Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders
Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this year your humble writers lament the absence of any new Game of Thrones action on which to base their lede for the Northern Houses divisions. Though last year's dragon was indeed slain, it was by a beast from the East, not the long-hinted threat from the North. Spoilers? Foreshadowing? Or perhaps the NFL season is in no way influenced by the writings of a soon-to-be septuagenarian former screenwriter from New Jersey.

Bryan: Whatever it is, it's likely to be a more satisfying ending than anything George R.R. Martin has cooked up. The NFL is a much better place to find storylines that actually, you know, pay off at some point.

... or perhaps not! After all, we're entering Year 16 of the Marvin Lewis chronicle in Cincinnati, with no end in sight. The Cleveland saga is threatening General Hospital's episode count, and the Steelers keep finding themselves stuck on "second in the AFC" island.

Andrew: Thus exemplifying another difference between your Scramble writers, as I could riff all day on Game of Thrones while poor Bryan flounders through the search pages of, but I have absolutely no idea what any of the stuff he just wrote means.

Bryan: Well, I guess we'll just have to stumble our way through the northern divisions without an overall theme. We'll just have to go more traditionally and see which teams we think are terrible, and which deserve a little bit of Respect.

All lines courtesy of Bovada and were accurate at time of writing.

AFC North

Bryan: The AFC North kind of feels like a less extreme version of the AFC East we looked at last week. The winner of the division feels like more or less a foregone conclusion. At least the rest of the division has arguments for wild-card slots rather than just being there to pad out Pittsburgh's schedule.

Andrew: It wouldn't be a complete shock to see either Baltimore or Cincinnati overtake Pittsburgh if things fell right for them over the season. Pittsburgh looks clearly the class of the division, but Big Ben's knack for getting hurt and the shocking collapse of the defense last year after Ryan Shazier's back injury mean the window appears that little bit wider for their rivals than it is for New England's.

Bryan: Absolutely, but we're talking relative levels of openness here. Outside New England's stranglehold, I'd be most surprised if Pittsburgh did not end up as champion when all is said and done. Like in so many other things, Pittsburgh plays second-banana to the empire in Beantown. But yeah, it'd be less jaw-droppingly confusing to see Joe Flacco, division champion than if, say, the Jets managed to pull off the feat.

Andrew: On which topic...


Last Over: 2017 (9-7, Harbaugh/Flacco)
Last Under: 2015 (5-11, Harbaugh/Flacco)

Bryan: I'll admit, Lamar Jackson hasn't looked quite as good in preseason as I thought he might coming in; he clearly is an unfinished product who needs a little bit more work before he's ready to take over. That being said, if Flacco stumbles through the first half of the season, you know A Change is Gonna Come..

Andrew: There's no suggestion yet that we'll see a repeat of the Tom Savage-Deshaun Watson madness, in which the supposed backup tears up the league immediately after being almost forced upon his reluctant head coach, but surely Jackson will get his chance eventually. Flacco has been so bad, and so expensive, for so long that expecting a turnaround at this stage looks crazy. This Ravens team on the whole is just another template John Harbaugh Ravens squad: hard-hitting defense, question marks on offense, with yet another veteran receiver brought in to head up the corps and hopefully elevate Flacco into the ranks of the mediocre.

Bryan: That has been a fairly decent template over the years, though it has cratered a bit as Flacco has, as well. They were just one play away from the playoffs last season, after all. It's probably for the best that the defense didn't prevent the miracle Andy Dalton completion, because that gave the front office the excuse it needed to do a little bit of offensive remodeling -- it's a lot easier to see the flaws present on your own team when they're not coupled with a playoff berth, cough cough Buffalo cough cough.

Andrew: Despite those flaws, we both took the over on this squad, on the exact same line, and we were both right. The Ravens have spent half a decade now looking roughly like an 8-8 team leaning slightly on the nine-win side of the line. Have any of those flaws been rectified enough for you to have more than a coin flip's faith in a repeat?

Bryan: Not really, no. It did feel like a coin flip last season, but the coin has become, uh, less fairly weighted over the past 12 months. That analogy doesn't really work, but I'm going to stick with it.

The division feels like it's going to be a bit tougher, in general. Matching up against the NFC South isn't great for a team's marginal victories. More importantly, I'm not sure that their skill position revamp actually improves the team -- at least, not in 2018.

Andrew: Absolutely. We've written before -- certainly I have -- about rookie tight ends not tending to have much of an impact, and that's two of their top four picks. With a third being used to select a quarterback of the future, the top half of this draft should have way more influence on 2019 and beyond than it does on the coming season.

Bryan:The defense should be good, as usual. The special teams should be astounding. I just don't know if Flacco-to-Michael Crabtree, -Willie Snead, and -John Brown screams a successful season. It feels like the debris of other teams, coming together in Baltimore.

Andrew: I expect the defense, as you say, to be good -- if not quite the No. 2 DVOA pass defense again. The defensive backfield in particular has a chance to be one of the league's best if Don Martindale can weave the pieces together.

Bryan: The defensive backfield better be great, with that murderers' row of quarterbacks on the schedule.

Andrew: Even accounting for that though, I see an absolute floor of about seven wins. Yes, the NFC South will be rough, but I would think 2-2 is entirely achievable. Cleveland still exists, and should still be coached by Hue Jackson at least in Week 5 (though surely not by Week 17). A split with Cincinnati is likely. Buffalo and Oakland are both at home. Clearly, we can't predict every game's result with 100 percent accuracy, but it's really easy to see Baltimore in the territory of 8-8, 9-7 again. I'm not doing so with huge confidence, but as I refuse to push I think I'm talking myself once more into the Over.

Bryan: This feels like the sort of season where Baltimore's going to stumble to, say, 3-6 out of the gates heading to their bye week, at which point they make the change to Jackson and finish, say, 4-3, boding well for the future. Four plus three, if I'm not too far mistaken, is seven, which is less than eight. I'll take the under though, like you said, it's close. If I'm wrong about the strengths of any of the other AFC North teams, this could easily flip.


Last Over: 2017 (7-9, Lewis/Dalton)
Last Under: 2010 (4-12, Lewis/Palmer)

Bryan: There were rumors all last season that the Bengals would finally part ways with Marvin Lewis after years of ... "mediocrity" might be too harsh to describe the entire Lewis tenure, but certainly nothing beyond moderately successful. Instead, Mike Brown decided to bring Lewis back for a 16th year, to which we say … Are You Sure?

Andrew: Bengals fans have seen this movie before. Every contract negotiation, Lewis can seemingly wrest just enough concessions from Mike Brown to keep him happy and the Bengals competitive, without the team ever really threatening to upset the AFC applecart. This year, the receiving corps and offensive line could (and perhaps should) be better, but George Iloka's release adds an unexpected question mark to the defense. If the offense comes together as hoped, the Bengals are an obvious wild-card contender in a competitive (remember, "competitive" is not necessarily synonymous with "good") AFC field. As Rob Weintraub pointed out in his Cincinnati chapter in FOA 2018 (on sale now!), if a couple of scheduling flukes had fallen the other way last year, Week 17 would have seen the Ravens trying to keep the Bengals out of the playoffs instead of the other way around.

Bryan: A couple of scheduling flukes and maybe not having offensive coordinator Ken Zampese fired after two games. Then again, they only got to a mediocre level last season by winning a couple games after they were mathematically eliminated. The Bengals are the NFL's definition of "eh, that'll do." Lewis' 0-7 playoff record speaks volumes, there -- often good enough to be relevant in December, never good enough to be relevant in January. That feels great if you're coming off a dozen years without a winning record, as the Bengals were before they brought in Lewis, but even the best Lewis teams never felt like serious contenders to make noise. And this doesn't feel like one of the best Lewis teams.

There are just question marks up and down the roster. The offensive line rebuild last season was a disaster, and they're fixing it by bringing in the rarely healthy Cordy Glenn and rookie Billy Price, coming off of a pec tear. Outside of A.J. Green, their weapons range from underwhelming (Tyler Boyd) to invisible (John Ross) to theoretical (Tyler Eifert).

Andrew: Tyler Eifert is the AFC's Jordan Reed: terrific when healthy, but his body simply doesn't stand up consistently to the demands of a full season. That's not a slight on him, but it does mean any Bengals offensive projection is partly about how healthy we think Eifert will be by mid-November. Andy Dalton is, as we know, extremely variable, and improved protection would do a lot more for Dalton than it does for some other quarterbacks. 3-3 inside the division is achievable, so this is another projection that will largely be decided by what we expect the Bengals to achieve outside the division.

Bryan: To me, it feels like the defense is a known mediocrity, while the offense is an unknown quantity with the ceiling of mediocrity. That's not exactly a winning combination. This line is really low, but I think I can stretch myself under it, triggering the firing of Marvin Lewis and the beginning of a rebuild that should have happened this year. Mediocrity is no place for a franchise to live in forever.

Andrew: I think the defense will be better than mediocre, though that faith has been shaken by the release of the previously ever-present Iloka. The offense, to me, is much more variable than your statement would imply. I do think they'll grab roughly three of their extradivisional games, and as I said before 3-3 is achievable within the division. I'm not sure I see where that extra win comes from to push them past 6.5, but a single game snatch on a rocky road schedule is all it would take to push them very, very marginally over.


Last Over: 2014 (7-9, Pettine/Hoyer)
Last Under: 2017 (0-16, Jackson/Kizer)

Bryan: Bold, ~HOT TAEK~ time: the Cleveland Browns would be a playoff team if they weren't being led by a veritable Chain of Fools.

Andrew: My biggest question about this money line is this: are we betting on the number of games the Browns actually win this year, or the number of games it takes for them to fire, at a bare minimum, one of their top three coaches? The Browns are the team that makes projecting December for this division the trickiest, because I have minus-273.15 degrees of expectation that Hue Jackson will still be in charge of screwing things up for them by then.

Bryan: I did a radio hit this offseason, and it was suggested to me that Jimmy Haslam's plan might be to fire Jackson after six games, installing Todd Haley as the head coach. That would be an insanely stupid plan -- if you're that willing to move on from Jackson, you should just do it before the season started. That being said, that sounds like the most Cleveland of Cleveland plans, so I fully believe it.

I also believe that the reason Jackson isn't giving Baker Mayfield a single first-team snap in practice or preseason is to preserve the "oh, but I haven't tried my rookie!" card for when the heat starts getting on him.

Andrew: To which the only response should be: "Hue, we gave you a rookie in 2016, and look how that went. Then we gave you another rookie in 2017, and look how that went. You are the single last person in any current NFL head coaching role who should ever be entrusted with the opening starts of a rookie quarterback's career." And yes, that question ties in perfectly with my question about this money line. With Hue Jackson in charge, I'll be stunned if the coaching staff survives six games, never mind the team actually winning six.

Bryan: Mayfield looks significantly better than the previous collection of rookies Jackson has been stuck with, but you're right. He has not shown any ability, whatsoever, to get the most out of his players. I mean, a 1-31 record is all you need to know, right? We chalk some of that up to bad luck, but at a certain point, coaches create bad luck by not putting their players in positions to succeed. You can't do anything about being in the wrong time, but you can do things about being in the wrong place.

Andrew: The team is poorly led. The defense is horrendously coached...

Bryan: Don't get me started on Gregg Williams. My God. I mentioned in the NFC West article that Brian Schottenheimer haunted my offseason; Williams is his defensive equivalent. I mean. I mean…

And ... and …

And ... and …

Andrew: Among a swarm of other analysts plucking similar fruit, Warren Sharp is doing some outstanding work taking apart Gregg Williams' defense on Twitter. Just like NFL quarterbacks will be doing excellent work taking apart Gregg Williams' defense on the field.

Bryan: This offseason, we found that the Browns stubbornly stuck in base defense 66 percent of the time, by far the most in the league. They were using linebackers to cover slot receivers, and it turns out, that's a really dumb strategy; the Browns were significantly better against three- and four-receiver sets when they decided, gosh, we better put a nickel corner on the field.

And what's Williams' response to that?

AAAAARGH. The only thing they're going to wear out is the opposing team's receivers, who will run up and down the field all game long.

Andrew: We, uh, might not be taking the over on this one, guys.

The thing is, I actually expect Todd Haley's offense to be quite good, if Haley can keep Hue Jackson out of the way long enough to actually run it. Which should become considerably easier if/when Haley is promoted to interim head coach.

Bryan: The Browns' toughest contest this season won't be the Steelers or the Saints or the Chiefs. It will be the players versus the coaches, because there's actually a ton of potential talent on this team. Mayfield is one of the top prospects we've ever recorded, and Tyrod Taylor is an above-average quarterback when you take into account his rushing abilities. Josh Gordon remains an astonishing talent -- when he's on the field -- and if the Browns can lay off the temptation to throw Jarvis Landry a billion screen passes, he's an upgrade, too. The defense is loaded with young talent. Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Larry Ogunjobi, Christian Kirksey, Jabrill Peppers, Denzel Ward -- put those guys in positions where they can succeed, and they will ... well, win more than zero games.

Andrew: Hire Gregg Williams to do so, however, and zero games is what you get. These guys could be devastating in 2019. Heck, they could be devastating in 2018 too, but for everything we just said. Alas, they're still coached by Hue Jackson. The defense is still run by Gregg Williams. Until that changes, the only rational choice is the Under.

Bryan: Then call me Mr. Irrational. The Browns have been so unlucky in recent years (1-11 in one-score games over the past two seasons, terrible turnover luck, etc.)...

Andrew: Objection! They've been unlucky in huge part because their head coach and defensive coordinator have been hopeless!

Bryan: Jackson and Williams aren't the ones failing to jump on loose balls! The Browns recovered just 12 of 37 fumbles last season, to point out just one of the many ways things went wrong in 2017. To go 0-16, you need to not only be bad and badly coached, but you need a ton of unlucky things to happen, too. They won't be as unlucky in 2018; they can't. I refuse to believe it.

Andrew: One final objection: Even if their luck in one-score games regresses to an even 3-3, they're still finishing under. Way under.

Bryan: Add in improved luck with massively improved quarterback play, another year of experience for the defense, and the non-zero chance that the coaching situation will improve by the end of the season, and I'm riding the Browns all the way! … to a 6-10 season! And the OVER.


Last Over: 2017 (13-3, Tomlin/Roethlisberger)
Last Under: 2015 (10-6, Tomlin/Roethlisberger)

Andrew: You've now picked the under for each of Baltimore and Cincinnati, while having Cleveland finish 6-10. What, exactly, would it take in your mind for the Steelers not to win this division?

Bryan: An injury to Ben Roethlisberger. A prolonged holdout by Le'Veon Bell. The tackling on defense to somehow, someway be as bad as it was last season. New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to forget what sport he's calling.

We know what the Steelers are going to do in the regular season, because they do it every year. They're going to win all their home games against good teams not named New England. They're going to have one unexplainable loss to a bad team in a game where it looks like everyone in black and yellow has forgotten how to play football. They're going to finish 12-4-ish, and then lose a playoff game with a "what could have been"-style excuse. That's every Steelers season.

Andrew: They do have a relatively tough run with the Patriots and Saints in successive weeks before a home game against the Bengals in Week 17. Successive trips to Jacksonville and Denver could be very tricky. The rest of the time, their theoretically better opponents (Atlanta, Carolina, Los Angeles) are at home and their theoretically lesser opponents (Tampa Bay, Oakland) are on the road. That should be pretty favorable to a borderline elite team.

Bryan: "Borderline elite" might be just the right way to describe them. The biggest question with the Steelers isn't how they'll do in the regular season; it's whether or not we've seen the best version of them, because their best hasn't been good enough to win championships. Assuming they make the playoffs, this will be their fifth consecutive trip. A few teams have taken five shots to get to the Super Bowl -- Peyton Manning's Colts and Joe Flacco's Ravens, most recently -- but only one team in NFL history has taken more than that. The '70s Rams finally got to the big game on their seventh try, and it took a coaching change and a quarterback change to do so. If the Steelers fall up short yet again, it might be time to Think about making some changes in order to make that final push.

Andrew: It's fair to ask how long the quarterback even has left. Their use of a draft pick on Mason Rudolph suggests that the organization, at least, is thinking about it. Time is not likely to be as kind to Ben Roethlisberger as it has been to Tom Brady.

Bryan: May time be as good to all of us as it has been to Tom Brady.

Andrew: That's still future hypothetical, however. Unless Roethlisberger's play falls off to an alarming degree, I expect the Steelers to be basically fine. (I specify "falls off," because I think they will get by if he's injured too. It's only a drop-off in performance, where they keep him in too long even though he's cooked, that would totally crash the offense.)

Bryan: It says a lot that we're kind of just assuming the Steelers waltz to the crown again. This is a fairly simple over for me, despite the high line, because they're just pretty clearly the second-best team in the AFC. They just need to figure out a way to move up one rung, and I don't know if that's going to happen.

Andrew: 11-5 might even be a disappointment for them, depending how it came about. 12-4 should be a minimum target, and a repeat of 13-3 is tough but attainable. I agree that the over is a fairly simple pick, even with a few tough matchups both inside and outside the division.

NFC North

Bryan: Unlike its AFC counterpart, the NFC North looks really interesting this year. The return of Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings' attempt to stay in charge despite a quarterback change, new coaches everywhere else -- it's not exactly lacking for promising storylines, is it?

Andrew: I always find this division tough to predict, not necessarily because I don't know who the better and worse teams are likely to be, but because the clear and obvious best quarterback has been blighted by occasional injuries and even more occasional coaching, while the other three teams have usually had a floor of at least "competitive" in recent seasons. The days of the 0-16 Lions are long behind us.

Bryan: This is probably the most competitive division we've looked at so far, and while there are two obvious co-favorites, I don't think anyone would be stunned if the Bears or Lions managed to snag something respectable -- maybe not the division crown, but there's plenty of reason for optimism for each team. That's far more interesting than some of the foregone conclusions we've seen so far.

Andrew: Despite all of that, however, it is another division that quite likely comes down to how many games its best quarterback manages to play at something close to full health.

Bryan: But Mitchell Trubisky doesn't have an injury history?


Last Over: 2013 (8-8, Trestman/Cutler)
Last Under: 2017 (5-11, Fox/Trubisky)

Bryan: ... at least, Trubisky is the best quarterback in the division if you listen to Chicago media. They are all-in on Trubisky's promise, hooked up with new head coach Matt Nagy. They envision McVay-Goff levels of Year 2 improvement. That optimism is probably not going to last too far into the regular season, but hey, it's the offseason. It could happen. Don't Let Me Lose This Dream, Andrew, tell us that the Bears will be really good!

Andrew: There has been a reasonable foundation of solid players in Chicago for a few years now, even going back to the John Fox era in which they consistently underachieved. They aren't swimming in top-level talent, but it needn't take a miraculous coaching job to get this team above the 6.5-win money line.

Bryan: Another big plus for the Bears will probably be "not having everyone injured all the time forever." They lead the league in adjusted games lost since 2015, and it seems like 95 percent of that has been to the receivers. This year, Trubisky will (theoretically, at least) be throwing to players like Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller, which is a lot better than the backups and nobodies he had last season. And heck, maybe Kevin White might be healthy? Maybe?

Andrew: Robinson, we should not forget, missed almost the entirety of last season after tearing his ACL on Opening Day.

Bryan: OK, maybe that "theoretically" should be slightly more prominent.

Andrew: Josh Bellamy, at least, has extensive experience filling in for an injured starter. Taylor Gabriel was an exciting playmaker at times in Atlanta. There are quite a few potential bright spots on the offense, if Matt Nagy can fashion them together cohesively. At least Chase Daniel's presence means Trubisky will never miss a snap, because heaven forfend that Daniel actually had to throw another NFL pass. Much of Chicago's upside depends on the quarterback, but there's nary a team in the league for which that statement is not true.

Bryan: I think part of my problem with this line is that I am not enamored with Trubisky so far. I don't know how much of it is him and how much of it was John Fox, but it seemed like every other Trubisky throw was a safe checkdown, or a throw way short of the sticks hoping that someone (usually Tarik Cohen) could pull a rabbit out of his hat. How much of that was Fox? How much of that was the injured receiving corps? And how much of that is just a player who hasn't put together all the pieces yet? I don't think he's a bust per se, but I don't expect a Goffian turnaround. I think he's a few years out from being average, and that doesn't bode well.

Andrew: The front seven on defense, at least, looks pretty good. The backfield is variable, but pressure from Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch would make everybody's job back there a whole lot easier.

Bryan: I'm also a little concerned by the long holdout by Roquan Smith. It's the second-longest rookie holdout since the new slotting system came into play … though the longest belongs to Joey Bosa, and he turned out just fine.

Andrew: Mostly, I look at the schedule, and think it would not surprise me to see the Bears hit five around midseason, and then finish 5-11. Rams-Packers-49ers-Vikings has the potential to be a nightmarish run, and the two games before that are both on the road. A six- or seven-game skid to close out the season would be no surprise at all, even for a team that has a reasonable base of talent.

Bryan: Yeah, I think we're a year away from a really good Bears team, especially in a tough division with a tougher schedule. It has been a while since the Bears have been any good, and I'll need to see it to believe it, even with the coaching change. I'm taking the under.

Andrew: I agree. I doubt the Bears will be in the mix for one of the worst DVOA marks, and I would hope not for a top-three draft pick either, but they still appear to need improvement at too many spots to be more than a competitive spoiler in a tough division. Under.


Last Over: 2017 (9-7, Caldwell/Stafford)
Last Under: 2015 (7-9, Caldwell/Stafford)

Bryan: The Detroit Lions are 8-61 against teams with a winning record since 2009. Matthew Stafford is 6-52 against winning teams. Honestly, Call Me when they prove they can hang with decent teams, and I'll believe they can be more than average.

Andrew: The numbers under the header for the Lions tell the story, really. When they perform below expectations, they're a 7-win team. When they perform above expectations, they're a 9-win team. The money line is 7.5 wins. They're a decent team, but not a great one, in a division with two teams that sure look like they could be genuine title contenders. Matthew Stafford is a good quarterback, but not a great one.

Bryan: I was hearing some "Matthew Stafford: Hall of Famer?" talk this offseason, which is a great sign of someone who doesn't understand how to era-adjust statistics.

Andrew: Matthew Stafford is a Hall-of-Famer in the '10s the way Drew Bledsoe was a Hall-of-Famer in the '90s. Which is to say, no way at all.

Bryan: It seems easy enough to figure out if the Lions will go over the line -- just count the games against teams likely to have a losing record! The Jets, sure. The 49ers, alright, possibly. Dolphins, Seahawks, Bears (twice!), Cardinals, Bills. Maybe the Panthers, if you're feeling generous? That could, theoretically, get them to nine wins.

I'm not buying it.

Andrew: The frustrating thing, to me, is they have enough good players to be better than they are. Golden Tate. Marvin Jones. Stafford himself. Theo Riddick. Ezekiel Ansah. Darius Slay. They just never quite seem to be better than the sum of their parts.

Bryan: It does seem like Matt Patricia is set up well to be the most successful of the ex-Belichick coaches, which isn't quite the high-level competition you'd hope it to be. The idea, of course, is that you take all that talent, hire a literal rocket scientist as a head coach, and you'll get better results.

Andrew: Do we count Jim Schwartz as part of that tree? If so, it's interesting that the most successful of the tree so far was also a Lions coach. Though I think Mike Vrabel has a better chance in the medium-term than Matt Patricia.

I'll reserve judgement on the Patricia hire, because we simply don't know how that will play out. His record as the Patriots defensive coordinator was not entirely inspiring, but we already know that there is little correlation between coordinator success and head coaching success. I think I would have been happier with a Josh McDaniels hire, simply because I would expect him to get the best out of Stafford, but we all know that McDaniels carries a bit of a stench from his previous stint as a head coach. Patricia ought to be the kind of guy who is smart enough to delegate well, which places the onus on his coordinators, but we just don't know.

Bryan: We'll get more into McDaniels and Vrabel next week (cheap plug!)

As for the Lions, I think the scheme change implied by Patricia's hire will help defensively ... eventually. That should help improve a defense that was 32nd in the league just two years ago, but it's going to take some time for existing players to adapt and for new, more scheme-appropriate players to be added. I feel like this is a multiple-year project, which leads me towards taking the under for 2018.

Andrew: I'm not convinced about the schematic stuff, but at least I don't think Patricia will tank what is good about the Lions like McDaniels did in Denver. I think 7-9 is about right, with 8-8 marking a pretty good season. That also puts me in under territory, where I think I am suitably comfortable.


Last Over: 2014 (12-4, McCarthy/Rodgers)
Last Under: 2017 (7-9, McCarthy/Hundley)

Andrew: Counterpoint to Cleveland, 10 is the over/under on the number of games Aaron Rodgers plays, right? If he is healthy through Green Bay's first 11 games, I would not be surprised to see the Packers sit at 10 wins after Thanksgiving night, ahead of the challenging trip to Minnesota to close out November.

Bryan: I'm just so happy Rodgers is back; he's my favorite quarterback to watch. Packers fans are thrilled, too, because they saw what happened Since He's Been Gone.

He's not as injury-prone as you seem to suggest, though. He played every game from 2014 to 2016. It's really just last year and 2013 that saw him miss significant time. And, to your point, yes, the Packers have won at least 10 games every time Rodgers has started at least 10 games for them. It may just be that simple.

We should probably say something else though, right?

Andrew: I should be clear that I didn't just mean games missed, but yes the Packers basically go as Rodgers goes. I will add that I am more confident in their backup plan this year than I am most years, because I think DeShone Kizer's problem in Cleveland was less DeShone Kizer and more Hue Jackson. Green Bay has retooled a bit on offense, and I do expect them to be better for it despite the loss of Jordy Nelson's incredible Rodgers telepathy.

Bryan: I'll admit, I'm more optimistic about the Packers' defense than I am about their (non-Rodgers) offense. Mike Pettine over Dom Capers is an upgrade at this point.

Andrew: Mike Pettine over Dom Capers has been an upgrade for the best part of a decade at this point.

Bryan: True facts, that. It also means we're going to see the Packers actually blitz, something that Capers, for all his innovation, seemed to forget about for the past five years. The secondary is young, but talented. I like the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson up front a lot. I think it's going to at least be average, and an average defense plus the return of Rodgers is a scary team.

Andrew: The loss of Jake Ryan hurts a lot, but if Pettine can get something close to their best out of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry the Packers will be pretty good. They should have enough on the line and in the backfield to let Pettine work some magic, and the offense can take anybody apart with Rodgers under center. Ten wins, like you said, is the baseline. I like Green Bay for the division, and absent injuries it would actually be a slight surprise to see the Packers not end up with a bye. The Rams and Patriots in back-to-back weeks is the only real black spot on a schedule that would have me licking my lips as a Packers fan, and absent the unpredictable injuries I think 12-4 is very realistic. Put me down for the over, as perhaps the most confident of my picks thus far.

Bryan: I'm not sure I have the Packers in first in the division, if only because of the next team on this list, but we could be talking about a 12-4 wild-card team coming out of the NFC North. The home-and-home series in Lambeau and whatever the heck the Vikings stadium is called is going to be huge. Either way, it's an over for me, even if I'm a little worried about taking the over on all these high lines.


Last Over: 2017 (13-3, Zimmer/Keenum)
Last Under: 2016 (8-8, Zimmer/Bradford)

Bryan: Minnesota's quarterback situation is really, really interesting to me. They had three players on their roster last season, any of whom you could have made a case for sticking with in 2018. And yet they went with Option D, Kirk Cousins, and that may be the best option of all. In a league where some teams search for decades for quarterbacks, the Vikings' cup ranneth over, and they went "nah, we're good." That's really interesting!

Andrew: See that, for me, is where the skepticism of this year's Vikings begins. It's not that I don't think Cousins is a good quarterback, and a good starter. It's that Kirk Cousins is so, so unlikely to play at the level Case Keenum reached last year in his first year on a new team. Kirk Cousins could be very good and still a downgrade from last season.

Bryan: The question for the Vikings, of course, is whether Case Keenum was going to play at the level Case Keenum reached last year, and I think they were pretty wise to be proactive there rather than just letting the Good Times roll. Just because it was the right decision, though, doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be better in 2018, you're right.

Andrew: Well yes, I would put Case Keenum's odds of repeating last season even lower than those of Kirk Cousins, but Case Keenum is also much, much cheaper.

Bryan: Cousins' contract is really interesting, being fully guaranteed and all. I suppose it makes sense that it went to Cousins, as he's arguably the best quarterback ever to be openly available in free agency (with only injured-neck Peyton Manning to Denver possibly beating him, if you ignore the question marks at the time), but it's an entirely new salary structure and idea in the NFL, so it will be interesting to see how that develops and what impact that has going forward.

Andrew: I wonder if we're reaching the tipping point of quarterback contracts, but then I wonder that every time some Flacco- or even Stafford-level starter signs a new megadeal. There has to be a point between Kirk Cousins money and Teddy Bridgewater at which teams think, "I can make this cheaper guy great by running this specific offense." That's not necessarily an issue with this year's Vikings, but it does make me wonder.

Bryan: Yeah, Cousins' contract won't be on the field in 2018, nor did his signing hurt the Vikings' cap situation this year, so Minnesota will probably be fine on that count this season.

Andrew: Elsewhere, the Vikings are largely the same team, which should be a good thing after a 13-3 season. Dalvin Cook is back. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are still the outside receivers, with Kyle Rudolph at tight end. The offensive line is still questionable, but should be adequate. The defensive line is terrifying with the addition of Sheldon Richardson. There legitimately isn't a weak spot on the defense.

Bryan: If you're looking for reasons for the Vikings to regress, you're going to have a hard time finding them. Teething pains with a new quarterback under center, maybe. The defense not being able to replicate their near injury-free season from a year ago. A tougher schedule, including a Green Bay-New England-Seattle trifecta late in the year.

Andrew: The schedule, incidentally, is part of what makes me lean Packers over Vikings for the division. It's not drastically different, of course, but Eagles & Saints instead of Washington & Falcons could be key.

Bryan: At least the Packers and Vikings have the same home/road slate, rather than, say, one team getting New England at home and other traveling on the road. But you're right, in a race this close, it could be a couple of games that ends up throwing the division one way or the other.

Andrew: I also think the Vikings are slightly more vulnerable to non-quarterback injuries. There's a big drop-off in quality from starters to backups throughout much of the roster. Where Rodgers can elevate the play of the entire offense almost regardless of who his receivers are, I don't put Cousins on nearly the same level.

Bryan: Oh heavens, no. When I said Cousins was arguably the best quarterback ever to change teams in open free agency, that was more a comment on how the tippy-top never get the chance to move. Rodgers is a tippy-top guy. Cousins is a good-to-very-good guy.

Andrew: Still, for all that, the only thing holding the Vikings below 10 wins in the past three years has been an almost unimaginable slew of injuries destroying the offense in 2016. Absent that sort of crisis, I expect a wild-card berth at roughly 11-5 or 12-4. I do think the Vikings are more susceptible to the random in-division loss than the Packers, but they should be good enough to average three wins for every four games on their schedule. That's firmly in over territory, in what should be a tremendous race with the Packers.

Bryan: I'll agree there -- we're talking about whether the Vikings will be great or merely good more than anything else, and that implies the over.

We've saved the best for last! Next week, we wrap up our over/unders with a look at the uber-competitive south. Ain't No Way you'll want to miss that!

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38 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2018, 12:51pm

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

>and if the Browns can lay off the temptation to throw Jarvis Landry a billion screen passes, he's an upgrade, too

Clearly Bryan hasn't been fully introduced to the Todd Haley offense. Quote from week 1 Audibles last year:

>Vince Verhei: The player comment for Antonio Brown in FOA 2017 said in part that the Steelers called too many wide receiver screens. So the Steelers come out and open the new season with -- I am not making this up -- FOUR STRAIGHT WIDE RECEIVER SCREENS. They result in one drop and two holding penalties. Yeah. Antonio Brown catches a shallow cross on third-and-25 and the Steelers punt.

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Like in nearly all years since Spielman was elevated to GM (last year being an exception), the Vikings this year invested very little in the o-line, and sure enough, the injuries started piling up right away. Easton is already out for the year, Elflein still on PUP, other guys nicked up. I know the team has had really really, crappy luck with regard to o-line injuries in many recent years, but the constant emphasis on investing in d-backs at the expense of o-linemen is my one complaint about Spielmam, who I think is generally very sound. It's certainly understandable with Zimmer as head coach, and playing Rodgers twice a year , but I really do get tired of crossing my fingers with regard to anybody getting blocked in most seasons.

If they fall short of expectations it'll be because Cousins has no time to operate the offense efficiently.It'll help on defense if they don't have to wear Everson Griffin out by having him play 90% of the snaps. It seems plantar fasciitis would very much be an overuse injury.

5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

The Vikings can absolutely regress this year for two/three (related) reasons:

1 - The OL improved from "horrific" in 2016 to "adequate" in 2017, which: yay. The Vikings didn't invest much of anything in the off-season to further improve the line, and the 2nd round pick isn't even supposed to start (he has apparently looked good/better than expected, but still). And between retirements/injuries, it is entirely possible the OL regresses.

2 - I think Case Keenum way out-performed his actual passing skill last year, but one thing he is definitely good at is scrambling/escaping pressure in the pocket. Kirk Cousins is not, thought I have heard he is better than Bradford. Low bar.

3 - Keenum is good (or at least willing) to improvise, which works well when you have Diggs and Thielen. Cousins does not show the same proclivity to improvisation, which will not help when the OL sucks.

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

The comments about the Bears makes me wonder again as to which position unit a team can best afford to be bad at, if the starting qb is just average, the team personnel not outstanding anywhere, but the coaching good. My instinct says a team can best get by with terrible receiving, if the team is average everywhere else, but the coaching is excellent.

I doubt any of this can be quantified, of course.

(edit) Let me note that I'm grouping linebackers with d linemen, as "defensive front" and I so rarely consider the value of non pro bowl runningbacks that I completely forgot about them.

10 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

I don't think you can lump LBs with DL. There are too many philosophies about how to handle LBs. While some coaches do just consider them standing linemen, many do not. Also, the differences in use between a 3-4 and a 4-3 (or 4-2) can be large, although they do not have to be.

I would say it's LBs. You can get away with sub-par LBs. It's noteworthy that neither Reid nor Belichick invested much in those positions, Reid less than Belichick. They occasionally got good ones, but as much by happenstance as plan. They also tended not to invest in WR, again, Reid less than Belichick. Both greatly valued O-Line and secondary. Reid valued D-Line more than Belichick.

12 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

One thing I really like about the NFL is that so many different personnel and scheme approaches can be successful. Edge rush and corner are usually considered the two most important positions on the defense, but Carolina has been an above average defense for years with an approach that has deprioritized those positions in favor of star linebackers and defensive tackles. Any of the rules of thumb fans use about which groups are most important has a counterexample of a successful successful team in recent history.

33 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Tom Brady under center puts plenty of shine on even mediocre wideouts (although as I wrote that I had a nightmare vision of Reche Caldwell's goggle eyes as a game-clinching first down catch popped out of his arms). My sense is that Belichick continues to find the WR position overvalued league wide. He did spend big on Cooks but I think that had more to do with the salary cap jump, and despite good production, Cooks only lasted the one year.
I'd have to disagree with you about Belichick and LB's - his best defenses have centered around them and he'll spend substantially to get the right ones. As linebacker coach for the Giants, he worked with LT and his early Patriots years prominently featured Willie McGinest. Tackling machine Jerod Mayo was drafted 10th and before being crippled by injuries was having a borderline HOF career. Hightower was another first-rounder (25) who was resigned to a lucrative deal (his injury absence last year had much to do with NE's putrid run D). Many considered Jamie Collins a reach in the second round but BB thought enough of the position - and player - to take the risk. In 2003, the Patriots signed Roosevelt Colvin to what was then the 3rd largest linebacker contract in the league (Colvin shattered a hip socket that season and was never the same). Ninkovich, Vrabel and Bruschi are three more names that highlight the emphasis BB puts on the position. Defensive end is really the position on D where he tends to pay less, probably because he sees it as overvalued. I can name Patriots LB's a lot more readily than I can DE's, that's for sure.

4 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

“Bryan: I was hearing some "Matthew Stafford: Hall of Famer?" talk this offseason, which is a great sign of someone who doesn't understand how to era-adjust statistics.”

From whom? Even the most unhinged Lions homers I know don’t try to make that argument. Maybe I’m being naive, but I feel like the dumbest of football fans can still understand how easy it is to pass in today’s environment compared to 2 to 3 decades ago.

16 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Agreed. As a non-unhinged Lions fan, I'd also question "a great sign of someone who doesn't understand how to era-adjust statistics." Looking at DYAR on FO shows that Stafford has been, on average, the 8th or 9th best QB each year. (He's been roughly that since 2014, but 2013/2014 weren't great--before that was pretty good). Clearly on a career basis, due to attrition bias, he's going to be more like 5th best cumulative DYAR over the 9 year span. What's lost in the adjustment here? I don't think anything. I think the mistake is thinking being the 5th or 6th best QB of your era is not enough to make the Hall of Fame, but Stafford has been very good, but not-quite-elite.

I think if you asked any Lions fan they'd say Stafford is clearly the best Lions QB ever but doesn't deserve to be in the HOF. I also don't think it is improbable that Stafford could make a jump into the bottom of the elite category. Of course, he could just as equally decline, but I think 3-4 years of elite level play would have to at least put him in HOF conversation. I think the baseball analogy in that case would be like the discussions of Mike Mussina in baseball. Some guys, at best, are teetering between low-level HOFer and just having a very good career. There's no shame in that.

19 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

"I think if you asked any Lions fan they'd say Stafford is clearly the best Lions QB ever"

And they would be wrong. Over the past two seasons, Stafford overtook Greg Landry as the 2nd best Lions QB ever, but Bobby Layne is still clearly the best. He was one of the top passers in his era, was known for leading improbable comebacks, won championships, and was a 1st ballot Hall of Famer.

I think a more accurate statement is that Stafford is the best Lions QB in the modern era (which is admittedly a low bar).

21 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Your overall point about Stafford is well-taken. His volume stats may inflated, but he should get credit for maintaining above-average efficiency while basically carrying the team. If he maintains this level of play for the rest of his career, I would feel comfortable saying that he had a very good, but no HOF-worthy career. He would be in the Billy Kilmer/Ken Anderson/Dave Krieg tier of quarterbacks.

23 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

This is kind of splitting hairs... but if Stafford really was the 5th or 6th best QB of his era, I think he would absolutely be a legitimate hall of fame candidate. I think his rankings in both the conventional counting stats and DYAR pump him up a bit because, even adjusted for his era, he's been one of the highest-volume passers (though he has been trending away from that a bit as his career has gone on). Whereas if you look at efficiency-based metrics like DVOA or ANY/A, he doesn't rank quite that high. For example, he tends to finish most seasons between 10th-15th in DVOA (and never higher than 10th). Balancing those outlooks and considering attrition, maybe borderline/low top-10 makes sense—at least thus far. He's still only 30!

25 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

The talk about Stafford -HOF is a dubious distraction from how many wins the Lions will get this year.
Stafford is clearly capable of leading the team to 10-11 wins, and of being competitive with the Vikings and Packers. The question is whether the rest of the team is up to it. They've underperformed on defense and in rushing, certainly, and they have lost games they should not for whatever reason. But I don't see them as a 7-- team. I definitely don't see GB as suddenly an 11 win team just because Rodgers is back, considering their defense was even worse than Detroit's.

26 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Agreed. Barring major injuries, 8-8 seems like Detroit’s floor. The last two seasons they finished under .500 (2013,2015) were 7-9 seasons marked by some horrific bad-luck losses (61 yard opposing FG’s, fumble at SEA 1 yard line, Rodgers Hail Mary, etc). The pass rush still worries me, and Jarrad Davis still appears to be a liability in coverage, but their secondary is better than people give them credit for. If they can even approach a league average pass rush, their pass defense should be decent. if not, they’ll look like th 2017 Bucs defense.

As for the Packers, I do see them as 10-6 at minimum with Rodgers back. It’s not just Rodgers, it’s having a non-Hundley QB (both addition, and addition by subtraction). Aside from the offense scoring more points, their defense will be facing far fewer drives without Hundley throwing a 5 yard check down on 3rd and 10. I realize their per-drive stats were at the bottom of the league last year, but they should get a dead-cat bounce this year. They seem to have too much young talent on D to be consistently that bad.

27 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

I agree with the pass rush being a big question mark. I am unimpressed with the LB's but according to the discussion above that is OK since none of them are pass-rushing LB's. Jones & Tate are among the best pair of WR's in the league and Golladay has some potential. I like the top-4 DB's but am not sure about the nickle-back. The OL has some potential to be good enough. I'll believe they can get over 3 yards per carry running the ball when I see it, but that is not super critical. So after this mostly positive review I still expect 8-8 mediocrity. However if Stafford misses significant time they will be at 4-5 wins.

7 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

" ... less extreme version of the AFC East we looked at last week. The winner of the division feels like more or less a foregone conclusion. At least the rest of the division has arguments for wild-card slots ... "

Well, one of those two divisions had a wildcard last year, and it wasn't the North.

Granted, the East looks like it will bounce back to Bradychick and the Three Dwarves, what with BUF downgrading their QB and MIA/NYJ being stuck in no man's land, but Baltimore still has issues on offense.

18 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

The Packers, probably more than any NFL team, are dependent on their QB. (I know, stating the obvious.) The left side of the OL is really good; the right side is a huge unknown and the reason they got one of the best blocking TEs in Marcedes Lewis. If they can't fix the RT position (I'm not counting on a healthy Bulaga), expect to see a lot of two TE formations. The RBs continue to be replacement-level at best. The receiving group had a much needed overhaul, though I'm not sure they will be better unless one of the rookies quickly advances. I have high hopes for Graham, but I had those same hopes for Bennett and that was a disaster. McCarthy has given Hundley every chance to win the backup job in preseason and he's shown so far that it will probably be Kizer, but neither is likely to do much with this offense. The D should be good up front and wildly inconsistent elsewhere; the secondary is talented but inexperienced, while every LB slot is at best slightly above average. If AR loses over half the season again, they'll be lucky to go .500. Especially if the offense sans Rodgers continues to be too many WR screens to Cobb mixed with QB scrambles.

I also don't think the Lions will do worse than 8-8. The offense has looked pretty good for a couple years with Stafford, Tate, etc. The defense has several good pieces for Matt Patricia to work with. I can see them being a wild card contender. I can also see the Bears hitting 8-8 as long as they stay healthy (but that's probably their ceiling). They look to be building a pretty good core and their future looks better than it has since the early Lovie Smith days. The Vikings are just scary good all-around. As long as Cousins isn't running for his life behind that line. I think they're the division favorites and I'm a Packers fan.

22 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

I think the Packers RBs are much better than replacement level. Jamaal Williams was 12th in DYAR and DVOA last year, and on a limited sample of 81 carries Aaron Jones had more DYAR and a better DVOA than Williams did.

I worry most about the lack of an above average edge rusher. Perry and Matthews are fine, even good, as complimentary pieces but not game changers in any way. There will be many a time when the Packers need to rush 4 against a top QB this season and right now odds are they won't get pressure much.

28 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

Well if Elfein doesn't come of PUP by the opener, the way to bet is that Cousins will be running for his life. Right now they are down 3 starters from last year's opener and not because they wanted to get rid of them. They are one or two injuries away from being way too similar to how 2016 turned out. Ugh.

(edit) I meant to also say that Tony Sparano's sudden death will likely have a significant negative effect on blocking performance. I'm hesitant to say much about this because there are people suffering a much more horrible loss than losing a man with excellent coaching ability.

20 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

This is as good a place as any to bring up Marvin Lewis. As much as he's criticized, how much of it is Lewis and how much is Mike Brown GM. I'm not sure anyone could have done as well as Lewis has, given the crap he's been given. The Bengals are a draft and develop team, rarely bringing in many outside players (much like the Packers and Steelers). They've had far more misses than hits on their picks. They usually exceed expectations. All things considered, Lewis might be a modern Marty Schottenheimer. Not quite as successful, but not as bad as perceived either. I don't know if a Lewis-coached team could get to the SB, but I wouldn't rule it out given better talent.

24 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

I was thinking likewise. Lewis has kept the Bengals competitive with the Steelers and Ravens without having a top-5 QB or an elite defense like his competition. The worst that can be said is that his teams have been plagued by bad characters -- but that can be said of the Steelers and Ravens too.

30 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

he's (Cousins) arguably the best quarterback ever to be openly available in free agency (with only injured-neck Peyton Manning to Denver possibly beating him, if you ignore the question marks at the time)

Ahem, Drew Brees anyone?

36 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

"Brad Johnson in 1999 was a great pickup."

It was actually 2001 when they signed Johnson. Johnson was an okay, but not great quarterback (he did have a pro bowl caliber season in '99, however). I wouldn't put him in the same category of Favre, or even Pennington. It was a key signing for the Bucs, however, as a competent NFL quarterback was a huge upgrade over the Shaun King/Trent Dilfer two-headed monster. The '97-'01 Bucs remind me a lot of the current Jaguars. If the Jags had signed Tyrod Taylor this offseason, I think it would have been the rough equivalent of Johnson to the Bucs.

37 Re: Scramble for the Ball: 2018 North Over/Unders

The Browns chose Ward over Chubb. Their draft grades were respectively 6.31 and 7.32. Quite a gap. The justification was to get a good shutdown corner to fit Gegg Williams blitzing schemes. There were durability concerns about Ward before the draft.
Maybe this red flag, in a sense, should have tipped the balance in favor of Chubb.