with Rob Chudzinksi last year after one disappointing season, which means that the +7500 odds on Bill O’Brien aren’t totally out of the question. 

Another mean category open to gamblers is “Worst NFL Team,” where both the Cowboys and the Texans do better than all the doom-and-gloom up there might suggest. There can be only one worst team in the league, and the oddsmakers don’t seem to think that team will reside in Texas (at least not in 2014—the Oakland Raiders, who could end up in San Antonio next year, are at a mere +360 to take that distinction). The league’s truly dreadful teams: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, and Cleveland Browns are likely to sew that category up (each is under +800 odds), while the Cowboys and Texans hover around a relatively safe +2000 and +2200, respectively. 

The Takeaway

If we look at what the bookies think, in other words, we can extrapolate a few best/worst case scenarios for each team: the odds say that neither team is expected to have a big year, but the Cowboys, playing in a tougher division and with a coaching and defensive situation that is, to put it charitably, very uncertain, are less likely to surprise their way into the postseason. The Texans, meanwhile, may have low expectations, but their ability to turn it around is given more consideration: The Cowboys worst case scenario is probably somewhere around 6-10, but their best-case isn’t much better than 10-6. The Texans, on the other hand, could end up going 2-14, or—if that defense holds together, and if Arian Foster and Andre Johnson still have it, and DeAndre Hopkins takes a big step forward, enabling Ryan Fitzpatrick to fulfill all of the limited promise he’s shown throughout his career—a 12-win season isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility.

The Texans are volatile, in other words, while the Cowboys are a more consistent type of mediocre. 

“Mediocre” could well get Jason Garrett fired, though, unless Tony Romo and Dez Bryant combine for some MVP-worthy numbers, which the oddsmakers think could happen. In Houston, meanwhile, the best case scenario is that J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are every bit as dominant under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as they’ve shown themselves capable of being—and the bookmakers think the odds of those guys being great are pretty good.

(image via flickr)