September 13, 2009

NFL Preview, Part II -- Shocking Sleepers Explained!

Let's just get into it. First there's this, which might be familiar if you read Part I:Because I didn't do it before, I'll also throw this into the mix:
And finally, there's this:
That's a composite I made of's writers' picks. Anyway, the consensus of the writer's picks follows below. In parentheses are the votes received for the division title (out of a possible 16). If the number first appears as A + B, A = Division title votes, B = wildcard votes; teams that are also my playoff picks are italicized:

AFC East: Patriots (16)
AFC South: Colts (9 + 6; 15)
AFC North: Steelers (13+3; 16)
AFC West: Chargers (16)
Wildcards: Titans (5+8; 13), Ravens (3+10; 13)
AFC Champs: Steelers 7, Patriots 5, San Diego 4

NFC East: Giants (7+7; 14)
NFC South: Falcons (14+1; 15)
NFC North: Vikings (8+2; 10)
NFC West: Cardinals (8)
Wildcards: Eagles (6+9; 15), Packers (7+3; 10)
NFC Champs: Eagles 5, Giants 3, Falcons 3, Cowboys 2, Packers 2, Saints 1.

Super Bowl champs: Steelers 7, Patriots 5, San Diego 4

Awards (again, my picks in italics; with the exception of my picks, only guys with multiple votes are listed):
Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy (GB) 4, Mike Singletary (SF) 3, Bill Belichick (NE) 2, Andy Reid (PHI) 2
MVP: Tom Brady (NE) 6, Adrian Peterson (CHI) 4, Phillip Rivers (SD) 3, Aaron Rodgers (Cal) 1
Offensive Player of the Year: Peterson 7, Drew Brees (NO) 4, Brady 2
Defensive POY: DeMarcus Ware (DAL) 7, Jared Allen (MIN) 3, Patrick Willis (SF) 1
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Sanchez (NYJ) 7, Percy Harvin (MIN) 4
Defensive ROY: Aaron Curry (SEA) 7, Brian Orakpo (WAS) 4

Of course, the easiest thing in the world to do would have been to pick the consensus of the group. After all, while I may think I know more than any of their writers, surely I can't believe that I can outsmart the collective wisdom of 16 of's best. Right? RIGHT?


Look, their AFC picks are one word: safe. They have five of last year's playoff teams making it back, with only Miami being left out of the party in favor of New England, which was 11-5 last year and somehow missed the playoffs AND is getting its 3-time Super Bowl-winning QB back. The picks are the smart picks.

They're also boring.

Plus, there's virtually no way that five of the playoff teams will repeat. We know there will probably be at least two new teams in the playoffs in both conferences. To me the fun is trying to figure out which ones. As you will read below, I'm actually a little disappointed by two of my new teams in the AFC, as I wanted them to be two others, but when I went through the schedule, that's the way it played out.

Picking all of last year's teams to repeat ensures you of one thing: not looking stupid. Because if Pittsburgh or San Diego (both of whom I have in the playoffs, incidentally) ends up sucking, no one will remember that you picked them because EVERYBODY picked them. But if the Houston or Jacksonville goes 2-14, I'm sure I'm going to get some shit from my three readers.

Anyway, here are the rest of my picks, to semi-match ESPN's chart:

NFC Championship: Green Bay over New Orleans
AFC Championship: New England over Pittsburgh
Super Bowl: Green Bay over New England

Unfortunately, I just couldn't see a way that the AFC championship game won't end up being the Patriots and Steelers. I'd have liked to pick something a little more out there. You know, like my NFC pick. I think the Packers will be the best team, but I had a tough time deciding between the Saints and Eagles for the other spot. It might just come down to which one is in the bracket opposite Green Bay, or if they're both on that side, which one is at home when they play. Given that New Orleans coach Sean Payton was the quarterback at my freaking high school when I was in elementary school, I went with the Saints.

As for the Super Bowl, I think it's ridiculous that not one of's writers broke free of the AFC-is-far-superior mindset. Look, the AFC has been the better conference for most of the last decade. But the Giants won the Super Bowl two years ago, and last year the NFC was 29-34-1 against the AFC, which is a .461 winning percentage. The gap has closed measurably over the past few seasons, and I suspect it will be all but gone this year. Hence the Packers to win the Super Bowl, and if not them then the Saints.

But let's get to the meat of this entry, the sleepers. Only first let's establish some ground rules: for the purposes of this post any team picked by a reasonable number of ESPN's writers is not a sleeper. Oh no. My sleepers be much deepers than that. They are categorized as follows:

Not a sleeper: Green Bay
Too many people are on the Packers bandwagon, with nearly half the writers having them win the division, and over 60% putting them in the playoffs. That's not a sleeper. Had the Packers gotten any sort of respectable defense last year, they would have made the playoffs. They didn't, and so they didn't. Even though I don't like picking a team switching to a new scheme to be the best in the NFC, because they have so much room for improvement, I'll roll the dice on the 3-4.

Semi-sleeper: New Orleans
The Saints are much like the Packers in that if they get any defense, they are going to be very, very tough. As you see, I have them as the second-best team in the NFC, and the NFL for that matter.** I think their division, the NFC South, which was so good last season, is going to be down this year. Really, I would be shocked if the Saints don't make the playoffs. Almost as shocked as I was that only a quarter of's writers have them in the postseason.

** As I mentioned, it's a bit of a toss-up for me between the Saints and Eagles, but given the questionable durability of the Eagles two most important offensive players, that swings the pendulum towards the Saints for me.

Legit sleepers: Texans, Jaguars, Niners
I've already written about the Texans and Jags in Part I, but I'm actually a little disappointed that I didn't find more space in the AFC for two of the teams that follow. As for the Niners, they were a top-10 defense once Singletary took over, and in that awful division, I see little resistance. Remember, the Cardinals won it last year despite a 9-7 record and a point differential of +1. As happens with most Super Bowl losers, I expect them to get worse, not better. There's going to be a sleeper that comes out of this division, and I think it'll be the Niners.

The Rams still seem like a franchise with little direction. The Seahawks have a new coach and a perpetual injury machine at quarterback. The Cards will inevitably take a step back. It all points to a big year by the Bay. Plus, c'mon. It's Mike fucking Singletary.

Super sleepers: Buffalo, Cleveland
I covered Cleveland earlier, but I'm very upset with myself for giving them a better record than the Bills, who were one of my playoff picks (with the team below) before I actually looked at the schedule. Still, I should have picked Buffalo (at home) over the Browns, which would have given them a 9-7 record and put Cleveland at 8-8. But once the first post went up, it was set in stone.

So why in the world do I like the Bills? They're an unmitigated disaster.

Nobody -- save one guy at (Bill Williamson), who undoubtedly made his pick before coach Dick Jauron made the 11th-hour decision to fire offensive coordinator Turk Schonert -- thinks the Bills are going to be anything but sucky this season. They're completely rebuilding their offensive line, which was no great shakes to begin with. Buffalo's best offensive player is serving a 3-game suspension for a variety of semi-minor arrests, the most egregious being a guilty plea on a misdemeanor weapons charge. Their second best offensive player is Terrell Owens.

Defensively? Meh.

But here's the thing: despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary -- well, mostly his career record of 57-76, which gives him a less-than-impressive .428 winning percentage -- I don't think coach Dick Jauron is an idiot. And it's not just the Ivy League pedigree.

If you are a regular reader, then you know that I think basically every coach/manager/general manager is an idiot. But I watched Jauron coach the Bears for five seasons, and he didn't make nearly as many boneheaded decisions as I saw/see every year from Dave Wannstedt or Lovie Smith. The main reason Jauron's Bears teams had lousy records: They stunk. In fact, in 2003 -- the season in which GM Jerry Angelo was finally able to live out his dream and fire Jauron -- he somehow led an atrocious Bears team to seven wins. Talent-wise, I seriously think they were the very worst team in football that year.

At different periods of time, they started free-agent disaster (yeah, no one saw that one coming) Kordell Stewart, 38-year-old Chris Chandler, and rookie Rex Grossman at quarterback. Anthony Thomas, Stewart and Brock Forsey were the top-3 rushers. Marty Booker was their leading receiver with 52 catches for 715 yards and four touchdowns. Their second-leading receiver was Dez White.

The defense had lots of talent but was very, very young; of the top five tacklers only Jerry Azumah (26) was over 25. And after a 1-4 start with Angelo-darling Stewart at QB, Jauron somehow had this ragtag group on the verge of a .500-season before a year-ending blowout loss to the Chiefs. Still, Jauron did an amazing job that season. I always thought he got the most out of the talent on his teams. He just hasn't been blessed with very much talent.

So I don't think Dick Jauron is an idiot. His teams in Buffalo, which have always been predicted to be terrible, have never been that bad record-wise, finishing 7-9 in each of his three years. I just think that this -- like Jauron's 2001 season with the Bears -- might be the year the Bills catch a few breaks and finish with a winning record.

Super-duper pooper-scooper sleeper: Oakland
This category is reserved for teams that absolutely no one is giving a chance to even win five games, let alone post a winning record. Like the Dolphins or Falcons last year. Sure it doesn't happen all the time, but it's fun to try to pick one. And perhaps the only team that's a bigger calamity than my super-duper sleeper Buffalo is the Raiders. They're terrible.

Essentially, the Raiders have been awful since losing to former coach John Gruden's Buccaneers in Super Bowl 37, winning 24 games games over the past six seasons; basically they've been a 4-win team for more than half a decade. Not only that, but the Raiders have made several questionable personnel decisions. For instance, to acquire Randy Moss they gave up starting middle linebacker Napoleon Harris, the #7 selection in the 2005 draft, and a 7th-round pick; they traded Moss just two years later for a 4th rounder.

You want bad drafting? With the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, the Raiders passed on a franchise running back (Adrian Peterson) to select project QB JaMarcus Russell. The very next season, they used the fourth overall selection on running back Darren McFadden. With the No. 7 pick in this year's draft, the Raiders took Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- a player I dreaded the Bears getting when they held the 18th pick -- despite Michael Crabtree still being on the board. They were also roundly ridiculed for their second-round choice, safety Michael Mitchell, who some teams thought was fringy to get drafted at all.

How about coaching disasters? First Al Davis let Gruden go for a bunch of draft picks -- firsts in '02 and '03, and second-rounders in '02 and '04, all of which turned out to be low-in-the-round selections due to Tampa's success under Gruden -- in part because Davis wasn't a huge fan of Gruden's non-vertical passing attack. Then he hired Bill Callahan, who led the Team that Gruden Built to the Super Bowl, where he showed a commitment to excellence in coaching blunders by failing to change the audible calls that former (and now opposing) coach Gruden had installed. Seeing as how Gruden was known to be one of the most detail-oriented coaches the league had ever seen, this was, in a word, godfuckingawful. Anyway, Callahan was pantsed by Gruden in that Super Bowl and never recovered, and was canned following a 4-12 record the next season. Incidentally, Callahan's two-year stint is tied for the longest tenure of any Raiders coach since Gruden left.

Norv Turner also put in two years. And nine wins; those four-and-a-half-win seasons put him ahead of the recent Raiders curve. Then Art Shell came in, added two wins (and 14 losses) to his resume and was cut loose after a year, followed by Lane Kiffin. Kiffin posted one 4-win season, and was on his way to another when he was fired with a 1-3 record four games into last year. Additionally, Davis has refused to pay Kiffin for the remaining years on his contract, claiming Kiffin was fired "for cause." Yes, that cause being that Al Davis has completely lost his fucking marbles.

Anyway, in came Tom Cable as interim coach, and he went 4-8 the rest of the way -- positively Madden-esque by present-day Raiders standards -- good enough for him to shed the interim label. Apparently, one of Cable's first acts as the non-interim head coach was to punch out an assistant coach. Just excellent indicators all the way around.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, gives the Raiders any sort of chance this year. Which is exactly why they've got a shot.

The AFC West is god awful. Sure, the Chargers are talented, but they were talented last year and barely scraped into the playoffs. With Norv Turner at the helm, anything can happen.

The rest of the division -- including the Raiders -- appears to be a disaster. But one of KC, Denver, or the Raiders will emerge as a contender despite the ostensible shittiness. KC's out because I don't see much talent on the roster, plus they still think that LJ (Larry Johnson) is better than J-Chaz (Jamaal Charles, and I'm hoping I made that nickname up). Denver's out because coach Josh McDaniels -- who I often erroneously call "Josh McRoberts" -- seems to be a total jackass hell-bent on turning everyone in Denver into a pariah while relegating himself to one-and-done status. So that leaves the Raiders.

And despite all their foibles, the Raiders do have some talent; even the blindest, piggiest of organizations will find some truffles when it's picking in the top-5 every year. On defense, the Raiders now have a top lineman (Seymour), a top linebacker (Kirk Morrison) and arguably the best cornerback in the game (the great Nnamdi Asomugha). That seems to be a recipe for at least a decent unit.

Offensively, it's do-or-die time for QB Russell. Since being selected No. 1 overall three drafts ago, Russell's hasn't done much. In fact, let's compare two quarterbacks:
QB A: 234-of-434, 2796 yards, 15 TDs, 12 INTs
QB B: 232-of-426, 2649 yards, 18 TDs, 13 INTs
QB A is Russell. QB B is Tyler Thigpen, taken by the Chiefs in the seventh round, 216 picks after Russell in 2007. Russell will have to show that he's a player for the Raiders to succeed. They are very inexperienced at receiver, and while many are predicting a breakout for McFadden, without a minimal passing attack, he's not going to have a whole lot of room to run. Now is the time for JaMarcus Russell to prove he was worthy of being the first pick in the draft.

And for some reason, I'm hoping he does.

Alright, on to some remaining thoughts. Obviously, to appease my Bears-centric fan base, here's a rundown of the NFC North, by predicted order of finish:

Though I originally saw the NFC North as a three-way tossup between the Packers, Bears, and Vikings, I ultimately (and resoundingly) went with the Pack. Yes, they went 6-10 last year, but there's a whole lot more to the story. After starting 4-3, they finished the season on a 2-7 slide. Sounds like a monumental collapse, right? Wrong, dumbass. (Jesus, what is it with you?) Six of the seven losses came by 4 points or less, two of them in overtime, and one in regulation by a single point. Meanwhile, five of their six victories were by double digits, and the sixth was a 5-point win over the Vikings. With just a little bit of luck, they would've been 9-7. With a lot of luck, they could have won 11 games.

The problem, really, was the Packers' D, as the Aaron Rodgers-led offense was a powerhouse, finishing fifth in the NFL in points scored. It should only improve in Rodger's second year as the quarterback, as everyone knows that Cal alumni get better with age. Though I'm not sold on Ryan Grant, the Packers have enough depth in the backfield to have a solid running game, and their passing attack should rival the Patriots and Saints as the best in football.

All this team needs is for its defense to be decent. While I'm not crazy about banking on the unit to improve in the first year after switching to the 3-4, I just have to believe that with the offense sure to put up a ton of points, it will somehow do just that. Plus, the D's inability to stop the run (they finished 26th last year) should be least partially mitigated by the offense putting up so many points and building big leads.

Really the only thing I see keeping the Packers from having the NFC's best record is that the NFC North, despite the presents of the Lions, will actually be much stronger this year, as at least on paper all four teams will be better.

Even though they blew three games they easily could have won -- against Carolina, Tampa, and Atlanta -- I still think the Bears overachieved to finish last year at 9-7. Their point differential was worse than the 6-10 Packers, for instance. So let's say fundamentally the Bears were a 7-win team. That means that a 9-7 season might actually represent a major improvement. But it would be considered an utter failure by everyone in Chicago.

Still, I think the Bears will improve on their record, if only to 10-6. Cutler will help make up for some of the deficiencies in the receiving corps, and I'm expecting a monster season from third-year TE Greg Olsen.

I'm still not entirely sold on Matt Forte. Yes, he was the offense last year, but for much of the season he averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry. Sure, the line wasn't very good, but I still think Forte has something to prove. To me, at least.

Defensively, the Bears have been declining for the last several years, and need a bounce back season from their defensive line. Hopefully new coach Rod Marinelli will help in that department. If Tommie Harris can stay on the field and make plays, the entire defense will look a whole hell of a lot better.

I know the Vikings have all kinds of talent. But did you know that despite finishing 10-6 last season, their point differential (+46) was only a touchdown better than Green Bay's? And I just can't get behind them this year for two reasons. The first is the (supposedly) divisive acquisition of Brett Favre, a move that (reportedly) wasn't too popular in the locker room, at least in part because coach Brad Childress had told his team that Favre was not in the organization's plans. Which brings me to Point 2. I had already thought that Childress was a shitty coach, and now he has major player-relations issues. I just don't see, despite all the talent, how the Vikings can overcome this and be as good as they should be. And that's without even mentioning that they'll have the NFL's most prolific interception thrower of all time under center.

Hey, with four wins, the Lions would be one of the most improved teams in the league. Speaking of which, according to my projected standings, these will be the most improved teams in the league:

Packers +7 wins
Jaguars +5
Browns +5
Raiders +4
Lions +4
Saints +3
49ers +3
Rams +3
Eagles: +3

And these will be the most deproved:

Dolphins -7 wins
Jets -4
Falcons -4
Bucs -4
Denver -3
Titans -3
Colts -3
Cowboys -3
Panthers -3

Six other random predictions:

1. The NFC East, which after two straight years of not having a single team with a losing record, will not be the best division in football. With both the Cowboys and Redskins way down this year, and the Giants in a bit of a transition, even the NFC North should be better. Yes, the NFC North.

2. The following coaches will not make it to next season: Marvin Lewis, Josh McRobertsDaniel, Jim Zorn, and, mercifully, Wade Phillips, as this is the year the Cowboys finally crumble enough to get his ass canned.

3. Gary Kubiak and Jack Del Rio are also squarely on the hot seat. If Kubiak's Texans or Del Rio's Jags fail to live up to my lofty preseason predictions, it will cost their coach his job.

4. The firing of quality coaches will not pay dividends. Denver and Tampa Bay will both be worse after firing Super Bowl winners Mike Shanahan and Gruden.

5. The Dolphins will seriously regress. And I'm not talking just a regression towards the mean; they'll be far below it. I just don't see enough talent on either side of the ball here. Last season was a tremendous fluke, and they'll be much closer to the 2007 team (1-15) than last year's (11-5).

6. Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson are done. Because Tomlinson is in such a productive offense, he might still put up some decent numbers. But anyone expecting bounce-back years from these two aging AFC West stars will be sorely disappointed.

And with that, I'm (mercifully) done too. If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I really do appreciate it.

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