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 Westeros.org, 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.
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...
BALTIMORE RAVENS (8)
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.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (6.5)
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.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (5.5)
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…
"no second level" is also a Gregg Williams special pic.twitter.com/NuBOa8nQtg
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) August 13, 2018
And ... and …
Tackling could have been better, but why is Gregg Williams's defense designed to give up a minimum of 8.5 yards on 3rd and 10 pic.twitter.com/14jnvnHsnt
— Kevin Cole (@Cole_Kev) August 13, 2018
And ... and …
It's First-and-10....not that this makes sense on any down. pic.twitter.com/uh8Srm12D2
— Cian (@Cianaf) February 16, 2018
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?
This may interest @NFL_DougFarrar: Myles Garrett says that Gregg Williams has streamlined the #Browns defense some. He said the DC is actually letting the Browns go in base D a little more "and just wear people out."
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) August 13, 2018
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.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10.5)
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.
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?
CHICAGO BEARS (6.5)
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.
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.
DETROIT LIONS (7.5)
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.
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.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (10)
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.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10)
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.
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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