by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Welcome to the seventh year of Mike and Tom telling you before the season how NFL teams will fare relative to their over/under, before NFL teams tell Mike and Tom they're not oracles into the future of the NFL.
Mike: The best way to view this exercise is a barometer of ratedness, in that it is all entirely arbitrary and exists largely to drive vacuous flamewars.
Tom: Yes. Usually, NFL odds are accompanied by numbers expressing whether a team is likelier to go over or under their over/under. We are ignoring those, just like we have in the past. We are once again engaging in a grand exercise of passing of judgment, not fake gambling with fake money.
Mike: Which makes the whole exercise even more inaccurate, but a lot more fun!
Tom: (Actually, we tried using our column earnings to drive to a casino to place bets on the lines we considered attractive, but with the recent jump in gas prices in the Chicago area we ran out of gas and had to hitchhike home.)
In memory of Kelvin Benjamin's healthy left ACL, we begin our discussion of the 2015 NFL with a look at the AFC and NFC South.
(Mike pours out a mug of lukewarm coffee.)
ATLANTA FALCONS (8.5)
Tom: Matt Ryan led the Falcons to an easy touchdown drive in their preseason opener, while the first-team defense forced turnovers by Marcus Mariota on the first two possessions. Santa Clara, here they come!
Mike: Opened up the lines. My god, it's full of 8.5s.
Tom: Holy smokes, it is.
Mike: I never thought I'd see the day the book adopts my system of picking winners and losers. (As a former FO commenter, my system is perfect and amazing and no, you can't ever see it.)
Tom: Shoot, Carolina isn't listed.
Mike: Yeah, that's not so great. Everyone else seems to be. They probably pulled it due to the Benjamin injury.
Tom: Yeah. I checked Bovada, our old source, and Carolina is also not listed there.
Mike: The one time we actually have a chance to be timely! And the gamblers ruin it for us.
Tom: We'll return to the South divisions in a future week. Any preferences for where to go this week then?
Mike: Since the books have denied us a chance to kick around your division, we should kick around my divisions, while reading sports injury haiku.
Tom: So thoughtful of you to pick the other division I wrote about in this year's book instead.
CHICAGO BEARS (7.0)
Tom: Well, Mike, since I wrote the Bears chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 and you wrote the Bears chapter in FOA 2010 and we're both Chicago area residents, we better get this one right. Or at least get it wrong in the direction of prevailing sentiment, such that everybody will still like us even
Mike: Yes, in 2015, like 2010, we are left reading tea leaves about a brand new coordinator and an offense that everyone thinks should be the next Patriots but in reality is the next Panthers.
Tom: Writing about the Bears this year made me realize how much the 2011 Texans spoiled me. During the lockout that year, Wade Phillips and the position coaches did video interviews where they talked about the principles of their defense, individual player alignments, and which players on the roster were likely to fill those roles. Now we hear John Fox talking about toughness and how he wants to win. That was much less insightful.
Mike: To be fair, this year they have better reasons to hope. On the other hand, Jay Cutler seems to have a chronic case of Grumpy Cat.
Tom: Better reasons for hope: no more Mel Tucker to kick around, and Fox will be a stronger locker room leader.
Mike: If only he would make use of the preventative treatment available: outlet throws and draws.
Tom: My base assumption is Fox will want to play football the way John Fox teams have played every time they haven't had Peyton Manning: with a controlling run game and a good defense. The 2015 Chicago Bears' chances of doing either of those successfully don't seem that good to me.
Mike: That is a massive understatement. What really does strike me is that Fox brought so many of his own guys in so quickly. I suppose it's not so odd when there is a spring cleaning throughout the staff, but I think you're right that there is going to be a ton of institutional inertia and unwillingness to face the Bears' reality between Fox and Pals.
Tom: The thing with the offense reminded me of what I saw from Tennessee. From 2009 through 2013, they fluctuated from 6-10 to 9-7 and all I heard was about how terrible things were. Then 2014 happened, and people realized what terrible really was.
Mike: My main issue is that I was profoundly unhappy with both Cutler deals. They gave up too much to get him, they put up too much to keep him, and now they should be retooling and rebuilding and they're kind of stuck with him.
Tom: Phil Emery felt forced into the Cutler extension, since his only other option was "let's see if Josh McCown can replicate small sample-size magic," and he knew better than that. The only real surprise is it looks so bad a year later, when you could really get out of it after two years.
Anyway, if Cutler was the only issue, Fox could try to work around it. It's all that other stuff that makes Cutler still part of the conversation. As exasperating as he has been, he gives them their best chance of winning.
Mike: Outside of the coaching staff, I don't see the Bears as a team that has improved in any significant way this offseason, while the rest of their division is either still near the top of the game (Green Bay), or on the rise (Detroit and Minnesota). I think the bottom may just fall out this time around, despite their commitment to toughness and wanting to win. Under.
Tom: It's not a good chance. Replacing Marc Trestman and Tucker gives them a real chance for a coaching improvement dead cat bounce, but this is a team at least a year away from where they seemed to be entering 2014. Under.
DETROIT LIONS (8.5)
Mike: The biggest question is always going to be how healthy Calvin Johnson can stay. Watching the Lions last year without him was like watching a three-legged puppy desperately try to chase after the other dogs.
Tom: Yes, unlike Chicago, the Lions have an alternative to "just let the quarterback chuck the ball around, and when it goes wrong, well, we tried." As you note, though, "chuck the ball in the direction of the Heraklean figure" is only a workable strategy if said half-deity is in the game.
Mike: On one hand, there is a certain adorable futility in the attempt. On the other, holy hell was that offense scary without Megatron.
Tom: I spotlighted finding another receiving option as something that should be a priority in the offseason, and the Lions are apparently counting on Eric Ebron, with the early results you could have guessed for that.
Mike: It is interesting looking at the teams that are now (with the departure of Ndamukong Suh) so reliant on one player's talents. The headliners are Indianapolis, which would the football equivalent of the cast of Fame without Andrew Luck, and the Texans, who are somehow reenacting the Saw movies even with J.J. Watt. The difference is that it is so much easier to isolate a wide receiver than a dominant defensive lineman or a quarterback.
Tom: I just can't get past the losses at defensive tackle. Even if Nick Fairley didn't play much. Even if they were right to let Suh walk. The defensive line meant so much, and it helped the linebackers so much that even with Haloti Ngata, I'm having real issues.
Mike: The good news is that the Lions' defense should still be stout. Yes, they will miss Suh. The Lions have done a great job over the past three years of turning a secondary that was one of our favorite running jokes and a generally hapless group of linebackers into a pair of legitimately good units that can relieve some of the pressure from the admittedly thinner line.
Tom: Rashean Mathis suddenly discovering how to play again after hitting 33 may be the craziest thing we've seen in the NFL lately.
Mike: Amusingly, since we're doing the Norths we get to have a similar conversation about Brett Keisel and his Magnificent Beard! Mathis was probably more effective, though. (Than Keisel. Nothing is more effective than his beard.)
Tom: But I just can't do it, not with the NFC West on the schedule. Under.
Mike: The schedule is tough, but I don't like the NFC West as much as most, and I'm a believer in this defense and the prospect of more than a half-season of Megatron. Mostly the Megatron part. Over.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (11.0)
Mike: Oh, hey, the Packers are going to be excellent again. Yawn.
Tom: What, are you looking for something more than that?
Mike: It's just heartening to know that Green Bay's team is as boring as its state, I suppose.
Tom: Wait, this isn't a picture of Wisconsin.
Mike: You have no idea how much I don't miss the eternal pissing match between UM and tOSU.
Tom: Back in 2007 or 2008, I actually saw somebody in the Chicago suburbs wearing a maize and blue Appalachian State shirt. I appreciate the existence of that kind of fandom, while also appreciating that I'm not completely enmeshed in it.
Mike: I don't appreciate any fandom that requires you to say things like "No, it's not YELLOW. It's MAIZE." or "it's not RED. It's CRIMSON!"
Tom: The entire offense is back, and some young players like Corey Linsley and Davante Adams should be better in their second season. The big question is at defensive back, where they went from maybe the deepest team this side of the Pacific Northwest to probably counting on at least one draft pick to play a key role.
Mike: It's like going to a Star Wars convention and hearing the derisive chortles when you misidentify the model number of the Millennium Falcon. The only people who care are too far gone to be worth mentioning.
... I should probably say some things about the actual Green Bay Packers, shouldn't I?
Tom: I'll probably feel better about that in January than I do in September, but their first big passing game test is San Diego in Week 6.
Mike: I'm actually somewhat sanguine about Green Bay's suddenly bare secondary. They've had some pretty terrible secondaries in the past and have shown that the offense and quality linebacking can usually give them enough to make up for it. They're a team that is positioned to play well in shootouts, with too many options on offense to account for a an opportunistic if not incredibly exciting front seven.
Tom: It's an issue in terms of "getting home field" and, more relevantly, "winning at least 12 games to hit the Over." That they can win every game 41-31 doesn't mean they want to or have to. Must be nice to have that luxury.
Aaron Rodgers is awesome. The end. Over.
Mike: I'm also less worried about home field with the Packers than I am with, say, the Patriots or the Seahawks. Rodgers has travelled very well. And let's be brutally honest, they should have won last year's NFC Championship on the road. I see a tougher road this year, but on the other hand, more Rodgers is going to be a huge boost. Over.
Ugh, now I'm having flashbacks to that game. New team, stat!
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8.5)
Tom: Or, how much will my affection for the Vikings color my judgment of just how good they will actually be this year? FOA 2015 is of absolutely no help, since our mean projection is 8.5 wins.
Mike: ... I'm almost scared to ask, but "affection for the Vikings?"
Mike: Don't knock this year's Minnesota chapter. It has a jump-to-conclusions mat joke! Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to smuggle one of those into the book?
Tom: If you have an actual jump-to-conclusions mat, I'd be happy to insert a picture of it into this week's column.
Tom: I refuse to believe that's actually yours given the spelling of "lose."
One thing I'm really curious to see is whether and how much Peterson is incorporated as a receiver. Norv Turner's vertical spacing tends to create a lot of space for the back as a receiver, but Peterson hasn't been a great receiving back since 2009. Well, OK, he had a decent year in 2010 as well. Maybe it's the quarterback, and he has one again.
Mike: Honestly, I think that Bridgewater is going to be unleashing the dragon fairly frequently.
Tom: Did you know: Mike Wallace led all NFL wide receivers in red zone receiving DYAR in 2014.
... OK, I can see the affection, now.
Tom: The question is the defense, whose young talent I love. But there's a reason this line is where it is, and it's that the young players may not be ready to bear the burden they need to to challenge Green Bay for divisional supremacy (step one: take a hit out on Rodgers).
Mike: Hey, now, none of these players have played for the Saints.
Tom: I'm a long-term optimist on Mike Zimmer's coaching ability on defense. I like Minnesota over the next five years. I'm not fully confident, but I think I like them enough in 2015. Over.
Mike: I think they have a solid foundation but their inexperience on defense is going to be exposed pretty badly in what feels to be by design a bend-but-don't-break defense, which is probably worse than nothing in this division. I also like Minnesota over the next five years. Just not this year. It's close, but under.
Tom: Now on to the AFC.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (9.0)
Mike: Holy !#$!@ing !#$!@, Joe Flacco's DPI numbers. 14 penalties for 283 yards. It is hard to really accurately gauge Baltimore's offense because I hate it so much and that number summarizes why.
Tom: I enjoy watching good outside zone teams. The Ravens last year were a really good outside zone team, so they weren't as bad as past Ravens teams, which just seemed like DPI machines.
Mike: To be fair, my dislike of Baltimore's offense is similar to why I don't like Seattle's undoubtedly effective defense; I dislike the cynicism central to both of those units' strategies. So I should be clear that when I say "hate," I'm making less of a value judgment than a statement that I would rather be thrown into the sun than watch a league's worth of Baltimore Offense.
Tom: If the world ends in Week 14 when Baltimore hosts Seattle, I'm blaming you.
Mike: Unlike these picks, that's probably the smart money.
Tom: Aside from the whole "if the world ends, I'm probably dead and not around to blame you" technicality.
Mike: I figure football columnists will be too important to not get on the ark Xenu sends to cull humanity from the apocalypse.
Tom: With Torrey Smith (11/229) gone to San Francisco, who's going to get those flags this year?
Mike: Literally anyone. They have a system.
Tom: In past seasons they haven't been quite so concentrated, but Smith was a mainstay of big flags for about as long as he's been in the NFL. The Ravens are undoubtedly hoping Breshad Perriman can fill that role, but (a) I didn't like him as a pure deep threat as much as Smith, and (b) he's still hurt.
Mike: Flacco has a big enough arm and is good enough at making vaguely catchable long tosses that you or I could probably fill the role. Provided the offensive line improvements hold up.
Tom: Also, provided Marc Trestman remembers to call enough run plays. But of course it will make a lot more sense to call runs in Baltimore than it did in Chicago.
Mike: And absent Smith, Baltimore will have to take more care to set up the deep
DPI ball. The biggest problem is going to again be the Ravens' patchwork secondary.
Tom: Every cornerback who breathed the air got hurt last year. It's almost guaranteed to be better.
Mike: Does it really matter when the entire secondary is Jimmy Smith and four different flavors of Some Guy?
Tom: The pessimism in our projection comes from the offense, probably because it was terrible in 2013. I'm convinced that was and will be an outlier and the Baltimroe offense will be good but not elite -- like it has been four of the past five seasons. They have a good front seven. One really good corner is more than most teams have, and better than what the Ravens had most of last year. Honestly, the push tempts me. When I liked to push, I might have done it. But in a world where I'm trying to make decisions, over it is.
Mike: While I agree with that, sentiment, they have two games against last season's top passing offense, plus bonus Denver and San Diego and a likely rebounding Cincinnati offense. With such a suspect secondary, I can't like their chances too much. Nine is where I'd hang my hat, but because pushes are for losers, I'll go with under.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (8.5)
Tom: Really loved the Bengals draft. First two picks will really put them over the top and stop the cycle of first-round playoff losses. Oh, wait, never mind, they took two offensive tackles who aren't being counted on to play this year.
Tom: Could I also plug my Jacksonville essay in FOA 2010 about how effective spending your first two draft picks at the same position is?
Mike: Considering you just did, that question seems rhetorical.
Tom: There's probably a formal name for that kind of rhetorical device, but I don't remember what it is.
One thing I didn't do was look at it in relation to draft picks at different positions. Most teams probably don't find great success with their first two draft picks anyway. I'd say though that it's probably easier to admit one of the picks didn't work out when they're at different positions. My objection is to the idea you've "fixed" two problems with those two draft picks, as opposed to draft picks being part of a solution at two positions but you're not necessarily relying on them.
(What, you wanted another instance of The Same Andy Dalton Discussion We've Had The Past Three Seasons?)
Mike: The issue with that logic is that every team is relying to some degree on draft picks. Even well stocked teams suffer injuries and have to lean on rookies or sophomores down the stretch.
Tom: Right, but there's a temptation to declare draft picks solutions when they're not. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about teams that operate politically, but investing at another position when you've drafted two players high there seems difficult.
Mike: On the other hand, I agree to some extent with Robert Weintraub's argument in the Bengals chapter in FOA 2015 that this is Cincinnati's last hurrah, and they're getting ready to clean house.
Tom: Cincinnati is basically the inverse of Minnesota for me, a team I'm tempted to underrate just because I don't like them that much.
Mike: If that is the strategy, and that is a big if, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher make some amount of sense. They've both played right and left tackle, and if the Bengals are ready to blow up and rebuild over the next two or three years they will have the luxury of figuring out how to slot each going forward.
Tom: I don't think it's about blowing it up. The Bengals are really good at paying year to year, so it's not like there's some big cap bill coming due. They'll pay A.J. Green, because duh. It's just a question of how long they stay on the same dissatisfying treadmill, but see my earlier comments about Tennessee, Chicago, and being terrible. It's easy to talk about how terrible losing in the first round of the playoffs is, but Bengals ownership and fans know what missing the playoffs is like.
Mike: I can't see the Bengals paying Andrew Whitworth what he's going to pull on the market, given their current position, the strength at the top of their division, and the fact that he'll be 35 next season. Provided his 2015 stacks up favorably to his 2014 but that is certainly debatable. But in many ways, we're stuck looking at the treadmill, again.
Tom: The big question is whether there is any reason to expect the 2015 Bengals not to be on the same tre... dammit.
Mike: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Tom: Jeremy Hill gave them a different offensive profile than Giovani Bernard, but we've seen Cincinnati try a sustaining ground-oriented offense before. The overall talent level is good but I don't like it quite as much as I did a couple years ago. The return from injury of Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones could give the pass offense a more dynamic look, if I trusted the triggerman. I don't.
This is the right line for an average-plus team with an average-plus schedule.
Mike: I think there's a significant potential for the offense to bounce back in the passing game, with better health from the wideouts, and I think that could break the cycle of running game mediocrity. According to the book, this is the right line for two-thirds of the NFL. Our projection pins it more or less on the nose. I'm a bit more optimistic than the book. Over.
Tom: Well, that was Pete Rozelle's dream. A pique-induced under.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (6.5)
Tom: Or, how many games can you win with no quarterback and no wide receivers?
Mike: It is impossible to discuss the Browns in more frank and depressing terms than did our frenemies at Deadspin. The sad part is that unlike all the other "Why Your Team Sucks" entries, I have real trouble countering any of their points. Even the ridiculously childish ones. Actually, no, the saddest part is the ... whatever you call a Twitter conversation that ensued after that tweet:
@BeauxJaxson LOL. That's probably a blurb he wrote about Hoyer last year at this time recycled.
— Ryan Burns (@FtblSickness) August 6, 2015
@FtblSickness does that make it any less true?
— TeBeaux Jaxson (@BeauxJaxson) August 6, 2015
Tom: Deadspin = NSFW language, of course.
Mike: That, ladies and gentleman, is the Cleveland Browns.
Tom: I enjoy following and interacting with both Ryan and Eric on Twitter.
Anyway, you were supposed to answer "you can go 7-9 with no quarterback and no wide receivers." We know this because the Browns did it last year.
Mike: The Browns had a much, much easier schedule last year.
And you're right, their schedule was terrible and they don't get to play either South division this year.
Mike: Their quarterback is Josh McCown.
Tom: Good, you got the rejoinder, that they somehow managed to downgrade from Brian Hoyer at quarterback.
Mike: The only quarterback who performed worse with significant sample size last year was Blake Bortles, the football equivalent of the virgin thrown into the volcano to appease the perennially angry gods.
Tom: My reply is that the Browns were really good on offense for five games, or just as many games as they had a healthy Alex Mack.
Mike: "Really good" is really stretching it. They had a great week against a then-moderately-healthy Ravens squad, but the other games were against horrific defenses, including two dates with the hapless Steelers. And another against the Saints.
Tom: Best offensive DVOA, Weeks 1-5: Denver 36.1%, Seattle 25.1%, Green Bay 23.6%, Atlanta 22.9%, Cleveland 20.5%.
Mike: Oh, and Tennessee. So four out of those five weeks were against three of the bottom four defenses in the league.
Tom: Not just Tennessee, but a Tennessee MASH unit secondary in the second half, when they came back. I can't decide what about that game was more amazing, that Tennessee had a 28-3 lead or Cleveland came back to win after being down 28-3.
Mike: You can understand why I am underwhelmed.
Tom: I'm not claiming the offense will actually be any good. But the defense finished with six straight games with negative DVOA. If the offense can be just mediocre instead of awful like it was the last 11 weeks (-21.8% DVOA, 29th in the NFL), the Browns could be close to .500.
Mike: I mean, I suppose it's possible Cleveland is trying to have a good defense drag a terrible offense to respectability, as a sort of low-rent Seahawks.
Tom: I was thinking more like the Bills or the Jets, where Mike Pettine was.
Mike: I was going to say, the difference is the Seahawks offense is actually pretty good. That separates them from these Browns and those Bills and Jets teams. Defense-first just doesn't work anymore, and an inept front office, meddling ownership, and volatile quarterback situation is a powder keg that can do nothing but explode violently and, at least for us Steelers fans, in the most hilarious way possible. Under.
This is another line that I think is basically spot on (FOA 2015 concurs, giving the Browns 6.4 mean projected wins). I went under on Cincinnati, so I'll issue a reluctant over here.
Mike: And we wonder why the site has so few Browns fans.
Tom: Because Browns fans are too dejected by having to watch their team play, even if most of them have escaped the city of Cleveland?
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8.5)
Tom: So, Mike, tell me more about the greatness of your favorite team.
Mike: When has that ever happened? I think I vacillate between marginally optimistic and completely despondent.
Tom: You picked over last year, and they did indeed go over. Besides, I seem to be pessimistic about the Steelers' prospects most years of late, so "marginally optimistic" makes you definitely the sunny half of our pairing.
Mike: Of course, I also went on a tirade about Todd Haley last year, and the Steelers proceeded to field the best offense in the league. The problem with pointing out that this was mostly a function of the team finally, finally putting together a good offensive line now just sounds like sour grapes. The worrisome part, re-reading last year's edition, is how little has changed on the defensive side. Yes, Dick LeBeau is gone, but LeBeau wasn't really the problem.
Tom: You mean it wasn't an issue of Todd Haley taking your criticisms to heart and working to prove you personally wrong?
Mike: If I had that kind of effect, I wouldn't be spending so much time complaining about the Bears, Tom.
Tom: Did you see the news? Your old nemesis might be making a comeback.
Mike: Anyway, the Steelers still have a motley crew of mostly ineffective or unproven linebackers and as far as the secondary goes, they have ...
... I got nothing. Which is more or less the same as the Steelers' defense.
Tom: Brandon Boykin!
Mike: I will say that we should see some improvement in the front seven.
Tom: Because bang spork, or better health and development from a player like Ryan Shazier?
Mike: There is significant if extremely underutilized talent there, and a new defensive coordinator, albeit one who is really part of the same machine, should be able to get better production out of players like Ry -- yes.
It's really hard to look past the disastrous secondary, though. Still, if the offense can continue to perform at a high level, the team is well placed to win shootouts, which is something I never thought I would ever write about the Steelers outside of my princess dream journal.
Tom: Week 3 at St. Louis will be interesting. Great matchup on both sides of the ball, relative strength against strength and weakness against weakness.
Mike: And in that sense, they match up well against the rest of the AFC North, which features a wildly inconsistent offense paired with an extremely suspect secondary (Baltimore), a decent passing attack paired with a nonexistent pass rush (Cincinnati) and a very good pass defense combined with a tire fire offense (Cleveland). Yeah, if anything, this season will be fun to watch. Just keep the antacids handy. Over.
Tom: I hate the first five games, aside from the Week 2 home contest against San Francisco playing on a short week, and the final six games.
Mike: I didn't even comment on Rex Grossman! How dare he try to go to the Jets without Rex Ryan!
Tom: Last year's Steelers, plus the Cowboys, and the 2013 Chargers all successfully navigated the thin line between great offense and awful defense to make the postseason. Pittsburgh will have to do it again this year. Any regression in the passing offense, tops in the league by our numbers last year, or any Ben Roethlisberger injury, means bad things. Under.