Ian: Welcome to Part II of Scramble for the Ball's annual look at NFL over/under projections. For those of you that missed the last column, we talked about the lines for the lower-rated half of the AFC. This time, it's on to the higher-rated teams of the AFC -- and highly rated, they are. Four teams are projected to win 10 or more games, while the other four are projected to win nine or more (in addition to the Bengals, who were covered in the last Scramble). The NFC, by contrast, has only two teams projected to win 10 or more games, and six projected to win nine or more. Bill, is football going the way of baseball, with the AFC playing the role of the American League?
Bill: Maybe we could get that D.J. Dozier comeback I've been pining forâ€¦ Nah. It just means there's more value in the NL -- er -- NFC. That's for you to exploit, little gamblers. The NFC, however, must wait till next week -- let's finish up the AFC, starting in Florida:
Jacksonville Jaguars (o/u 9)
Bill: Most people are wondering whether the Jaguars will be able to replace the production of the retired Jimmy Smith. While the quality of their selections can be questioned, the Jaguars have addressed the issue by drafting three receivers in the first round over the last three years. Although Marcedes Lewis can be expected to struggle (as you will read in this year's Pro Football Prospectus 2006), Ernest Wilford (9th in DVOA last year) and an improving Matt Jones can be expected to pick up the slack. Reggie Williams, on the other handâ€¦ well, at least he's not Charles Rogers. The real key, though, is having Donovin Darius back in the lineup. The Colts' regression to the mean will be the Jaguars gain. Over.
Ian: I'm a huge Byron Leftwich fan. By now you've all probably seen the footage where his offensive linemen carried him up the field to help him lead his team, since he couldn't walk. Not only is he the kind of leader that is always there for his team, he's also among the football equivalent of Big Papi: Always performing at his best when the game is on the line.
Throw in the clutch factor with a division that includes four virtual "bye" weeks against the Titans and Texans (not to mention a home game against the Jets!), and I think the Jaguars are much more likely to win ten games than they are to lose eight. I'll agree with you and go Over.
Miami Dolphins (o/u 9)
Bill: Miami's season was real weird last year -- they won their last six games of the year, which would make you think they outperformed their Pythagorean numbers a little bit, but they pretty much matched up perfectly. (Pythagorean projection explained here.) After adding Daunte Culpepper, and with Ronnie Brown getting the rock full-time in the backfield, you figure their offense will improve. On the other hand, this front seven is old. When you combine that with the Taylor-Thomas divorce (no, that is not an attempt at a Home Improvement reference), the defense can be expected to decline. I think that the offense's improvement will be a little more incremental than the defense's decline, and when you combine that with an easy schedule, the Dolphins' playoff hopes look good. Over.
Ian: I definitely agree with you on this one; this is one of the better Over opportunities out there. Nick Saban has been extremely impressive in what he's accomplished in his short tenure as Miami head coach. He took a 3-7 Dolphins team into late November and December and won their last six games -- an amazing feat. Shedding that "Dolphins in December" image will go a long way to having this team believe they're on their way to the playoffs.
And as you point out, they do have what looks to be a relatively easy schedule. Getting home games against Green Bay and Minnesota is a boon. Traveling to Chicago can be tough, but traveling to Detroit isn't exactly intimidating. Heck, they have the hometown fans that rooted for the visiting team last season. The Week 1 matchup in Pittsburgh is a big one. If they can win there, which I think they will, an over bet on Miami will be like cash (which is just as good as money!).
San Diego Chargers (o/u 9)
Bill: Oh, Chargers, how I love thee. Keep in mind that this team had nearly 11 DVOA Estimated Wins last year, and nearly 11 Pythagorean wins as well. There's a crop of aging defensive players being supplanted by a group of youngsters with serious promise. If you read the book this year, you'll see how much the college quarterback projection system loves Philip Rivers. When you factor in that the Chargers won't be facing the league's hardest schedule this year, they're pretty much a mortal lock for ten wins. Over.
Ian: This is the NFL! There's no such thing as a "mortal lock for ten wins." Especially when you're (essentially) starting a rookie quarterback. The Chargers do have lots of offensive talent led by Gates and Tomlinson, and you have to love what we've seen out of Shawne Merriman so far. So, hopefully for them, Rivers can ease his way into the flow of the NFL, letting his teammates do most of the work early on as he gets up to speed.
The good news is the schedule. The Chargers open with a game at Oakland, then a home game against Tennessee, then a bye week. That should give Philip plenty of time to get his feet wet while the Bolts jump out to a 2-0 record. From there on out things do get tougher, but games against the NFC West should provide another three wins, they should be able to go 3-3 against division foes, and then they need just two wins in four games against the AFC North and a game at Buffalo. I realize that as the season goes on, adjustments will cause dramatic changes in the strength of schedule perceptions, but I based on what I see I have to go Over here.
Bill: Mortal. Lock. Remember. Marty is coaching. Now, if you asked me if they were going to win a playoff gameâ€¦
Kansas City Chiefs (o/u 9.5)
Bill: Now, on the other hand, there are the Chiefs. I'm not sure if Willie Roaf's retirement knocked this line down any, but it probably should have. I have confidence that Larry Johnson is real great and will gain 1,500 yards. It's just the other 52 guys I'm worried about. This is an old team. Real old. Essentially, I'm saying the bottom's about to drop out -- especially when you consider that they'll be facing the third hardest schedule in football. Easy Under .
Ian: Yep. Strangely, though they have arguably the best running back in football -- and top fantasy pick everywhere, even by Reggie Bush -- the outlook for this Kansas City team is not good. Tony Gonzalez, Eddie Kennison and Samie Parker are not exactly the most intimidating receiving trio in football. In fact, they're among the worst. Kennison may be the next Rod Smith/Tim Brown type, having productive seasons year after year even though everyone keeps expecting him to fall off the football map, but Tony G's best years are behind him, and Samie Parker is, well, Samie Parker.
Losing Willie Roaf is indeed a huge blow to this team's offensive efficiency, while the defense isn't one to be feared. Will they have a solid season? Yes. Any team with a strong running game and a terrific fan base is going to be competitive. But are they a playoff team? I just don't see it. I'm taking the Under.
Denver Broncos (o/u 10)
Bill: We're getting up to the serious win totals here now. The most important thing for me when it comes to the 2006 Denver Broncos is that they'll be facing, according to DVOA, the hardest schedule in pro football. Last year, a very good Chargers team couldn't overcome that task on their way to a disappointing season. That being said, I think there's some reason to think the Broncos will, in fact, be able to overcome that. First, I think the Chiefs are about to collapse, and the Raiders aren't anything to write home about, either. If that's the case, the Broncos' schedule difficulty decreases some. Unlike the Chiefs, this isn't a particularly old team, which makes me think there is some room for improvement upon last year. I'm not going to lie -- I'm a little worried that Mike Shanahan's geniusosity has gone haywire and he is trying to prove his infallibility to fantasy football fans by naming an undrafted rookie free agent as his starting running back, but he gets the benefit of the doubt at this point. A somewhat iffy Over.
Ian: Here's the number of regular season wins for the Broncos over the last four seasons, beginning with 2002: nine, ten, ten, thirteen. Clearly the Broncos have been getting it done, thanks in part to the best home field advantage in all of football. But do they have what it takes to win eleven games this season? I'm not so sure.
Yes, Shanahan's pulling another one of his motivational tricks to get Tatum Bell fired up, and it seems to be working. Rumor also has it that newly-acquired Javon Walker has been tearing it up in camp. And, thankfully, Denver realized that they shouldn't be handing the ball off to Ron Dayne more than a couple of times a game. Eleven wins is not gonna happen though.
Gary Kubiak is gone. Off to become coach of the Texans, he leaves behind an offense that he steered to prominence. His balanced approach to moving the football helped numerous no-name running backs become first-round fantasy picks, and even helped Jake Plummer do a good job of leading the offense. Not that the offense will fall apart with him gone; he certainly leaves behind a legacy of success that won't fall apart overnight. But watch out for Jake Plummer this season -- I'm predicting that he returns to the Jake of Arizona past, and forces too many passes where they shouldn't be thrown. Mike Shanahan won't hesitate to mess with things and throw Jay Cutler in there, and then Denver can kiss an 11-win season goodbye. I'm taking the Under.
Pittsburgh Steelers (o/u 10)
Bill: Ah, the most difficult team to project in the AFC. Anything could happen with the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger could come back perfectly healthy and they could be the favorites to win the conference. If Roethlisberger's accident hadn't happened, I'd say this was an easy over. On the other hand, he could come back a little cloudy, the passing offense could never get going, and they could win six games. Why do I think the former will happen? Essentially, I have faith in the Steelers' offensive line both staying healthy and doing a good job of protecting Roethlisberger. I am Alan Faneca's #1 fan and that isn't changing anytime soon -- if I could find a way to draft him in fantasy football, I would. The Steelers struggled a bit last year when Marvel Smith went down, but once he returned, well, you saw what the Steelers offense did in the playoffs last year. I have faith in Ryan Clark replacing Chris Hope too. Over.
Ian: It seems that every season, one of the two Super Bowl teams from the previous year pretty much falls apart and fails to make the playoffs. This season, this is your team.
From my view, it's difficult to explain just how valuable Jerome Bettis was to that team last season. An emotional leader, someone who could get the team energized on the field, and the champion of clock-killing drives and goal-line scores. Not only did he give his all to help the Steelers win, everyone else on that team wanted to win not just for themselves, but for him.
Now, he's gone. Off to the pointless world of pre-game shows, while his void will deftly be filled in byâ€¦ Duce Staley? Really? When the Steelers are up by three late in the game, can you see Duce Staley pounding out first down after first down? Sorry, I just don't see it. Nor do I see Hines Ward carrying their receiving corps on his own (though as I mentioned last week, keep an eye out for Cedrick Wilson -- defenses will sleep on him, and he will make defenses pay).
This team is built on defense and the running game, and half of that just won't be the same. There's no way I'd see this team winning 11 games; I'm going a confident Under here.
Bill: Is Jerome Bettis really going to inspire NBC's TV coverage to some great ratings this year? How does that work? Did Deion Sanders ignore all his cue cards and just rely on God-given charisma? Maybe the Steelers will have, you know, Bill Cowher emotionally lead them. With a snarl, I'd imagine, too.
New England Patriots (o/u 11)
Bill: There's a lot of uncertainty whirling around the Patriots this year. There are a lot of aged players in key roles, the drafts of the last two years haven't been as productive as the preposterously good drafts at the beginning of the Belichick era, their defensive leaders have knees blown to bits (Rodney Harrison, for whom we have the utmost respect) and broken wrists (Tedy Bruschi, who is an inspiration to us all of course). Their only wide receiver of note, Deion Branch, is holding out. Well, at least they don't have to worry about a kicker.
So, why will the Patriots win more than 11 games? Let's see. The Jets and the Bills are terrible. Their defensive line features four guys 27-and-under who are all, at worst, above-average. Monty Beisel can't possibly be any worse this year. Oh, and Duane Starks isn't playing for this team. Ever again. Expect a big year from Ben Watson, Laurence Maroney to be the starting running back by the end of the season, and 12 wins from the Patriots. Over.
Ian: I'm really torn on this one. As you pointed out, there are plenty of reasons to worry about this Patriots team. But doesn't it seem like there are reasons to count them out every season? Yet they keep performing, led by a terrorizing defensive line, and the one and only Tom Brady.
I think Deion Branch will sign before the season starts. I think Ben Watson will have a good season. I think Laurence Maroney will be great, and will allow Corey Dillon to remain healthy and productive throughout the season. But none of those things are the most important factor.
In addition to all the other problems they have, as you mentioned, the kicking situation is completely unclear. I'm in the "Let the Yankees overpay for Damon" camp, but I'm sure as heck not in the "Let the Colts overpay for Adam Vinatieri" camp. Did you see how Martin Gramatica single-handedly ruined Tampa Bay's season two seasons ago? What were the Patriots thinking, letting not only a huge fan favorite but the most clutch kicker in the history of the game get away? To Indianapolis, of all places? Trust me, the kicking game will prove a big problem for the Pats this season. That's why I'm going Under.
(Ed. note: Trust me, Martin Gramatica won't be kicking for the Patriots this year. Not that we know anything about Steve Gostkowski, but at least we know he's never been responsible for one of those gut-wrenching "Ian throws his hat at the television" Tampa losses.)
Indianapolis Colts (o/u 12)
Bill: And, finally, there is Indianapolis. After almost reaching perfection last year, the Colts came up about 17 yards right of the AFC Championship Game, in a game where they were the Steelers' match in everything but special teams. So, naturally, they signed the best free agent kicker on the market. Unfortunately, they also happened to lose the best running back on the market, and had their dreams of drafting Laurence Maroney scuppered by the perhaps-spiteful Patriots. If Joe Addai's as good at picking up the blitz as Edgerrin James was, the Colts win 12 games. I bet that he isn't. Under.
Ian: Let's start by looking at the Colts schedule to start the season: @NYG, HOU, JAX, @NYJ, TEN, bye. The Giants might be able to pull off an upset, but to me, that looks like a 5-0 start. Then Washington at home (6-0), at Denver (7-0), and finally when they go to New England in Week 8, they'll suffer their first loss of the season. That's okay, though: Buffalo's coming to town the next week to help them feel better about themselves.
Edge may be gone, but Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison aren't, and this offense will keep clicking, trust me. That's not the most important thing though. Remember why Tony Dungy was brought in? Two reasons. One, he's laid back enough to let Peyton Manning run the show (which keeps Peyton happy). Two, he knows how to build a defense. Not to say that Monte Kiffin wasn't a huge part of growing Tampa's Cover-2 into one of the top defenses in the NFL, but Dungy has finally got a defense in Indy that can perform. Their defensive line can get pressure on the quarterback, leaving the secondary in great position to make plays. With an offense like the Colts, the defense only needs to be "good enough" to contain their opponents. Thanks to Tony Dungy having a few seasons to shape his defense, they're better than that. And that's why I'm going Over .
Fantasy Football Corner
Ian: While drafting "sleepers" and then having them "go to sleep" on you can hurt your chances at a fantasy football title, nothing is more damaging than investing an early pick or decent auction money into a player and having him stink up the joint. You can't bench him because you invested so much, but it kills you to see the lack of results week in and week out, while your reserve players continue to outperform him. And of course, as soon as you make the move and put him on your bench, there's the 150-yard, two-touchdown week you'd been waiting for. We've all been there.
In an effort to cut down on these torturous experiences, here's a list of players I'd suggest you let someone else spend their money on.
Reuben Droughns, Cleveland: Reuben is a popular third-round selection as a starting running back for those of you that drafted a quarterback or wideout early. He's rushed for over 1,200 yards each of the past two seasons, and has no real competition for playing time.
So what? The Browns offensive line is being decimated by injuries. Their quarterback flashed some promise last season but threw more interceptions than touchdowns. And despite being the starter all season long last year, Droughns put up a total of two touchdowns. That's right, two. It's going to be a tough year for the Cleveland offense, and a light year on fantasy points for everyone involved. When Droughns is the top listed back on your board, look to names like Chester Taylor and Jamal Lewis.
Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City: I'm shocked to see how early Tony G. typically is going in drafts this season. Am I the only one who noticed that he caught only two touchdowns last season? And he's already 30 years old? He's often being drafted ahead of useful running backs like Warrick Dunn, and he's usually the second tight end drafted.
Hey, I like Tony G. I love the simplicity of his goal-post dunk. I understand that for many seasons, he was the fantasy tight end to have. But, sadly, those days are over. He should not get drafted before any of the following tight ends: Todd Heap, Jeremy Shockey, Jason Witten, Alge Crumpler, or Chris Cooley. And some of those names are getting drafted pretty late. His best days are behind him, and you'd be wise to let someone else overpay for his services.
Defensive/Special Teams: No need to name a specific team here. People, quit reaching so early to have the "top" fantasy defense. It's not uncommon to see the top defensive team being drafted in the sixth round of fantasy drafts, and some other teams go in the next few rounds. This is a mistake.
The fantasy prowess of NFL defensive teams is rarely a continuous thing. For more detail on this, check out Aaron's essay in this year's Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The bottom line is that the fantasy defense drafted 10th can easily end up outperforming the fantasy defense drafted first -- particularly if you use Aaron's new projection system to grab a defense that suffered from bad luck in 2005. In the middle rounds of your draft, focus on your skill position players. Add depth at running back, grab one of the useful tight ends, or fill out your starting wide receiver slots. But don't draft a fantasy defense early. Don't be that guy.
Next week: The NFC, and more fantasy mailbag. Send your fantasy football questions to Contact Us.