By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Underachiever
Some people bemoan the end of summer, but not us.
Sure, beautiful weather, attractive people in swimsuits, enriching vacations and coolers full of cold treats are all good things, but can they compare with the joys of fall football?
Sorry, no. Our skin was made for spilling buffalo wing sauce on, not for basking un the sunlight.
Same goes with our friends from Vegas, who have sun year round but barely see it from inside their control rooms thick with TVs, phone banks and spreadsheets. We look forward every year to seeing what the boys in LV think of the NFL's teams by way of their season over/under totals.
Who's going over? Who's going under?
We look at all eight divisions with our predictions, starting with the AFC East. (over/under lines courtesy bodog.com).
New England Patriots (Over/under: 11.5)
Last year: O/U 9.5 (OVER, 14-2)
THE CASE FOR OVER
They won 14 games last year, and they’re better.
Even if you consider them a bit lucky to have been 14-2, a fallback of two games leaves them at 12-4. While the NFL insiders have been raving about their preseason performances, it’s the talent that’s really impressive. In 2007, they responded to a playoff failure based largely on a thin wide receiver group by getting Randy Moss and Wes Welker. This year, they responded to a playoff failure based largely on a poor defensive front by adding three top-level talents in free agency (Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter). And adding Chad Ochocinco (and rookie tackle Nate Solder) to the offense doesn't hurt either.
Just look at the history.
Since 2003, the Patriots have averaged 12.63 wins a year, which would plant them firmly in the over. In the worst season of that run, a 2005 where they only wound up +41 on the season in scoring differential, they still managed to win 10 games, and that was with Tom Brady sitting on the bench for most of Week 17’s loss to Miami. Other than Peyton Manning’s Colts, no one has been a more consistent regular-season threat.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
One of the surest things in the NFL is that teams that dominate turnover margin one year will come back to the pack the next. As an example, the league’s top 10 teams in turnover margin in 2009 and where they finished in 2010: 2, 23, 5, 15, 8, 28, 26, 24, 29 and 1. That’s a pretty all-over-the-place type of grouping, and it’s consistently like that every year. New England has been extremely good in turnover margin through the years, but their +28 was an NFL record. The last team to come close to this was the 2007 Chargers, who came in at +24. The next year, they went +4, and dropped to 8-8 from 11-5.
It’s no easy walk.
New England’s schedule is a fat kid’s nightmare: No cupcakes. In addition to drawing division winners from Indianapolis, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, they drew the NFC East and AFC West as their out-of-division foes, putting San Diego, Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants on their list this year. Sure, they have Buffalo twice, plus Denver and Washington, but even a 4-0 mark there means they need to go 9-4 against the good and great teams on the slate to make their 12-win mark.
With most teams, you’d throw out a “barring injuries” caveat, but the Patriots are built to withstand them and usually do. Unless Brady, Ochocinco and Wes Welker get stopped at the Canadian border with a trunk full of PEDs … take OVER 11.5,
and feel pretty strong about it.
New York Jets (Over/under: 10)
Last year: OVER 9.5 (11-5)
THE CASE FOR OVER
The Mark Sanchez arc is going in the right direction.
Make no mistake about it, Mark Sanchez was still a subpar NFL quarterback in 2010, with a 75.3 rating that was firmly in the Chad Henne range. But that came on the heels of a 63.0 rookie season, and last we saw Sanchez he was playing like Roger Staubach in the playoffs (9 TDs, 3 INTs, 94.3 rating). If Sanchez improves another 12 rating points, he’s at 87.3 and finally in the conversation as a legitimately good starter. It could happen.
Wait, stability? On a Rex Ryan-coached team? Isn’t that guy about as stable as Bryant McKinnie’s deck chairs?
In this learn-it-quick offseason, the Jets have an edge simply because they’re going to be doing what they’ve been doing, and largely with the same guys. Same big offensive line, same quarterback, same running backs, same tight end, same shutdown corner, same tough front seven, same head coach, same assistants. Sure, some of the names have changed, but this Jets team should be a lot like the ones we’ve been seeing, and no one wants to play that team in September.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
The defense took a step back last year.
The Jets’ improvement from 2009 to 2010 came even as their defense went from being great (14.8 PPG allowed, No. 1) to just good (19.0 PPG allowed, No. 6). They allowed 300+ yards nine times, up from four in 2009. The fact that they went so hard after Nnamdi Asomugha despite the salary-cap problems it likely would have created, suggests that they know their grasp on greatness is slipping. Darrelle Revis is still a man with an island, but Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson were so-so on the other side – and they’re a year older in their front seven.
Brad Smith will be missed.
The Bills paid a lot of money for Smith, especially considering the fact that they just used a top-10 pick on C.J. Spiller. He might make a bigger impact on the Jets than he does on the Bills. Last year, Smith averaged 28.6 yards a kick return and ran for 299 yards and a 7.9 YPC average as a Wildcat quarterback mostly. There’s no one on the Jets’ roster who can fill his shoes, and while little things like he does are sometimes a luxury, they’re a luxury the Jets had been counting on.
The Jets have been so good in the playoffs that it’s easy to forget how mediocre they’ve been in the regular season. They needed a miracle to make it to the playoffs in 2009, and went 2-3 down the stretch in 2010. Ten wins seems like a pretty valid number (these Vegas guys aren’t exactly messing around), but forced to go one way or the other … UNDER 10
. The rest of the AFC East made upgrades while the Jets probably took a step back, and while over wouldn’t be a shock, under is the safer bet.
Miami Dolphins (Over/under: 7.5)
Last year: O/U 8.5 (UNDER, 7-9)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Reggie Bush will boost their Scoreability.
Miami was a respectable No. 21 in total yards last year, but No. 30 in points, thanks to a terrible scoring offense. Any time your kicker has more field goals made (30) than extra points (25), as Dan Carpenter did, you are doing something very wrong. Reggie Bush is more Reggie Bust than anything else, but in five years with New Orleans the Saints finished first in scoring twice and averaged 26.9 points a game – and he was a major player. Even if he just breaks five or six big plays as a supporting player, that’s five or six more than they made in an incredibly vanilla 2010, and fills the need they wasted a No. 7 overall pick on (Ted Ginn) a half-decade ago.
They proved last year that they could play with anyone.
Well, except the Patriots, who Miami lost to by 27 and 31. But the Dolphins beat the Packers and Jets last year, on the road, played even with the Jets in the other game of the home-and-home, and only lost to the Steelers by a point. According to Pro-Football-Reference’s strength of schedule numbers, the Dolphins also had the second-toughest schedule in the league, so that usually plays in a team’s favor the following year as things even out.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Sorry, Chad Henne, but yeah, you.
If you took any of the league’s top 10 quarterbacks and put him on this roster, we’d be talking about a 10-win team easy. How many other teams can boast a future HOF left tackle (Jake Long), proven No. 1 receiver (Brandon Marshall) and a dangerous front seven (No. 5 Defensive Hogs last year)? And then there’s Chad. Yes, he’s only 25, but carbon copy statistical seasons (75.2, 75.4 passer rating) in two years as a starter and a record of 13-14 suggest that there’s not a lot of upside here.
The secondary doesn’t make plays.
In 11 of Miami’s 16 games last year, the defense forced either one or no turnovers, and they went 3-8 in those games. The Dolphins’ breakout season of 2008 (11-5) came almost exclusively thanks to turnover margin (best in the NFL), but they have proven in going -8 and -12 the following years that it was a fluke. Miami was No. 28 in interceptions (11) last year, and considering their excellent front seven, there’s little excuse for it.
This is one of the most difficult over-unders to assess. They made moves to get better on offense, and the defense was already pretty good. In fact, the team as a whole is pretty solid, especially in the trenches where it’s supposed to count the most. The Jets have managed to do pretty well with a subpar quarterback, why not the Dolphins? Cautiously, they’ll go OVER 7.5,
but it probably won’t be decided one way or the other until Week 17.
Buffalo Bills (Over/under: 5.5)
Last year: UNDER 5.5 (4-12)
THE CASE FOR OVER
It’s a pretty low bar to clear.
Six wins isn’t a lot. Last year, 26 of the 32 NFL teams managed at least six wins – and although Buffalo wasn’t one of them, the Bills bring back their same starting quarterback (Ryan Fitzgerald) and offensive system (Chan Gailey). They also had the toughest schedule in the league last year; this year they play home games against Oakland, Denver, Tennessee, Washington and Miami.
Stevie Johnson had one of the best third years in receiving history.
Johnson has now come out of nowhere to be a dominant threat in college and the pros. At Kentucky, he followed a 12-catch junior season with a 60-1,041-13 senior year that got him into the tail end of the draft (seventh round) and onto the Bills. Then, after a two-catch sophomore year in the NFL, he breaks out with an 82-1,073-10 year in the NFL, complete with God-blaming and general excitement usually not seen in Buffalo. Of course, this piece suggests that Johnson will never do it again
, but hey, it’s August – gotta think positive.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
There’s just not enough talent here.
The Bills got by on guts, guile and Gailey last year, and still only won four games. Theoretically, they should have been poised for a big offseason, with money to spend, but arguably lost more than they gained in silly season. They were dead last in the aggregate of our Quality Stats, and while going defense with their first four picks in the NFL draft could pay dividends, it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in 2011.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a four-win quarterback.
Check the stats, folks. In 2008, with Cincinnati, he was 4-7-1. In 2009, in Buffalo, 4-4. Last year in Buffalo, 4-9. Career winning percentage as a starter, .342, which adds up to 5.47 wins over a 16-game season – and that’s assuming he plays 16 games, and the Bills don’t have to start backups/Wildcatters Brad Smith or Tyler Thigpen for any significant stretch.
The Bills haven’t had quite as poor an offseason as fellow 4-12ers in Cincinnati, but it’s tough to see a lot of improvement. They still play in the tough AFC East, they still have a journeyman QB, they still haven’t won more than nine games since 1999. Will they win six or more this year? No. UNDER 5.5.