And They’re Off

Football season is back. The seemingly endless offseason is over. As of this writing, I have -1.70 fantasy points. Thank you Earl Thomas for fumbling. Anyway, here is my quick and dirty assessment of each team and division. If I’m wrong, you can get your money back. Please note, I’m reviewing each team in the order how I think they’ll finish in their division.

AFC East (2013 Finish: Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Bills)

New England Patriots – It’s hard not to pick the Patriots to win this division, but there are cracks in the armor. They’ve got a goodly amount of defensive talent and depth and I think they’ll stop people. Where I don’t think they have depth is on the offense. I think their offensive line is a huge question mark. I think their wide receivers are nothing more than solid. It’s a truism that if you lose your starting quarterback that you are doomed. This is essentially true of all teams but if Brady goes down I don’t think the Patriots can score and I think they’ll have problems scoring even with him.

Buffalo Bills – This may be a year early but I like what the Bills are doing. If E.J. Manuel can be a solid quarterback, I think they’ll surprise some people. This is a big if, though they have talent around him and an intriguing defense with a good line. I don’t see them winning the division, but in a weak division with no great team they have some interesting possibilities.

Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill has some talent and there are some pieces around him, but the offensive line is weak and will be hammered by all of the other teams in this division. Their secondary is not great. The statistic that has the most correlation to wins is Average Net Yards per Attempt Differential. Basically, the teams that are more efficient throwing compared to their opponent will have the best records. I think Miami won’t be great on offense and will be only alright on defense.

New York Jets – There are a lot of nice pieces here but for some reason the Jets seem to be less than the sum of their parts. Chris Johnson will have a few great games, but won’t be consistent. The same for Geno Smith. Their defensive line is very good, but there are holes in the secondary. They’re going to be inefficient on offense and inefficient on defense. This is a bad recipe.

AFC North (Bengals, Ravens, Steelers, Browns)

Cincinnati Bengals – This team is stacked on offense. They may not have many players at the very top of their position, but they have a lot of good players. Andy Dalton is good, and I think he steps up a little more this year with a number of good players around him including the stellar A.J. Green. They’re solid on both lines, especially defensively. I think they repeat here.

Pittsburgh Steelers – I’m not a huge fan of this team, but I think they will come on later in the season as they are relying upon a number of young players like Ryan Shazier. I think this will pay dividends. Antonio Brown is fantastic, and I would say that if he was not on both of my fantasy teams. This is not a great team, but I can see 9-7 and a wild card berth.

Baltimore Ravens – I have never been a Joe Flacco fan, even though I recognize how well he played in stretch that won them a Super Bowl two years ago. They have pieces on offense and they could be productive and efficient there, but Flacco’s no more consistent than Dalton and Dalton has a better overall offense around him. On defense, don’t be surprised to see the Ravens rack up a lot of sacks but give up a ton of passing yards. Their back seven has holes that good offenses will exploit. They could have a lot of breaks and do better, though of course that’s true of most teams, but I think they take a step back. There’s simply not enough youth on this team to overcome some of the aging.

Cleveland Browns – I can’t pick them higher than last this year, I just can’t. But…., there are more pieces here than most people realize. They have very good to great cornerbacks, and some other nice players on defense. They will hold most teams down, but their offense has real problems. Josh Gordon might be the best wide receiver in the NFL, if he weren’t suspended all year for stupidity. We don’t know when Johnny Manziel will start, but even if he is towards his ceiling, it will take time for him to adjust. The good news is that their offensive line is pretty good. All in all, I want to pick them higher, but questions at the quarterback will be too much this year to overcome. There are signs of progress though.

AFC South (Colts, Titans, Jaguars, Texans)

Tennessee Titans – This division is awful to predict. The Titans will win if they avoid significant injuries, as I think they have almost no depth. They have a lot of good things here though, and Jake Locker is better, when healthy, than most realize. Bishop Sankey will be an upgrade over the current version of Chris Johnson, though I don’t think he’s got that ceiling. Their defense will be much like the Ravens, lots of pressure but also with lots of openings for opposing receivers to take advantage of. Still, I think they eke out a 9-7 division title.

Indianapolis Colts – This is all on Andrew Luck. He’s got some targets, but they have mediocre at best running backs and I’m not a big fan of this offensive line. On defense there are lots of holes. Honestly, I really don’t like this team and I think they are very overrated because of Luck. He’s a great quarterback and that does matter, but there’s just not much else here in my opinion.

Houston Texans – By contrast, this team has a ton but has an awful quarterback situation. They will be good on both lines, and the J.J. Watt / Jadaveon Clowney pairing could be incredible. They’ve got good players at the skill positions, even if Andre Johnson is a step slower. However, they have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. If he’s average, and that’s a big if, they could win this division with a bit of luck, but it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Jacksonville Jaguars – I see some signs of progress, but they have Chad Henne at quarterback. Not good enough. Oh, they have a decent offensive line and their defensive front has some players, but there’s just not enough here. They are two or three good drafts away and that includes hitting on a quarterback.

AFC West (Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders)

Denver Broncos – They’ll score a ton again and they might be better on defense. However, this team is relying on a lot of old players and if the injury bug bites this team might actually finish third in the AFC West. I find it hard to pick against Peyton Manning, who is playing quarterback about as well as anyone ever has, so I’ll leave them here, but I’ll state my reservations.

San Diego Chargers – This offense will also be excellent, though a step down from Denver’s. Philip Rivers has plenty of weapons, and if the line can give him time they will score. On defense, they will have some matchup issues but I think will be adequate. I don’t entirely know why, but I think this team will be better than many people think.

Kansas City Chiefs – I think they take a step back. Much of their success last year was the turnover differential, but that is less of a controllable skill than people realize. If a team relies upon turnovers, they will find that this reliance giveth and taketh. Jamaal Charles is one of the best running backs in NFL history, but Alex Smith is not a great quarterback and there is not much at receiver. This defense is pretty good, but the offense is overrated and they’ll regress a bit.

Oakland Raiders – If they would only commit to a plan, they’ve had some talent go through there. This year they invested in average at best free agents and in some ways will be improved but not enough to beat the other teams in the West. Their quarterback play will be last in the division, and they don’t have enough talent elsewhere to overcome that. Flip the top three teams in this division as you see fit, but leave the Raiders in the cellar.

NFC East (Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins)

Dallas Cowboys – It’s easy for you to say this is a homer pick, and it is true that I might be too close to this team. However, if Tony Romo stays healthy this offense will be incredible. They have one of the top two or three offensive lines in the NFL, Dez Bryant and depth at wide receiver, and a number of other talented weapons at running back and tight end. They will score on anyone and everyone. The question is if they can stop anyone. Their defense last year was historically bad, but that was in part because of a ridiculous number of injuries at the defensive line. People are bemoaning the loss of DeMarcus Ware, but he was a shell of his 2010 self, though Jason Hatcher was a tremendous loss. However, here is what people don’t realize. Their other defensive linemen were awful. Not just mediocre, but awful. For example, if they can get an average player to replace Nick Hayden, and I think they have, they will have offset the loss of Jason Hatcher, Hayden was that bad. He wasn’t the only one. This defensive line will be much closer to average this year, and with that they’ll be reasonable on defense. If they finish around 20th on defense they will go 10-6 at least and frankly I see that happening. Remember, they were 8-8 last year with one of the worst defenses *ever* and there’s improvement on both sides of the ball.

Philadelphia Eagles – I’m putting them here by default because I think both of the other teams in the East are mediocre at best. I’m not sold on Nick Foles, and while I love some of their weapons like LeSean MCoy, there are a bunch of holes. I think this defense will be slightly better than Dallas’s but only slightly as they have a good defensive line but not much else. On offense, they’ll score 26 or so points a game which is good but not elite.

Washington Redskins – RGIII needs to be all that and more on this team for it to step up from 3-13 to more than 6-10 or so. Their offensive line is not good and while they have very good to great receiving targets for him, he’ll have to work to get it to them. On defense, they have some great players if they’re healthy, but lots of bad ones too and on defense especially the weak links are often hard to hide.

New York Giants – This offensive line is going to be bad. They lacked talent and they’ve had injuries. Eli Manning and his running backs are good players, but are not the dynamic players that can overcome a bad line like RGIII. They’ve got pretty good wide receivers, but Eli might not be able to take advantage of them. On defense, they have a pretty good secondary, but I wonder about the rest. This becomes a much better unit if Jason Pierre-Paul returns to form, and I think that will happen, but their linebackers are not good.

NFC North (Packers, Bears, Lions, Vikings)

Green Bay Packers – This is a hard division to call and I can create a scenario for each team to win it. However, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers and an offense that will score. When in doubt, go with the best quarterback. Their defense has issues, but will be average or maybe even around 10th in the NFL and with this offense that should win this division.

Minnesota Vikings – Yes, the Vikings, whoever ends up at quarterback. There’s a lot here actually. Cordarrelle Patterson is fantastic and is improving. There’s some guy named Adrian Peterson who is about to decline but I think has two more years in him. Matt Cassel is an average quarterback, but he is at least that and neither Matthew Stafford nor Jay Cutler impress me all that much, even though they’ve got bigger names. I think Mike Zimmer gets this defense to surprise people and it does have some talent. This is my pick of the team that makes every other prognosticator shake their head and ask “where the hell did these guys come from.”

Chicago Bears – This offense will be pretty good if they can protect Jay Cutler and that’s a question mark. He has lots of good targets, and that’s no doubt. Matt Forte is great and still underrated. However, edge rushers will hurt this team and I think will force Cutler into mistakes. On defense, their linebackers and safeties are nothing to write home about and while they have a good defensive line, it’s not a great one. Note that the big names on the defensive line are not the most productive. Overall, they are an average team and no more.

Detroit Lions – Lots of big passing statistics here, but this is another team that is less than the sum of its parts. Calvin Johnson is still the best receiver in football, and we are living in the golden age of NFL wide receivers right now. But they have problems on both lines, especially from the edges. They might be very good in the middle, but that requires Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to take steps forward that they have not yet shown will happen. This will be a wretched defense and this offense has too many holes to really carry it.

NFC South (Panthers, Saints, Buccaneers, Falcons)

New Orleans Saints – Have I already said “When in doubt, go with the quarterback?” Clearly Drew Brees is the best in this division. They have the best tight end in the NFL in Jimmy Graham and an underrated receiving corps. Another offense that will score well, if their offensive line stays moderately healthy. That’s actually a big question mark, and if I felt good about that this would be an easy choice. On defense they’re not bad, but I have questions about Rob Ryan’s scheme. It’s difficult to learn and easy to make mistakes in. Still, I think they are not a great team but do win the division.

Atlanta Falcons – Matt Ryan has some fantastic targets. They have a line that should give him the time he needs. They need him to be good because Steven Jackson is ancient at 31 for a running back. Don’t be shocked if Devonta Freeman leads this team in rushing. Who? Yeah, Devonta Freeman. On defense, Sean Weatherspoon’s injury is a major loss but they have good corners and it will be hard to be an efficient team passing against them.

Carolina Panthers – I’m not a big fan of this team actually, despite having a very good defense. I’m actually a big fan of Cam Newton, but there are major issues here. First, their defense is top-notch but already had some issues. Will Greg Hardy be gone for six games for domestic violence? It seems likely. They’ve had some other injuries too, and I see a bit of regression here. Note that I say regression from a top three or so defense to a top nine or so defense. Good but not great. On offense, Newton is an amazing talent but their offensive line is in shambles and I’m not sure any of their receivers would make the Cowboys with the exception of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. However, wide receivers are notoriously slow to adapt to the NFL. This offense will not score much, though Newton will have four or so huge games that inflate their overall statistics.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Oh, if they only had a quarterback. I like their receivers and Doug Martin, if he’s healthy, is fantastic, but I’m not sold on Mike Glennon. Their offensive line is average at best and won’t be something he can rely upon. On defense, they have some great players like Lavonte David but this is not a defense to rely upon either. Overall, they invested in a lot of free agents and that rarely works well, at least the first year. In a tough division, they’ll be last.

NFC West (Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals, Rams)

Seattle Seahawks – The Super Bowl winners are stacked. They have a great quarterback in Russell Wilson and enough options on offense for them to be efficient. They had the best defense in the NFL last year and it was young without any huge changes. None of the things that tend to bring teams to regress to the mean apply to this team yet.

Arizona Cardinals – This team went 10-6 last year and I think it might be better despite losing Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, and Daryl Washington for the year. There’s a goodly amount of depth here. Their offensive line was a major weakness last year, but will probably be better and if they are then Carson Palmer still has some skills. Andre Ellington and Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are top-flight. This team will surprise people.

San Francisco 49ers – Age and regression is happening before us. I think this offense is good, but not as good as people think because I see a lot of regression in Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, and others. The offensive line isn’t as good as it used to be. There’s talent, but this is not an elite offense and there is a perception that they are. On defense, they’ve been hurt with the loss of Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith for nine games. I’m not sold on this defense being elite and in this division I see Arizona stepping forward.

St. Louis Rams – Had Sam Bradford not been hurt I might well have picked them above the 49ers. They have a fantastic defensive line and there are some other pieces, but without Bradford I don’t see them taking that step forward yet, certainly not in the AFC West.

Division Winners
AFC: Patriots, Bengals, Titans, Broncos
NFC: Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle

Pittsburgh, San Diego
NFC: Arizona, Atlanta

I don’t see anyone beating Seattle right now, but it could happen. It’s very difficult to repeat and every team is one or two injuries from seeing their season implode. Nevertheless, at this point, with what we see, I think the 12th Man gets to celebrate another banner. The Seahawks are deep, good in all phases, young and yet experienced, and they’re comfortable in the system. They will have some regression next year, I think, but not yet.

Now, to make some qualifications. Injuries will happen. We know this, though of course we can’t predict them. I’m looking at my predictions and though I picked 5 new playoff teams I think I’m too conservative. One of the Patriots, Packers, and Broncos will have bad things happen and will be out of the playoffs completely. History tells us that the Super Bowl loser will be that team, which does not bode well for Denver but as long as Peyton is healthy that is a playoff team.

We’ll see. The Seahawks started with a convincing win over the Packers, who made too many mistakes to beat a great team.

In any case, 255 regular season games to go. I’m so ready.

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