The NFL season kicks off on a Wednesday for the first time ever this year, so now is as good a time as any to kick off an NFL Preview. Part One will run today, an NFC preview, with Part Two (an AFC preview) here
, and Part Three (general predictions) coming Wednesday.
Let’s not waste any more time.
Someone is going to have to explain to me the infatuation with the Giants, because I’m not really seeing it. This is a team that had as many double digit losses last season (four) as they did double-digit wins. As a matter of fact, they were actually outscored on the season by six points. They were carried by their defense and their passing game, but their passing game might take a hit with the departures of Mario Manningham and Jake Ballard. That might not sound too daunting, but Manningham was their 3rd-leading receiver last year despite missing 4 games, and Ballard actually produced on levels comparable to Jermichael Finley and Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez on a per-play basis.
On top of that, the NFC East plays the AFC North and NFC South, but the Giants also have games against the 49ers and Packers by virtue of winning their division last year. In comparison the Cowboys play Seahawks and Bears, and the Eagles play the Cardinals and Lions. That could very well be a two-game swing that goes against New York, which would be awfully hard to recover from.
Philly looks like the winner here. They had the scoring differential of a 10-win team last year, and that was with Michael Vick missing three games. People also forget this now, but they had two exceptionally fluky losses early in the season to Atlanta (with Vick missing the 4th quarter) and San Francisco (a one-point loss) that sent their season into panic mode a bit prematurely.
If you look at their records in close games (a touchdown or less), New York was 5-3, while Philly was 2-5. Also, if you look at turnover differential, New York was tied for 7th in the league in turnover differential at +7; Philly was tied for 30th at -14. Some people might say these numbers mark a justification for New York winning the division, but history tells us that neither of those are trends that continue over multiple seasons (unless your quarterback is Peyton Manning – he seems to be the one exception). Both teams should regress toward the mean in each category, but that means New York will be on the decline, while the Eagles will improve.
Dallas will also be in the mix, especially because of their defense. Cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terrance Newman were woefully overmatched last season, and it showed with their 20th-ranked pass defense. Newman has been jettisoned, and while Jenkins is still with the team, he is no longer starting, as he sits third on the depth chart behind free agent signee Brandon Carr, and rookie Morris Claiborne, who was the 6th overall pick in this past year’s draft and is projected to be an All-Pro. An improved secondary, coupled with a full season from tailback DeMarco Murray (who rushed for over 800 yards in just seven starts last season), should put the Cowboys back into the playoff hunt.
The high point of Washington’s season last year was two wins over the Giants, and I don’t expect them to be much better this season. Robert Griffin III should provide excitement, but not many wins.
New York: 10-6
The Packers are another strong candidate for regression. They went 15-1 last season, but had the scoring differential of a team that would only be expected to go 12-4. Their +24 turnover differential should also be closer to league average this season, mostly because of their unsustainable rate of intercepting opponents’ passes. The Packers’ defense intercepted 31 passes last season, which was the most of any team in the league since the 2005 Bengals (who also had 31), and is a number that hasn’t been exceeded since the 2001 Browns. In fact, the gap between Green Bay and the 2nd-place team (San Francisco, with 23) was as big as the gap between the 2nd-place team and the 17th-place team (Baltimore, with 15). A more realistic turnover margin should pull Green Bay back to the pack (pun absolutely intended).
Detroit may have been an intriguing team with the potential to surprise a few people (not unlike the 2010 Falcons), but it just looks like their schedule will be too tough to break through to a 12- or 13-win season. In addition to four games against the Packers and Bears, the Lions also have the misfortune of playing on the road against both San Francisco and Philadelphia, as well as home games against Houston and Atlanta. Their explosive offense will keep them in just about every game, but it’s not explosive on the level of Green Bay or New England or New Orleans, where it can cover up just about any defensive missteps.
Chicago was looking like a real Super Bowl contender last year, starting the season 7-3, including convincing wins over Philly, Detroit, and Atlanta, but Jay Cutler broke his thumb and the season fell apart. This year, they’re getting back a healthy Cutler, and they’re reuniting with All-Pro receiver Brandon Marshall, his favorite target during his last two years in Denver. In 2007 and 2008, Marshall combined for 106 receptions, 2590 yards, and 13 touchdowns. Marshall presents an obvious upgrade over Chicago’s leading receivers from a season ago, Johnny Knox and Roy Williams.
Minnesota should once again be at the bottom of the division. Unfortunately for them, the easy part of their schedule is the first nine weeks, when they have games against Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Washington, Arizona, and Seattle, but Adrian Peterson will most likely be limited for a good portion of that stretch as he recovers from last season’s brutal knee injury. By the time Peterson is healthy, and 2nd-year quarterback Christian Ponder finally has his feet under him, the Vikings will have to run the gauntlet, playing both Chicago and Green Bay twice, as well as a road game in Houston, all in the last six weeks of the season.
Green Bay: 13-3
This is likely to be the most competitive division in football this year. Not necessarily the best, but the closest. After a spectacular 2010 regular season, Atlanta crashed back to Earth in 2011, victim to regression in a number of categories, including exceeding win expectations based on scoring differential and record in close games.
This year, the team that should take a big step back is New Orleans. They’ll miss a number of defensive players, as well as head coach Sean Payton, for at least the first six games to suspension in result of the bounty-hunting scandal that dominated headlines in the spring. They also lost Robert Meachem to free agency, who has been one of the more underrated receivers in the league over the last few years, ranking top-10 in the league in DVOA (weighted yardage per target) every year since 2009.
The beneficiary of this decline should be Tampa Bay and Carolina – both teams should see marked improvement over last season. Carolina’s defense ranked dead last in a number of advanced metrics last year, but healthy years out of All-Pro linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis (who combined for three starts last year before each ending up on injured reserve with ACL tears), as well as the addition of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly (the 9th overall pick) should shore up some of the holes. Carolina is also a candidate for improvement by way of record in close games – they were just 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less last season.
One reason to pause, however, is Cam Newton. While he did have a historic rookie season, his numbers were somewhat inflated by two incredible games to start the season. If you look just at the final 14 games from last season, Newton’s numbers (pro-rated for a full 16-game schedule) look like this:
83.7 QB Rating, 59.4% Completions, 3648 Yards, 7.37 Yards/Attempt, 21 Touchdowns
Those numbers barely crack the top half of the league, and compare closer to Matt Moore, Matt Hasselbeck, Carson Palmer, and Andy Dalton than they do Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Philip Rivers.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, should see an improvement simply by reason of ditching head coach Raheem Morris. Long, late-season losing streaks are often signs of teams quitting on coaches, and the Bucs’ 10-game losing streak to finish last season is certainly a candidate. Historically, teams that go on long losing streaks before replacing their coach tend to see short-term improvement under the new coach, regardless if he’s better than the old coach or not. A few recent examples of this would be the 2010 Cowboys, who finished 5-3 under Jason Garrett after starting 1-7 under Wade Phillips, or last year’s 49ers, who jumped from 6-10 under Mike Singletary the previous year to 13-3 under Jim Harbaugh with little change to the roster. The Bucs switch from Morris to Greg Schiano could produce a similar effect.
New Orleans: 10-6
Tampa Bay: 7-9
There are plenty of reasons to believe that San Francisco won’t be as good as they were last season, but not nearly enough to think that any other team has a chance to steal the division away from them.
First of all, they were exceptionally good in close games, finishing 6-2 in contests decided by a touchdown or less. They also finished first in turnover differential at a staggering +28, helped along by Alex Smith’s startlingly low interception rate (just 1.1% of Smith’s pass attempts were intercepted last year, an unsustainably low rate). The 49ers also recovered 15 of the 20 fumbles they forced on defense last year, which should also decline sharply, as recovering fumbles is little more than a coin-flip proposition.
Despite all this, the 49ers are still clearly the class of their division. They return all 11 starters from a defense that, by nearly any metric, was one of the three best in football last season. They’ve also bolstered their receiving corps with the additions of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. While neither should be breakout stars, at the very least, Moss gives the team a true downfield threat, and Manningham presents a clear upgrade over Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn.
The rest of the division looks as weak as always. Seattle should eke out a few wins thanks to an improving defense, a strong running game, and an inexplicably reliable home-field advantage, but they lack the quarterback play (especially if rookie Russell Wilson is starting) to challenge for a playoff spot.
The bottom half of the division might be the worst in all of football, and the only thing keeping them from going 0-16 is the fact that they have to play each other twice. The Cardinals played four overtime games last year and somehow managed to win all of them, and three of their four other wins came by a total of 9 points. They also had a +13 turnover differential. They have some talent on the roster, but their regression in turnovers and close games, as well as their dismal quarterback play, should completely offset it.
St. Louis, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. Sam Bradford is a fine young quarterback, but the rest of their offense is so inept that it’s unlikely to matter.
San Francisco: 12-4
St. Louis: 3-13