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?
11 Aug 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
2004 Record: 12-4
2005 Home Opponents: JAC, CLE, STL, HOU, PIT, TEN, SD, ARI
2005 Road Opponents: BAL, TEN, SF, HOU, NE, CIN, JAC, SEA
Al: I like this team for another 12 wins. Road games against Baltimore, New England, and Seattle will be tough. At home, there's no one on the schedule this team shouldn't beat. On offense, yeah, they're good on offense. No one mentions the Colt line as one of the best in the league, yet last year they were #1 in adjusted line yards and #2 in adjusted sack rate. They were just as good in 2003, finishing #7 in adjusted line yards and #2 in adjusted sack rate. The losses of tight end Marcus Pollard and guard Rick DeMulling won't be enough to stop this team from having one of the best offenses in football yet again.
The big question for the Colts, as always, is their defense. The only thing the Indianapolis defense did well last season is rush the passer. Everywhere else they were below average, especially at linebacker. Only the Rams, Chiefs, and Packers were worse at defending passes to running backs. The Colts were also below average at stopping runs of ten yards or more. With so much money invested in skill position players on offense, it's understandable that the Colts didn't go out and sign one of the available free agent linebackers. Whether that is the correct allocation of their resources, however, still remains to be seen.
Even if the defense doesn't improve, however, the Colts should get to twelve wins against this schedule on their offense alone. OVER.
Vivek: The Colts thought that they had improved their defense enough last year, and you can make that argument. The team increased its sack totals from 31 to 45 and went from +10 to an NFL high +19 turnover differential. That still didn't stop teams from racking up close to 360 yards of total offense per game against Indy.
To bulk up the defense, the team drafted two physical cornerbacks in Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden with its first picks in April. Neither will immediately start, but should push Nick Harper and Donald Strickland soon and form the core of a more consistent secondary. One thing in the Colts' favor is that they face a relatively favorable schedule of opposing QBs â€“ those QBs might be efficient, but there won't be as many 350-yard passing days as there were last season.
The offense should once again score at will (except up in Foxboro). That Manning guy should be pretty good too and has one more year of Edgerrin James. The offensive line is the best in the league, having yielded only 14 sacks last year. I wonder if center Jeff Saturday turns around to Manning every play and pulls a "Manu the Slender" from Necessary Roughness? "They will never touch you, Mr. Manning," OVER.
2004 Record: 9-7
2005 Home Opponents: SEA, DEN, CIN, HOU, BAL, IND, SF, TEN
2005 Road Opponents: IND, NYJ, PIT, STL, TEN, ARI, CLE, HOU
Al: This team is going to struggle to put points on the board this year. Last year, the offense was below average across the board and they've done little this year to improve. Fred Taylor returned to his old injury prone self last year. Only this time, when he was healthy enough to play, he wasn't effective, finishing with a negative DVOA. (explanation) Behind Taylor is the disappointing LaBrandon Toefield and fourth round pick Alvin Pearman. Jimmy Smith will likely take at the very least a slight step back from his successful 2004 campaign as Jacksonville looks for him to yet again carry the passing attack at the age of 36. Jacksonville has been trying to find an heir apparent to Smith, but it doesn't look like they have one on their roster, or at least one who will perform at a Smith-like level this year. Reggie Williams was a disappointment as a first round pick last season. Troy Edwards has never lived up to the promise he showed as a rookie in Pittsburgh six years ago. Will Matt Jones be able to develop into a wide receiver good enough to be worthy of his first round draft status? Maybe, but odds are it won't be this season.
Jacksonville's defense was the team's strength last season, but I'd expect them to decline a bit this year. The Jaguars aren't very deep at cornerback after letting go of starter Dewayne Washington. Jacksonville's schedule, especially early in the year, is filled with teams that will have no qualms about throwing the ball 40-50 times a game to pick on this glaring weakness. Jack Del Rio is going to need to do more than place an axe and a tree stump in the locker room to inspire this team to a winning record this year. UNDER.
Vivek: While digging for some factoids for this column, I found one amazing stat. The Jaguars have not scored 30 points in a game since 2001, a span of 50 games, and with essentially the same team returning from last year, that dry spell will continue. Everyone knows about Byron Leftwitch as a competitor and talent, but the team has failed to set him up with viable targets, as Al discussed above, and the team would have been better going with Mark Clayton or Roddy White instead of Matt Jones. Jack Del Rio cannot guarantee that Leftwitch will be able to hand the ball off to Fred Taylor 250 times as Taylor is coming off knee surgery. A durable, yet not spectacular offensive line will have to do a better job of creating holes for whoever is carrying the ball for Jacksonville. If not, those Jacksonville television blackouts will continue because of the lack of excitement. UNDER.
2004 Record: 7-9
2005 Home Opponents: PIT, TEN, IND, CLE, KC, STL, ARI, JAC
2005 Road Opponents: BUF, CIN, SEA, JAC, IND, BAL, TEN, SF
Al: Is this the year Houston finally has a winning record? They've improved consistently across the board in their three years of existence. 2004 saw their first season with a positive DVOA on offense and a negative DVOA on defense. If not for the franchise's first poor performance on special teams, the Texans might have finally had a positive overall DVOA.
One thing that hasn't improved over the three years of the Texan franchise, however, is the terrible offensive line. David Carr has been sacked 140 times over the past three years, the most in the NFL over that time span despite missing four games in 2003. The line has never finished above #25 in adjusted sack rate. You would think that providing increased protection for the young franchise quarterback would be Houston's primary offseason goal. But it wasn't. According to the Texans' depth chart, they'll be returning the same five starters on the line that allowed Carr to be sacked 49 times last season. The only notable addition to the line is Victor Riley, listed as the team's second string left tackle. Riley comes over from New Orleans, where he was second in the league in false start penalties and missed the block that lead to Aaron Brooks' infamous pass to nowhere.
The defensive line hasn't been much better for the Texans. They made the 2004 All-Keep Choppin' Wood Team as the defensive line that hurt their team the most in the 2004 season. Last year the Texan line couldn't stop the run or rush the quarterback. Houston is going to need a huge contribution from rookie Travis Johnson if they hope to improve their woeful defensive line performance from a year ago.
This team doesn't have the players at the point of attack to reach the .500 mark. UNDER.
Vivek: We've been waiting for the trio of David Carr, Andre Johnson, and Domanick Davis to turn into the next Manning-Harrison-James, but that isn't happening. With Davis's durability questions, third round pick Vernand Morency could share the load during the season.
The league's tackling dummy, defenses have sacked Carr on average three times per game since he's been in the league. (Maybe he'll be a bit more nimble with his new haircut.) The Texans made a strong push for Orlando Pace in the offseason to keep Carr off the ground, but that was arguably just a negotiating ploy on the part of Pace. So the porous offensive line returns, leaving Carr to fend for himself.
The Texans' defense was inconsistent in 2004 (no touchdowns allowed for 3+ games last year along with six games yielding 27 or more points), but the team let go of defensive linemen Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman, cornerback Aaron Glenn, and strong safety Eric Brown. The team will need significant contributions from new starters Travis Johnson (defensive tackle), Morlon Greenwood (linebacker), and Kailee Wong (linebacker).
In their first three seasons, the Texans have gone from four to five to seven wins, but this year the trend of increasing win totals will end. UNDER.
2004 Record: 5-11
2005 Home Opponents: BAL, IND, CIN, OAK, JAC, SF, HOU, SEA
2005 Road Opponents: PIT, STL, HOU, ARI, CLE, IND, MIA, JAC
Al: This team is a mess. How the line is this high, I don't know. It will be interesting to see how Norm Chow's offense translates to the NFL game, but even if it's a rousing success, this team isn't getting eight wins. They start the season with games at home against the Ravens and Colts and at Pittsburgh and St. Louis. That's 0-4 right there. Even with a nice schedule to finish the year, this team will still likely have to win 67% of their games over the last 12 weeks of the season. I just can't see them doing it.
At running back you have the injury prone Chris Brown, or the overrated Travis Henry. At wide receiver, there's Drew Bennett and, yeah, that Drew Bennett guy. Defensive coordinator and FOO (Friend of the Outsiders) Jim Schwartz will be spending most of the season trying to figure out which of his young defensive players can be effective. By the time he figures it out, it may be too late for the Titans to finish 2005 with a winning record.
I expect Tennessee to be a big sleeper team heading into 2006, but getting there won't be pretty. UNDER.
Vivek: Bad luck? The end of an era? Selling your soul to the salary cap devil? Whatever the reason, five straight years of averaging 11 wins dating back to the 1999 season came to a screeching halt last year when Steve McNair finally broke down, and this offseason dashed any hopes of a happy tune in Music City. The only ones who stand to improve in 2005 are the publishers of the media guide and programs, because everyone in Tennessee will need one to recognize those on the field.
Gone from last year's squad are defensive ends Kevin Carter and Carlos Hall, cornerbacks Andre Dyson and Samari Rolle, running backs Robert Holcombe and Antowain Smith, offensive tackle Fred Miller, and wide receiver Derrick Mason, among others.
Regardless of Norm Chow, this team will struggle, and I think Al is being generous by calling this a potential sleeper team. Steve McNair tossed around the idea of retirement last year, and even though he took a half season off last year, the frustration from injury and a lack of production may grow. If McNair has a shot at returning to his pre-2004 form, he will have to get increased production from Drew Bennett and a healthy season from Chris Brown. The odds of that happening are as low as the odds of the Titans winning more than seven games. UNDER.
2004 Record: 11-5
2005 Home Opponents: PHI, MIN, NE, NYJ, GB, TB, NO, CAR
2005 Road Opponents: SEA, GB, NO, MIA, DET, CAR, CHI, TB
Al: We don't need any more Michael Vick bashing on this site. There will be plenty of time for that once the season starts and he's going 12-for-35 but getting raves for a 45-yard scamper up the sideline to pull Atlanta within a touchdown late in a fourth quarter. I'm writing this while watching "Michael Vick's Top Plays" on SportsCenter. There was one pass out of the five highlights shown. This isn't college football. In the NFL, quarterbacks are expected to complete the forward pass more than 56% of the time.
Atlanta finished with 11 wins, three more than their Pythagorean Record (explanation) would suggest they should have won. Since the AFL-NFL merger, only eight teams have been "luckier" than Atlanta in 2004. One was last year's Pittsburgh Steelers. The other seven teams saw their winning percentage decrease by an average of .119 the next season. If Atlanta drops by that much, you end up with nine wins. UNDER.
Vivek: Jim Mora Jr. has quite a conundrum. Michael Vick is a better passer outside of the pocket, but is a step away from a season-ending injury when he gets on the run. Still, there is a reason that the NFL has put the Falcons on national television for five games this upcoming season. Despite all the hype around Vick, the weight of the Falcons' season lies on the legs of its version of Thunder and Lightning, Warrick Dunn and TJ Duckett. The two combined for more than 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground last year.
If the running game fails to get going, the Falcons will struggle. It is safe to say now that Peerless Price is a bust and will not be the number one receiver that the team envisioned when they signed him to a hefty contract in 2003. The Falcons' lack of confidence in Price is evident by the fact that they drafted receivers in the first round of each of the past two drafts, Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. None of the Falcons' receivers should be expected to top 1,000 yards, so the gameplan will be to run the ball and play solid defense.
Despite the cap casualties of Ed Jasper and Travis Hall, the Atlanta front four will be one of the strongest in the league with Rod Coleman and Patrick Kerney on the left side. Former Raven Ed Hartwell joins Keith Brooking in the linebacking corps to anchor a very quick unit.
I'll give Vick the benefit of the doubt with another year of learning under his belt and take the OVER.
2004 Record: 7-9
2005 Home Opponents: NO, NE, GB, MIN, NYJ, ATL, TB, DAL
2005 Road Opponents: MIA, ARI, DET, TB, CHI, BUF, NO, ATL
Al: Nine wins is a bit higher than I'd like. I've been on the Panther bandwagon since it was just me and John Fox's relatives on board. I see this year's Panthers team as having a lot of similarities to the 2003 Patriots. Both teams are coming off of a season that many looked at as a step back from the season before because of a drop in wins. But in reality, the 2004 Panthers were better than the team that came before it, even though they won 4 fewer games than the 2003 squad. Just as the 2002 Patriots were an improvement on the 2001 team that stunned the world with their shocking Super Bowl victory. Carolina has seen a steady DVOA improvement throughout the John Fox era. Carolina had a DVOA of -16.6% in 2002, -5.1% in 2003, and 4.2% in 2004.
The loss of Muhsin Muhammad will hurt the Panthers' passing attack, but a full season of Steve Smith and the emerging Keary Colbert should make up for it. Mike Wahle is a huge addition to the offensive line and should help whoever ends up getting most of the carries have a successful season running with the ball. An almost inevitable improvement on defense on third downs will pay huge dividends for the Panthers, as it has for other teams that have come before.
Nine wins is a lot. More than I'd probably feel comfortable placing actual money on. But I like the Panthers to take the division, so I have to go OVER.
Vivek: In a year that nobody wanted to grab the last NFC playoff spot, the Panthers came back from a 1-7 start to be the team that the Super Bowl contenders wanted to miss out on the postseason. The offense lost Muhsin Muhammad to Chicago, but gets back Steve Smith who essentially lost the entire 2004 season to a broken leg. Jake Delhomme has quietly developed into one of the best quarterbacks and now has former Packer Mike Wahle protecting him. Wahle will move over to left guard to provide much needed help to the running game, which will drive fantasy owners nuts.
Most fantasy gurus suggest drafting a running back's understudy to protect against injury, but how about the entire depth chart? DeShaun Foster will most likely open the season as the starter, but Nick Goings was the leading rusher last year and a recuperating Stephen Davis is only one year removed from a 1,444 season. The darkhorse in the group is rookie T.J. Duckett-clone Eric Shelton. Regardless of the starter, the ground game should improve on its 98 yards per game from 2004.
The names on offense might not intimidate opposing teams, but the defense sure can. With all apologies to Jevon Kearse, Julius Peppers is the true "Freak" in the league. What other defensive end can lineup as a wide receiver? Combine him with one of the best defensive tackles in the league (Kris Jenkins), Pro Bowler Dan Morgan and the top two pickoff men in the NFC (Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas) and you have the makings for a potential shutdown defense. The Panthers will be one of the final four teams in the NFC this year. OVER.
2004 Record: 8-8
2005 Home Opponents: NYG, BUF, ATL, MIA, CHI, TB, CAR, DET
2005 Road Opponents: CAR, MIN, GB, STL, NE, NYJ, ATL, TB
Al: Meet the new Saints, same as the old Saints. The mediocre team that we've seen in the Superdome these past few seasons is back to flirt with .500 once again. The same average quarterback is behind center. The same overrated running back will be carrying the ball. Joe Horn will be 33 and is more likely to take a step backwards than to maintain his peak performance from a year ago. Donte' Stallworth hasn't developed into a legitimate #2 receiver in his first three seasons.
The defense was unspectacular in 2004 and hasn't made any additions that look like they'll lead to a big improvement in 2005. New Orleans is the most vulnerable at the linebacker spot. The Saints added no one of note to arguably their weakest position on defense. The Saints were in the bottom half of the league in defending passes against running backs and tight ends last season. Once opposing running backs made it past the defensive line, also a weakness in 2004, they had no problems getting through the second tier of defenders. New Orleans was in the bottom half of the league in percentage of runs allowed that went for ten yards or more.
A very tempting over, just because New Orleans has managed to pull out eight wins the last two seasons. But the Saints need to take a step backwards at some point. UNDER.
Vivek: New Orleans was another team in the division that made a late push for the playoffs, winning its last four games and missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker.
With all the calls for Aaron Brooks' starting job, it is hard to believe that he has started 69 straight games. Dante Stallworth finally stayed healthy for a season and provided n effective compliment to Joe Horn. Deuce McAllister had one of the most disappointing 1,000-yard seasons but should bounce back to his regular form now that his ankle is healthy. The defense, however, has been mostly responsible for four straight seasons looking in at the playoffs, and this year won't be any different. Al already outlined the defensive shortcomings of this team, so I won't beat a dead horse. UNDER.
2004 Record: 5-11
2005 Home Opponents: BUF, DET, MIA, CAR, WAS, CHI, ATL, NO
2005 Road Opponents: MIN, GB, NYJ, SF, ATL, NO, CAR, NE
Al: Tampa's underperformed their Pythagorean record by at least one win for the past two seasons. This has happened 45 times since the AFL-NFL merger. Those 45 teams improved by 2.5 wins on average in year three. Even if that happens in Tampa, they still don't hit the ridiculously high eight-win over/under.
The offensive line is still a mess. So much that the Bucaneers have actually brought back Todd Steussie after cutting him just two weeks ago. The vaunted Tampa defense had its worst ever DVOA ranking in 2004. With an aging linebacker corps, there's not much reason to expect Tampa's defense to move back into elite status.
Tampa has what looks to be a pretty tough road schedule. Although I'm not particularly high on Green Bay or Minnesota, they'll both be tough teams to beat in their own stadium. The only pushover on the schedule is San Francisco.
With this road schedule, and a couple of holes that haven't been adequately filled, nine wins seems like a stretch. UNDER.
Vivek: At first glance, this Bucs team appears to have a shot at topping .500 on the year. But as Al mentioned, the tough road schedule kills that chance. Last year's team was plagued by turnovers, 18 interceptions and 18 fumbles. Running back Michael Pittman (6 fumbles in 13 games) will have fewer opportunities to cough up the ball as a third-down runner behind first round pick Carnell Williams. Tampa Bay has finished in the bottom third in the league for rushing during Gruden's tenure. Williams is a smooth, smart runner who can find the holes and will need the carry the offensive load as Jon Gruden's offense lacks talent around him.
Brian Griese opens the season as the starter, but we all know his track record in leading teams to success. If Griese falters, Gruden will not have anywhere to really turn to. Chris Simms, forever in Gruden's doghouse, and Browns castaway Luke McCown are the next two quarterbacks on the roster. In Griese's defense, he will not have gamebreaking targets to throw to. Michael Clayton is looking to build on his rookie 1,193 receiving yards season, but the rest of the supporting cast includes Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and tight end Anthony Becht, who could never consistently catch the ball in the Meadowlands.
Tampa's defense on paper is solid, but with an aging unit, it could hit the wall suddenly. Call it a gut feeling, but with its age and 2004 DVOA ranking, I think the defense will let the team down. UNDER.
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