Tuesday, September 3, 2013

This Year In Whiff: The Five Tool Tool's NFL Team Predictions

More Of This, Yes
In doing the prognos- tication column this year, and to a lesser extent, my fantasy league rankings, I was struck by the following commonality among most NFL teams; how few of them, really, appear to have anything approaching confidence on the defensive side of the ball. Seriously, list out for me the best defenses in your mind, and you'll find that there are only units, not cohesive wholes. There's Seattle's secondary, San Francisco's linebackers, and the Detroit line. Maybe you mix and match in Houston's line with JJ Watt, or Cincy's with Geno Atkins, the overall opportunistic nature of Chicago, and I'm sure there's a unit or two that I'm blaspheming... but it's just a whole lot of meh to my mind, and that's the biggest reason why predicting team records has become an exercise in chalk or dart throwing.

Offensive performance is, of course, the biggest constant from year to year in the NFL, mostly because elite level QB play raises the unit on such a universal level, and QB is the position on the field that gets hurt less than anyone else, outside of kicker or punter. But I never remember a year in which division winners have questions all over the place, on the defensive side of the ball. It's nearly to the level of special teams, and given the rules changes, likely never going to go back to the way it was.

So we're now at a point where roughly 4/7ths of a team's value -- defense and special teams -- seems up in the air, along with the relatively random events like fumble recovery, missed field goals, ref moments and decreasing home-field advantage. A small point about that last one. I'm taking the Shooter Mom for our annual road game, the Eagles against the Bucs in Tampa in mid-October. When I went online for this game, there was at least 10% of the stadium's capacity up for sale, with all kinds of opportunities on the road side of the field. And it's not like I was alone in Cleveland last year, or that my fan base is the only one that travels. Feel free to start discounting that 3-point home-field edge when you go against teams from big markets, is all I'm saying...

AFC East

New England 11-5
Buffalo 7-9
Miami 7-9
New York 5-11

Welcome to the worst division in football, and the only reasons any of the non-Patriot teams are going to get close to .500 is because they routinely get to play each other. New England will, as they have for most of the last decade, wrap this up by Thanksgiving as the three lacking teams get clowned, but there is movement afoot in the hinterlands. Miami and Buffalo have hope at QB, especially in Buffalo, but neither of these organizations are good enough in the trenches to get it done, let alone in the coaching department, where the Patriots just have an insane advantage, year after year.

Which goes away in the playoffs, of course, but not before the world gets sucked into another year of how Bill Belichick's doomsday initiative is certain to work this time. It's fun, I guess, but not nearly as much fun as watching Rex Ryan ensure that his next job is as the defensive coordinator at some third-rate Division I school. As always, we're just dreaming this division actually gets competitive next year.

AFC North

Cincinnati 11-5
Baltimore 10-6 *
Pittsburgh 8-8
Cleveland 7-9

Youth, and a Super Bowl hangover, will be served. Cincy's got the closest thing to a defense in the division that you actually like, the Rookie of the Year in RB Giovani Bernard, and enough weapons to overcome even the perpetual mediocrity that is HC Marvin Lewis. Baltimore will make a spirited defense of their improbable Super Bowl run, but the loss of WR Anquan Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta is going to be too much for RBs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to overcome, and there is a reason why QB Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl MVP, yet still went undrafted in most fantasy leagues. That reason? Like Eli Manning before him, he's not actually all that amazing.

Pittsburgh still isn't good enough at running the ball to keep things from being entirely dependent on QB Ben Roethlisberger, and Ben's not young or clean enough to get through the season healthy. Feel free if you've heard this story before, Yinzer Fan. As for the Browns, they might be the best worst place team in the NFL, with QB Brandon Weeden starting to show something, and the offensive weapons developing nicely. There's also something to be said for Norv Turner when he's just an OC, and the Browns OL has been a quality unit for years. But the defense will slip, Weeden will fail in late and tight from lack of experience, and they just aren't ready to punch through yet. Given how cursed this franchise has been since NFL restart, maybe ever.

AFC South

Houston 12-4
Indianapolis 9-7 *
Tennessee 7-9
Jacksonville 6-10

A better division than advertised, but with too much shaky moments at the QB position to win the crunch and playoff games that develop real cachet. Houston has a once in a generation talent at defensive line in JJ Watt, a best-in-class rushing attack with RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, a tier 1 WR in Andre Johnson, and the best game manager of the game (yes, that's a back-handed compliment) in QB Matt Schaub. They've also had back to back years with playoff wins. So why does it all seem so hollow, so ready to fall apart, so much that no one -- and I mean no one -- outside of Houston is talking about them as Super Bowl contenders, despite what's likely to be another first round bye in January? Because they've just been exposed so easily, so handily, by teams that were then exposed themselves, and that they ended 2013 looking like a team that belonged anywhere but the playoffs. I think they hold on for another year, but get no further, then blow it all up.

As for the rest, the Colts are the trendy pick but they really weren't as good as their record last year, and it's hard to see all of those breaks coming their way again, let along doing it against a dramatically more difficult schedule. I'm also not a fan of their running game, or the number of hits that QB Andrew Luck takes, so the whole year is just screaming out regression to me. The Titans need to accept the idea that QB Jake Locker just isn't accurate enough to win at this level, and that any franchise that hires a QB named Jake isn't going to win. It also doesn't help that the RBs (Chris Johnson and Shonn Green) just aren't very good, and the WRS may be game-breaking, but not actually all that great at moving the chains. Jacksonville will be better, with RB Maurice Jones-Drew having the last good year of his career and HC Gus Bradley making things less idiotic, but Not Terrible is a long way from actually good.

AFC West

Denver 12-4
San Diego 8-8
Kansas City 6-10
Oakland 2-14

The second worst division in football seems ripe for upset with Denver giving back talent on defense and not really adding enough on offense... but the home-field advantage here is so strong, and the WRs the best set in football, that they are going to actually do something remarkable; hide the fact that QB Peyton Manning isn't really all that good anymore. But with matchup nightmares all over the field (WR DeMaryius Thomas might be the conference's best wideout, which means Eric Decker and Wes Welker will just be feasting all day), look for Manning to check down to a lot of easy running scores while taking analyst credit for, well, camouflaging the fact that his arm strength isn't what it used to be, and that picks under pressure are pending. Just not until the playoffs.

San Diego isn't really a .500 team, but the rest of the division has got to produce one, and the Chargers have done enough on the offensive line and coaching changes to get there. If you'd rather give this slot to the Chiefs and Andy Reid, fine, sure, whatever... but I'm just not seeing how a guy that stunk up the joint for years is going to turn things around right away with a game manger QB in Alex Smith, and one NFL level WR in Dwyane Bowe. There's talent here and the Chiefs should have never been a 2-14 team last year; Smith will look like the second coming of Joe Montana next to Matt Cassel. But there's a reason why no Eagle Fan wants Reid back, and that reason is all about game day management. As for the Raiders... good grief. What was a sub-standard roster on talent is now going to CFL-level quarterbacking and weak WRs. RB Darren McFadden might be the best back in the league (um, he's not), but no one's ever going to know. What a tire fire this franchise is.

NFC East

Washington 10-6
Dallas 8-8
New York 8-8
Philadelphia 6-10

This might be the most even division in football, which isn't to say that it's very good. None of these teams can stop a good offense, all of them could dominate with steamroller point production and special teams, and all of it could fall apart with a handful of injuries or turnovers. Washington is the pick to win the division simply because QB Robert Griffin has the most room to grow, with WR Pierre Garcon maybe becoming healthy and TE Fred Davis giving him a real weapon. I also think this defense with LB Brian Orakpo being healthy could surprise, but I don't see this team getting to the 11 or 12 win level.

The rest... Dallas will be what they always are: a finesse team with breakout skill position players that can't do enough in the trenches or coaching box to get beyond .500. It's probably unfair to put these multiple failures at the foot of QB Tony Romo, but when you consistently wear a chapeau to post-game press conferences and make the big money while authoring Big Fail moments, it's just going to happen. Expect big changes in the off-season, but so long as Jerry Jones is in charge, they aren't a contender. New York has shown little in the pre-season, has persistent injury issues, and employs a coach who is positively ancient by NFL standards. It's also never a good sign for a franchise to host a Super Bowl... but if they can get and stay healthy, especially on offense, they could score 30+ points a game easily. Finally, my Eagles are going to be a lot of fun and stay in every game, but the down side of a strong running attack and tempo offense is that it's far too easy to get away from while you are behind, and you keep putting your worst unit on the field with quickness. They will also fall behind as soon as they lose a coin flip to start the game. This is a bottom six secondary, with linebackers that are learning on the job, which means that the only stops they are going to get will come from defensive pressure and mistakes. Which they'll also make on offense. I'm going to enjoy this year, but don't pretend that it's going to end in the playoffs.

NFC North

Chicago 11-5
Green Bay 10-6 *
Detroit 6-10
Minnesota 5-11

Here's my non-chalk pick. I really like the Bears this year, because they've got an actual offensive coach in Marc Trestman, a contract year from QB Jay Cutler, some new talent on the offensive line that can't be as bad as the old clowns, and the potential for a couple of additional targets in TE Martellus Bennett and WR Alshon Jeffery. The RB tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush is also sneaky great, and the division is secretly bad. Add it up with a defense that can still bring it and the NFL's most improbable long run of solid special teams work, and I'm seeing a division win. But not, sadly, much more.

Green Bay is everyone's pick to win the division, but the offensive line is a mess, the WRs might be unhealthy, and the defense was last seen getting absolutely trucked by a simple read-option. I'm just not feeling the love here, as it just seems they got exposed on both sides of the ball, and that blueprint is going to get used by others. QB Aaron Rodgers is still the absolute best, but some part of me wonders if this is the year where he finally misses some games. Detroit is an eternal quagmire of talent that doesn't translate to wins, and I've given up on trying to figure out why that is, but when your off-season hopes are pinned on an aging speed RB (Reggie Bush) who is on his third franchise, maybe that's part of the problem. Minnesota will bring up the rear, with RB Adrian Peterson being unable to replicate last year's amazing year, and QB Christian Ponder just not being good enough to play at this level. Oh, and WR Greg Jennings is long past his sell-by date, too.

NFC South

Atlanta 11-5
New Orleans 9-7
Carolina 8-8
Tampa Bay 5-11

What to make of the South? It feels a lot like the AFC version, where the champion has been rising to a long flat plateau of nowhere, but the secondary teams just aren't good enough to step up and take the crown. I like Atlanta to repeat because they have a tremendous dome field advantage, a solid run/pass rate, and good coaching, but there's a reasonable chance that the Saints push through. It's just hard to pick the less complete team. New Orleans doesn't quite do it for me, because the return of HC Sean Payton doesn't fix the defense, and QB Drew Brees has been a quiet turnover machine for a while now. But if they need to win a game, and that game is at home, I'm going to feel foolish for making this pick.

Carolina gets a lot of love from the statistical community, with quality defensive players, a game-changing QB in Cam Newton, and a lot of metrics that say they should have been better then they were in 2013. But it's hard to get beyond the fact that they might have the worst head coach this side of Rex Ryan, the second straight decade of WR Steve Smith being the only guy on the roster that you have to cover on the outside, and questions in the secondary. Tampa brings up the rear despite some outstanding talent and the importation of CB Darelle Revis, as I'm just seeing a trainwreck year from injuries, the end of QB Josh Freeman, deterioration for WR Vincent Jackson, and Revis himself not being able to stay healthy. Besides, well, someone's got to finish last in this division, and when that happens, sometimes it snowballs a bit.

NFC West

Seattle 12-4
San Francisco 11-5 *
St. Louis 6-10
Arizona 3-13

The best two teams in football play here, and while it's simplistic to say that whoever wins the division wins it all, that doesn't make it less true. Both clubs come in a hair underrated because they don't have big names at WR, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is whether your offense can score enough to get ahead, and your defense can then make things wildly unpleasant on the opposition, and both of those clubs do that as if this weren't a new era of pinball football scoring. Of the two clubs, I like Seattle just a hair more, because I think they'll be 5% better in the trenches and at RB/WR, and a lot better on home-field advantage. But if you want to push for the idea that QB Colin Kaepernick is just too much of a game-changer to be denied, that the Niners will fix their WR problems by the end of the year, or that Seattle has had too many character issues  to succeed in the tightest of conditions, I get that. I'm just more comfortable with the idea that the Seahawks will grow their way out of that problem, and that San Francisco's defense is ready to regress.

St. Louis was 2-1-1 against the top dogs of this division last year, which many have used as an indicator of future success. I'd feel a lot better about that if they weren't in the same division with teams that won't take them for granted again, or if the franchise didn't open the door to rampant speculation about moves with the off-season stadium silliness. I also just haven't seen enough from QB Sam Bradford to buy in. Taking up the rear will be Arizona, who have the worst OL in the league protecting one of the least mobile QBs, and supporting a cadre of retread and rehurt RBs. Oh, and the defensive coordinator from last year's surprisingly good unit is gone. Lots of luck, Cardinal Fan.

Wild card weekend: Cincy over Baltimore, New England over Indianapolis, San Francisco over Washington, Chicago over Green Bay

Division: Seattle over San Francisco, Chicago over Atlanta, Denver over New England, Cincy over Houston

Conference: Seattle over Chicago, Cincy over Denver

Super Bowl: Seattle over Cincy

Let's get this started, people.

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