Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Aug 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
2004 Record: 5-11
2005 Home Opponents: DET, CIN, MIN, BAL, SF, CAR, GB, ATL
2005 Away Opponents: WAS, CLE, DET, NO, TB, PIT, GB, MIN
Vivek: Funny that I'm writing this after watching the Superfans skit on the Saturday Night Live -- The Best of Chris Farley DVD. Maybe that is why I've been a bit more optimistic about the Bears than most people.
Chicago upgraded at the three offensive skill positions. Muhsin Muhammad and his 1600 yards replace David Terrell, who never lived up to the expectations of being a first round pick, or even a mid round pick for that matter. If Justin Gage cuts down on his drops and improves his confidence, the Bears could have a talented 1-2 wide receiver combo. Rookie Cedric Benson will be the workhorse runner that the offense needs. Rex Grossman is essentially a newcomer to the offense, having only played three games due to injury and inexperience last year. Barring injury, the Bears shouldn't have to mirror last year's quarterback carousel of Jeff George, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, and Jonathan Quinn. Even kicker Paul Edinger threw a pass last year.
Another big question mark will be the offensive line, who yielded 66 sacks last year, by far and away the most in the league. The Bears signed former Titan Fred Miller and former Falcon Roberto Garza to bring stability to the line, and John Tait will protect Grossman from the left tackle spot this year. Most of the linemen are on the downside of their careers, but anything will be an upgrade from 2004.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears hope that Adewale Ogunleye returns to his 2003 form. Ogunleye and one of the best linebacker pairs in the league, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, will be the core of a defense that ranked 12th in DVOA last year.
The Bears have a rough home schedule, but could take four games on the road. OVER.
Al: I pretty much agree with everything you said. I picked the Bears as my favorite longshot Super Bowl possibility at the end of last season. I have no reason to be less optimistic about them today after they added Muhammad, Benson, and the offensive linemen to improve the league's worst offense.
Chicago could have the easiest road schedule in the league. They could easily hit five wins just playing away from Soldier Field. I'm not sure if I'm ready to pick them as division champs just yet, but this is an easy one. OVER.
2004 Record: 6-10
2005 Home Opponents: GB, BAL, CAR, CHI, ARI, ATL, MIN, PIT
2005 Away Opponents: CHI, TB, CLE, MIN, DAL, GB, NO, PIT
Vivek: Under. Wait, I thought 7.5 was the line for the week that Jeff Garcia starts running Steve Mariucci's version of the West Coast offense. Mariucci has given his full vote of confidence to Joey Harrington, but the fourth-year quarterback needs to stop trying to force plays, which has resulted in more interceptions than touchdowns for his career. Harrington has all the tools in place to succeed and can finally show off his arm strength, so there are no excuses in 2005.
Over. Wait, the line isn't for the number of games that the Lions' wide receivers will miss in 2005? The team has arguably the most talented young receiver trio in the game -- Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. Rogers has played only five games in his two NFL seasons because of collarbone injuries, so drafting Mike Williams 10th overall was probably a smart move on the Lions' part.
Even with all of those first-rounders on the offense, running back Kevin Jones is the most talented member of the unit. After overcoming some leg injuries, Jones rushed for more than 100 yards per game in the second half of the season. Fantasy owners can also expect 40-50 receptions from Jones.
Even if the trio of receivers and Jones come through, it might not be enough to overcome a mediocre defense that wasn't able to stop the run or pass last year. For real now -- UNDER.
Al: At least Detroit will have Matt Millen running this team for the next five years. I mean, when you have an executive with his track record of success you can't let him enter a season as a lame duck. You have to make sure that no other team in the NFL will have a shot at adding someone with his ability for the rest of the decade.
Seriously, though, I like Detroit's chances at going 8-8 this year. I'm sure everyone is sick of hearing about how good we think Kevin Jones can be this year. Marcus Pollard should be a big upgrade at tight end. Whoever ends up starting at quarterback will have a potentially amazing group of receivers to throw to.
The defense is a big question mark. I like the additions Detroit has made and would expect them to help the defense finish better in DVOA than #19 or #20, as they have the past two years. Draft picks Shaun Cody and Bill Swancutt give Detroit some solid depth on the defensive line where the Lions struggled last year in short yardage/goal to go situations. Newcomer Kenoy Kennedy and a full season from Boss Bailey will have opposing receivers thinking twice before they try to catch a ball in the middle of the field. I wouldn't be shocked if Detroit finished with an above-average defense when everything is said and done. OVER.
2004 Record: 8-8
2005 Home Opponents: TB, NO, GB, DET, CLE, STL, PIT, CHI
2005 Away Opponents: CIN, ATL, CHI, CAR, NYG, GB, DET, BAL
Vivek: You have to give credit to the Minnesota front office. The team needed defense, and it went out shopping in the offseason and got it. The 2005 version of the Vikings' defense features five new starters: safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Fred Smooth, tackle Pat Williams, and linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris. Opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart the Minnesota secondary last year, but the addition of Smoot and Sharper (and holdover Antoine Winfield) alters that gameplan. The Minnesota defensive line will have 650 pounds of tackle playing next to each other with Pat and Kevin Williams plugging rushing lanes. The Vikings may have gotten a steal with pass rushing specialist Erasmus James at the 18th pick in the first round of the draft.
Of course there is one glaring absence this year on the offense, Randy Moss. Nate Burleson, who moves into the top receiver slot, totaled 68 catches for 1006 yards as a part-time #1 receiver last year. Troy Williamson was the fastest rising player in this April's draft, and has the size and speed that GM's crave, but we all know the track record for rookie wide receivers. And that Culpepper guy will make the receivers look pretty good too. It took Peyton Manning's 49 touchdowns to overshadow Culpepper's 4700 yard, 39 touchdown season.
Even with an unsettled running back situation, the offense should still be a force. Michael Bennett has the edge for the starting spot, but Mewelde Moore could steal the job if he can stay healthy for an extended period of time. And if you want to count fantasy value, Moe Williams should be productive with 6-7 touchdowns this year.
Anything less than double digit wins will be a disappointment for this team. OVER.
Al: This team has Ewing Theory written all over it. But I still can't go over. Even if the defense is improved, at it's hard for it not to be, the offense is poised to take a huge step back. Not only is Moss gone, but the team's best running back is suspended for the season. Bennett may be fast, but he hasn't been good enough the past two seasons to hold onto the starting tailback job. Moe Williams has been underused throughout Mike Tice's tenure, and there's no reason to expect that to change this year. Moore will end up being the odd man out, even though he's likely Minnesota's best chance at having a productive running attack.
Next year around this time we're going to be looking back at this year's fantasy drafts and wondering what all those people who took Nate Burleson in the fourth round were thinking. As is pointed out in Pro Football Prospectus 2005, Burleson's success last season came when Randy Moss was lining up on the other side of the field taking up most of the defense's attention. When left alone as the Vikings' #1 WR, Burleson's production dropped significantly. I don't think Travis Taylor will be someone opposing defensive coordinators will gameplan around. This will be the first time in over a decade that the Vikings don't have a wide receiver worth owning in most fantasy leagues. UNDER.
2004 Record: 10-6
2005 Home Schedule: CLE, TB, NO, PIT, MIN, DET, CHI
2005 Road Schedule: DET, CAR, MIN, CIN, ATL, PHI, CHI, BAL
Vivek: Nobody in the league has been as tough as Brett Favre during the past decade, but you have to wonder how much more his body can take and if his ironman streak will end this year. The Packers took huge hits on the line with the departures of both Mark Wahle and Marco Rivera, and are nowhere close to matching their ability with replacements Matt O'Dwyer and Adrian Klemm. Add the fact that center Mike Flannigan is recovering from a serious knee injury, and this could be a very porous line.
The offensive line isn't the primary concern for the Packers. A 29th-rated defense in terms of DVOA got worse this spring. Safety Darren Sharper (Vikings) and cornerbacks Michael Hawthorne (Rams) and Bhawoh Jue (Chargers) left an already horrendous secondary, and adding insult to injury, Sharper went to a division rival. That leaves a very green unit of Ahmad Carroll, Joey Tomas, and Nick Collins. Not a good solution for a division that will rely heavily on the pass. The Pack did receive some good news on the defensive front when tackle Grady Jackson reported to camp last week, but the team immediately placed him on the physically unable to perform list.
Maybe this is the year that makes Favre decide to hang it up. UNDER.
Al: This could be a long season in Green Bay. I disagree, however, when you say the offensive line isn't the Packers primary concern. Green Bay just lost arguably the two best guards in the entire league to free agency. Not only could this lead to Favre finding himself on his back more often, but it won't help Ahman Green find his way back into the top tier of NFL running backs. If Green was that bad last year with Wahle pulling across the line and serving as his lead blocker, imagine what the Packer running game will look like with out the Every Play Counts All-Pro Guard on the line.
As bad as the Packers were at running the ball last year, they were even worse at stopping the run. Way too much has already been written about Grady Jackson on this website already through our short history, but you can't overstate how important he has been to the Green Bay defense the past few seasons. Without him at 100%, opposing running backs should have little problem getting to the second layer of the Packer defense. That, combined with Green Bay's inability to contain opposing running backs catching passes out of the backfield, should lead to linebacker Nick Barnett putting up a huge number of tackles again this season. Unfortunately for Packer fans, most of those tackles will come after the opposing runner has crossed the computer generated yellow line. UNDER.
2004 Record: 15-1
2005 Home Opponents: TEN, NE, JAC, BAL, CLE, CIN, CHI, DET
2005 Road Opponents: HOU, SD, CIN, GB, BAL, IND, MIN, CLE
Al: Wow, this looks like an easy schedule. New England, San Diego, Indianapolis, and two games against Baltimore. Those should be the only games on the schedule where the Steelers don't enter the game as a prohibitive favorite. I'm not a huge fan of what Pittsburgh did this off-season, but with this slate of games they have to make it to double digits in wins.
I would have liked to see Pittsburgh pick up a younger back to play behind 30-year old Duce Staley and 33-year old Jerome Bettis. Even the biggest Plaxico Burress hater has to admit that the drop off from him to Cedrick Wilson should be fairly steep. The starting right side of their offensive line is gone from last year, replaced by an inexperienced tackle and a guard looking to come back from a reconstructed ACL.
But who cares, look at that schedule again. It's a joke that a team can go 15-1 one season and end up with one of the easiest schedules in the league the next. The Steeler offense will have to take more than a slight step back for Pittsburgh to not end up with at least 11 wins. OVER.
Vivek: Opposing teams raided the Steelers during the offseason, but Steelers will not take much of a hit from those departures. Kendrell Bell (Chiefs) and Chad Scott (Patriots) were bigger names than impact players on the field last season after their injury and reserve role, respectively. Larry Foote more than surpassed expectations last year in place of Bell. The defense will return as strong as it was last year.
Plaxico Burress, regardless of his self valuation as a #1 receiver, was a great second option. His loss means that Antwaan Randle El slides into the #2 slot, and if Hines Ward holds out, you might bet on a sophomore slump from Ben Roethlisberger. Rookie tight end Heath Miller will be an immediate threat as a receiver over the middle for Roethlisberger, and his role may increase exponentially barring the outcome of the Ward drama.
Al is a bit more pessimistic about the Steeler offensive line with new starters Kendall Simmons and Max Starks, but they should be capable replacements on the right side of the line. The problem, however, is now depth on the line.
I'll go with the assumption that Ward makes his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance and this team still challenges for the AFC title. OVER.
2004 Record: 9-7
2005 Home Opponents: IND, NYJ, CLE, CIN, PIT, HOU, GB, MIN
2005 Road Opponents: TEN, DET, CHI, PIT, JAC, CIN, DEN, CLE
Vivek: Is it just me or is every team trying to bolster its receiver corps? The Ravens had one of the biggest coups in the offseason by swapping out Kevin Johnson and Travis Taylor for All-Pro Derrick Mason and first round pick Mark Clayton. Add in 6'6" "jump ball" receiver Clarence Moore, and Kyle Boller has all the tools he needs to succeed. Jim Fassel finally gets back into coaching by replacing Matt Cavanaugh, who was not able to groom Kyle Boller at all. Defenses won't be able to jam the line to stop Jamal Lewis this year with viable passing options for Boller. Another 2000-yard rushing season could be in the works.
Linebacker Ed Hartwell bolted for Atlanta, but the team now has Ray Lewis, newcomer Tommy Polley, and rookie Dan Cody in that group. Titans' cap casualty Samari Rolle joins Chris McCallister and Ed Reed in what Deion Sanders called the best secondary ever assembled. And for a change, Deion isn't necessarily over the top in this case. The personnel in the secondary will allow new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to run some 46 defense schemes. The 46 defense requires a strong linebacking corps and a secondary that can handle man coverage, exactly what the Ravens have. This will allow Ray Lewis to stalk his prey like he did a few years ago. The corners and safeties should also pile up a handful of sacks with blitz schemes. And if you were wondering, yes, Rex Ryan is the son of Buddy Ryan.
This team should be in the race for the division title until the end. OVER.
Al: I can see which division won the easy schedule lottery this year.
Is this the year Kyle Boller finally becomes an effective NFL quarterback? I think so. He finally has some legitimate wide receivers to work with, Mason and Clayton. A healthy Jonathan Ogden will give Boller a few extra seconds to find his new targets downfield.
Somehow, the Ravens found a way to improve the best pass defense in the league by adding Samari Rolle at cornerback. Add in Pro Bowler Chris McAllister and Deion Sanders as a nickel back, and no one will have a chance of going downfield on Baltimore this season. OVER.
2004 Record: 8-8
2005 Home Opponents: MIN, HOU, PIT, GB, IND, BAL, CLE, BUF
2005 Road Opponents: CLE, CHI, JAC, TEN, BAL, PIT, DET, KC
Al: I don't have any concerns about Cincinnati's offense. With Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, T.J. Whosyourdaddy, and a solid offensive line, the Bengals shouldn't have problems moving the ball down the field on most teams. The biggest question for me is whether the work-in-progress defense can be consistently effective. The unit has improved under Marvin Lewis from awful in 2003 to average last season.
Cincinnati hasn't done enough to improve the #22 run defense in the league. Other than their otherworldly ability to stop runs over the opposing right tackle, the Bengal defensive line struggled mightily from stopping opposing running backs from getting past them. Adding former Bear Bryan Robinson should help clog up the middle, but won't help stop the opposition from breaking off runs to the outside. UNDER.
Vivek: It is hard to not improve after yielding 130 yards per game on the ground. That's not a comforting thought for Cincinnati fans when Jamal Lewis, Jerome Bettis/Duce Staley, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, Ahman Green, Kevin Jones, and Priest Holmes are on the schedule for nine games this season. The Cincy tackles still will not be able plug the gaps and there will once again be little support from the secondary. The Bengals used their first two draft picks on George linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman, but are asking a lot if the team expects the duo to spark this defense. UNDER.
2004 Record: 4-12
2005 Home Opponents: CIN, CHI, DET, TEN, MIA, JAC, PIT, BAL
2005 Road Opponents: GB, IND, BAL, HOU, PIT, MIN, CIN, OAK
Al: This one will get ugly fast. If Cleveland can't win their home opener against Cincinnati, the Browns don't have a good shot at a win until Week 9 when Tennessee comes into town. Are you excited about seeing Trent Dilfer and Ruben Droughns in your backfield Browns fans? I wouldn't be either. The entire 2004 defensive line has been shipped to Denver, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in the long run, but it means that the Browns will not be especially deep there this year. The Brown pass rush was below average last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. It should continue to be among the worst in the league as Romeo Crennel takes a year or two to build the 3-4 defense of his dreams. UNDER.
Vivek: This team could conceivably go winless on the road. Thank god for the inevitable upset and surprise win. Trent Dilfer is not the savior, nor will Braylon Edwrds be the go to receiver in his rookie season. I accept the fact that I don't have the mind of a defensive coordinator, but I don't anticipate teams formulating game plans to stop Dennis Northcutt. Maybe the Browns will win some games on the ground, but that scenario is also up in the air as they still don't have a bone fide starter in Droughns and Lee Suggs.
If you want to praise some offseason moves by the Cleveland front office, it was cleaning a lot of dead weight by not bringing back Courtney Brown, Jeff Garcia, Ebenezer Ekuban, and Gerard Warren. That is one example of addition by subtraction. You can be sure that new general manager Phil Savage, a terrific talent evaluator, will not make the same mistakes in the draft. Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, this year's draft will not have much of an impact. UNDER.
Next week: AFC South and NFC South.
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