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?
22 Jul 2005
by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
Al: The first column to ever run on this website that wasn't written by Aaron was the inaugural edition of Scramble for the Ball, where Ian Dembsky and I went through the over/under lines for all 32 teams going into the 2003 season. Last year, in between Ian's departure and Vivek's arrival as Scramble co-writer, Aaron and I went through the over/unders again. This time we split the over/under discussion into four different columns after realizing that no one in their right minds would read through an analysis of all thirty-two teams in one sitting. Now, with Vivek ready for his second year of Scrambling, we're back for the Third Annual Scramble for the Ball Over/Under Extravaganza. Without further Apu, we'll start out with the two western divisions this week and work our way back across the country over the next three columns, starting with the NFC West. Lines come from VegasInsider.com.
O/U: 4.5 wins
2004 Record: 2-14
2005 Home Opponents: STL, DAL, IND, TB, NYG, SEA, ARI, HOU
2005 Away Opponents: PHI, ARI, WAS, CHI, TEN, SEA, JAC, STL
Al: In the premiere edition of Scramble for the Ball two years ago, I asked myself, in print no less, "Can I really lay money on a team of professional football players winning four games or less this season?" The answer was yes, as I correctly predicted the 2003 Cardinals would finish the year with fewer than five wins.
The question now is whether the 2005 49ers will be better than the 2003 Cardinals. You have to expect them to be better than the 2004 49ers, just because they can't get much worse. Only once since the AFL-NFL merger has a team won two games or less in one year and finished the next year with fewer wins: The 1982 Baltimore Colts were winless in a shortened season after managing only two victories in 1981. So we can pencil the Niners in for at least two victories. We'll give them victories over Arizona and Houston at home.
Are there three more wins on the San Francisco schedule? I'm not sure I see them. San Francisco has the toughest home schedule in their division despite finishing with the worst record in the NFL last year. The 49ers improved their offensive line by signing Jonas Jennings and drafting David Baas, but have they improved anywhere else on the field? Joe Nedney should be an upgrade at kicker, but it's not like the 49ers were losing too many games last year on missed field goals. Are Marques Douglas and a full season of Julius Peterson enough to turn the worst defense in the league into something respectable? Nope. UNDER.
Vivek: So you have Alex Smith throwing to whom? Let's run down the 49er depth chart at wide receiver -- Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle, Johnnie Morton, P.J. Fleck. If you can honestly say that you've heard of P.J. Fleck and know the dish on him, well more power to you. It is going to be a long learning process for #1 overall pick Smith. (Side note: the team has no expectations and a cerebral rookie, so they absolutely should start Smith from game one. Can Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, or Cody Pickett do any better?) Former Buffalo offensive lineman Jonas Jennings joined the Niners, but the team lost its best offensive tackle to Detroit: Kyle Kosier.
It is a rough report when your tight end (Eric Johnson) is the only bright spot on the offense. Kevan Barlow was supposed to be the breakout fantasy player of 2004, but all he did was cause his owners headaches. His low point of the season was when former coach Dennis Erickson sat him in favor of Maurice Hicks against the Redskins.
San Fran is setting themselves up for a great pick in the 2006 draft. D'Brickashaw Ferguson or DeAngelo Williams anyone?
Four and a half games seem generous. I'm going with Al's pick here and will take the UNDER.
Al: D'Brickashaw? I thought I'd heard some great first names on NFL players, but if this guy gets drafted next year he moves right to the top of my list.
O/U: 7 wins
2004 Record: 6-10
2005 Home Opponents: STL, SF, CAR, TEN, SEA, JAC, WAS, PHI
2005 Away Opponents: NYG, SEA, DAL, DET, STL, SF, HOU, IND
Al: Arizona should have won the NFC West last season. I've been arguing for a while that if you put a mediocre QB behind center for the Cardinals in 2004 they would have run away with the division title. So what did Arizona do in the off-season? They added a mediocre quarterback in Kurt Warner. They also had what appears on paper to be a great draft, adding a starting running back and cornerback as well as depth in the secondary and at linebacker.
With this improved Cardinal team comes a pretty nice schedule. Before Week 16, Arizona only plays one team that finished 2004 with a positive DVOA (Carolina). Those last two games against Philadelphia and Indianapolis look daunting, but neither of those teams has played a meaningful game that late in the season in a few years. By the time Arizona gets to Indianapolis, Peyton will likely have his annual playoff loss in New England locked up and it will be Sorgi time all over again.
Barring injuries, the Cardinals should be able to fall into an 8-8 record, and I wouldn't be surprised if they found themselves with double digit wins for the first time since 1976. OVER.
Vivek: Put a mediocre QB behind center, and yes, they can win the division. But what about a mediocre QB behind a mediocre offensive line (Leonard & Co.)? Warner will not be on the ground as much as he was in the Meadowlands, but he is going to have to do a lot to guide this team to the playoffs. A full season of Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Bryant Johnson will help, but that talented trio does not feature any real burners that can get open very quickly. They will have to use their bodies across the middle as Warner escapes the rush.
The rest of the offense will revolve around my dark horse pick for offensive rookie of the year -- J.J. Arrington. Arrington has supposedly looked good in workouts, especially with receiving skills that will let him say on the field in third down situations.
Despite all the focus on the offense, I believe that the defense will guide this team to more than seven wins. The 2004 squad was in the middle of the pack in DVOA last year and added cornerback Antrel Rolle and end Chike Okeafor. OVER
O/U: 8.5 wins
2004 Record: 9-7
2005 Home Opponents: ATL, ARI, HOU, DAL, STL, NYG, SF, IND
2005 Away Opponents: JAC, WAS, STL, ARI, SF, PHI, TEN, GB
Al: Random pre-season prediction: Walter Jones suffers a season ending injury during training camp. After missing it because of contract disputes for the past few seasons, you just know something bad is going to happen now that he's actually practicing in the summertime.
If Matt Hasselbeck and Bobby Engram can stay healthy all season, there's no reason this won't be the top offense in the NFC. I love the additions of Joe Jurvicius and Jerome Pathon to replace the departed Koren Robinson. Robinson showed flashes of greatness at times, but dropped way too many passes and was a real distraction.
Seattle's offense wasn't the problem last year, though, it was their terrible defense. The Seahawks allowed over 20 points in 12 of their last 14 games in 2004, including their playoff loss to St. Louis. The additions of some new blood in the secondary should help Seattle keep down opponent scoring enough to win most of their games.
Looking at Seattle's schedule, 4-4 on the road looks like a real possibility. They'd only need to win five at home to get to nine wins. Seems like a pretty solid OVER.
Vivek: Flashback to the NFC Wild Card Game in Seattle last year. The Seahawks are driving, down by seven with 27 seconds left. Matt Hasselbeck fires a pass to Bobby Engram in the end zone that proceeds to pull the wide receiver equivalent of Bill Buckner and lets the pass go right through his hands. That scenario, as Al pointed out, was all too familiar to Seattle last season. Engram and Pathon are sure-handed, but I'm not sure that they will put the team over the top. Darrell Jackson still drops too many passes to move into a higher tier of NFL wideouts.
The addition of defensive backs Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon should help and avoid the scenes of Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis sprinting to the end zone. That should outweigh the loss of last year's team interception leader Ken Lucas.
There are a lot of toss-up games on Seattle's schedule this year and the Cardinals are no walkover anymore. I see a .500 record, so give me the UNDER.
O/U: 9 wins
2004 Record: 8-8
2005 Home Opponents: TEN, SEA, NO, JAC, ARI, WAS, PHI, SF
2005 Away Opponents: SF, ARI, NYG, IND, SEA, HOU, MIN, DAL
Al: I hate this line. On the one hand, I think St. Louis did a lot to improve their defense in the off-season. On the other hand, ten wins seems like one win too many for this team. The offensive line has more questions going into this season than in any season in recent memory. Marc Bulger keeps improving, but is still erratic. This team was terrible away from St. Louis last year, and there is just one too many scare games on that road schedule for me to go over. Plus, I can't stand Mike Martz. I would never lay money on this either way, but forced to pick I'll go UNDER.
Vivek: Ten wins seems pretty attainable for the Rams. You know exactly what you will get from the offense and, as Al mentioned, the defense has improved greatly. Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley are instant upgrades from the group that could not tackle last season. The defense cannot do any worse than they did last year in the takeaway department (only 15, which resulted in a league low -24 turnover differential). Factor in a maturing Jimmy Kennedy and emerging Anthony Hargrove, and the Rams should be able to do enough to let the offense win the games. For that, I'll take the OVER.
O/U: 8.5 wins
2004 record: 10-6
2005 Home Opponents: SD, KC, WAS, NE, PHI, NYJ, BAL, OAK
2005 Away Opponents: MIA, JAC, NYG, OAK, DAL, KC, BUF, SD
Vivek: The Denver Browns (sic) did not impress me with their off-season moves, most notably the addition of four defensive linemen. Regardless of Ian Gold's presence and stud sophomore D.J. Williams, the weight of the defense will rely on the lineman -- Gerald Warren, Courtney Brown, Michael Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban and Trevor Pryce (returning from surgery) --who are a step below their counterparts from last year. As our FO partner Mike Tanier wrote in a recent Strategy Minicamp, the ideal defensive tackle needs to be able to split the offensive lineman, and this unit lacks the agility to do so on a consistent basis.
People have been tagging Tatum Bell and Ashley Lelie for breakout seasons on the other side of the ball, but again, I see this as more potential versus reality. Lelie had a nice 2004 season (54 catches for 1084 yards), but a breakdown of each game shows that he only caught more than four balls once and only topped 70 receiving yards once. Bell might be a fantasy star for the closing stretch of the season, but Mike Shanahan might be enticed to throw Mike Anderson, Quentin Griffin, and Maurice Clarett into the mix early on. Worst case, the Broncos always have Al's favorite player. Al's favorite player. (Scroll Down to Lesson 3).
The best off-season pickup may be Todd Sauerbrun, and we will all have to wait and see how many 60-yard punts will be in Invesco Field next year.
I have already been pretty harsh on a team that does have a lot of talent, but the clinching factor for my pick is the competition from their division rivals. This team can easily go 2-4 in the division, and out of division games against Indianapolis, New England, Philadelphia and the Jets do not give them a walk in the part the rest of the way. UNDER
Al: I can't in good conscience say that a team that voluntarily signed Ron Dayne to a contract will have a winning record. In all seriousness, though, this team took a step back this year. I still don't understand why you would try to improve upon the #5 defense according to DVOA by adding the Cleveland Browns defensive line. The AFC West got the short straw on the schedule this year by drawing the AFC East as their intra-conference, non-division opponents. I'm with you Viv. UNDER all the way.
O/U: 8 wins
2004 record: 5-11
2005 Home Opponents: KC, DAL, SD, BUF, DEN, MIA, CLE, NYG
2005 Away Opponents: NE, PHI, TEN, KC, WAS, SD, NYJ, DEN
Al: I don't think anyone expects this team to only put up 320 points on offense like they did last season. The big questions remain on defense, where only one AFC team allowed more points or had a lower DVOA in 2004. I'm not sure I see enough of an improvement on that side of the ball to say the Raiders will finish with a winning record. Warren Sapp and Ted Washington are both still there and both still old. Oakland was second to last in the NFL in pass defense DVOA and looks to be even worse this year. The linebacking corps will be hurt by the departure of Napoleon Harris, who departed in the Randy Moss trade. With the departure of the law firm of Buchanan and Buchanon and the addition of a pair of rookies, the Oakland secondary would be a shoo-in for the honor for being the worst in the league if not for the presence of Charles Woodson. UNDER.
Vivek: I don't care what problems Randy Moss might have -- attitude, showboating, poor sportsmanship, bad hair day -- this Raiders offense is a horror for defensive coordinators with him. This could be the NFL equivalent of the Fun n' Gun with Moss on one side, Porter on the other and Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel thrown in there as well. Kerry Collins might be the most knocked in-demand quarterback out there in the fantasy world. Remember that he piled up three straight years of 3600+ yards in New York without a true star receiver (apologies to Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard, Tiki Barber, and Jeremy Shockey).
Balance out the aerial attack with LaMont Jordan, and you have all the makings of a potent offense. What will help Jordan the most is the fact that he does not need to carry the entire offense on his 5'10" frame, and not even the entire running game. Despite his workhorse mentality and desire to validate his contract, Norv Turner will make sure to use Zack Crockett in short yardage situations.
I love the offensive line, anchored by Robert Gallery, Jake Grove, and Barry Sims, one of the most underrated linemen in the conference. He was supposed to be a fill-in until Gallery was ready to take over the left tackle spot but wound up starting every game there last year.
The best defense is a good offense? Ok, the saying is flip-flopped, but it might be true in this case. The Raiders are going to hold onto the ball a lot on offense, allowing the defense to rest more. The coaching staff will also abandon the 3-4 and revert back to the 4-3, becoming more of an opportunistic unit -- utilizing the blitz and putting players back into their natural positions. This will be enough to keep the team in games. If you couldn't tell, I'm taking the OVER.
2004 record: 7-9
2005 Home Opponents: NYJ, PHI, WAS, OAK, NE, DEN, SD, CIN
2005 Away Opponents: OAK, DEN, MIA, SD, BUF, HOU, DAL, NYG
Vivek: That half game in the line is a blessing for me and is the clincher for the pick. Gunther Cunningham burned me last year and despite the additions of Derrick Johnson, Patrick Surtain, and Kendrell Bell, this defense still will not put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and will not plug the gaps in the line. This team was shutout in the sack category four times last season, and recorded only one sack in another three games -- the 40 overall sacks for the year is a misleading statistic.
The lack of burners to go downfield will allow defenses to shorten the field and hone in on Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez. Sammie Parker and Eddie Kennison do not make up a very imposing 1-2 combo at the wire receiver spots. They need to hope that FredEx does more than create over-the-top sound bytes for the sports talk programs. UNDER.
Al: I have to disagree with you on this one, Viv. This team should have won at least nine games last year. Kansas City finished with two fewer wins than their points scored and points allowed would indicate they should have. When a team underperforms its Pythagorean record by that much, it tends to bounce upwards the next season. When you look at 16-game seasons since the schedule was lengthened in 1978 (so, not counting 1982 and 1987), teams that have underperformed their Pythagorean record by at least two games in one year have seen their win totals increase by an average of 1.78 wins the next season.
There's no reason this over/under line should be a half game higher than San Diego's, but with Kansas City's improved defense, ten wins is very realistic. If they could add a healthy Ty Law, the Chiefs would move from one of the worst secondaries in the league to possibly the best in their division. The offensive line is still one of the best in football. Priest Holmes will show signs of aging, but with Larry Johnson, Tony Richardson and Robert Holcombe, the Chiefs have one of the deepest backfields in the league. Gonzo and Eddie Kennison are good for about 1000 yards apiece. Fourth round pick Craphonso Thorpe should develop into Kansas City's number two receiver by midseason, and secure his place in the pantheon of amazing first names. Craphonso? How can you do that to a child? OVER.
O/U: 9 wins
2004 record: 12-4
2005 Home Opponents: DAL, NYG, PIT, KC, BUF, OAK, MIA, DEN
2005 Away Opponents: DEN, NE, OAK, PHI, NYJ, WAS, IND, KC
Vivek: Last year's 12-4 record will be hard to match, but a playoff push and ten wins is within reach for the defending AFC West champs. This team did not have any major losses (Doug Flutie and Tim Dwight) and had a steal in the draft with Shawne Merriman. The 12th overall pick could have been a top five pick in terms of immediate impact and true ability. He adds to an anemic pass rush, but one that was still one of the most improved overall defenses from 2003 to 2004.
The offense will still revolve around LaDainian Tomlinson, who will approach 2000 total yards once again. LT, Brees, and Antonio Gates are in their prime now, and a full season of Keenan McCardell and a seasoned Eric Parker make this a very balanced offensive unit. I might also be the only Darren Sproles fan out of the FO-ers. I'm always rooting for the little guy, and he could be the Joe McEwing of the NFL -- a super utility man, returning kicks, catching the ball out of the backfield, taking some end-arounds and the occasional handoffs in lieu of Jesse Chatman.
The Chargers will hit the OVER but just barely.
Al: The Joe McEwing of the NFL? Does that mean he'll eventually find his way onto the roster of my favorite team and end up starting half the season despite being one of the worst players in the sport? No, I'm not a bitter Mets fan.
I talked up Merriman a lot this off-season, but the biggest addition to the Charger defense through this year's draft may be defensive tackle Luis Castillo from Northwestern. He'll add some needed depth and flexibility to an already solid defensive line. Plus he tested positive for steroids, so you can expect him to be able to push opposing offensive linemen out of his way.
There are still big question marks in the defensive backfield. Quentin "15-yard penalty" Jammer is still San Diego's number one cornerback. The Chargers' road schedule is filled with teams that will have no problem throwing successfully against San Diego's secondary. Nevertheless, I don't see any reason this team should be three games worse than it was last year. The offense is intact and the defense should be improved, even if only slightly, by the additions of the two rookies. Have to agree with you, Viv, and go OVER.
Next week: The AFC and NFC East.
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