by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Well, Mike, our attempt to be timely was cruelly foiled last week. We now have a Carolina Panthers line, so we can be our usual, untimely selves.
For those of you not up on what we are doing here, Mike and I are using the over/unders provided by Pinnacle Sports to tell NFL teams how many games they should win relative to those over/unders. NFL teams then proceed to win however many games they actually do, generally ignoring us about as much as we are ignoring the numbers at Pinnacle, where those lines are accompanied by numbers indicating whether teams are likelier to go over or under. We are once again engaging in a grand exercise of passing of judgment, not fake gambling with fake money.
ATLANTA FALCONS (8.5), REDUX
Tom: After their first string outplayed the Tennessee Titans in the first preseason game, they outplayed the Jets' starters in their second preseason game. Book your tickets for Santa Clara now! As long as Matt Ryan continues to lead his team to touchdowns every drive he's on the field (and stays healthy), I have no doubt the Falcons will get there.
Mike: If preseason games meant anything, Steelers fans would be the functional equivalent of Browns fans
Tom: How much uncertainty is there about who the Falcons are this season? The offense has some good "skill position" players, a shaky line, and a good-but-not-top-tier quarterback. Well, one question we're still waiting to learn is which backs will carry the load, and just how effective they will be. As we discussed last week, Kyle Shanahan's Cleveland Browns had a very effective run game early in the season. We saw what he did in Washington. He's capable of doing a lot to help that run game this season. At least if the offensive line can just be cohesive and non-awful.
Mike: That isn't impossible, Atlanta was an average run blocking team last year, and Jake Matthews can only improve.
Tom: Sure. While I like Devonta Freeman, he's probably not a 200-plus-carry back, and I share the widespread concerns about Tevin Coleman's scheme fit, though of course Shanahan liked him enough to sign off on him (I hope).
Mike: I doubt that Shanahan had much say in anything, honestly. I doubt any front office would actually give a Shanahan any say in personnel decisions after the past few years. Plus, it's not like the front office has been particularly proactive in catering to their coaching staff's desires.
Tom: I'd talk to my offensive coordinator about a draft pick's potential scheme fit.
Mike: I'd find someone other than the ghost of Roddy White to play opposite Julio Jones, and replace my outgoing slot receiver with someone who isn't Some Guy. I'm just saying, building a roster based on the actual team's actual needs hasn't been a strength, recently.
Tom: On the other side of the ball, the defense still seems undertalented. I like Vic Beasley, but they needed more than one draft class's worth of players. We'll see what Dan Quinn can manage to do. Sheer competence would be enough to get them to 8 wins, maybe more against an easy schedule. Which is why this line is 8.5 after the Falcons went 6-10 last year.
Mike: It's true, and Carolina matchups have suddenly become a lot more attractive for everyone, unfortunately.
Tom: The schedule is going to be a theme of this column. The Colts were the only team in either the AFC or NFC South that finished in the top half of our DVOA ratings last year.
Mike: Yes, the defense will be full of rookies. On the other hand, it's really hard to repeat such a dismal performance, even if the squad is undertalented. Aside from the Saints, who have a ton of question marks this year, their schedule isn't exactly murderer's row defensively. I just don't think the offense can get it done. I think we're seeing another year of "We Don't Realize We Got [Matt Ryan and Julio Jones'] Talent." Under.
Tom: I'm going to be so split on most teams this week. Flip a coin, ask a Ouija board, close my eyes and throw a dart. Over.
Mike: I'm not sure why you bothered mentioning dartboards and ouija boards, Tom. You're a sportswriter. It's redundant.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (8.5)
Tom: Back on the board, and still in the same place, at least at the top line.
Mike: That actually really surprises me. And makes me wonder if they're in on our dart-based methodology, too.
Tom: These come with actual odds, which we're completely ignoring. As of this writing, the Panthers are 2.320 to go Over and 1.645 to go Under (43.5 percent and 60.8 percent, if like me you don't read decimal odds).
Mike: True, I just wanted to make another darts joke.
Tom: I thought Devin Funchess was a move tight end, not a wide receiver like Carolina decreed him to be. I doubt he can do what Benjamin did last year, which was less than what I was expecting from Benjamin this year. Hey, how's "Kelvin Benjamin getting hurt was bad for the Pantehrs" as a hawt taek?
Mike: Considering my opinion is that with Benjamin's injury, the wide receiver position for Carolina is a smoking, irradiated crater, that take is pretty darn warm.
Tom: Yes, but it is worse than the offensive line, where Michael Oher is starting at left tackle?
Mike: Fortunately (?) for the Panthers, Cam Newton is kind of bad at throwing the football, so it's not as disastrous as it might be for other teams.
Tom: To the extent he's bad, or at least inconsistent, he benefits from having big targets like Benjamin. Benjamin's replacement will be worse. I'd almost say that's especially bad for Cam.
Mike: Considering a large portion of Newton's poor performance last year was overreliance on Benjamin, I can imagine it'll be a big problem. It will also be a big problem for the running game, which is relying on a mediocre offensive line to get some push now that opponents can stack the box essentially every single play.
Tom: Good luck.
Mike: I'm afraid this offense is going to be somewhat of a train wreck, with a lot of Newton designed runs, broken pass plays, and unsuccessful handoffs to Jonathan Stewart. But hey, Luke Kuechly is awesome!
Tom: So to be better than .500, they'll have to rely on their defense. I really liked the front seven when they were the No. 2 seed in the NFC. I still like their linebackers.
Mike: I do like their linebackers, and I like their defensive line. Although not so much its depth.
Tom: The line is still good, just not as good as it was. I kind of enjoy the novelty of seeing how far a defense-led team with a questionable offense can go after our last two discussions were on Atlanta and, last week, Pittsburgh. But I'm with the conventional wisdom here. The Panthers won't be as good as they were last year, so they won't go over a line over last year's win total, even with the schedule. Under.
Mike: Even with the iffy secondary, this team is set up fairly well defensively to play in the NFC South. The Saints rely heavily on passes to tight ends and running backs -- which, thanks to their linebackers, the Panthers are excellent at defending against. We've already discussed Atlanta's problems putting together a good passing attack despite their obvious strengths, and Tampa Bay ... well, it's Tampa Bay. I agree, it's a fun discussion, but the offense is probably doomed. As the Browns can tell you basically every year, it doesn't matter how good your defense is if you don't even have a functional offense. Under.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (8.5)
Tom: No, this is not a typo. Three of the four teams in this division have an O/U of 8.5.
Mike: Speaking of the Browns, the wife and I spent last evening quoting Deadspin's "Your Team Sucks" entries at each other (for the Steelers and Browns, respectively). Being married to a rival fan is actually pretty fun. At least, it is if you're the fan of the good team, I suppose.
Tom: For the record, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 has the mean win projections for the Falcons, Panthers, and Saints at 8.9, 8.0, and 8.7, respectively. That's before the Benjamin injury or the Saints' decision to cut Junior Galette.
Mike: Have I mentioned the dartboard, yet? It's a very large and expensive dartboard. It is fantastic and very classy.
Tom: And after one defense-led respite, we're back to "offense that will probably be good, defense that probably will not."
Mike: Meet the new Saints, same as the old Saints.
Tom: Well, I'm fairly confident as long as Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy the Steelers will have a good offense. New Orleans, I'm less sure about. I'm not sure Drew Brees belongs in the semi-arbitrary "top tier" of quarterbacks able to surmount any issues around them, and there are issues with the departures of Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills.
Mike: I don't know. Despite a marked drop in productivity according to conventional stats, we still love him.
Tom: If the Saints have the 10th-best offense in the game, which doesn't seem unreasonable, they'll probably go 7-9 again. Unless the defense is better than I think it probably will be.
Mike: I really have no reason to believe the defense has upside above "mediocre."
Tom: Why, just because they've finished in the bottom five three of the past four seasons?
Mike: If they even can stay healthy, which with this group is a huge question mark.
Tom: The one year in the past four the Saints were good on defense, they had the second-most injured defense in the league by adjusted games lost, which reminded me of this Twitter comment by former Eagles (and Browns) executive Joe Banner.
@LRiddickESPN scout once said to me, referring to his view of this coach bias. We are only a couple of injuries away from being a good team
— Joe Banner (@JoeBanner13) September 18, 2014
Mike: So we have low expectations plus injury concerns for most of the defensive line and half the secondary. That is not a recipe for success.
Tom: Maybe I'm just being bitter about missing badly on them last year, expecting them to run away with a lousy division only to see them brought down to mediocrity.
Mike: To be fair, the division is still lousy. And Drew Brees is still the best player in it. Hard to not go over.
Tom: The division is still lousy. The Saints are part of that lousiness. Under.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6.0)
Mike: Let's just not talk about last year's breakdown, it's best for everyone to pretend it never happened.
Tom: You said the Buccaneers would go under last year. They did.
I know I'm going to end up pushing this line.
Mike: I always have trouble when so much of a team's performance hangs on a flashy rookie quarterback.
Tom: Interesting young quarterback I believe is likely to be quite error-prone as a rookie, offensive line in the same neighborhood of shakiness as Carolina's, the big targets Carolina doesn't have, and a defense of a couple great players and not enough around them.
Mike: While I feel I am more forgiving than most of growing pains for rookie and sophomore quarterbacks that show genuine talent, I basically expect them all to completely face-plant their first year. And most of their second year.
Tom: Which, of course, is why this line is 6.0 and not 8.5 like the rest of the division. One of my issues is that while the Bucs had the first overall pick and were lousy last year, they were just really bad and not epically awful. If Lovie Smith can have the effect I thought he'd have last year and get just competence out of the roster, rebounding close to .500 with a soft schedule seems totally reasonable.
Mike: I just don't have any faith in any aspect of the offense, from Dirk Koetter down to the rookies he'll be over-relying on to keep a shaky quarterback upright and a pathetic rushing attack past the trenches. I think I've mentioned how difficult it is for a non-viable offense to propel a team anywhere in this environment. Tampa still doesn't look like a real professional offense.
Tom: I like the match between the targets and the quarterback, though I'd like it more if Mike Evans wasn't currently injured.
Mike: I think Smith already had as much an effect as he is likely to with the defense as constructed. A relatively talent-poor defensive unit managed to rank roughly average last year.
Mike: They were, in fact, an excellent run-stopping squad, which I see no reason they can't be again in 2015. They were also, unfortunately, horrifically bad against their opponents' top wide receivers. And I don't see any reason to think that is going to change, either. Particularly because Chris Conte is basically the worst safety in the NFL.
Tom: I see the disparity between quarterbacks, that Josh McCown had a Gabbertian -41.9% DVOA last year, and think Winston could deliver a season like Mike Glennon's -3.1%, and the Bucs could improve a ton. I regret that I couldn't fit in a joke in the Bears chapter about Chris Conte's statement last season he'd play in the NFL even if it took 10 to 15 years off his life and him doing that to fans.
Mike: I do agree that this is a very weak division. Unfortunately, the league's Jameis Winston Adjustment Period also has some actual defenses in it, which means they'll have a long row to hoe. 6 is really low, but I'm going to stick to my guns; this team is terrible. Under.
Tom: I don't think there's a lot of separation among the worst teams in the league, such that you have locks to be really bad. But my trust is gone now. Under.
On to the AFC, where we start with the one team that was good last year.
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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10.5)
Tom: The Colts have 10 games against the AFC South and NFC South. So they'll just need to go 1-5 in their other games to hit the over. I jest. Mostly.
Mike: As Scott pointed out in FOA 2015, the Colts have been outscored in their losses to playoff teams since 2012 by an average of 20.5 points.
Tom: The Bills haven't allowed a single point in the postseason since Bill Clinton was president!
Mike: And the Colts' margin of victory in roughly the same number of victories has been in the single digits.
Tom: Yes, but this isn't about whether the Colts can win a Super Bowl. It's about whether the Colts can win more than 10.5 games against the NFL's little sisters of the poor plus a first-place schedule. As the 2012 Colts showed, you don't have to be that good to do that kind of thing. (Fourth-place schedule, granted, but still.)
Tom: They have an embarrassment of receivers. Gore is an upgrade over Richardson. I still don't like the offensive line, but I haven't liked it the past three years and it hasn't sunk the team.
Mike: The defense is still old, and bad, and requires the team to completely sell out to get decent pressure. That is a good way to get torched by the league's best offenses. But it is also a good way to tamp down the league's dregs in the AFC South. Over.
Tom: Over doesn't answer the important question about the Colts. But it will give them the chance to answer the important question.
HOUSTON TEXANS (8.5)
Tom: You might think the Arian Foster injury of indeterminate severity would change the line and make the Texans, like the Panthers or Bears, a much stronger bet to go under. You would be wrong, as this line is 1.952 Over and 1.900 Under.
Mike: That is odd.
Tom: Also, for the record, I still have not seen an episode of Hard Knocks.
Mike: Even more surprising is that Foster managed to be a top-10 back by DYAR and DVOA last year, despite regularly seeing what appeared to be a Roman legion in the box.
Tom: Great backs can find space even when there may not seem to be any. Backs like Alfred Blue run into their offensive linemen.
Mike: Which is why rumors of Houston's optimistic timetable being "this season" makes me willing to take a pessimistic view of the situation.
Tom: Also, "H", "I", "J". Yay, me.
Mike: I long ago gave up learning the alphabet
Tom: Wait, "I" comes before "Hu." Or "Hyu," however you romaji Houston. Well, this is the order we discussed it in, so it's the order you get!
Brian Hoyer was acceptable when the offense didn't revolve around him, not to belabor Cleveland's brief moment of competence. Does this line just revolve around exactly when Foster is able to come back? Over if he's back after a couple weeks like he might be, under if he misses half the season or more?
Mike: I feel that we are going to be in a really weird position where a team will actually miss Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Tom: Buffalo's still searching for an average starter. Tennessee downgraded from him last year. Why should Houston be any different? (Yes, I read Cian's piece. I'm still a member of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Is a Below Average Starting Quarterback, which given his obvious limitations makes me President of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Defenders Club.)
Mike: That is a really depressing office to hold. Anyway, Foster has an extensive history of lower-body soft tissue injuries. I wouldn't bet on a speedy recovery, and even if he does recover quickly, I can't imagine Bill O'Brien will be willing to push the timetable too hard with all the red lights the team's medical staff will be flashing in his face.
Tom: Eh, we'll see. I imagine if backs are as bad as Blue was last year Foster will get as much work as he can handle as soon as he can handle it.
Mike: Which means a decidedly below-average offense that has probably gotten worse this offseason will be without its best weapon. I really like the defense Houston has built around J.J. Watt, however.
Tom: You do? I don't like the front seven (the non-Watt parts of the front seven, granted), though the secondary doesn't bother me as much and I like the Rahim Moore signing.
Mike: I have great expectations for Jadeveon Clowney, who appears to be a go to start the season, and Vince Wilfork is one of those boring acquisitions that should improve the front seven overall by freeing up his excellent teammates, even as he gets a bit long in the tooth.
Tom: I like Clowney if he's actually healthy. We'll see about that. I thought last year Wilfork was done.
Mike: Also, I will admit that I'm rooting for Whitney Mercilus to turn things around, because I don't want to live in a world where an NFL player with such an awesome name is bad.
Tom: Watching hockey should inure you to that problem. Reto Von Arx and J.F. Jomphe were great names. Neither was good.
Mike: But Miroslav Satan was! Unlike the other Southron teams with good defenses we've discussed thus far, I think Houston has a real offense. And I think their defense will be tremendous, so I'm cautiously going over.
Tom: Fun fact: freshman year of college, our names on our door ended up as "Miroslav Satan" and "Doug Weight." My roommate insisted on an American's name, so Doug it had to be since Satan was still on the Oilers at that point.
I'm a moderate optimist on Bill O'Brien, but .500 would be a great accomplishment with the weaknesses I see. Under.
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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5.5)
Tom: Is this another projection all about the quarterback? I think the offense should be better. They did a lot of work to upgrade and give them options on the offensive line. I like the young receivers. They have backs. They have two solid tight ends. The defense was young and close to average last year.
Mike: No, it's also that they have a suspect line full of young players and overpaid free agents.
Tom: Yes, but those overpaid free agents are upgrades. It was a disaster last year. It could be OK this year. Then again, this is not the first season I thought Jacksonville had a chance to be respectable, and they haven't been yet.
Mike: I do agree about the rest of the offense, however. I'm just not sure how Operation Bortles Salvage is going to work behind a line I feel is so suspect. Provided that the operation has any chance of real success, which is an iffy proposition to begin with! That said, it's good that the Jaguars have gone mostly all in on youth.
Tom: Being bad and old is as depressing as it gets. At least you can sell youth and point to non-insane cases for optimism.
Mike: On both sides of the ball. Unlike the other bad teams we've discussed thus far, there is no core in Jacksonville to work with, just a prayer that the front office didn't tie them to an anchor when they drafted Blake Bortles. So if they keep with the program, I can see Jacksonville developing into a decent team, or good enough to pass as a decent team, provided the AFC South is still a scrap heap two years from now.
Tom: You don't have to be that good to go 6-10 or 7-9 with 10 games against the AFC and NFC South! Over!
Mike: I'm not particularly optimistic, but like we said, it's all about schedule. I like their defense, and 5 wins is really low. Jacksonville is better than Tampa Bay. Over.
Tom: Wait, you agreed with me? You're screwing me up again.
Mike: I can't believe I just complimented a team with "better than Tampa Bay."
TENNESSEE TITANS (5.5)
Tom: Like Tampa Bay, the 2014 Titans were awful but not the sort of super-untalented team that is almost doomed to spend years rebuilding. Until the bottom fell out last year, they'd spent the past couple seasons in Miami-esque mediocrity, save that they were denying being stuck in mediocrity (and their fans thought mediocre was the same thing as terrible, until Ken Whisenhunt taught them it was not). I don't know how good Marcus Mariota will be. But if he's just not a disaster, Tennessee has a decent chance to return to their normal mediocrity.
Mike: It's telling that my strongest reaction to the Titans chapter was profound sadness over Arizona's 2014 season.
Tom: How so?
Mike: Whisenhunt reminded me of Arizona, is all. It's just a mental indicator of how completely nondescript the Titans have been and how they have failed in extremely boring and predictable ways. Miami-esque mediocrity is a great way of putting it; for the past two or three years it has felt like the Titans were just kind of there. On the other hand, despite recent years I will not tolerate any suggestion that Dick LeBeau isn't some sort of genius-magician. So that's definitely helpful!
Tom: I was a tad dismissive of their free agency work in FOA 2015. I don't mean to suggest that I disagree with what I wrote there. Like Jacksonville's work on the offensive line, they needed those additions, even if it's easy to criticize them for a splurge like the one two years ago that got them all the way to 7-9. Add a home game against Oakland to the Souths, and they could get all the way back there again. Over.
Mike: I think you might be underselling the offense a bit, despite my disdain for Mariota. I don't think it's hideously bad, just a kind of garden-variety bad that might manage to not embarrass the Titans, especially if the offensive line continues its marginal improvements. See above comment about Dick LeBeau. Over.