by Al Bogdan and Vivek Ramgopal
2004 Record: 6-10
2005 Home Opponents: WAS, PHI, NYG, ARI, DET, DEN, KC, STL
2005 Away Opponents: SD, SF, OAK, SEA, PHI, NYG, WAS, CAR
Vivek: So we have Drew Bledsoe reunited with Bill Parcells, the team signs Jason Ferguson and shifts to a 3-4 defense, and all of a sudden this is supposed to be a .500+ team? I just don't see it. This is a good up and coming team with Julius Jones in the backfield and Roy Williams hitting everything in sight in the secondary, but Dallas is a year away. Its success depends on the development of first round defensive ends Demarcus Ware (who may move to the linebacker spot in the new 3-4 defense) and Marcus Spears. With change to a 3-4 scheme, Parcells is effectively reducing the role of Greg Ellis, his leading sack man for the past four seasons. I am curious to see how he and veteran La'Roi Glover handle this.
What does Bledsoe have around him on the outside? Whatever it is, he will have to find it quickly as the not so fleet footed Bledsoe will have the aging Marco Rivera and Larry Allen protecting him. The Buffalo offensive line wasn't the only factor in opposing defenses sacking Bledsoe almost three times per game during his tenure there. That is the whole key to Bledsoe's success --give him time, and he will produce. Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, and Quincy Morgan are all nice pieces, but will not be able to bring Bledsoe back to his form from six years ago. Add in the fact that all three are coming off of surgeries, and that cannot make Bledsoe feel too confident. Tight end Jason Whitten might be Bledsoe's most reliable weapon, similar to what he had in New England with Ben Coates.
I might be being too harsh on this team, but out of division games against the Broncos, Chiefs, Rams, Raiders, Charger,s and Panthers do not hurt my case. A year from now I'll take the over but for 2005, I'm predicting a .500 record and the UNDER.
Al: Finally, some serious disagreement between us. I'm expecting Dallas to be one of the top teams in the NFC and possibly the favorite to be playing in February if Terrell Owens isn't lining up wide in Philadelphia for a full season.
There are a lot of reasons, other than the personnel upgrades, to expect Dallas' offense to significantly improve this year. (For more details, read the Dallas (written by yours truly) and San Diego chapters of the top-selling football book on Amazon.com). As is pointed out in much more detail in the book, Dallas was terrible passing the ball on third down last year. Even a moderate improvement in that category could lead to significant overall improvement in the team's offense. Also, Vinny Testeverde was atrocious in the fourth quarter last season. With a younger quarterback than Vinny behind center, Dallas could expect to have more consistency in game performance across all four quarters from Bledsoe than they got from Testeverde.
I am concerned about the secondary, which was Dallas' weak link last year. Their starters should be improved with the additions of Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn, but I have serious concerns about the depth behind those starters. If Henry, Glenn, or Terrence Newman gets injured, things could get ugly real fast in Dallas.
In any event, this team should go at least 9-7, even if they don't reach the Super Bowl contender status that I'm expecting from them. OVER.
2004 Record: 13-3
2005 Home Opponents: SF, OAK, SD, DAL, GB, SEA, NYG, WAS
2005 Away Opponents: ATL, KC, DAL, DEN, WAS, NYG, STL, ARI
Vivek: T.O. isn't the only one who has to take care of his family this year. I have a down payment and wedding to plan for, and if Terrell Owens doesn't suit up for the Eagles, I'll have to keep my day job because I am sticking with the Eagles this year. T.O. or no T.O, This team is a regular in the NFC title game, and the secondary of Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown and Michael Lewis can ensure that the Eagles will not need to score 30 points to win. This will essentially be the same defensive unit went to the Super Bowl last year, minus a handful of players who did not make much of an impact. If the defense can execute Jim Johnson's pressure filled schemes, you should see a something along the lines of last year's 17 interceptions and 47 sacks.
Even with a first place schedule, this team can approach last year's win total. OVER.
Al: This team has won at least 11 games for five straight years. The presence or absence of Owens probably will be the difference between this team having a tough run in the playoffs, or having a cake walk to another NFC Championship. Last year's Super Bowl team is returning virtually intact. The only off-season departure of any significance was Jermane Mayberry who left for New Orleans. But the Eagles have a replacement waiting in the wings with last year's first round pick Shawn Andrews. Add in the best secondary and special teams in football and there's just no way I could take the under here. OVER.
New York Giants
2004 Record: 6-10
2005 Home Opponents: ARI, STL, DEN, WAS, MIN, PHI, DAL, KC
2005 Away Opponents: NO, SD, DAL, SF, SEA, PHI, WAS, OAK
Vivek: 698 and 860 yards in the past two seasons. Does that sound like #1 receiver stats to you? Plaxico Burress missed five games last year, so even projecting his stats across a full season gives you a hair over 1,000. The combo of Burress and Amani Toomer is an upgrade from last year, but not one that would vault Eli Manning into the top half of NFL quarterbacks. You know that your 2004 wide receiver corps struggled when Ron Dayne found the end zone (1) more often than the top two receivers (0). Nobody ever knows what to expect from Jeremy Shockey, so the Giants cannot depend on him as a safety net for Manning. And if Jim Miller is slow to heal from hip surgery, the Giants will be forced to go with the reality star Jesse Palmer or husband-of-a-reality-star Tim Hasselbeck. New tackles Kareem McKenzie and Bob Whitfield should, however, help sure up an offensive line that allowed 52 sacks last year.
Can Tiki Barber pile up the same yards with defenses not as concerned with Manning? He averaged 91 yards rushing and receiving for the final five games of last season (versus 150 the rest of the year) and more alarming was his four fumbles during that span. The Giants would have to give the ball to rookie Brandon Jacobs, who looks more like Julius Peppers than a running back, if Barber goes down.
Towards the end of last season, Al played "What would Ernie Accorsi do?" and wrote, "I'd keep Eli, Tiki, Chris Snee, Will Allen, Gibril Wilson, David Tyree, Willie Ponder, Jeff Feagles, Osi Umenyiora, William Joseph, and maybe Shaun O'Hara if he moves over to guard. That's about it. Everyone else can be replaced." Well, Al was ten for ten on those guys, and the Giants build around them by signing Antonio Pierce in addition to McKenzie and Whitfield on the o-line. The losses of Norman Hand, Omar Stoutmire, Ike Hilliard and Terry Cousin will have a minimal impact. OVER.
Al: It's all about Eli this year in New York. As I've mentioned elsewhere -- yes, I wrote this chapter in the book as well -- the Giants have brought in new personnel to improve every one of their weaknesses from last season save one -- starting quarterback. If Manning is the quarterback this season that he was against Pittsburgh in Week 15, the Giants will be championship contenders. If Manning is the quarterback that he was against Baltimore in Week 14, Tim Hasselbeck will become the most talked about backup quarterback in the history of sports radio. I'll split the difference and say Manning plays like he did against Dallas and Cincinnati in Weeks 16 and 17: right around league average. As long as Eli doesn't stop them, this Giant team should make the playoffs or at least be in contention for a spot until the last week of the season. OVER.
2004 Record: 6-10
2005 Home Opponents: CHI, SEA, SF, PHI, OAK, SD, DAL, NYG
2005 Away Opponents: DAL, DEN, KC, NYG, TB, STL, ARI, PHI
Vivek: Al, make sure to temper your enthusiasm a bit after last year's Skins' love fest. Sorry for the cheap shot. I'll note that I also predicted the demise of Curtis Martin last year.
The nation's capitol did have a good offseason in terms of made for television drama -- the drafting of a quarterback of the future when the head coach had given his endorsement for the incumbent, two star players departing for "greener" pastures and what plotline would be complete without an assault/weapons charge for last year's star rookie.
While the potential of the 2005 players might be greater than last season, this team took a big step backwards in terms of on-field talent. Patrick Ramsey only had three wins in his half season of starting, so barring a Drew Brees-like resurgence, how long until Joe Gibbs hands the ball over to Jason Campbell? And even if he does, what weapons does he have on the field with him in the aerial game? Newcomers Santana Moss and David Patten are nice second and third receivers, but cannot carry this passing game. To say that the 2004 offense never got in synch is an understatement. All season the offense looked confused, especially on third downs, an anomaly for a team with a featured back the caliber of Clinton Portis. The Skins converted less than a third of their third down attempts, which can be linked to Portis's drop of 1.7 yards per carry from his other two seasons in the league. Joe Bugel will have to simplify the offense in order to reduce the training camp errors.
The team's best cover corner, Fred Smoot, jumped ship from a Redskins team that has gone downward since his arrival there, finishing a total of 12 games under .500 his four seasons. Linebacker Antonio Pierce followed suit and headed up I-95 to Giants stadium. Because of Dan Snyder's earlier open-wallet policies, the Redskins have limited resources to replace their offseason losses. Almost a quarter of the 2005 cap is allocated to players who are not on the roster or who will not see much action. The return of LaVar Arrington (we think) should soften those blows, but do not expect a defense that will mirror last year's.
The odds makers are being pretty generous with this line, so definitely the UNDER.
Al: Don't worry Viv, I'm not making the same mistake twice. Washington appears to be the weakest team in the division. While their fellow teams in 6-10 land spent their offseason adding to their team through free agency and the draft improving their team's weaknesses, the Redskins went around trading away their one effective offensive player to give them less cap space with which to improve the rest of the squad. The defense has seen departures, injuries and legal troubles this off-season, but very few additions. On offense, Casey Rabach and a returning Jon Jansen should lead to an improvement in the running game, but Washington has replaced the departed Laveraneus Coles and, according to a report on Redskins.com, Rod Gardner with Santana Moss and David Patten. At best it's wheel spinning for the sake of salary cap inflexibility. At worst, one of the league's five worst passing offenses from 2004 will find itself sliding even further down the rankings this year.
Is there anything I like about Washington this season? Sure. Robert Royal is my fantasy sleeper TE of the year. He finished last season with four touchdowns in Washington's last five games. With an increased role in the offense, Royal is a great pick as a #2 TE in leagues where you're forced to carry a backup. UNDER.
New England Patriots
2004 Record: 14-2
2005 Home Opponents: OAK, SD, BUF, IND, NO, NYJ, TB, MIA
2005 Road Opponents: CAR, PIT, ATL, DEN, MIA, KC, BUF, NYJ
Al: We're completely into uncharted territory here. Only one other team has won at least 14 games in consecutive seasons like New England has: the 1985 and 1986 Chicago Bears. The next year for Chicago was the strike year, when they still managed to pull of 11 victories. The Bears kept it going into 1988, winning 12 games. What does this mean for New England? Absolutely nothing.
I want to go under, but I just can't do it. Sure, you have to wonder how the team will do after losing both their coordinators. But the personnel is just as good, if not better than it was last year, despite the departures of Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law. The wide receiver corps is deeper than ever with the additions of David Terrell and Tim Dwight. That should make up for the inevitable decline of Corey Dillon as he turns 31 after logging a career-high number of carries last year. The offensive line is back pretty much intact from last year, possibly improved with the addition of first round pick Logan Mankins.
The biggest question marks are on defense, where Bruschi is done for the year and Law is out looking for a job elsewhere. But the secondary was effective without Law for most of last season, and New England has brought in a number of linebackers to fill in for Bruschi as well as Ted Johnson, who surprised the team by retiring today. It would be nice for the Patriots if Chad Brown could stay on the field for a full 16 games for the first time since 2001, but even if he doesn't, newcomer Monty Beisel should be effective, at least on pass coverage.
The schedule looks tough, but the Patriots are still the toughest team any of their opponents will play this year. I'm glad this line isn't a half point higher. OVER.
Vivek: Have we all learned yet not to bet against Bill Belichick? The Patriots will probably slot in Deion Branch in the secondary to replace Ty Law and Patrick Pass at linebacker for Teddy Bruschi. Ok, there was sarcasm there, but how many of you would have believed that Troy Brown would make a greater impact on defense than offense last year? We are all waiting to see how Belichick will do without his right-hand men, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, and that might be Belichick's greatest personnel loss during his years in New England.
So how do you beat the Patriots? You cannot stack their schedule with playoff teams, as New England has compiled a 16-1 record against playoff teams during the past two seasons. You cannot rattle Tom Brady unless maybe you bring back Tara Reid into the picture. And Bridget Moynihan may be the only one who can break through the offensive line to get to Brady. Last year the Steelers handed the Pats their worst loss when Corey Dillon sat out with a thigh injury. If Dillon misses an extended period of time, Brady and the Patriots will find life a little harder. Al is more confident about the WR crew than I am. Branch, Givens, and Terrell should not be a comforting sight if Brady has to revert to the shorter passing game from 2003. Tight end Ben Watson, who lost his 2004 campaign to a knee injury, would have to develop into a deep threat quickly.
On the defensive side, the Pats will slot in free agent signees Brown and Beisel while Bruschi sits this season out recovering from his stroke. Brown help will keep the pass rush at the top of the league, having averaged almost three a game last season. Law was the only other significant defensive loss, but Asante Samuel is emerging as a solid corner.
Another 13-14 win season is within reach. OVER.
New York Jets
2004 Record: 10-6
2005 Home Opponents: MIA, JAC, TB, SD, NO, OAK, NE, BUF
2005 Road Opponents: KC, BAL, BUF, ATL, CAR, DEN, NE, MIA
Vivek: This Jets team is one of the hardest to predict in the league, one that could end the Patriots' run as the toast of the AFC or one that could fall flat without its leader Chad Pennington. After Pennington's rotator cuff surgery, there is still an outside chance that Jay Fiedler opens the season as the starter. Regardless of whether or not he will be under center in Week 1, Pennington has missed all of the offseason workouts with new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and his downfield attack. Heimerdinger's offense requires a quarterback with good arm strength and that's not Pennington's game. The return of Laveranues Coles and potential comeback of Wayne Chrebet will mean nothing if Pennington's shoulder does not allow the team to be aggressive. A few interceptions downfield, and Jets fans might not miss Paul Hackett's play calling so much.
Curtis Martin has to slow down one of these years, and this might be the one. Martin could miss last year's starting right tackle Kareem McKenzie, with an unproven Adrian Jones now in that spot. At least if anything does happen to Martin, Derrick Blaylock can easily step in as a different style runner.
The Jets made huge strides in 2004, but regressed this offseason. Pardon the pun, but the team is thin at the tackle spot after Dewayne Robertson. The defection of nose tackle Jason Ferguson will not only hurt Robertson, but also rising linebacking stars Eric Barton and Jonathan Vilma. Opposing teams had to devote multiple offensive linemen to take care of Ferguson, but now they can focus their efforts elsewhere.
I am not sold on Pennington's shoulder, and for that reason, I'll take the disappointing UNDER.
Al: What are you talking about Viv? This team is deep everywhere. So deep that they could spend their first draft pick this year on a kicker! (Yes, Mike Nugent bashing by Football Outsiders. Big shock there.)
Seriously, though, I agree that the Jets didn't do enough to fill the hole left by McKenzie. The Jets had one of the best offensive lines in the league last year according to the new and improved adjusted line yards. They were third in the league running behind right tackle and the best in the league running outside the right tackle. Now, a lot of that has to do with Kevin Mawae's amazing pulling, but McKenzie has to be given some of the credit as well. With an unproven right tackle, you have to expect the Jets rushing numbers to decrease, especially to that side of the line.
I really like the Blalock signing, though. He was in the top 10 in DPAR and top 5 in DVOA last year and had a positive DVOA in 2003, albeit in limited playing time. (DVOA and DPAR explained here.) He'll more than make up for the departure of LaMont Jordan and should end up with a good number of carries backing up and eventually sharing time with the sure-to-decline Curtis Martin.
That road schedule is sick. I wouldn't pencil in a single victory. The Jets aren't going to reach 10 wins without going at least 4-4 on the road, and with this schedule I just don't see it. Especially if The Chad misses more than a game or two with his inevitable annual injury. UNDER.
2004 Record: 9-7
2005 Home Opponents: HOU, ATL, MIA, NYJ, KC, CAR, NE, DEN
2005 Road Opponents: TB, NO, OAK, NE, SD, MIA, CIN, NYJ
Vivek: Run, defend, and protect young quarterback J.P. Losman. The game plan is pretty simple for the Bills in 2005. Willis McGahee gets his long awaited full-time starting job in 2005. He may not, however, put up the eye popping numbers that he did as the starter last year with this downgraded offensive line. Other than quarterback, the only other position that will feel a drop-off from last year is the offensive tackle spot after Jonas Jennings signed with the 49ers. McGahee needs to run between the tackles, and we will wait to see if Mike Gandy and Mike Williams can step it up.
I like the pickup of Kelly Holcomb to back him up if head coach Mike Mularkey feels the need to sit Losman for a bit. Losman will have a good group of receivers around him, though. Eric Moulds pulled in 88 catches last year, and the Bills will finally end their efforts to make Josh Reed a solid #2 wideout with the push of Lee Evans and rookie Roscoe Parrish.
This team was very close to the playoffs last year, and I think Buffalo will be competitive again this year, but it is hard to take the over with the Jets and Pats on the schedule for four games. UNDER.
Al: Why do odds makers think this team will do worse than last year? The loss of Drew Bledsoe and Travis Henry? I can understand the hesitation to wager that a team with essentially a rookie quarterback will have a winning season. However, J.P. Losman is unlikely to decide the fate of this team. Not when virtually the entire defense, number one in DVOA last year, is coming back for 2005 and they have a running back that PFP 2005 projects to finish among the NFL's top five in rushing yards.
The Bills' road schedule is much easier than the Jets' looks to be. As you'll read sometime in the next few weeks, I'm not sold on Tampa, New Orleans is perpetually mediocre, and I think Oakland will still struggle, especially on defense, despite their recent additions. If Buffalo can win those games and squeak one road victory out against a division rival or either San Diego or Cincinnati, they'd be 4-4 on the road and half way to hitting the over/under number. Should be an easy OVER.
2004 Record: 4-12
2005 Home Opponents: DEN, CAR, KC, ATL, NE, BUF, NYJ, TEN
2005 Road Opponents: NYJ, BUF, TB, NO, CLE, OAK, SD, NE
Vivek: Grass Valley, California. There, I got that obligatory Ricky Williams joke out of the way.
Gus Frerote or A.J. Feeley? Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams? Marty Booker or David Boston? If you like camp position battles, then this will be a fun team to watch. Frerote, Brown and Booker should be the opening day starters, and those are all the right calls. Feeley has proved nothing as a starter in the NFL, and Williams is nowhere near the physical shape that he was in two years ago (not to mention the mental shape).
With all the offensive struggles from last year, the defense carried this team (if you can say "carried" for a team that won four games). The Dolphins went out and signed pass rushers Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday, but will miss corner Patrick Surtain. Opposing quarterbacks will light up when they see an aging Sam Madison and unproven Mario Edwards and Reggie Howard lined up against wide receivers. UNDER.
Al: Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'm expecting the Dolphins to be at least mediocre this year. Williams has been knocked on more than one occasion on this site. But after Williams has had a year to recover from the wear and tear of two 380+ carry seasons, and with Brown sharing the backfield, Miami could actually have a decent running attack.
Of course, this team will only go as far on offense as their line will take them. The Miami offensive line has been awful, finishing at or near the bottom of our offensive line rankings for the past two years. Stockar McDougle will be an upgrade over John St. Clair on the right side of the line. Sprinkle in a little more Vernon Carey and a little less Wade Smith, and maybe this won't be the worst offensive line in football.
On defense, the Dolphins has as deep of a defensive line as you'll find anywhere in the league. They have two lines worth of starters on their team. An effective rotation will keep the linemen on the wrong side of 30 like Jason Taylor, Keith Traylor, and Carter fresh and more effective. The secondary was effective last year and should remain so despite the losses of Surtain to free agency and Will Poole to injury.
Miami has the easiest road schedule of any of their division rivals. If they can find a way to go just .500 at home, this team should be able to squeak out 7 wins. OVER.
Next week: AFC North and NFC North.