Andrew: Hello and welcome to the last of our preseason team over/unders, where this week we are excited about a peaceful life, lots of open air, sun in wintertime, and a chance to begin life new. None of which has anything to do with football, as our favorite pastime remains stressful, cloistered, with a cloud hanging over it, and mired in staid tradition. But this is a lede, dangit, and I am not forsaking our traditional reference to late-1970s pop music just because it contrasts with the actual present situation.
Bryan: To be fair, the actual present situation has been going well, so far. Better than expected, at the very least! And, to help further dispel those clouds, we're looking at last year's Super Bowl teams, which is definitely something I'm excited to relive. After all, compared to the rest of 2020, remembering my favorite team's recent Super Bowl collapse is relatively pain-free! Almost! Maybe!
Andrew: This is quite the contrasting pair of divisions, too, both exciting for different reasons. One gives us an obvious favorite in the former MVP and current Super Bowl champion quarterback, now entering just his third year as a starter yet somehow already well on his way to a Hall of Fame resume. The other is, for me, the least predictable division of the lot. I really think it's possible that any of the four teams could conceivably win the thing (yes, even Arizona) or any of the four teams could conceivably finish last (yes, even San Francisco). Even allowing for the randomness that typically occurs in a season of this sport, the NFC West race is wiiide open.
Bryan: Well, let's dive right in, and see if that unpredictability actually produces some disagreement amongst your humble Scramblers!
(Reminder: Last Over/Under refers to the last time the team went over or under this year's line.)
Bryan: We argued a little bit in the NFC South blurb about which division was the best in football, as I claimed it had the highest ceiling. The NFC West, I think, has the highest floor, in that barring injury, all four teams should be various flavors of good. I will go out on a limb, right now, with my annual bold prediction: there will not be a losing record in the NFC West this season.
Andrew: That is a bold prediction, but also not completely outlandish. Last week, we discussed the AFC South, where 9-7 might be good enough to win the division. Here, if everything falls into place, that same 9-7 record might be good enough for last place, though that at least is highly, highly unlikely. These are some very good teams, and each built very differently. This is what I'd love every division to look like in preseason, though I guess just having a preseason would be a more realistic achievement right now.
Bryan: Alright, alright, Gloomy Gus.
Under the new playoff format, it is possible for one division to send all four teams to the postseason. I'm not saying the NFC West will do that, but it's not too difficult to imagine that scenario. Odds are, the division will beat itself up too much for that to happen, but if any division is going to pull that hat trick off, you'd put money on these guys.
Arizona Cardinals (7.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Head Coach: Bruce Arians; Quarterback: Carson Palmer)
Last Under: 2019 (Kliff Kingsbury; Kyler Murray)
Bryan: I suppose if I've already said that there won't be a losing record in the division, I've kind of tipped my hand on the Cardinals' 7.5-win line, haven't I?
Andrew: Kinda, yeah ... what's the reasoning though? Are we banking purely on the Kyler Murray show, now that he has DeAndre Hopkins and a full year of professional experience, or do we think the defense is going to take a step forward too?
Bryan: Well, taking a rookie quarterback who had shown flashes of greatness and giving him one of the top five receivers in football seems like a pretty good recipe for retaining last year's offensive gains. I'm also heartened by Kliff Kingsbury's improvement as the season went along -- remember, we mocked him a few times in the early weeks for scaredy-cat field goals, a tendency which went away as both he and Murray got more NFL experience under their collective belts.
Defensively, Isaiah Simmons seems like a "we were terrible at covering tight ends in a division that has George Kittle" pick, and a great one, one of those hybrid safety/linebackers that are all the rage these days. Patrick Peterson likely won't miss half the season, Budda Baker has been improving … obviously, if the Cardinals are going to compete, it is going to be as an offense-focused team, but I think there's reason to believe the defense at least keep up this season, which they couldn't always do last year.
My big worry would be the offensive line, which had the resilience and staying power of Swiss cheese a year ago. Hard to run your offense when you are running for your life.
Andrew: And yet, Hopkins' previous quarterback made it work. If you're going to have a terrible line anyway, a guy like Murray (or Deshaun Watson, or Russell Wilson) at least gives you a puncher's chance. I recognize that those guys sometimes make life harder on their solid linemen, but they also have a much greater chance of overcoming a truly subpar set of pass-blockers.
Bryan: And, one would hope, they won't lead the league in adjusted games lost at the position again, which is bound to help.
I still can't believe they got Hopkins without giving up any useful pieces in return. Highway robbery of the highest order.
Andrew: You mean the loss of former fantasy stud David Johnson doesn't sink the Cardinals offense in your estimation? How dare you, sir?
Bryan: Hey, it's possible Johnson will be a fantasy stud again someday! But any time you can trade a guy who had less than 100 carries for -- and I can't stress this enough -- one of the top five receivers in professional football, it's something you have to do. Why couldn't Bill O'Brien have fallen in love with, like, Le'Veon Bell or someone way on the other side of the league? Why did he have to pump up the NFC West! Sassafrassa Texans, makin' this division so much harder.
Oh, over, in case you needed that clarified.
Andrew: Just how high over, out of curiosity? Are we thinking serious contender here, or still a year away?
Bryan: I'll put them somewhere between eight and 10 wins this season, depending on the breaks. I don't think they're quite fully operational yet, but that's enough to compete for both the division and a wild-card slot.
Andrew: I agree, wholeheartedly. Much improved offense with an emerging stud at quarterback, defense that is improving but still nowhere near the finished article, and a team roughly in the 8-8 to 10-6 range. That's an over from me, too.
Los Angeles Rams (8.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Sean McVay, Jared Goff)
Last Under: 2016 (Jeff Fisher, Case Keenum)
Bryan: It's hard to remember sometimes, but this team went to the Super Bowl two years ago. With a roster featuring Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Dante Fowler, Eric Weddle, Cory Littleton, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and LaMarcus Joyner, how can one not consider them favorites once ag--
... wait, what, all of them?
Andrew: You're triggering my 2017 Jaguars PTSD here, quit it. Gah, there's Jalen Ramsey too. Sigh.
But yes, seriously, all of them. They retain ... Jared Goff, some of the offensive linemen, the tight ends, and Robert Woods. Oh, and some guy on defense, Donald somethingorother. And you know what? That might even be enough.
Bryan: My biggest problem with the Rams has nothing to do with the talent on the field; it's the talent in the front office that appears to be lacking. The Carolina Panthers have the most dead money in the league; they're quasi-tanking. The Jacksonville Jaguars are next; they're eating the Nick Foles contract. So the competitive team with the most dead money is the Los Angeles Rams, sitting at a cool $34 million. It's costing them nearly $22 million to not have Cooks this year; Gurley will still be costing them $8.4 million in 2021, which might be a Salary Cap Apocalypse year. Ooofda, but they have made some terrible decisions with major contracts in recent years, a handicap which might be enough to doom them to last place in a hyper-competitive division.
Is one of those terrible contracts Jared Goff, or is having a solid quarterback worth the price no matter what?
Andrew: In a word: no. Goff, for me, is the worst of both worlds, and effectively the anti-Kyler Murray. He's an expensive quarterback who isn't very good, who limits your ceiling while also limiting your floor, and who is heavily dependent on the quality of his offensive line. Sean McVay coaxed a couple of top-five DVOA years out of him, but last year was much closer to how I perceive his true level of play. He's Andy Dalton being paid like he's Patrick Mahomes.
Bryan: Ooh, that is harsh. Not necessarily unfair, but harsh. And I suppose we don't know what Dalton would do if he had a Sean McVay calling the shots.
It's important to remember the Rams were still an above-average team last year, albeit a frustratingly inconsistent one. They're a plexiglass reversion candidate; having been good for two years in a row and then all of a sudden iffy tends to point to the iffy year being the outlier. They still have a really good receiving corps with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds and now Van Jefferson. And I suspect we'll see more of the two-tight end sets that McVay turned to as Gurley turned into a pumpkin over the last 15 months or so. I still think that's going to be a really good offense, Goff or no Goff.
Defensively, on the other hand...
Andrew: No defense does stars and scrubs quite the way the Rams do. Aaron Donald is the best defensive lineman in the sport. Jalen Ramsey is a top-five man-coverage cornerback. Michael Brockers and A'Shawn Robinson could be a dominant defensive line alongside Donald. Then there's the linebackers. Well, allegedly there are. I'm not sure how much evidence they'll leave behind at the end of the year. I explained my perspective on linebackers repeatedly last week. Sticking these guys behind that defensive line is sticking an old Pentium cooler on top of an i9 processor: it's probably going to go wrong at some point, but nobody's quite sure how wrong or how quickly.
Bryan: It kind of seems like the Rams are on the way down on the same offense-first ladder the Cardinals are currently climbing. I'm not sure, though, that the Cardinals have passed them. I'm not fully in love with our model's Rams bounceback predictions, but I think there's some wriggle room to find the over on an 8.5-win line
Andrew: I'm less convinced. I understand where the model is coming from, but I think I'm looking at the team with the worst quarterback in the division, and I suspect despite your earlier bold prediction that somebody is coming in under nine wins.
Bryan: Ah-ah, under nine wins is totally allowed in my "no one has a losing record" prediction! I phrased that very carefully.
Andrew: Right, but given that I think Arizona and Seattle are both in that nine-win ballpark, for the Rams to hit the over I'd also have to pick them as a nine-win team. Somebody's going to fail to hit it, and I think the Rams have enough holes to be that team. This defense could be very boom-and-bust, and I'm not sure the offense will boom enough to make up for those busts. A 7-9 kind of under is still the under.
San Francisco 49ers (10.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo)
Last Under: 2018 (Kyle Shanahan, Nick Mullens)
Bryan: Oh, boy. Every year, for the Almanac, I end up with a plexiglass team -- a team that improved dramatically from one year to the next, and thus is a prime candidate for regression. Every year, I write a chapter talking about historical averages and the odds, and pointing out to a fan base that while they may feel that their team will be an outlier, and that it isn't an impossible outcome, that they should have a healthy skepticism about their team's chances in the upcoming season.
And now it is me. I am the one trying to argue that my team will be an outlier, while the Almanac points out all the reasons that is statistically improbable. The shoes, the feet, et cetera.
Andrew: I've written a few of those chapters myself, including my very first Almanac chapter predicting the Buccaneers' top-10 pass DVOA in 2016 was unlikely to repeat. And so it proved. So what's the difference here? I think it's personnel. The 49ers finally got their franchise quarterback on the field for a full season -- though that itself might be a fluke -- then added an elite edge rusher to an already excellent front seven.
Bryan: That's part of my fan-glasses argument entirely! Back in the Rams' chapter in 2018, before their Super Bowl run, I wrote that plexiglass teams that replaced their quarterback tend to hold on to more of their gains than other plexiglass teams, because an upgrade at the most important position tends to be stickier than a random, out-of-nowhere improvement. I know the NFL world is divided on Handsome Jimmy G, but I think he's a top-10 quarterback, or will be if he can ever learn that linebackers do, in fact, exist and play for the other team. I didn't do the same study for defensive players, as it's hard to define which ones should have a massive impact, but adding Nick Bosa and company, as well as the shift in defensive philosophy, really did pay off.
But every fanbase of a plexiglass team points to these kinds of things, every offseason. This is the time of year when everyone thinks their guys are going to be the ones to break the mold; they have the great coach, they have the future superstar quarterback. Brandon Aiyuk is going to hit the ground running; who cares if Emmanuel Sanders is gone and Deebo Samuel is nursing a broken foot? We don't need DeForest Buckner; we've got Javon Kinlaw ready to plug-and-play. Defense is more variable from one year to another? Well, they haven't seen our defense, ho ho ho.
I've just heard all these arguments before, and shaken my head sadly, and now I am the one making them. Arglebargle.
Andrew: I'm nowhere near as high on Garoppolo as you are, but he's a solid starting quarterback. He's better than Goff, at least.
Bryan: Garoppolo is interesting because he is the league leader in a bunch of splits, and near the back in a bunch more. No quarterback had more DYAR throwing to the slot in 2019 than Jimmy G. He nearly led the league in YAC+ yet again. He had the highest DVOA on low-percentage passes (passes with an expected completion rate under 50%), just beating out Patrick Mahomes. And yet, again, blind to linebackers, terrible throwing out wide, et cetera, et cetera. I think his skills mesh really well with Kyle Shanahan's offensive philosophy; I don't think I'd be calling him a potential top-10 guy if he was in, say, New England still.
Andrew: Shanahan is the key to all that, for me. No offensive coach is better at getting his guys into open spots, which is why the high yards after catch and slot DVOA. As long as he's the head coach and his quarterback is healthy, I expect a top-10 offensive DVOA. Robert Saleh returns on the defensive side, somewhat surprisingly, and almost all of the talent remains in place. DeForest Buckner is a loss, but in the sense of "you can never have too many great defensive linemen" rather than "they don't have a replacement in the starting lineup." They're talented, well coached, have cover at most spots, and play a style of football that is suited to the modern game.
Bryan: Maybe I'm still stuck in 2018 -- the 49ers were the first team to see their DVOA improve by 20% on both sides of the ball. Maybe that's enough to not hit the plexiglass ceiling, but smash through it? Maybe?
Ah, I can't do it. I have to go with the under. I'm too nervous and neurotic. I look at the schedule, especially the back half, and realize the team kinda needs to start 6-0 to make the postseason -- two weeks back-to-back staying in New York made a lot more sense in a pre-COVID world, too. I just ... I can't get on board 100% with a repeat of last year. Not yet. Or maybe I'm over-compensating for fan-colored glasses. At least I'll have George Kittle to get me through the tough times here.
Andrew: For all that I've said above, I am also taking the under. I think the 49ers will make the playoffs ... at 10-6. Eleven wins is a tough bar to clear, and this is going to be a very tough division. Every loss outside the division will be sore, and every game inside the division will be tough. This is a well-pitched line.
Seattle Seahawks (9.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson)
Last Under: 2011 (Pete Carroll, Tarvaris Jackson)
Bryan: I shall give you, now, a live re-enactment of my reaction to the trade which sent Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Oaths minced to save our virgin ears.
Scena Prima The Seahawks have Jamal Adams now?! Melon farmer... Scena Secunda The Seahawks gave up HOW much for Jamal Adams? Ha-ha, they're morons! Scena Tertia: The Seahawks have Jamal Adams now! Mister Falcon... Finit
Andrew: Are they going to play him at edge rusher though? I mean, it could work, but ... safety was not the big hole on this defense.
Bryan: I mean, they might well play him at edge rusher -- he had 16 pass pressures a year ago, and no returning Seahawk had more than 11.
I've just got too many Legion of Boom highlights seared into the back of my brain to see Adams and Quinton Dunbar added to the secondary to go "well, they won't have a pass rush." The pass rush, while good, was not what terrified me in the mid- 2010s!
Andrew: It did at least exist however, somewhere other than Pete Carroll's imagination.
Bryan: I mean, you're not wrong -- I don't know where quarterback pressure is going to come from; it's clearly the Achilles' heel of this Seahawks team. I do, however, trust Carroll to scheme some up, even if Jadeveon Clowney does not return (and I don't see how he can, salary-wise, at this point in time).
Andrew: What I find interesting is the approach they've taken given the specific division they're in. All three teams have very good receivers (clearly counting George Kittle for San Francisco, not any of the actual receivers). Two of them like to run three or four of them out whenever they can, whereas San Francisco's strength is the versatility of Kittle and their deep stable of backs. Investing heavily in the secondary rather than the pass rush could prove very smart. My guess is it's easier to scheme up a pass rush from unexceptional players than it is to hide an inadequate cornerback or safety versus these playcallers.
Bryan: And I have full faith in Carroll's ability to do that. It's not that they have no pass-rushers, it's that they have no established pass-rushers, and that's a key difference. It'd be one thing if we had seen Seattle's stable fail already, but most of them haven't been asked to be a key defensive cog just yet. L.J. Collier was a first-round pick -- a Seahawks first-round pick, mind you, which always comes with several asterisks and caveats -- so you have to think that Carroll and company see something there. Bruce Irvin is back. Both rookies Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson had high SackSEER ratings. The whole may be better than the sum of their parts.
And the opposite can be said of the offense, which gives me a very Dragon Ball Z vibe. Russell Wilson is Goku, of course, and he has been restrained by the power-limiting duo of Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer until it's time to unleash his full power, which is only the last, like, 10 minutes of football games. I'm not sure we've ever seen a team go to so many lengths to ignore not only their best player, but one of the best, what, three quarterbacks in football?
Andrew: I have no idea about most of what you just said, but I get the gist. I find their approach to Wilson each of baffling, infuriating, bewildering, and irritating at different times. It's not as though he doesn't have the targets, or the track record, or the efficiency, or the durability. It's also not as though the success of the running game is so amazing that you want to keep feeding whatever half-fit former backup or baffling first-round pick they have starting in a given week. So what is it? Is it as simple as the annoying 1970s football thing, where it's all about running and imposing your will rather than being smart? Where cleverness is seen almost as cheating?
Bryan: See my earlier point about Seahawks first-round picks coming from a different planet as the rest of the NFL. The joke on Twitter was that it didn't matter that Seattle gave up two first-round picks for Adams, as they just would have wasted them anyway.
I'd love to see Wilson in an offense that really utilized his talents. Imagine Andy Reid or Greg Roman coaching him, and really getting every drop out of his talent from opening whistle to final gun. I do not, in any way shape or form, understand why the Seahawks are afraid to release the proverbial Kraken. Week 17 kind of summed it all up -- the 49ers cruised to a big early lead as Seattle kept trying to establish the run with the corpses of Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer in the backfield, and then the Seahawks let Wilson loose in the second half and they lost the division by a foot. If Seattle ever realizes they have a superstar quarterback, they might be dangerous!
Andrew: For me, the game that summed it up was the wild-card loss to Dallas a couple of years ago. There's no way Seattle should have lost that game, yet they appear to have learned absolutely nothing from it.
Bryan: The lack of pass rush and the continued puzzling offensive strategy does lead me to taking the under here, but have no doubts -- I fear Russell Wilson. He has now played a full season's worth of games against the 49ers, and he's 12-4, 13-4 if you include the playoffs. Keep your Mahomeses and your Jacksons; if my team's defending a lead late in the game, there is no one I'd want to see less under center than Wilson.
Andrew: This is another vicious line. Seattle are right in that 9-7, 10-6 zone. They have the best quarterback in the division, but are somehow the least inclined to use him. I do like them to get off to a hot start, and they could easily be 5-0 heading into their bye. They should also beat the Giants, Jets, and Football Team in successive weeks in early December. They're good enough to pick up three or four of their other games, which gives them leeway for an unexpected loss or two. That's enough to tip me toward the over: put me down for 10-6 and a wild-card appearance, where they again spend three hours preheating the oven and only 15 minutes letting Russ cook.
Bryan: Finally, we wind our way to the defending Super Bowl champions and their division. According to our projections, it's the NFC South that's the most stratified, top-to-bottom, but to me, this seems like the division with the least intrigue. You have to squint pretty hard to not just hand the title to the Chiefs. And that's not necessarily meant as a slam on the rest of the division, just an acknowledgement of where Kansas City is at the moment compared to everyone else -- and by that I mean the league, not just the division.
Andrew: The intrigue is mostly about potential. Two teams have young, highly drafted quarterbacks. One has just made a major move into a market that has never before had an NFL team. The unfortunate reality, though, is that at least half of these teams are already, in August, looking to see what hope they might have for next season.
Bryan: Football in Vegas is going to be very, very strange … he says while writing a column about gambling lines.
Denver Broncos (7.5)
Last Over: 2016 (Gary Kubiak, Trevor Siemian)
Last Under: 2019 (Vic Fangio, Joe Flacco)
Bryan: The Chiefs are good enough that I have to slightly edit my running gag. Today, we are looking at seven teams that could
win their division make the playoffs, and then also the Denver Broncos.
Andrew: You give the Broncos that much of a lower chance than the Chargers? Huh. I'd have those two about the same level.
Bryan: Which team we disagree on kind of depends on which level we're talking about here -- playoff contenders? Also-rans? A big ol' bundle of mediocrity?
Andrew: Well, contextually, what I mean is surely it's not that implausible for the Broncos to make the postseason, is it? The path looks pretty clear: be the team that wins the young quarterback breakout lottery, particularly given the talent they've added at receiver, while veteran additions help the defense coalesce in the team's second year under Vic Fangio. The AFC is a shallow conference, with an almighty mess behind the top two or three teams, so a few breaks paired with some decent in-division results and a strong home-field advantage could easily see a 9-7 Broncos team into the wild-card round.
Bryan: Your logic is impeccable, but I don't see it happening. The combination of Pat Shurmur and Drew Lock do not fill me with confidence, and that's the hurdle I'm struggling to get over. I've never been overly impressed by a Shurmur-led offense, and Lock reminds me of Jay Cutler but with a more sunny disposition. Normally, I'd squeeze in some wriggle room for a Lock breakout season, but the schedule is a nightmare, to the extent where even significant improvement might not be enough to vault them to .500.
I will give the Broncos credit for doing everything they can to give Lock the weapons to succeed, and it's quite possible I'm wrong here; that Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler are the real deal as rookies, that Courtland Sutton can be a true No. 1, that adding Melvin Gordon helps, in some unimaginable way. And I do like some of their draft picks for future production, especially along the offensive line. I'm just not sold, at all, on the foundation of that offense, not to mention a defense that has been draining talent for half a decade.
Andrew: Your point about the schedule is vital, for me. Predicting strength of schedule before the season is a surefire way to go broke, but from where I'm sitting Denver's schedule does not look at all kind. They might have more wins against the AFC East than against the entire remainder of the out-of-division schedule.
Bryan: Finishing second last year and thus drawing Pittsburgh and Tennessee instead of, like, Cincinnati and Jacksonville, is a hell of a booby prize. Congrats on going 7-9, here's the defense with the best weighted DVOA in football and the Patriot-slayers! Have fun with that!
Andrew: I'm not as down on the offense as you are, but it might not matter against that slate of defenses. An established veteran might struggle against that schedule. A young guy in his second year is in a very tough spot. Jeudy looks like a tremendous prospect, but he's not going to take this team from No. 26 to the top half of the league. I don't understand the signing of Melvin Gordon at all. Demar Dotson is, at best, a stopgap on the offensive line. The pass rush could be excellent, and a top-half defense would help enormously, but too much can go wrong too easily. There's potential here, and in a different division we might be talking about next year's potential champions. This is not a different division, and next year's potential champions are this year's likely champions. Which is to say the reigning division champions. Which, needless to say, is not Denver. Under.
Bryan: For all my early pessimism and the joke, I agree that the Broncos have at least found the path towards being good. It's a bit of a hike from where they are now, however. I actually think they have a higher floor than some of the other teams in this division, but I'm not sure that they're going to end up being all that competitive this season. We'll see how things go for 2021, and share a 6-10-ish under.
Kansas City Chiefs (11.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes)
Last Under: 2017 (Andy Reid, Alex Smith)
Andrew: How many wins are the combination of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, on their own, with just basic starter-level talent at the other spots, worth?
Bryan: Basic talent, not replacement-level talent? I think that's a 10-6 team. Mahomes is crazy good, and Reid isn't ready to hand over his title of premier offensive genius to some upstart in San Francisco just yet.
Andrew: So 10 wins with just basic starter-level talent around him, say something like Tyler Higbee at tight end, Phillip Dorsett and Golden Tate at wide receiver ... except the Chiefs have Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins. This is just an easy "over" for both of us, right? The reigning champions have the best quarterback in the game, a guy who might already have a Hall of Fame argument by the time his rookie contract finishes, and one of the best offensive minds in the business.
Bryan: If you've just given a player a contract the size of Sao Tome and Principe's GDP, it had better be an easy over. Maybe we should play a hypothetical here -- barring a season-ending injury to Mahomes, what is the worst scenario for the Chiefs? How far down could they really go? Because nothing about last year's performance seemed fluky -- if anything, 2019's Chiefs were actually a little worse, at least on offense, than the 2018 version.
I think if you're looking for holes, you start at cornerback. Both Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland had career years in 2019, and it wouldn't be surprising to see either or both kind of come back to the pack a little bit -- and Breeland already has a four-game suspension to deal with. That could force the Chiefs offense into a few more shootouts which … oh, wait, they're fine.
Andrew: You're really just looking at injuries or other highly negative scenarios such as suspensions that cause players to miss games. Even then, it would need to be either Mahomes or basically the entire remainder of the offense -- they've lost individual players before to some effect but not enough to be the difference between 13-3 and 11-5. The Ravens and the Saints on the road are two possible losses, as is Buffalo if things break right, but where do the other two or three come from?
Bryan: Divisional games can also be tough, so maybe they lose two or three of the road games there, and they do play in Tampa Bay, so if Brady's still Brady, that's another possibility. I can't see a reasonable way to get them below double-digit wins, however -- it would be one of the more shocking outcomes of the season. It's the over for me -- I'd be happier with the line at 10.5, but I'll take it at 11.5 without losing too much sleep.
Andrew: They're not quite as dominant in all areas as the Ravens, but they're better at the most critical position and in a division that is unlikely to have a rival as strong as the Steelers. 11.5 wins is a fair line, but one I fully expect them to go over.
Los Angeles Chargers (7.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Anthony Lynn, Philip Rivers)
Last Under: 2019 (Anthony Lynn, Philip Rivers)
Andrew: We haven't talked a lot about the potential impact of the global pandemic on specific teams, for a variety of different reasons, but if there's one team that perhaps stands to benefit the most from the absence of fans in stadiums, it's the Chargers. After all, home or away, the loudest fans in their stadium last year were invariably those of the opposition. Maybe they should pump in the other team's crowd noise to help their players feel more at home.
Bryan: Well, at least they're not playing second fiddle in their shiny new stadium. That would be embarrassing.
Andrew: Second fiddle in an orchestra is a considerably more impactful role than the Chargers play in Los Angeles. They're more like backup alternative percussion.
Bryan: I'm going to break the format here a little bit, because I have a bit of a bold claim and don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I think the Chargers have the most potential of any of the non-Chiefs teams in the division, but I am still taking the under.
Andrew: Oh boy, not Chargers Potential again. That's a movie we've seen almost as often as Forrest Gump.
Bryan: But this year, the film reboots with a hip new lead, and I'm kinda all in on Justin Herbert. Even if I want to call him "Justin Hebert," like he's the long-lost son of the Cajun Cannon. I think he's in a better situation than either Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, and of all the rookie quarterbacks, he's the one most likely to have success right off the bat. Couple him with a very strong set of receivers, an improved offensive line, and what could be a great defense, and you have the perfect setup to get Chargers fans' hopes up once again, only to have them crushed as usual.
Maybe it's more Derwin James I'm in on than Herbert. A return to the dime packages of their 2018 run should see the defense spring back to life -- and you're going to need his versatility to try to keep up with the Mahomeses of the world. But James IS back, and Chris Harris gets to return to his role in the slot now. The offensive line gets Bryan Bulaga, added for a song and a dance -- I don't get the long-term strategy of adding old players to a team with a rookie quarterback, but it sets up the potential for 2020, at least. Herbert to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry, and Austin Ekeler sounds like the kind of offense I want to watch. This could be your sneaky exciting team of the year!
Or Herbert could be a typical rookie, struggle with making decisions against NFL defenses, and it could be a 5-11 season. You know, either/or.
Andrew: To say nothing of this being the Chargers, who we've frequently identified as an absurd gypsy curse of a franchise. Of course, that also means if any year ever will be their year, it will be this absurd gypsy curse of a year.
My issue is that this isn't that different from the team that went 5-11 last season. Yes, Philip Rivers has a giant fork protruding from his back, but you'd still expect him to operate the offense better than your average first-round rookie. Hunter Henry could be healthy, but that would be more novelty than predictability. Joey Bosa has a shiny new contract, so naturally Melvin Ingram is extremely unhappy about not having one of his own.
Bryan: See, I disagree -- bringing in Bulaga, Harris, Linval Joseph, and Nick Vigil is different, and James coming back is huge. And Melvin Gordon is gone, meaning that the Chargers will spend less time handing the ball to Melvin Gordon; that's gotta be a plus.
But here's a fun little hypothetical. Let's go back to our worst-case scenario for the Chiefs. Let's give them losses on the road to Baltimore, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Las Vegas, and the Chargers. 10-6, worst-case scenario. Now, let's be as optimistic as possible for the Chargers -- the team I've said has the highest non-Chiefs ceiling in the division. Maybe they sweep their home games with their patented Home-Field Advantage. Maybe they pick up road wins in Cincinnati and Miami. That puts them at 10-6, too, and I don't think I can go much higher without being labeled a crazy person…
... Kansas City still wins the division on divisional record. That's how non-competitive the AFC West is. And that's predicting everything going right for the Chargers, which history tell us is dumb. I like the potential, but again, I'm taking the under.
Andrew: I see seven games I like the Chargers to win, and another couple of maybes. However, with a rookie quarterback, there's a good chance they'll lose a couple of the ones I like them to win. I just don't see enough difference between them this year and last to make up for going from Philip Rivers, albeit the Ghost of Rivers Past, to a rookie draftee. There's definitely hope for the future, but the future is not quite yet. Under.
Las Vegas Raiders (7.5)
Last Over: 2016 (Jack Del Rio, Derek Carr)
Last Under: 2019 (Jon Gruden, Derek Carr)
Andrew: The Jon Gruden experience in Oakland went better than I expected. The Jon Gruden experience in Oakland still didn't go particularly well. They got their big move though, and I guess that's the most important thing. I like some of the additions they made this offseason, but I'm still unsure what to make of this roster overall.
Bryan: I think that puts you in a similar boat to the Raiders' front office, who -- three years into the Gruden Era, Part II -- have yet to provide anything close to a consistent plan from year to year. Just who are these guys? What is their roster-building philosophy?
Andrew: That's something of a Gruden hallmark though. Remember his cycling through an endless cast of quarterbacks in his latter days in Tampa Bay, trying to find one who could replicate the magic of Brad Johnson?
Bryan: Or Rich Gannon, for that matter. Gruden wants his quarterbacks older than he is, which is a lot tougher in 2020 than it was in 2002.
Here's a question for you -- what happens if Derek Carr struggles a little out of the gate, now that Marcus Mariota is on the roster. Does Gruden pull the trigger? Because if the Raiders don't win this year, that'll be three straight losing seasons for Gruden in his return to ... well, I was about to say his return to Oakland; it'll take me a little while to get used to the Las Vegas Raiders. I'm just wondering if that seat is beginning to get a little warm, and if that's going to trigger Gruden into making some reflex decisions.
Andrew: Only if there are some hefty outs in his contract. Remember, that was a 10-year deal, and by most accounts Mark Davis isn't exactly swimming in payoff cash. If Gruden pulls the trigger, it will be because Jon Gruden is impatient with quarterbacks, not because Mark Davis is impatient with coaches.
I'm not sure Marcus Mariota, even former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota, is shiny enough for Gruden to go crazy over. Mariota did some good things in Tennessee, but by the end was a painfully conservative player. Which is perhaps the biggest criticism of Derek Carr too -- who can forget his fourth-down throwaways? -- so make of that what you will.
Bryan: Carr has become the Rorschach test of the NFL quarterbacking. Is he a solid quarterback who has become almost pathologically afraid of taking risks? DVOA had him as a top-10 passer a year ago, and yet film analysts generally pillory him for his dink-and-dunk style. I suppose the hope is that Henry Ruggs encourages Carr to go deeper a little more, with his newfound accuracy since Gruden came to town now finally extending beyond 5 yards downfield.
I do think the Raiders have sneaky upside; they've got a lot of guys out there with more effort than skill, necessarily, and that sometimes can coalesce into a strong nucleus if just a couple of those guys break out into superstardom. I'm just not sure that upside matters all that much in the short term. I'm going under until I get a grip on just what kind of plan the Raiders have brought with them to Las Vegas.
Andrew: Carr and Mariota are kinda different but oddly similar, and I think either could have success in the right system. I have a higher opinion of Mariota than Carr, but they're both in that low-end starter/soon-to-be high-end backup group that includes the likes of Jacoby Brissett.
The rest of the roster ... I genuinely don't know what to make of it. They're a team who could probably compete with most opponents a poor man's 2018 Titans or 2019 Colts, but they're not built to contend at the top of the league. Another 7-9 season looks the most realistic outcome, given potential improvement around them and the way their schedule plays out. They're not going to be terrible, and they're not going to be great. They're just going to ... well, be. A few fortunate breaks here and there could mean a playoff appearance, a few unfortunate ones could mean a top-five draft pick. Honestly, they're far enough from true contention that either is probably a positive outcome. Under.
Bryan: Seven disagreements! Seven! Almost a quarter of the league! By our standards, that's downright argumentative.
|Over/Under Disagreements, 2019|
|Green Bay Packers||9||Under||Over|
|Los Angeles Rams||8.5||Over||Under|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||9.5||Over||Under|
In addition, pessimism seems to rule the day. I have 14 overs to 18 unders; Andrew has a closer 15-17 split. Are we just predicting the best teams will suck up too many wins? Has 2020 set our brains into permanent pessimism mode? Or have we just not been keeping track? The mysteries of life, entirely unexplainable.
Andrew: I'm going with the lines on more teams being a smidge high, but I guess we'll find out at the end of the season. We'll be back next week with the last of our betting previews, this time looking at players rather than teams.