Scramble for the Ball: Series Premiere
by Al Bogdan and Ian Dembsky
Ian: It's my favorite time of the betting football year; the week after the season's over/under win totals came out. Nothing like a prediction in June of how many games each team in the NFL will win. We're gonna go through every team's predicted performance and make predictions ourselves. Let's start with the AFC, and the team that got destroyed in the Super Bowl (sorry Raider fans, but you had no idea how much you lost in Jon Gruden), the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland Raiders-- 9.5
Ian: Oakland's a real tough team to figure out. They've got more veteran talent than anyone, and they've had as many high draft picks as anyone lately, thanks to the Jon Gruden deal. But those players cost nearly the entire salary cap, which leaves little else for the supporting cast. Regardless of that, however, I still think Oakland has what it takes to make another push at a title. Despite playing in a tough division, they get to play Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Detroit, and should have what it takes to win 6 other games. I'm taking the over.
Al: I'm going to agree with you on the Raiders. It is possible that their key players will all remember that they're over 35 this year and shouldn't still be able to play this well. Oakland didn't lose or add much this off-season. I would have liked to have seen them add some more depth on both sides of the football, but Oakland should have enough to survive the inevitable strains and pulls that an older team will go through. If they stay healthy, they should walk over the AFC West. If they get a little banged up, 10 wins should still be realistic.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- 9.5
Al: This should be a very good road schedule for Pittsburgh. @KC, @SEA, @SF, @NYJ, @CLE, @CIN, @BAL, @DEN. I can easily see a 5-3 road record for the Steelers this year. If they perform just as well at home, that's 10 wins. They finally got rid of Kordell Stewart, leaving the offense in the hands of XFL Champion Tommy Maddox. I love the Steelers' passing game. As long as they give Amos Zereoue the majority of the touches at RB and their defense is as strong as usual, I'm driving the Pittsburgh bandwagon straight past nine wins.
Ian: As much as I am a fan of all XFL players (if only they hadn't chosen to play games Saturday nights...), there's no way I'd take the Steelers to win 10 games. Maddox was great passing the ball last year, and he'll likely be strong this year as well, but their defense doesn't impress me nearly enough to label them 10 game winners. Plus, it's much more fun to imagine a pissed off Bill Cowher. Gimme the under.
Tennessee Titans-- 9.5
Ian: I'm also gonna have to go with the under here. Steve McNair's gotta be the toughest player in the NFL, I think he played a few weeks last year with a dislocated head. But at some point he's gonna give in to one too many injuries, and the same goes for Eddie George. When a team's top 2 players are serious injury risks, I have a hard time projecting them to win 10 games. They've also got a lot tougher schedule than last year, which makes 10 wins a tough goal to reach.
Al: I don't like Tennessee much either. They're too thin at the skill positions. Eddie George hasn't been a top flight back in a couple of years. He was pretty good fantasy wise last year since he found the end-zone 14 times, but his yards per carry have been under 3.5 for the past two seasons. @IND + @PIT + @NE + @CAR + @JAC + @ATL + @NYJ + @HOU = 3-5 on the road. I can't see the Titans going 7-1 at home to beat the over. They're an injury or two away from 5-11.
Denver Broncos -- 9.5
Al: If I was a betting man, I would take the under on this one before it drops any further. Jake Plummer!?! The Broncos were upset that Brian Griese threw too many interceptions, so they signed Jake Plummer to be their quarterback? Plummer has thrown more TD's than INT's in only one of his 6 years in the NFL. The Broncos could have the best skill position players in the AFC with Portis, Sharpe, Smith, Lelie and McCaffrey. It's too bad Jake will be throwing the ball to players with the wrong colored jersey too much to let them show it.
Ian: I'm actually gonna go the other way on this one... Sure Jake's put up awful numbers in Arizona. But when the players around him have shown any signs of life, he's played well. He's like a Drew Bledsoe-type quarterback; he won't make a bad team better, but he'll put up great numbers on a great team. I look for Denver's offense to have a great season, and with the rushing defense they have, they'll blow a lot of opponents away. I'll take the over.
New York Jets -- 9.5
Ian: The Jets had quite a season last year, with Chad Pennington emerging as an amazingly accurate and smart passer. But unfortunately for him, Washington stole his favorite pass target, and Dallas stole his best outlet receiver. I think Curtis Conway will in time be an adequate replacement for Laveranues Coles, but the loss of Richie Anderson will be huge. The threat of him catching the ball out of the backfield kept defenses honest, even on passing downs, and opened up the deep ball. Curtis Martin is a great runner, but he's no elusive pass receiver... I think the Jets will end up with a lot of 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations. I'm taking the under.
Al: I'll take the under on the Jets as well. I think their upside this year is 8-8. There isn't anything easy about their schedule this year. Outside of their division, which looks pretty tough, they play @WAS, @HOU, @PHI, @OAK, @IND. Realistically that's 1-4, 2-3 at best. Let's be generous and give the Jets a 5-3 record at home. That means the Jets will have to win all of their division road games to beat the over. In the AFC East, that's just not going to happen.
Miami Dolphins -- 9.5
Al: And why isn't it going to happen for the Jets? Because of this team for one. Miami made a puzzling move in signing Brian Griese to be their backup quarterback. A full-fledged QB controversy has already begun, with very little upside. Griese is pretty much the same quarterback as Fiedler, just three years younger. He's an upgrade over Ray Lucas, but I don't see where creating a QB controversy with these two players has any positive benefits. That being said, I think Miami will be strong this year. Junior Seau will fit in very well in a defense where he's not only one of two players that can make a stop. Derrius Thompson could be a huge pickup for the Dolphins. He's my preseason fantasy sleeper of the year. Just look at his numbers over the last few weeks of last season. They have a tough December schedule, but Miami's road games are a little easier than the Jets'. I can easily see 10-11 wins this year for the Dolphins.
Ian: I haven't the faintest clue why you think Derrius Thompson will have a big year. Of course I'll have to draft him just before you to piss you off, but the Dolphins aren't a passing team. Last year Chris Chambers lead the Dolphins in receptions and receiving yards- with 52 catches for 734 yards. And 3 touchdowns. I'm actually pretty high on him having a much better year this year, but between him catching most of the passes and Ricky carrying the main workload, there won't be much left over for Derrius. Remind me to draft him in the Loser League this year.
Anyways, enough about Derrius. Miami is the worst team in December of all time. But they're too talented to not have 9 wins by then, and they should be able to squeak another one out. I'll go with the over.
Kansas City Chiefs-- 9.0
Ian: Now here's a team I really like. Of course, a lot of what I'm about to say could become null and void if Priest Holmes can't come back from that hip injury. But as is, the Chiefs were surprisingly good statistically last year, considering their record. This year, their schedule gets much easier, and I have the feeling you could be looking at an 11 or 12 win team. Trent Green is, to me, the best "second-tier" quarterback you can get in fantasy leagues this year. Look for the Chiefs to rack up the points in 2003, and to easily surpass 9 wins. I'll take the over.
Al: I couldn't disagree more. Kansas City had the worst defense in the NFL last year. They were 32nd in total yards allowed per game, 31st to last in passing yards per game, 24th in rushing yards per game and 28th in points allowed per game. They made some nice free agent signings by picking up Shawn Barber, Vonnie Holliday and Dexter McCleaon. Those three players won't be enough to move the KC defense from putrid to acceptable. Holmes will supposedly be healthy enough to be 100% at the start of camp in July. I'll believe it when I see it. If Priest isn't the back he was a year ago, the Chiefs won't sniff .500 this year. I'll take the under.
Indianapolis Colts -- 8.5
Al: Did I miss a memo? The Colts still have Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, right? Did Indianapolis get moved into a division that doesn't have Jacksonville and Houston in it? Tony Dungy and Manning don't usually fall apart until the first round of the playoffs. If I had any money to wager I'd put it all on this over.
Ian: Given the way Tony Dungy turned around the Bucs defense, it's hard to imagine him not doing the same for Indianapolis. He's not gonna have the same talent, but his system is sound and should keep opponents in check enough for the Indy offense to win a lot of games. I'm not as excited about the Colts as you are, but I do think they'll make the over.
Cleveland Browns-- 8.5
Ian: Here's another team that played above their heads last year. But unlike the 49ers, I think their young guys have a great shot at keeping it up for this year. William Green looks to be for real, as does their wide receiving corps. When they finally admit they're better off with Kelly Holcomb as their starting QB, they'll be a tough team to beat. I'll take the over.
Al: Cleveland's schedule looks very nice. I definitely think we'll see Holcombe as the starter sooner rather than later. They've lost a bit on the defensive size, but this schedule could be among the easiest in the entire NFL. If they don't win nine games Butch Davis should be fired.
San Diego Chargers -- 8.5
Al: I'm not high on KC or Denver, so I think the Chargers have a very nice schedule this year. An out of division road schedule of @JAC, @CLE, @CHI, @DET and @PIT doesn't exactly scare you. Losing Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau won't hurt their defense as much as it seems like it should. David Boston is a nice upgrade over Curtis Conway at WR and LaDanian Tomlinson should be the #1 pick in most fantasy drafts. I'd be surprised if San Diego didn't make the playoffs this year and it wouldn't shock me to see them on top of the AFC West. I'm all over this over.
Ian: Tomlinson should be the #1 pick in _most_ fantasy drafts? I think you're forgetting someone named "Emmitt Smith". Wait, that's the Loser League... I mean, you're forgetting someone named "Ricky Williams". I'm not saying Tomlinson shouldn't be considered for the top spot, but I don't think he should get "most" of the first overall selections. It's no surprise that the guy who had Tomlinson and Williams won our fantasy league last year... Anyways, I don't like the Chargers much at all. Drew Brees may become something special down the road, but right now he just doesn't do it for me- and having only one good receiver doesn't help him much. Tomlinson alone will give those guys 6 or 7 wins, but I don't see them winning 9 games. Of course, I'm a fan of Denver and Kansas City this season, so it makes sense that we disagree here. Gimme the under.
New England Patriots -- 8.5
Ian: Aaaahhhh, the Patriots. There's no team in the NFL like them, they're top-to-bottom above average talents with no top-level talent (I still wouldn't consider Tom Brady a top-tier quarterback, he's a product of the system). They have solid coaching, solid offense, solid defense (love the Rodney Harrison pickup), and they seem to genuinely like playing with each other. This team isn't much different than the one that won the Super Bowl two years ago (yes, they really did). The number one question, in my mind, is their run defense. Can Ty Warren really come in and stop Richard Seymour from being triple-teamed on almost every play? I think he can, and I think this is a 10-win team. Give me the over.
Al: 8.5 seems very low for the Patriots. It's an easy over, but I'm not as high on them as you are this year. The Patriots did nothing to improve their horrible running game in the off-season. New England was second to last in rushing offense last year and made no significant additions to either their offensive line or running backs. I do love the moves the Pats made on defense, though. I seriously doubt that New England will have the worst rushing defense in the AFC again this year.
Buffalo Bills -- 8.5
Al: I really don't want to pick the over here. I can't think of any coach/QB combo more likely to fall apart at the end of a season than Gregg Williams and Drew Bledsoe. I just convince myself to take his under, though. The Bills biggest weakness last year was their horrendous rushing defense. So what do they do? They sign one of my favorite players, Takeo Spikes as well as 330-pounder Sam Adams to clog up the middle. I don't think losing Peerless Price will be as big of a hit as it seems. Josh Reed was a very capable 3rd receiver last year and should pose enough of a threat to keep secondaries from completely concentrating on Eric Moulds. They should have added an offensive lineman or two to keep Bledsoe off his back, but I just can't this team being worse than they were last year. I wouldn't be shocked if the entire AFC East ended up at 9-7 this year.
Ian: Yeah, Buffalo has a lot of talent, all over the field. It'd be really tough to take the under. On the other hand, I'm one of the top Drew Bledsoe haters you'd ever talk football with. Plenty of physical talent, and a nice guy, but I'd NEVER want him quarterbacking my team. He's only as good as the rest of his team. I've never seen him lift up the players around him, and I don't like that in a quarterback. As I mentioned before, though, I think the Bills do have a lot of talent this year. I really like Travis Henry; he's a playmaker. And I agree with you that Josh Reed should complement Moulds well. Bledsoe should have another good statistical year, thanks to the players around him. I'll take the over.
By the way, I set the course record on the local Golden Tee 2004 machine with an 18-under par. Of course, it was the easiest course. Still, gotta love Golden Tee.
Baltimore Ravens -- 7.5
Ian: I like Brian Billick. I think he got the most out of the limited talent he had last year, and I expect him to do the same this year. Strong defense can keep your team in any game, and they have a strong defense. They should be able to scrap out enough close victories to win 8 games. I'm taking the over.
Al: Baltimore's defense should remain among the best in the NFL. Jamal Lewis is another year removed from his ACL surgery and could push himself into the NFL running back elite. I have to take the under, though, because the Ravens have one of the worst passing games in football. Baltimore had the league's 27th best passing offense in 2002 and have made no moves this off season that would appear to change this position. Chris Redman did not show much before going down for the season with a back injury. Rookie Kyle Boller could take the opening snap at center if Redman doesn't impress in training camp. Marcus Robinson and Frank Sanders are expected to be the starting wide receivers for the Ravens this year. If I was running an NFL franchise and wanted to improve my WR corps, I wouldn't make two players that weren't good enough to play for Chicago and Arizona members of my starting lineup.
Jacksonville Jaguars -- 7.0
Al: I don't like Jacksonville's schedule at all. The only two games where you would expect the Jaguars to be a favorite are their two contests against the Texans. Their new coach Jack Del Rio has a very good defensive pedigree, improving the Panthers last year and coaching the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens linebackers. Defense wasn't Jacksonville's main problem last year. They ranked 18th in total yards allowed, but were 9th in points per game and tied for 5th in the league in turnover differential. The Jaguars' main problems were on offense. They ranked 25th in total yards per game, 28th in passing yards per game. Is JJ Stokes going to change this enough for the Jaguars to win 8 games? I'm not betting on it.
Ian: Man, they do seem to have a tough schedule. They were lucky in that they kept Fred Taylor healthy all of last year, but a lot of that was due to Stacey Mack, who's now signed with division rival Houston. I think letting him go was a big mistake for Jacksonville; as Aaron would attest to he was statistically one of the most effective running backs in the NFL last year. Being mainly a goal line back certainly hurt Taylor's fantasy value, but it kept both of them in the lineup. Now we'll see if Taylor can handle a 16-game schedule as the feature back. My guess is that he won't last. Neither will Jacksonville, gimme the under.
Cincinnati Bengals -- 5.5
Ian: When Jon Kitna emerges as your top quarterback, you know you're in trouble. I almost feel bad for the Bengals; they can't even sign a top free agent by offering him big bucks. It's nice to get Kevin Hardy, but not when it means you lose Takeo Spikes. Their top draft pick won't make an impact this year, Carson Palmer will (and should) be brought along slowly. Time and time again we see rookie quarterbacks suffer if they're thrown right into the action. Even Michael Vick spent a year on the bench, and he's obviously reaped the benefits. If not for Corey Dillon, I'd predict an 0-16 finish (Tampa's still the only team to lose every game in a season). As is, I'll still go with the under.
Al: Over the past five seasons Cincinnati has won as many as six games only once. Is there any reason to think this year will be any different? Maybe. Hiring Marvin Lewis as the head coach should mean that the defense won't allow the most points in the league for a second year in a row. The Bengal offense showed some signs of life last season. Kitna completed over 60 % of his passes, Corey Dillon had another solid season and Chad Johnson became the first Bengal with over 1000 receiving yards this century. The Bengals look like a mediocre team, which is a gigantic step up from the past few pre-seasons. I don't think six wins is out of the question. I'll take the over.
Houston Texans -- 5.0
Al: The NFL has had three other expansion teams in the past decade. Both Jacksonville and Carolina won more than 5 games in their second year. Only Cleveland was unable to break the five-win plateau until year three. Houston has made some moves that will have them mirroring the Jaguars' and Panthers' second year successes. The biggest move of the Texans off-season was signing the Official Running Back of FootballOutsiders, Stacey Mack. Newcomers Greg Randall and Zach Wiegert and a returning Tony Boselli should help David Carr avoid another record setting 70+ sack season. Billy Miller is a great sleeper TE candidate. I'm not thrilled about the Houston defense, but it was the 32nd ranked offense that needed to be addressed the most this off-season. I think the Texans have upgraded their offense enough to squeak out at least five wins.
Ian: I'm definitely with you on this one. Not only will Stacey Mack be a huge upgrade over the James Allen/Jonathan Wells combo, the presence of at least a decent running game will stop the defensive line from rushing the quarterback on every play as if it's a pass. That should definitely lead to a much better offense, and much fewer sacks of David Carr. I have to give him credit, I never heard him whining about his crappy offensive line. Their defense was solid enough to keep them in games down the stretch last year; in their last 8 no one scored 30 points on them, and only 3 teams topped 20. It's good to see that they got better as the season went on. They should be able to scrap out 5 wins, if not more; gimme the over.
Ian: In a pattern seen last season, the AFC tends to have most of the middle-range teams, while the NFC has the studs and scrubs. Let's kick off our NFC predictions with the head of the studs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- 10.5
Ian: All my friends are very aware that I've been a Buccaneer fan for over 15 years now, and man, am I loving being the Champs. Certainly they're no one-year wonder, but can they repeat last year's performance to the tune of 11 wins? I think not. Tampa's one Brad Johnson injury away from starting Heywood Jablowme at quarterback, and I'm not gonna bet against that, especially since he'll be 35 years old this year. Also, despite a strong playoff performance, I'm still not sold on the offensive line's ability to protect him. The offensive system is so complex, it's really tough for a backup QB to step in and do the job.
Al: You're not excited about the Jim Miller era in Tampa? Or that the team's leading rusher and 3rd leading receiver from 2002 has a very good shot at starting the 2003 season in jail? I don't like this line at all, and I would never bet it, but I have to take the over. The Bucs are still the defending Super Bowl Champs and play in a division filled with unproven teams. Tampa should be able to go at least 4-2 in their division. 7-5 over the rest of Tampa's schedule seems like a fairly conservative prediction. Like you said, they're only an injury away from scoring 6 points a game, but if they stay relatively healthy, Tampa should make the over fairly easily.
Philadelphia Eagles -- 10.5
Al: Philly had a pretty crappy off-season. They lost Hugh Douglas, Cecil Martin, Brian Mitchell and Dorsey Levens. They added Jon Ritchie. It's not like the Eagles were already stacked in skill position players. Donovan McNabb will go down in sports history with Patrick Ewing and Alex Rodriguez as great players who never had the supporting cast around them to win a championship. The Eagles are moving into their new stadium, away from the friendly confines of the Vet. The Patriots didn't have great luck last year when they moved out of their old dump of a stadium into a modern marvel. I expect the same thing to happen in Philadelphia. There isn't a stretch on the Eagles schedule that you can look at and say "Yeah, they'll easily go 3-1 over these four games". I think the NFC East will be a bit tougher this year, making this a pretty easy pick for the under.
Ian: There's no question I'm taking the under on the Eagles; your analysis couldn't be more dead-on. Especially after that letdown of losing to the Bucs at home in the playoffs, they have to be questioning whether their team, as is, can make it to the big game. Not that you shouldn't draft Donovan McNabb, and draft him early...
Green Bay Packers -- 9.5
Ian: There's not much that interesting to say about the Packers. They're pretty much the same team every year... solid running, and Favre flinging bullets all over the field. Their defense does seem to be getting a bit better, though. Given that they play in a relatively weak division and they have one of the best home field advantages in football, I think they'll manage to win 10 games and take another division title, unless the Vikings can pull some defensive talent out of their ass. Gimme the over.
Al: I'm not very high on the Packers this year. Favre really slowed down at the end of last season.
First 10 games: 254 ypg, 1.9 TD and .7 INT
Final 6 games: 186 ypg, 1.3 TD and 1.5 INT
That's not a very promising sign coming into this season. If Favre plays like he did at the end of the year, Green Bay will struggle mightily just to make it to .500. At 9.5 I'll play it safe and take the under on both the number of wins this season for Green Bay and the number of weeks into the season before Peter King devotes an entire edition of Monday Morning Quarterback describing how Brett Favre is the greatest football player and person in the history of the world.
St. Louis Rams -- 9.5
Al: Kurt Warner is done. He had one of the greatest three season runs that a quarterback has ever had, but you can stick a fork in him at this point. He's supposedly fully recovered from his hand injury, but he was also supposed to be able to play with the injury last year. At no point during last season did Kurt Warner look like an MVP caliber quarterback. Marshall Faulk has not played a full 16 games since St. Louis' Super Bowl championship season. Who knows how last year's ankle injuries will impact his performance this year. You have to expect him to miss at least a couple of games based on the past few years. Ricky Proehl has left for Carolina, leaving the very important role of the #3 WR in the Rams offense up for grabs between Troy Edwards and Terrence Wilkins. Neither of these players showed anything last season. Half of the Rams secondary consists of the incredibly overrated Jason Sehorn and Aeneas Williams, who is coming back from a broken leg. This one could get real ugly, real quick. 5-11 ugly.
Ian: Ever since Rickey Proehl caught that touchdown to beat my beloved Bucs in the NFC championship game a few years ago, I've hated the Rams. I hate them with a passion. I'm glad to see that their "dynasty" is over, and that they've reverted to being a mediocre team. Of course, that's been almost entirely due to injuries. This year they start another injury-free preseason, and all you'll hear is how Kurt's hand never felt better, and his throws in practice have been perfect, and yadda yadda yadda. I'm sure Marshall is feeling great as well. But can it last? Not likely, and there's no way I'm picking them to win more than 9 games. I think they'll show flashes, and be a solid team (especially if they give the QB job to Marc Bulger), but a 10 win team they are not. The under it is.
Atlanta Falcons -- 9.5
Ian: Real simple here... To quote Bill Simmons, AKA The Sports Guy for ESPN's Page 2, "[Vick's] officially taking the Barry Sanders Memorial 'Never bet against me under any circumstances ever' Torch from Brett Favre next season". I'll take the over.
Al: I'm not completely sold on Atlanta. Peerless Price could easily turn into Alvin Harper v2. The Falcon defense was nothing special last year, especially weak on the run. None of their off-season moves seemed to address this huge deficiency. The Falcons success depends completely on the health of Vick. I think 9 wins is a safe bet in their conference, but I wouldn't lay money on anything more than that.
New York Giants -- 8.5
Al: Yeah, I'm a Giants fan and I'm taking the over. It's not as irrational of a prediction as my choice of the Mets to win the NL East this year, though. I've never been a big Jim Fassel fan, but he's never had a season with the Giants where they had fewer than 7 wins. Can he get those extra two wins this year to cover the over? I think so. New York made some nice small moves this off-season. Dorsey Levens moves Ron Dayne to the end of the bench. Dorsey was pretty effective last year when he got touches in Philadelphia, averaging 5.5 ypc. On special teams, Mike Hollis, Brian Mitchell and Jeff Feagles should all be upgrades over last year. With a decline in Philadelphia, a lack of talent in Dallas and a crapshoot in Washington, the idea of this New York team winning the division doesn't seem that far-fetched.
Ian: Kerry Collins and Amani Toomer really emerged last year as a top passing/receiving duo in the NFL. I think Jeremy Shockey will really emerge as a great pass-receiving tight end this year, as he learns what officials allow and don't allow in the middle of the field. He should become a Ben Coates-type of tight end, which won't allow defenses to focus solely on Amani's deep routes. Throw in Tiki Barber coming out of the backfield and the Giants look to have a very strong passing game this year, even if they have no one worth mentioning as a #2 WR. For that and the other reason you mentioned, I'll also have to take the over on the G-Men.
San Francisco 49ers -- 9.5
Ian: The 49ers aren't gonna win 10 games this year. They're not gonna win 8 games this year. I hate it when a team fires a coach because their star player doesn't get along with the guy. You're right about Erickson. At the same time, all Steve Mariucci did was take a bunch of young nobodies, threw them on the field with Garcia and Owens and won 10 games. He had a lot of young guys playing better than they really were, and a pink slip was all he got to show for his efforts. This year I bet the 49ers fall apart. Can't wait to see Terrell Owens turn into Randy Moss at that point. I'm taking the under.
Al: Someone has to win the NFC West, right? It might as well be San Francisco again. I didn't like the Dennis Erickson hiring. In his four years as coach of the Seahawks he did nothing but show an ability to take a mediocre team to a mediocre record. But when you get 6 games against Seattle, Arizona and the declining Rams, it's tough not to get to 10 wins on the season.
New Orleans Saints -- 8.0
Al: If New Orleans went 10-6 and made the playoffs, I wouldn't be surprised. If the Saints went 6-10 and finished in last place, I wouldn't be surprised either. This team always appears to be on the verge of greatness and then does something stupid like lose three in a row to the Vikings, Bengals and Panthers to close out the season. I'll take the over, just because of their easy schedule over the first half of the season. 6-3 before their bye week is not an unreasonable expectation for New Orleans.
Ian: How can the team that swept Tampa Bay have finished the season so poorly? They're the Jekyll and Hyde of the NFL; on some weeks they're unstoppable and others they stop themselves. I really think it's a toss-up as to how many games they'll win. With Aaron Brooks recovering from a bum shoulder and Deuce McAllister recovering from a bum ankle I'll guess they're in for a season of disappointment and take the under.
Carolina Panthers -- 7.5
Ian: How could _anybody_ take the over on Carolina? If you think Stephen Davis can save this team, I'm happy to wager you on that one. Their quarterbacks are awful, as are their wide receivers. Kevin Dyson and Ricky Proehl might look good catching passes from Steve McNair and Kurt Warner, but that doesn't mean they'll save the Carolina passing game. This team sucks; gimme the under.
Al: I actually think this is a pretty easy over. The Panthers were 7-9 last season and made significant moves to improve their major weaknesses. Carolina has no scary road games outside of their division, which isn't that scary to begin with. The Panthers had the second best defense in the league last year. The only thing holding Carolina back from a .500 record or better was their offense. Dyson and Proehl should do a good job of complementing the always-dangerous when healthy Mushin Muhammed. Steve Smith was Carolina's leader in receiving yards last year and could start the season as the #4 wide receiver. Karl "Mr. Hanky" Hankton is a perfect #5 wide out in Carolina's offense. Stephen Davis is a huge upgrade over Lamar Smith. Davis has averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry for the past four seasons. Lamar Smith hasn't been that effective of a runner for his last four teams.
Minnesota Vikings -- 8.0
Al: I really like the Vikings this year. They closed the 2002 season with three strong wins that knocked New Orleans and Miami out of the postseason. Michael Bennett developed into a legitimate starting RB with an incredible 5.1 yards per carry. They addressed their defensive weaknesses from last year through the draft and free agency, notable signing Chris Claiborne from their division rival Lions to start at linebacker. Most importantly, they play in what I think will be the worst division in football. Someone from the NFC North will finish at 9-7. The Vikings look to be the best bet to do just that.
Ian: I'm on the Vikings bandwagon with you. I think they'll be a solid team this year, they're offense is still full of young guys getting better. Unfortunately, I'd resist taking the over based on their schedule. S.F., @Atl, Den, @S.D., @Oak, @StL., K.C. are all tough out-of-division matchups. Their division may stink, but they tend to play each other hard, and Daunte has to stop turning the ball over before they can become an elite team. I think they'll show signs of improvement as a team, but I'm taking the under.
Dallas Cowboys -- 7.5
Ian: Now here's my favorite bet of the season. I'm taking the under. I love the fact that hiring Bill Parcells makes everyone jump immediately on the Dallas bandwagon, driving up Vegas' odds. Historically, Bill hasn't been that effective in his first season with a new team, and he's taking over a crappy Dallas team that's starting Troy Hambrick at running back, last time I checked. Richie Anderson is a great pickup, and I expect the defense to be much improved from last year, but this is NOT an 8 win team. Give Parcells a few years, though, and Dallas will be a playoff-caliber team.
Al: Parcells did take the 97 Jets from 1-15 to 9-7. I don't see that kind of improvement this year in Dallas. I agree with you that the Cowboy defense should remain strong this year. There is just nothing to like about the Dallas offense. Maybe Terry Glenn can rejuvenate his career by being reunited with Bill Parcells, but it's most likely that Glenn remains the inconsistent player that he has been for the past two seasons. I think it will be another year where the Loser League is filled with Cowboys every week. I'll go under as well. (For those who don't know about the Loser League, it's time you did- <Add in a link to the Loser League page here, assuming we have one>)
Chicago Bears -- 7.5
Al: I can't get my money out quick enough to bet this under. Kordell Stewart is no team's savior at QB. I would have stuck with Jim Miller. Anthony Thomas completely disappeared last season. He averaged almost a full yard less per carry than in his breakout rookie year. The Bears had a surprisingly poor defense in 2002, ranking 25th in the league, and did little to nothing in free agency to improve it. I don't see much to like about the Bears this season.
Ian: Not much to disagree with you with when it comes to Chicago- they're a depressing team. I love watching Marty Booker play, he's got great hands. And I like the wide receiver screens they like to run on offense. But the fading of Anthony Thomas and the subtraction-by-addition of Kordell Stewart points to a long season for the Bears, even if Brian Urlacher is the best linebacker in football. (Good thing I don't have to play against Ray Lewis after making a comment like that. No, Ray, I don't want to go for a ride in your limo...) Gimme the under.
Seattle Seahawks -- 7.5
Ian: Two years ago I was predicting a Matt Hasselbeck coming out party. Well, he was horrible that year, but it appears my prediction was a year too early- He was simply phenomenal down the stretch last season. In his last 6 games, he averaged over 340 passing yards a game and even rushed for 150 yards over that span. They've got weapons all over the field; I look for Jerramy Stevens to become a top-tier fantasy tight end this year. Their defense may be among the worst in the NFL, but the defenses they play against this upcoming season are really bad. In fact, according to last year's numbers, they play the worst combined defenses in the NFL this season. Fantasy alert! Look for a lot of shootouts in Seattle this year, with them often coming out on top. Along with the under on Dallas, this is my favorite over/under bet of the season. Gimme the over for Seattle.
Al: I have to take the over as well, but I'm not thrilled about it. I think this team ends up 8-8 and just misses the playoffs yet again. Every year it looks like Seattle is about to emerge as a contender. Every year it fails to happen. Like you said, their schedule is very favorable to their major strength - offense. Koren Robinson emerged late last year to become one of the top young wide receivers in football. Shaun Alexander is a bit too inconsistent but with the Seahawks' improved passing attack, Seattle should be able to survive the games where Alexander averages under 3.0 yards per carry.
Washington Redskins -- 7.5
Al: I'm not too crazy about Washington, especially with their early season schedule. Their first seven games are against possible playoff teams. It will take at least that long for one of Trung Canidate, Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson to emerge as a legitimate starter. Washington's early season schedule is not exactly what you want with an inexperienced quarterback running an offense that has undergone a major overhaul. If you compare the Redskins opening day lineup in 2003 to the one from 2002 you will see a different starter at every offensive skill position except for Rod Gardner, and at least two new starters on the offensive and defensive lines. Can a team that has had this much turnover be expected to succeed this soon? I don't think so, but look out for Washington in 2004.
Ian: The Redskins are a team whose coach is into a passing style of offense, yet they have possibly the worst collection of QBs in the NFL. There's something wrong with this picture. I love Champ Bailey and their linebacking corps, but they can't win a football game on their own. Their division is pretty weak, so I'm tempted to think they'll pull out 8 wins, but I can't do it. Gimme the under.
Detroit Lions -- 6.0
Ian: Detroit's schedule this year has them going up against teams that are poor offensively, but excel defensively. This is bad news for the Lions, as they don't have the firepower to overcome good defenses, even if their defense can keep things reasonably close. I'm a big Steve Mariucci fan, but Joey Harrington is no Jeff Garcia, and Az-Zahir Hakim is no Terrell Owens. I'm taking the under.
Al: I want to take the over here. Mariucci is a huge upgrade over Marty Mornhinweg as coach. The Lions lost at least two games last season because of poor coaching decisions. Mariucci has seen success and failure in San Francisco, but the one constant was the he could always put together a successful rushing attack. Even without a glamour running back, his 49er teams finished every year in the top 10 in either total rushing yards or yards per attempt. Last season Detroit was in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yards per attempt and 29th in total rushing yards. None of Detroit's off-season moves appear to have addressed this need. Can Mariucci succeed without a solid running game to fall back on? I don't know, but I'd like his chances more if the Lions defense and passing games weren't sub par as well. Have to go under, but I wouldn't be shocked if I turned out to be wrong.
Arizona Cardinals -- 5.0
Al: Can I really lay money on a team of professional football players winning four games or less this season? Yeah, I think so. Arizona has lost three of their top four wide receivers from 2002. Their replacements? I don't recognize a single name. Running back Marcel Shipp showed some ability last year, taking the starting RB job away from Thomas Jones. Shipp finished the season with over 100 yards of total offense in six of Arizona's last eight games. So what do the Cardinals do? They bring in Loser League MVP Emmitt Smith to carry the ball 12 times for 25 yards per game. Jeff Blake! Emmitt Smith! Kevin Kasper! 3-13!
Ian: The Cardinals will definitely be a bad team this year. I look through their schedule and I think, "There's only 3 teams there I think they'd realistically have a shot at beating." It's a shame that Emmitt decided to play for them, Marcel Shipp looked decent down the stretch last year (what a game against St. Louis!) and his reward is a spot on the bench so that Emmitt can drag on his career, Michael Jordan-style. Even Brian Billick couldn't turn Jeff Blake into a good quarterback; there's no way Dave McGinnis will. I'll take the under as well.