by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball! Your humble Scramble writers are now entering the difficult third album phase of our careers, in which we struggle to compose hackneyed opening sentences that don't sound like every other hackneyed opening sentence we've ever used.
Andrew: With a bit of luck and inspiration, perhaps we can hope for an outcome that is considerably more Parklife than Be Here Now. Which, come to think of it, is a very British hope that may be completely lost on much of our core audience.
Bryan: I would have gone with London Calling, but then again, I'm a billion years old.
Andrew: ... which makes me approximately 1,000,000,000,003 in real money, or 1,000,000,003 in U.S. dollars. Which, appropriately for today's article, is very close to the number of consecutive seasons in which the Patriots have won the AFC East.
Bryan: Yeah, but this season, things are going to be different, right? Right? Right?...
... OK, the two Eastern divisions end up being some of the least competitive in football this season, but that doesn't mean we can't find anything interesting to talk about. After all, we've got both conference champions to talk about, as well as first-round quarterbacks for the Bills, Jets, and Giants.
… Wait, what?
Andrew: Yes, the Giants evidently think they, too, are playing football approximately a billion years ago, as they took a running back at the top of the first round -- and chose that over just maybe giving themselves some kind of hope for the future at the most important position in the sport, in what sure looks like the deepest quarterback draft class I can remember.
Bryan: We'll get plenty of chances to see said non-quarterback, as well as half of the rest of division this week; the Bills, Cowboys, and Jets all have nationally televised preseason games this week. With that in mind, let's preview the East!
All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.
Bryan: Andrew, what were you doing on December 28th, 2008?
Andrew: It was a Sunday. I was at home, watching football. Watching something very special happen, as it turns out.
Bryan: I believe I was on a 12-hour flight, returning to Japan to finish my year of teaching English in an elementary school. It was a continent, a college degree, and two career paths ago for me. A veritable lifetime.
It also was the last day the AFC East was up for grabs in Week 17 of an NFL season. That's ... I mean, that's insane.
Andrew: It's also the last time the Patriots failed to win the division, and therefore also the last time they failed to make the playoffs. They still finished 11-5, though. They haven't had a season below 10 wins since 2002.
Bryan: They've only been really challenged twice since that 2008 season. The 2009 Jets finished a game back of New England at 9-7, and the 2015 Jets had a 10-6 season. Otherwise, the Patriots have sailed through year after year.
Every other division has had at least one Week 17 showdown since 2013. The AFC East has simply been the least competitive division in football for a decade now. And if you listen to Vegas, that's not likely to change in 2018.
Andrew: It's not only Vegas saying that. Every year, we hear this and that about the AFC East being a terrible division, and usually it's overblown. This year ... this year, not so much.
BUFFALO BILLS (6)
Last Over: 2017 (9-7, McDermott/Taylor)
Last Under: 2010 (4-12, Gailey/Fitzpatrick)
Andrew: I do not think I will be alone in this appraisal: I have absolutely no clue what the current Bills front office and coaching staff is trying to accomplish.
Bryan: Broadly, I presume they're trying to accomplish "putting together a competent football team." The devil, as always, is in the details.
Andrew: Right. There's a pretty significant difference between "goals" and "strategy." I get that the ultimate goal is to win football games, and the Bills share that goal with
31 at least 30 a significant number of other organizations. Strategically, however, I have absolutely no idea what the current Bills front office and coaching staff is trying to accomplish. How do they want to go about trying to win those games? If I had to guess, the answer would be "run the ball and play defense." In practical terms, however, it looks more like "punt a lot and hope for points off turnovers."
Bryan: What, you're not excited for Josh Allen to run an offense solely comprised of 60-yard bombs? You know, the kind of play that has only happened 17 times since 2006? Either Buffalo's going to entirely revamp the way we think about the passing offense in the modern NFL or, uh, maybe they're spending too much time drooling over a cannon of an arm.
Andrew: Ballistae are notoriously inaccurate and find it almost impossible to hit the same target twice. Josh Allen will henceforth be known as The Arbalist.
Bryan: To be fair, we shouldn't expect The Arbalist to throw precision passes to the same points on the field repeatedly. The receiving corps is so bad, they can't be expected to arrive at predictable points. Perhaps two sets of wildly inaccurate play will balance each other out. But at least they have a 30-year-old running back facing a possible suspension to help tide them over!
Seriously, this offense is a mess. It's going to be the worst in football, and by a fairly significant margin. But maybe their defense can see them through, right?
Andrew: Well there's Tre'Davious White, at least, and possibly Vontae Davis. The front seven genuinely looks quite decent, but decent isn't the kind of game-changing unit the Bills will probably need if they're to do more than minimize the team's losing margins.
Bryan: To be entirely fair, six games is low. It's been a long time since the Bills were that bad, and they were a playoff team last season -- perhaps not a deserving playoff team, per se, but it's not like we're talking about a franchise that has been mired in double-digit-losing seasons repeatedly in recent memory. It just feels like part of their success last season was despite themselves, as they did everything in their power to alienate an average-ish quarterback. Imagine the Nathan Peterman experiment, just spread out over a full season.
Andrew: Six wins is a low total, and the division should hand them a game or two as the season progresses, but absent LeSean McCoy there is nothing on that offense that gets me excited. The out-of-division schedule could quite easily be the stuff of nightmares, and that would place the Bills closer to the first overall pick than you would hope for a team that supposedly just drafted its quarterback of the future. I'm comfortable, even on a six-win line, taking the Under.
Bryan: I know that the Bills' projection in FOA 2018 has everyone up in arms. I'll still take the under. But hey, maybe they can draft Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen in the first round next year to get back at us and screw up all of our Excel sheets and databases -- Buffalo fans excel at destroying tables, after all.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6.5)
Last Over: 2016 (10-6, Gase/Tannehill)
Last Under: 2017 (6-10, Gase/Cutler)
Bryan: Motion to strike the memories of Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins Quarterback from the record from here on out?
So, about those Ryan Tannehill Dolphins.
Bryan: We should be excited Tannehill is back, right? Or, maybe not excited, per se, but moderately enthused. Or not moderately enthused but ... OK, Tannehill is the human equivalent of a golf clap, but that might well make him the second-best quarterback in the division.
Andrew: In any other year, I'd tentatively agree. This year, the Jets have at least some promise in that department. I'll at least accede to the careful use of "might." Tannehill's not likely to be worse than whatever that was in -- What are the Dolphins' official colors anyway? Surf and turf? -- last year.
Bryan: It's easy to forget at this point, but Tannehill was looking pretty sharp in his last healthy games in Adam Gase's offense. No, I don't think his addition suddenly makes the Dolphins a team to beat, but he was trending in the right direction. And now, maybe the Dolphins won't feel it necessary to throw eight million valueless screen passes a game with Jarvis Landry out of town. Getting rid of Landry and Cutler is addition by subtraction.
Andrew: Careful, or you'll also have Dolphins fans coming at you with table legs. A lot of people out there like Jarvis Landry, presumably because of his catch rate or something.
Bryan: Landry might be good -- he's actually pretty darn good on slant routes and things of that nature. But he consistently finishes at or near the bottom in DYAR on wide receiver screens, because wide receiver screens are terrible. They should be used as an element of surprise, and not as part of a regular strategy on third-and-a-billion. That has artificially inflated Landry's catch total, and his salary along with it.
Andrew: So, to players other than Tannehill who are still on the Dolphins ... unlike Buffalo, this squad ought to have an absolute baseline of competent. They've added some more pieces to an offensive line that was markedly improved by the draft-day fall of Laremy Tunsil, and have a core of solid-to-good receivers in clearly defined roles if they can keep Danny Amendola on the field -- which, of course, is never a guarantee. The defense might still be too reliant on Cameron Wake up front, and the linebackers would struggle to cover a class of third-graders with one of those giant play parachutes, but there's a lot to be excited about in the secondary. Second-best team in the AFC East is not exactly cause for celebration, but the Dolphins roster looks like the second-best team in the AFC East. If 7-9 is enough for the over, then I guess that's the direction I'm leaning. I didn't expect to end up here when we started this, but I've talked myself into a narrow over.
Bryan: With the losses of Landry and Ndamukong Suh, I'm scouring over the roster to find anyone I would describe as a star, and it's just not there, unless you really, really like Reshad Jones. The thing the Dolphins have going for them is that they're filled to the brim with solid, competent players. Great complementary pieces around those missing superstars. That implies, to me, that they're a great draft pick or two away from really contending ... for a wild-card slot, at least, as the AFC East is on lockdown for the immediate future. But I agree -- the Dolphins look to be competent. And competent will get you wins against the likes of the Bills and the Jets. I think I'm going to take the over here; it may well be Miami's turn to be the token competition to the Patriots before New England pulls away in November.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (11)
Last Over: 2017 (13-3, Belichick/Brady)
Last Under: 2009 (10-6, Belichick/Brady)
Bryan: Let's get the argument for the under out of the way. Here is the list of 41-year-old quarterbacks who played competently in the NFL: 1997 Warren Moon for the Seahawks (13.1% DVOA) and 2004 Vinny Testaverde for the Cowboys (2.0% DVOA). That's it. That's the list.
Andrew: 11 wins is also a lot. Even the Patriots have only exceeded that figure ... eight times in the past eight seasons. Interestingly, that's a point and a half lower than last season's line, which they exceeded by half a game despite losing two of their first four. Is the alarm of a 41-year-old quarterback this great? Is the schedule really that rough? Do we not think that Bill Belichick could bring back the aforementioned Vinny Testaverde and still drag the Patriots to 11-5?
Bryan: If you're trying to get me on record as doubting Bill Belichick, your dastardly plan will fail.
I do think there are more cracks beginning to show in the Patriots' domineering facade than we've seen in some time, although we're talking in a very relative sense here. Their defense really struggled over the first half of 2017, and I'm not fully convinced Jason McCourty is the answer, per se. They still don't have a top-tier edge rusher, though they've managed just fine in recent years without one. I was also surprised to see them get rid of Brandin Cooks, though his new massive contract in Los Angeles might go a long way to explaining why.
Andrew: Since they traded Cooks, I've seen the Patriots described as "thin" at wide receiver, which I strongly disagree with as an assessment. With Edelman suspended, there's not much that's particularly special about the group, but they have plenty of talent if they can get everybody involved. This isn't the 2007 Patriots receiving corps, sure, but it's not the 2006 group either.
Bryan: And let's be honest. Two dozen teams in the league would love to have the same "problems" the Patriots are dealing with. So the Patriots don't have the same deep-ball threat they had last year. I guess they'll just have to rely on precision shorter passing, like they did in the three years leading up to that. Oh well.
Andrew: The defense can't play much worse than it did last year, and they still won 13 games. They've added talent there from last term, both through new players and injury returnees. The offense goes as Brady goes, but even if his arm falls off Brian Hoyer is not exactly the worst backup in the league.
Bryan: I mean, presumably Hoyer would do better with the Patriots skill position players than he did in San Francisco last season. At least, you'd hope that would be the case.
To hit the under, we'd have to find six losses for the Patriots. On the softest schedule in the league. Maybe you start with Week 15 at Pittsburgh.
Andrew: Based on last year, and assuming full health for all of them, you're probably looking at the Texans, Jaguars, Vikings, Steelers, and maybe Packers, plus the usual annual divisional defeat, most likely in Miami.
Bryan: And even then, the Texans, Packers, and Vikings games are at home! Maybe road trips to Tennessee and Detroit could be nasty, and a Week 17 rest against the Jets might be something to count, but ... I don't know. I might be able to buy 11-5, but that just pushes. I'm going to be on the Patriots wagon until it breaks apart, I think -- better to look foolish for waiting one year too long than to predict doom for the most consistent franchise in American sports. Over.
Andrew: Tom Brady declining massively and the Patriots finishing under 11 wins both go firmly in the "believe it when I see it" bucket. Absent the former, I don't see how the latter happens. Maybe next year. Over.
NEW YORK JETS (6)
Last Over: 2015 (10-6, Bowles/Fitzpatrick)
Last Under: 2017 (5-11, Bowles/McCown)
Andrew: Is it too simplistic to look at this year's Jets roster, especially its quarterback situation, check it against last year's roster and record, and simply take the over by default?
When you see or hear a declaration made about a coach, quarterback or team after one preseason game played at half-speed with no sophistication and limited personnel, laugh at it. Or better yet, ignore it.
— Mike Francesa (@MikeFrancesa) August 11, 2018
The debate should be a short one: Sam Darnold should be the starting QB right now. Jets found their guy.
— Mike Francesa (@MikeFrancesa) August 11, 2018
I think we're going to have some disagreement here. I'll grant you that the quarterback situation may well be improved, though I'm not as high on Darnold as some of the others in this class. But I think there are still a lot of problems to be dealt with here. The offensive line, for one, scares me; there's not really a solid player on it. I don't see a true top receiver. The front seven is littered with holes. They paid roughly a hojillion dollars for Avery Williamson and Spencer Long, both of whom are just sort of "some guys." Maybe they have their guy for the future behind center -- though count me on the list of people who think that Teddy Bridgewater is their best choice at quarterback for 2018. Even if that's true, there's a lot of muck to be cleaned up around him before this team is even within sniffing distance of decent.
Andrew: They're in the AFC, however, in which "sniffing distance of decent" makes you a playoff contender. I'm not declaring that the Jets will actually be good, and I certainly don't think they'll be anywhere near the playoffs, but there are definitely some things to like about the roster. I'm not sure of your criteria for a true top receiver, but to my untrained eye Robby Anderson sure looks the part. The front seven has some question marks, but I expect them to get competent play at even the questionable positions. The secondary should be markedly upgraded by Trumaine Johnson, which as a secondary benefit moves Morris Claiborne away from being the team's top corner. Jamal Adams looks like a future stud at safety. The coaching was better than I expected last year, albeit still very conservative a lot of the time. Sub-six wins is top-five draft pick territory. I don't think the Jets are quite that bad.
Bryan: I'll spot you the secondary, certainly; Johnson is a significant upgrade and I like Adams quite a bit as well. I'll have to disagree with you on coaching, especially with John Morton out the door and Jeremy Bates calling plays now on offense. Morton's offense showed a little bit of creativity, and he helped Anderson take a big step forward between 2016 and 2017. But he's gone now, replaced by a guy who was out of football for three years before being asked to shepherd Christian Hackenberg's professional development. I am not enthused, especially because one of the reasons given for getting rid of Morton was an unwillingness to establish the run, which should start flashing red lights. And behind-the-scenes coaching drama very rarely leads to solid seasons the year afterwards.
Andrew: I'd wager that another reason for our general disagreement is the line. There's a big difference between what we think of as a 5-11 team versus a 7-9 team. If the line was 5.5, I'd be happier with a cautious over. If it was 6.5, I'd be a lot happier to take the under. The Jets look like a 6-10 team that could lean a game either way. The schedule also isn't kind: their toughest opponents appear to be at home, and their easier ones on the road. For a good team, that's a good thing. For a bad one, it's the opposite.
Bryan: Oh, I'm not saying it's impossible they'd go over or anything like that, and you're right -- 7-9 isn't a huge hurdle. I just look at that schedule, and I'm wondering how they win a game after their bye week. They could be a respectable 4-6 heading into their bye week, and maybe win one more down the stretch. I'm taking the under.
Andrew: As the text implies, I'm reasonably optimistic about the Jets roster. They need to improve, but there's a plan in place to do so and they may be set at the most important position in the sport. That doesn't necessarily help them against this season's schedule though. To return to my opening question: is it too simplistic to look at this year's Jets roster, especially its quarterback situation, check it against last year's roster and record, and simply take the over by default?
Yes. Yes, it is. Under.
Bryan: Vegas doesn't have high hopes for a lot of competition in the NFC East, either. Unlike the AFC East, however, I think we, generally speaking, disagree? I don't want to put words in your mouth, Andrew, but there appear at least to be two live cards in the division, which is more than the AFC East (or North, for that matter) can claim.
Andrew: Let's see whether we even agree on the identity of the two live cards. The Eagles are obviously the first. The second ... I have Washington. Vegas, however, does not. Do you side with the house?
Bryan: Oh, no. No I do not. This should be interesting. Let's just dive right in.
DALLAS COWBOYS (8.5)
Last Over: 2017 (9-7, Garrett/Prescott)
Last Under: 2015 (4-12, Garrett/Cassel)
Bryan: FOA 2018 has the Cowboys as Team 1B in the division, with a nearly identical projection to the Eagles. Vegas takes a look at last year and shakes it's collective head, and there's no denying that a 9-7 year was disappointing. If Tyron Smith doesn't miss time, however, the Cowboys are quite possibly a playoff team. Had they beaten the Falcons in the game Smith missed (and in which Dak Prescott was subsequently beaten, bloodied, and bruised), they slip into the playoffs over Atlanta. If you assume a little more health, they're playoff favorites in 2018, right?
Andrew: Absolutely not. What is this pass offense going to look like? Who's catching passes? As it stands, they have two slot receivers and Terrance Williams. Sure, they're a run-focused team, but a run-focused team with no receivers is going to be a run-focused team with a lot of three-and-outs.
Bryan: Assuming the offensive line is healthy, we might be talking more eight-and-field-goals rather than three-and-outs, because good lord, is that a good offensive line. Your point about the receivers is well taken, though. You're not convinced that...
Andrew: Please don't ask me about Tavon Austin.
Bryan: ... Tavon Austin is the future of offensive play calling? That Jeff Fisher's ideal might be finally brought into reality by Scott Linehan? I mean, sure, Sean McVay found no use for him, but how good of an offensive mind is McVay, really?
Andrew: What was it they called Austin after they traded for him? A ... web back, was it? Austin should, in theory, be the kind of sweep-and-YAC receiver that McVay could use to give opposing defenses fits. If McVay didn't make much of him, I can't possibly see how Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett will do any better.
Bryan: Alright, I will spot you the receiving corps being ... let's say remedial at the moment. And I know that was one of my reasons for ragging on the Jets a little earlier. The big question, though -- is the receiving corps actually worse than last season? Jason Witten hasn't been Jason Witten for some time, and Dez Bryant never clicked with Dak Prescott. I get that it's a lot of unknowns, but I like those unknowns with Prescott and a great running game.
Andrew: See, what you're saying about Witten not being Witten recently also applies to Dak Prescott. Yes, he has a much smaller body of work. Certainly we expect some growing pains for young quarterbacks, especially mid-round quarterbacks. Doubtless, if he had his rookie season and his sophomore season reversed the optimism and hype would be huge. He didn't. He declined in the second half of last season, and it wasn't all the loss of Ezekiel Elliott. Reports in the offseason -- which, remember, is the time of glowing "best shape of his career" reports for guys who've never lived up to their potential -- have Prescott being scattered, inconsistent, and uncomfortable. There's even talk that this could be a make-or-break season, which was unthinkable 12 months ago.
Bryan: So, Prescott had a season and a half of good-to-great football, and half a season of bad football in a situation where he missed his all-world running back and all-world left tackle. You know what, I'm going to side with the season and a half. I think the "make-or-break season" nonsense is typical media hype; he was a second-year player, and second-year players sometimes go through bad spells. Prescott will be fine going forward. Probably.
Andrew: He should be, but I'd be a lot more comfortable with his situation if I thought he was throwing to genuine starter-quality receivers, with a creative offensive coordinator running the show. I don't think he has either of those things on his side.
Bryan: He does, however, have a solid defense backing him up. I'm really high on the linebacker trio of Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch; that has a heck of a lot of potential to match up with any other set of linebackers in the league. I'm not saying it's there yet; I'm saying there's potential. The pass rush of Demarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton feels like a strong one as well, and adding Kris Richard to coach up the defensive backs ... well, it can't hurt, right?
The receiving corps is, admittedly, a hole that keeps the Cowboys from being one of the elite teams in the league. I'm not arguing against that. But they just need to go 9-7 to hit the over here. If any of those unknown receivers take off, they could do a lot better than that. Over.
Andrew: I'm far from convinced. It's a passing league, and they don't have much in the way of receiving options. They'll definitely be competitive, but this division is almost always competitive. They'll win some, they'll lose some, and I think 8-8 is a realistic outcome. Under.
NEW YORK GIANTS (7)
Last Over: 2016 (11-5, McAdoo/Manning)
Last Under: 2017 (3-13, McAdoo/Manning)
Bryan: Hold up, seven wins for the Giants? That has to be a typo or an imaginary tale or an Elseworlds or something. I was thinking this line would be somewhere between 5.5 or 6.5.
Andrew: The Giants were 11-5 two seasons ago, then fell apart last year when their entire receiving corps was ruthlessly exterminated by the opening series of fixtures. Split the difference, and you get seven wins. I can see how the line landed there, even as I agree that it's a point or two higher than I would place it. This is a team with a lot of issues, from the starting quarterback all the way to the bottom of the roster.
Bryan: It wasn't just the M*A*S*H unit that passed for a receivers room last season that doomed the Giants, though. The defense, which performed so well in 2016, just cratered last season. The secondary seemed to actively rebel against Ben McAdoo, and didn't look so great when they actually did take the field. Eli Apple, who looked promising as a rookie, failed to capitalize on any of that promise; Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked old and slow; Janoris Jenkins was hobbled. Really, the whole McAdoo era needed to be flushed out and rebuilt from the ground up.
Andrew: Naturally, what they did instead was try to restock the cupboard for one last run. Alas, that run has more chance of bringing home a top draft choice than the Lombardi Trophy. Which, this being the Giants, means I've just guaranteed they win the Super Bowl.
But seriously. This team is toast. They have barely half a dozen established players I'd consider starting-caliber, never mind elite. That offensive line ... Nate Solder aside, what even is that?
Bryan: We did it with the Jets last season -- is it time to play "Name Those Actually Good Players" with the other New York team? Because I think we can go well beyond a half-dozen. They have two freaking superstars, for goodness sake, in OBJ and Snacks Harrison!
Andrew: OBJ, Sterling Shepard, Nate Solder, Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson, Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins. Then I guess there's Saquon Barkley, but he's a rookie and I still have Reggie Bush "game-changing talent" PTSD. I'm absolutely wary of highly touted college running backs.
Bryan: Barkley isn't just highly touted, though. He blows away every metric we've got, setting records in the Speed Score and in BackCAST and all those sorts of things. In a world where every position was equally valuable and equally scarce, Barkley would have been an easy first overall pick.
Andrew: A world in which running backs don't need blockers would help Barkley immensely, too.
Bryan: I think we could extend your list a little, too. Evan Engram was a promising rookie; Olivier Vernon is a decent player, Jonathan Stewart may well have a little more gas in the tank ... possibly. We're reaching a little there, though. And we haven't mentioned the man under center.
Andrew: My exact number may have been off, but hopefully you see my point. We're not even at ten players, and we're already hoping a 31-year-old running back with almost 1,700 career carries still has gas in the tank.
Bryan: Your point is well taken. And in addition, if we're both in agreement that the Giants need to enter a rebuilding phase, surely that involves having a quarterback you expect to play, and play well, in 2020 on the roster, right? That's the problem with the Barkley pick -- not how good or bad he'll be, because I expect him to do well, but with what it means for the future of the franchise.
Andrew: Absolutely. I'm not a believer in rebuilding phases, as such, in professional sports. I can see what the Browns, for example, are trying to do, but you still need to be actively trying to win games for a multitude of reasons. Given, though, that the Giants have an old, bad quarterback -- a quarterback who was benched last season for Geno Smith, for pity's sake -- when they fell into the No. 2 draft pick in a quarterback-heavy draft, any running back was a bad choice. This isn't the Titans with the No. 1 pick the year after they drafted Marcus Mariota; Eli Manning is not a young player with future potential. It's an opportunity the Giants don't plan to have very often, and they did not take it.
Bryan: Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe Davis Webb or Kyle Lauletta is the future. I think we can cross out Webb, because the Giants didn't feel comfortable enough with him to even see what he could do during the Manning benching last season. And even if either of those players will be the one to step under center when Manning finally goes, that doesn't help the Giants this year. This is an easy under.
Andrew: The Giants could surprise me and put out a better-than-adequate defense, or the receivers could cause opposing defenses fits and give Eli Manning a late-career resurgence. I am not willing to bet on either of those things. Under.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10.5)
Last Over: 2017 (13-3, Pederson/Wentz)
Last Under: 2016 (7-9, Pederson/Wentz)
Bryan: Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl Champions. It still feels weird to say that.
Andrew: The Eagles' run last year was very, very special. I am truly delighted for them. From the coach who took an unorthodox approach and willingly ran with it; to the general manager who was almost forced out of town by the previous head coach; to the quarterback who was discarded by telephone from a previous employer, almost retired, signed on as a backup and ended up Super Bowl MVP; it was one of the greatest success stories in the history of this sport.
Now, however, everybody's back to 0-0 and it's time to go again. The Eagles aren't the underdogs anymore. They are, however, still loaded with talented players. In fact, with their quarterback hopefully about to return, their left tackle hopefully healthy again, and a very highly touted cornerback now ready to play after an Achilles injury cost him most of his rookie season, their roster might even be stronger than it was during that improbable triumph.
Bryan: A bold claim! Not a bad claim, but a bold one notwithstanding. They lost a lot of bodies this offseason -- Mychal Kendricks, Patrick Robinson, Trey Burton, Vinny Curry, etc. -- but they also got a bit of that Super Bowl advantage of "aging veterans coming on cheap deals to look for a ring" with players such as Haloti Ngata and Mike Wallace. And the talent drain could have been worse; they absolutely had to re-sign Nigel Bradham, and they did.
Andrew: Once again, the only question then appears to be "how good are they?" 10.5 wins is very high for a team that had only scaled those heights once in the 12 years prior to last season. Now of course, teams quarterbacked by Michael Vick and Jeff Garcia and *ahem* Nick Foles have little bearing on this year's squad, but this isn't the Patriots and their decade-long track record of 12-win seasons.
Bryan: There are also signs that the Eagles were ... "lucky" is the wrong word, because any champion in a single-knockout tourney is going to have had luck on their side from sheer survivor bias. "Unsustainable success" might be a better way to put it. The Eagles were really, really good on third downs and in the red zone last year. Teams are usually just about as good in those situations as they are overall, so if you see a team do unusually well (or poorly) there, then you can expect some regression the next year. There's not enough potential regression there for the Eagles to be bad, mind you, but it could chop a win or two off the top.
Andrew: There's also the question of Carson Wentz's return. Will he be ready to start the season, and how will he come back from his knee injury? In the past, we've seen quarterbacks typically need to be a full season removed from ACL surgery to get back to full confidence and peak performance. Foles has obviously proven better than fine as a backup, but that's not a lot of use if Wentz is ostensibly healthy and in the lineup but not playing as well as he did last year.
Bryan: And Foles wasn't "fine" the entire way -- remember, people were convinced that the Eagles were in real trouble after some terrible December performances as Foles worked his way back into regular starting form.
Andrew: So those are the question marks surrounding the champions. Injury returns. Some probable regression toward the mean. "Super Bowl hangover," whatever that means. Not, however, the ability of their players, coaches, or front office. The last team to repeat as NFC East champions was the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid. Will Reid's protege lead the same franchise to that achievement this year? I, for one, think so. Over.
Bryan: I don't think the Eagles are going to replicate 13-3. The road will be bumpier, and teams will be more ready for the RPO and the other offensive strategies Doug Pederson and company implemented last year. Even with all that, though, they're up there with the tops of the conference, and I don't think double-digit wins is crazy. Over.
Last Over: 2016 (8-7-1, Gruden/Cousins)
Last Under: 2014 (4-12, Gruden/Cousins)
Bryan: Have I mentioned how much I hate whole-number lines? Because I hate, hate, hate this line.
Andrew: Color me shocked that, Alex Smith fanboy that you are, you don't have this as an automatic "over."
Bryan: Most of my Alex Smith backing is tongue-in-cheek, and more about lightly mocking Philip Rivers than anything else!
… some of my Alex Smith backing is tongue-in-cheek, anyway.
Andrew: At last! The truth!
Bryan: At least Smith keeps his title as best quarterback in his division! That's a statement that's not going to get me any flack from Wentz and Prescott backers, right?
Andrew: He is the best quarterback in the division to have started a game for any franchise other than the one which drafted him. That leaves you contending only with the Nick Foles and Eli Manning backers, at least.
Bryan: It just feels like, if you were to look in the dictionary to define a 7-9 team, you'd find a big ol' picture of Washington, right there. This is a one-step forward, one-step back franchise that has downgraded at quarterback after messing around with Kirk Cousins for years. I'm not sure why we're supposed to think they're better in 2018 than they were in 2017, other than "maybe the offensive line will be healthier."
Andrew: Washington was the most injured team in the sport last year. That's an obvious indicator of likely positive regression. Some of that, as always, was Jordan Reed being Danny Amentightend, but they also lost the third-most games at running back and offensive line, and the fifth-most at linebacker.
Bryan: Well, I'm sure they won't have to deal with injured running backs this year … oh, wait. Poor Derrius Guice.
Andrew: That's true, and I have already raved about the Chiefs' addition of Fuller in last week's article. He will be a big loss. The thing, for me, is that though Washington is by no means stacked, they have a lot of genuinely solid-to-good players. The offensive and defensive lines are stout, at least when healthy. Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, and the underrated Paul Richardson is, in theory, a good receiving trio. Jordan Reed is never healthy, but Vernon Davis has been better than adequate as his backup. The front seven has its weaknesses, but it's a good unit. I admit, I'm not keen on the secondary now that Orlando Scandrick has been released, but some of that is because I don't know enough about the young players who supposedly made Scandrick redundant.
Bryan: The schedule is brutal, especially for a team with question marks in the secondary. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, a pair of games against the receivers in New York and Philadelphia. I would not wish that on a group of good cornerbacks, much less the likes of Quinton Dunbar (eight starts in three years) and Fabian Moreau (an untested second-year player).
Andrew: That, again, is true. I try to avoid relying too heavily on schedule to project a team, but the NFC South was arguably the toughest division in the sport last season and the AFC South looks much stronger now than it did a year ago (more on that in two weeks' time). That is probably enough to temper my relative enthusiasm.
Bryan: Meanwhile, I've been saying all these negative things ... but not because I think Washington is going to be horrible. I just think they're 7-9, making this line super-frustrating!
Andrew: Does coaching sway anything for you?
Bryan: It might, but at least Washington has the better of the two Grudens, at least now that we're out of the Stone Age. I don't know. I think I'm going to lean towards the under with the thought that the secondary is the deciding factor, but I don't like it. I just don't like it slightly less than I don't like taking the over.
Andrew: I hate to agree with you here ... or rather, I hate to let you persuade me here, but I think the schedule is enough to tip the scales. With a normal schedule, I think Washington is closer to 8-8, but this is not a normal schedule. I'll join you with a hesitant, disapproving under.
Bryan: Now you want to make me go with the over, just so we can be different! Bah. I'll stick to my guns, as weak as they are.
Next week, we brave the frozen tundra as our trek takes us to the far north.
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