"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
05 Aug 2004
by Al Bogdan and Aaron Schatz
Last year when we launched Football Outsiders in late July, the first Scramble for the Ball featured Ian and Al giving their picks on all 32 Over-Under lines for the season. Here we are twelve months later, with another NFL season on the way, and it is time to go through the Over-Under lines for 2004. Unfortunately, workload keeps Ian from participating this year, so Aaron is stepping in over the next month to trade opinions with Al on expectations for the upcoming season. For 2004, we're splitting up the lines a bit, with two articles each on the AFC and the NFC. This way people have a chance to discuss one set of predictions before we move on to the next set. Since, you know, we have more than six readers this year.
We'll be using the lines listed by Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman in his recent column on SI.com, since they seem to be in the general ballpark of the lines being given by most Vegas oddsmakers.
If you are new to the website, you'll see a lot of discussion of our statistics, particularly DVOA (defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Click here to read about that and click here to see a glossary of some of our other terms and statistics.
Taking a suggestion from Jason, we're going to do NFC teams backwards, starting with Arizona and moving upwards until we get to Philadelphia. (By the way, due to some computer problems, Jason's latest cartoon will show up tomorrow, not today.) No better place to start the NFC with the worst professional sports franchise east of the Clippers...
Arizona Cardinals -- 5.5
Al: I know I kept counting the Cardinals as a weak opponent in my review of the AFC teams, but I wouldn't be shocked if the Cardinals were actually mediocre this year. Dennis Green has finished above .500 in nine out of his ten career seasons. Arizona could be one of the best passing offenses in football this year with their trio of young receivers. Josh McCown could put up some great fantasy numbers throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson. McCown looked decent in his three starts at the end of last year, completing over 60% of his passes and leading Arizona to its Week 17 upset over Minnesota with two TD passes in the final five minutes of play. Sure, Emmitt Smith is supposedly the team's starting tailback, but we all know that won't last too long. Marcel Shipp will be in there by Week 7 to provide Arizona with a somewhat competent running game.
Defense will still be a problem for the Cardinals. They'll need some of their draft picks to be big time contributors if they want to hold opponents to less than last year's league worst 28.2 points per game. In a weak NFC West, they should be able to fight for second place with whichever one of St. Louis or Seattle disappoints this year. I can't believe I'm actually doing this, but I'll take Arizona and the OVER.
Aaron: As some people might know, I had a bet with Patrick Laverty last year that the Cardinals would go over their ridiculously low preseason line of 3.5 wins. That last-minute win in Week 17 not only knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs, it also sent me twenty bucks. So the Cardinals have been good to me. Nevertheless, I am very hesitant to jump on this weird "Arizona is a team on the rise" bandwagon.
But I have to do so, because there is so much evidence for it. First of all, I'm a huge Dennis Green fan. You are talking about a guy who had eight winning seasons out of ten with Minnesota. Five out of those ten seasons, the Vikings won at least one game more than their points scored and allowed would otherwise indicate (using ye olde Pythagorean theorem). Those who have been with us since the beginning (hello to both of you) will remember that Dennis Green is the third-best coach of the past twenty years when it comes to guiding his teams to more wins than the Pythagorean projection would indicate. Go back further, and you'll find that Green has a better record of outperforming the Pythagorean projection than any other coach with at least 10 seasons in the history of the NFL. Only 4-6 teams each year outperform their projection by at least one win, and Green did it year after year.
There are other reasons to be optimistic about the Cardinals, past Green's arrival. We know that the Cardinals are going to put the ball in the air a ton, and while rookie receivers don't have the best track record, nobody is going to be able to double Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. On the other side of the ball, I'm a big fan of the addition of pass rusher Bertrand Berry from the Broncos. The magic DVOA projection system (to be publicly unveiled later this month!) actually foresees significant defensive improvement by Arizona, from horrid to mildly lousy. Their defense wasn't just bad; it was bad without getting many turnovers. But turnovers gravitate towards league-average from year to year, so they will probably get more of them in 2004. They also had a surprisingly good defense against the rush on first downs, which has a tendency to be an indicator of general rush defense the following year.
Bill Simmons always talks about the second-half team, the NFL team that suddenly starts playing well in the second half and covers the spread in game after game. That's going to be the 2004 Cardinals as soon as Green wakes up to reality and sticks Marcel Shipp back in the starting lineup. Their schedule presents a string of games in November and December that screams "second half team." They'll go into Week 9 1-7 or 2-6, but the last eight games include the two declining division rivals, San Francisco and St. Louis, at home, the Giants and Jets at home, at Detroit, and, in the last week of the season, Tampa Bay at home -- in a game that means nothing to Tampa Bay if they aren't in the playoff race at that point. What the heck, let's say they win five of those and finish OVER.
I have now written more about the Cardinals than anyone in history, or at least since they left Chicago.
San Francisco -- NO LINE (6.5?)
Aaron: I'll follow up that long comment with a short one. As you may know by now, San Francisco is replacing the 49ers logo on its helmets with stickers that say "Hello, My Name is." Russell and I will be publishing an article next week on how historically rare it is for a team to turn over as many skill positions as the 49ers, and then they are turning over half the offensive and defensive lines on top of that. Also, their coach sucks. The situation is so bad that Las Vegas won't even give you an over-under line on this team, technically because of the injury to quarterback Tim Rattay. When Dr. Z listed lines in his article, he had the 49ers between two teams at 6.5 so I'll assume they are at 6.5 as well. There is a one percent chance that the young players here are far better than we expect, that the other teams in the division aren't very good, and that it all comes together and jells for a surprising run at 10-6. There is a 99 percent chance that this team will suck harder than Jenna Jameson's audition tape. UNDER.
As a postscript, I will note that I like Kevan Barlow very much, and I think it is too bad that he's about to have three seasons torn right out of the middle of Corey Dillon's career, and his parents need to learn to spell.
Al: I'm sure Tim Rattay's injury had a huge impact on the 49er line. I just can't imagine someone saying to themselves, "You know what, I was going to bet that the 49ers, with no one I've ever heard of on offense, will win more than six games in a division with Seattle and St. Louis. Especially with a road schedule that includes the past two Super Bowl champions and visits at home from the defending NFC champion and the greatest NFL coach of all time in his first season back in football. But man, Tim Rattay is injured? I don't know about betting that line now." If this line ends up at 4.5, I'm taking the UNDER. 6.5 is a gift.
New York Giants -- 6.5
Al: I really want to be optimistic about this team. I really do. But as you've been saying for a while now, someone in the NFC East has to go 6-10. Which team will it be? The one that's been in the NFC title game the past three seasons and addressed their biggest weakness by adding one of the top five WR in football? The one that went 10-6 last year, is coached by the second greatest coach of all time and added a solid veteran WR of their own in the offseason? The one coached by the greatest coach of all time added a ton of players on defense and one of the top five RB in football? Or will it be the Giants? With their new coach who's one year removed from being fired by Jacksonville after leading them to three consecutive losing seasons. With their new QB who's attempting to come back from a historic level of decline. I'll keep this short because my more detailed feelings on the Giants' chances are available elsewhere (Have you bought your copy of Pro Football Forecast yet?), but this could get ugly quick. There might actually be tickets available at the Meadowlands before Thanksgiving this season. UNDER.
Aaron: In general, to quote Doug Drinen, "the word 'old' means 28 for a running back, 30 for a receiver, and 32 for a quarterback." Tiki Barber is 29. Amani Toomer is 30. Kurt Warner is 33. Whoops. The last two seasons have turned Warner into the Eddie Murphy of quarterbacks, so atrocious in his later career that it is screwing up our memories of his good years. They are seriously talking about using Ron Dayne more again to give Tiki some rest. There are some defensive additions, but nobody that exciting. You wonder how they fell so far so fast, but the DVOA "estimated wins" formula has them worth only 8 wins in 2002, when they went 10-6, so they haven't fallen as far as you think. Unless everybody can fight off father time, this could be the worst team in football. They may play in Jersey, but this is going to be Warner's Harlem Nights. UNDER.
Detroit Lions -- 6.5
Aaron: Here's another popular sleeper pick, and another team that could suddenly put it all together. They added the big wide receiver and running back in the first round of the draft. Damien Woody will really improve the offensive line. They added Brock Marion and Fernando Bryant to a secondary that already had one Pro Bowl cornerback, Dre' Bly. That should help the pass defense, and did you realize they finished sixth in rush defense DVOA last year? On the other hand, I went looking for quarterbacks whose first two years were similar to Joey Harrington's first two years and ended up with Jeff George. Eek. They ditched the underrated Mikhael Ricks and picked up the overrated Stephen Alexander at tight end. The schedule may be tough, too, with all those great coaches in the NFC East and all those great quarterbacks in the AFC South, plus Atlanta should be better. Then again, the last four home games seem like wins -- the poor Colts have to come to Detroit on Thanksgiving for the second road game in a five-day period, and then they have Arizona, Minnesota, and Chicago. Can you tell I am having a hard time with this? I think the most likely record for the Lions is 6-10, but I think there is a better chance of them ending up with eight or nine wins than with four or five. What the heck, it would be nice for our man Michael David Smith if his team actually didn't suck, so I'll go with a somewhat confused, shot in the dark OVER.
Al: I don't see the Lions turning it around this year. I think they're at least another season away from being a contender again. Detroit had the worst offensive line in the entire NFL last year according to adjusted line yards. The addition of Woody alone should bump that ranking up a few notches. They had a great draft, nabbing three opening day starters with their first three picks. But this team will only go as far as Joey Harrington will take them. And I don't think he'll carry them very far. Harrington had a QB rating of less than 50 seven games last year. He had more TDs than INTs in only four games. He has done little to nothing in his first two years as a starter to show that he can be a successful NFL QB. Will the additions of Roy Williams and Kevin Jones be enough to turn Harrington into an adequate starter? I think the more likely scenario is that Joey becomes a first round Loser League lock every week until he's benched for Mike McMahon around Week 9. UNDER.
Chicago Bears -- 7
Al: Is Chicago? Well, they did improve on their putrid offensive line by adding John Tait and Ruben Brown. These will be enormous signings for the Bears. New QB Rex Grossman will be able to worry more about finding an open receiver than avoiding getting his head slammed into the turf by incoming pass rushers. They should also open up some holes for the rushing Thomases, Anthony and Jones. Bringing in Lovie Smith should improve the Bear defense. Things could be looking up for the Bears.
Is Not Chicago? But they can just as likely be looking down. The four QBs on the roster have thrown for a combined 1185 yards over their NFL careers. They'll be throwing to the same group of underperforming WR that the Bears ran out onto the field last season. Chicago's biggest weakness on defense last year was defending the pass, yet they added no one of note to their secondary.
This team has 8-8 written all over it, so I guess I'm taking the OVER.
Aaron: While I am writing this, Marty Booker is being interviewed on SportsCenter, which gives me the opportunity to digress for a second. Is there anything more stupid than ESPN's new custom of having one of their NFL "experts" debate an NFL player during the "Fact or Fiction" segment? "Marty, fact or fiction: The Bears should have signed Kurt Warner because Rex Grossman is not ready." What the hell is Booker supposed to do, say that his quarterback sucks? "Marty, fact or fiction: Lovie Smith's practices are too hard." "Oh yeah, I hate my coach, I want to say bad things about my coach on national television. That will get me the ball, no question."
The worst was a couple weeks ago when they had some guy from the Panthers on and asked him "Fact or fiction: The better team did not win the Super Bowl last year." Oh, yes, sure, some guy from the Panthers is going to go on national television and talk about how the Patriots were the better team. What the hell are we supposed to learn from this? If the goal is entertainment instead of journalism, well, it sucks at that too.
End digression. I'm also big on the Tait signing, and I think Lovie Smith has promise as a head coach. I'm guessing there will be some defensive improvement here. On offense, I'm not sure I see it. Thomas Jones? Meh. I like Justin Gage -- his personal DVOA was far ahead of the rest of the Bears receivers last year -- but I don't see the Bears becoming any more than an average passing team. The Bears went 7-9 last year but six different teams with fewer wins finished ahead of them in total DVOA. I'll go UNDER.
Reading your comments and mine, I think we basically agree on Detroit and Chicago. Both teams made some nice additions but still don't quite seem over the hump. Both teams will probably win 6-8 games. The difference is that I think Detroit is going 8-8 and Chicago is going 6-10, and you think the opposite.
(I should note that this line seems to be down to 6.5 now in Las Vegas, even though it was 7 in Dr. Z's article. These comments were written prior to Urlacher's injury.)
New Orleans Saints -- 7.5
Aaron: The Saints keep running the same team out there year after year. Lots of talented defensive linemen. Mediocre linebackers and secondary. An offense that seems a lot more talented than its performance. They went 9-7 in 2002 because of league-best special teams, but the offense and defense were really no different in 2003. Deuce McAllister in particular is an enigma -- he's clearly talented, but maddeningly inconsistent, and he gets a ton of 1-3 yard gains that build up his yardage totals but leave Aaron Brooks in poor passing situations. He might be the poster boy for the Football Outsiders maxim that a two-yard gain on first down is still a failure. Joe Horn is in decline, and people expecting Dante' Stallworth to have a breakout season just because he's in his third year need to read this article by Doug Drinen. In so many of my comments going through these preseason lines, I've said, "This is one of those teams that could put it together and be the breakout team of the year if everything clicks." But honestly, if everything clicks in New Orleans aren't they just the same team they've been for three years now? I mean, if all goes well, they go 9-7. In this division, I think UNDER is more likely.
Al: Did any team do less in this offseason than New Orleans? They neither lost nor added anyone noteworthy to a team that went 8-8 in a division that includes the past two NFC Champions and Michael Vick. Their entire team is filled with players that never end up playing as well as you think they should. Just a frustrating team to follow, I'd really hate to be a Saints fan.
I just can't go over with this schedule. Five of the Saints' last six games are inside their division. Maybe they go 4-3 before the bye week, but I don't see much more than two wins after that. There's no reason to believe that the Saints will be anything but the worst team in the NFC South. I just have to go UNDER.
Minnesota Vikings -- 8.5
Al: This team should have won more than nine games last year and have the talent to win more than that this season. I thought they overpaid for Antoine Winfield, but he should improve the poor Viking pass defense. I really like the Marcus Robinson and Jermaine Wiggins signings. Both should be viable options for Daunte Culpepper when Randy Moss is triple teamed or forgets to run down the field. They had a very good draft assuming their first round pick is healthy -- they stole Kenechi Udeze at #20. The Vikings draft looks like something I would do. If I was an NFL GM, when it was my turn to pick I'd just go down my master draft board and pick the first interesting name that came up. The Vikings drafted Kenechi, Dontarrious, Mewelde, and Deandre'. That's an incredible group of names right there.
Anyway, this would be an easy over if it wasn't for their awful schedule. The NFC East and the AFC South aren't two conferences you want to see on your schedule. I still think Minnesota's talent is the class of the division, so I can't justify going under. A very tentative OVER.
Aaron: Yep, this is a tough one to call. The defense was actually better than they looked last year. They were sort of the anti-Rams, in that they managed to recover a very low percentage of the fumbles that they caused -- 6 out of 21 -- and that's just blind luck (recovering the fumbles, that is, not causing them). On the other hand, the defense definitely got worse as the year went forward which is a really bad indicator for the following year. Other than Udeze, the two biggest additions to the team are both named Bennett. First, a fully-healthy Michael Bennett gives Minnesota what is probably the league's best ground attack, with not one, not two, but three running backs who are above average (Bennett was below average in our stats last year, but I'm guessing that is due to injury rehabilitation, because he was one of the best in 2002). Second, Darren Bennett comes over from the Chargers as part of the attempt to fix Minnesota's special teams. The Vikings were one of the league's worst special teams last year and were particularly bad punting (only Denver was worse). Bennett helps fix this, and the inconsistency of special teams from year to year can give the Vikings hope, right? I'm not sure, actually -- the Vikings rate as the 31st best special teams in 2003, the 30th best in 2002, and the 25th best in 2001. Eek. The schedule is definitely a problem. On the other hand, it is filled with "might break out" teams and I can't imagine that all of them will break out. I mean, Jacksonville and Houston and Washington and Detroit and Chicago can't all break out, and I think the Vikings get lucky with 1) Dallas, last year's #2 rush defense, at home in Week 1 with lots of time to prepare and 2) Green Bay at home in Week 16 on Christmas Eve off a short week. The Vegas line here has moved to 9 since Dr. Z's article, and with that line I would say under because 9-7 would push. But at 8.5, since I think they'll win anywhere from eight to ten games, I'll say OVER.
Carolina Panthers -- 8.5
Aaron: New readers of the site may not know this, but I've probably written more about Carolina than any other team in the NFL. I feel like instead of giving a new commentary here, I should just replay "Aaron's Greatest Panther Hits." The Panthers spent last year's regular season as the most overrated team in the NFL. They won their first two games despite being outgained 728 yards to 500 yards and turning over the ball twice as often as their opponents. Then they were mediocre the rest of the way. Carolina's -5.0% total DVOA ranked #18 in the league, the worst among playoff teams. Their points scored and allowed would ordinarily project to a team with 8.6 wins, not 11. The Panthers won seven games by three points or less last year. The only other team since the merger to win six or more games by three points or less was the 1998 Arizona Cardinals, who went from 4-12 to 9-7 with all those close wins -- and then fell back to 6-10 the following year without them. Despite a couple of memorable playoff runs, DeShaun Foster had one of the most overrated rookie seasons of all time. The Panthers had the worst regular season of any team to ever play in the Super Bowl. Then, despite everything I just wrote, the playoffs came and suddenly turned the Panthers into the best team in the NFC with a surging passing game and a secondary that ate opposing quarterbacks for breakfast. According to DVOA, the Panthers' run through the NFC playoffs was the best three-game stretch played by any team in the NFL all season.
So, as you may be able to tell, I hate the Panthers. To make things worse, every time I do an upgrade on my formulas to make them correlate better with winning and losing, it works for 125 of the 126 teams of the past four years but Carolina's rating drops. Aargh. I have no idea which team they are -- the overrated, pedestrian team of last year's regular season, or the Delhomme-led juggernaut that the Patriots barely beat in the Super Bowl. I'm going to guess the former. On top of all the other reasons to expect the Panthers to decline this year, add a major reshuffling of the offensive line -- although moving Jordan Gross over to left tackle will be a great move. Although I still think he is overrated, we can expect improvement from Foster in his second season, but age is going to start to catch up to Mushin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl. This is a very difficult division, with Tampa and Atlanta likely to improve, and the first place schedule means they get Green Bay and Philadelphia as well as the tough division opponents and the AFC West (and, for a breather, the NFC West). Since I'm going to pick UNDER here, and I have been wrong on the Panthers at every turn, you would have to be insane not to bet your house on over.
Al: New readers should also know that I loved the Panthers last year. I was driving the Panther bandwagon last summer in the Football Outsiders preview when I named them my sleeper team in the NFC and was the only Outsider to predict a playoff birth for the Panthers. Of course, I also had the Giants beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. As much as I may have liked the Panthers last year, I can't bring myself to pick the over for them this year. The past three NFC Champions were all under .500 the year after their Super Bowl appearance. Of course that has little to do with how the Panthers will do this year, but it does show that it's not uncommon for a team to fall apart just one year after a Super Bowl
appearance in today's NFL.
Defensively, the Panthers should still be solid. Their dominant D-Line is still intact and Jessie Armstead and Brandon Short are nice additions to their LB corps. Offensively, though, I see Carolina struggling. Like you said, DeShaun Foster wasn't that good during the regular season last year and Stephen Davis just turned 30. With those two behind a rebuilt offensive line, Carolina could have some serious problems running the ball. That will put more pressure on Jake TheMan, Steve Smith and the guy I draft on my fantasy team every year, Muhsin Muhammed. The Carolina passing game helped carry the Panthers in the playoffs, but I'm not sure if they can keep that up over the course of a 16-game season, especially with Muhammad's injury history.
And of course, their schedule is pretty tough. I only see four games the Panthers should win easily: San Diego, Oakland and Arizona at home, and San Francisco on the road. Other than that, the Panthers will have a tough road ahead of them. Could they go 9-7? Maybe. But there are too many forces in play that will pull Carolina below 9 wins. UNDER.
Aaron: I just realized that we agreed on six of these eight teams, and the ones we disagreed on we pretty much think the same thing anyway. Is the NFC that obvious? Guess we'll find out when we do the other eight teams in a week or two.
Next week: NFC, Part II. Or the week after, depending how quickly we get it done when Al comes back from his honeymoon.