Bold and useless predictions: AFC edition
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 09, 2009
The CHFF crew has crunched all the numbers, not to mention a few dozen bags of nachos and potato chips, to compile our bold and useless predictions for 2009, complete with one nut-chilling Cold, Hard Football Fact for all 32 NFL teams.
Here's our AFC edition. The NFC Edition can be found here.
Bold prediction! The winner of the Baltimore at New England game on Oct. 4 will win the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Useless prediction! The Bills will hire Tenzing Norgay to help them overcome the statistical and psychological mountains they face this year.
- Bills Cold, Hard Football Fact: Terrell Owens set franchise TD reception records in each of his past two stops (14 with Philly in 2004; 15 with Dallas in 2007).
- Dolphins Cold, Hard Football Fact: Miami's passing game was the great statistical story in football last year, improving from a dreadful 5.05 YPA in the 1-15 season of 2007 to 7.03 YPA in the 11-5 AFC East championship season of 2008.
- Jets Cold, Hard Football Fact: The J-Men led the AFC East last year with a 4-2 record vs. Quality Opponents. Their +5.8 PPG scoring differential against Quality Teams was the best in the NFL. Oh, and Brett Favre led the NFL in INTs. Just thought we'd mention it.
- Patriots Cold, Hard Football Fact: Tom Brady has not lost a regular-season game since Dec. 10, 2006. He passed for just 78 yards that night, in a 21-0 MNF loss at Miami.
If the NFC East is pro football's Glamour Division, the AFC East will do a fairly reasonable facsimile of it in the junior circuit this season. Sure, the division lost one of its biggest names in Brett Favre, but it picked up another in Terrell Owens. It's also the division that boasts the game's best coach in Bill Belichick, the game's best franchise builder in Bill Parcells, the game's best QB in Tom Brady, the game's top receivers in T.O. and Randy Moss, and one of the game's most high-profile rookies in Mark Sanchez.
That's a lot of star power. Toss in two of the nation's biggest media markets, and you got plenty of great storylines ready to roll out this year.
Let's start with New England. The story du offseason (that's French for "sh*t people repeated over and over") was fairly well documented: "Tom Brady is back, and he re-joins a team that went 11-5 last year with a quarterback who hadn't taken a snap in anger since his Pop Warner days. Brady is a good for another two or three wins, so the Patriots should roll through the division and into the Super Bowl."
We get the giddiness, New England, over the return of Brady. But no improvement on defense means no Super Bowl soup for you.
As we noted here and elsewhere, the Patriots still need vast improvement on their defense, or else not even a six-armed Brady-Montana-Starr hybrid of cool quarterbacking genius will lift this team to a Super Bowl. The line of demarcation in New England is simple:
- If the Patriots surrender more than 300 points, they won't do squat
- If the Patriots surrender fewer than 300 points this year, they will win the Super Bowl
The Patriots surrendered fewer than 300 points in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007: they reached the Super Bowl in four of those years, winning three of them, and nearly won the AFC title game in the other year. In 2002, 2005 and 2008 they surrendered more than 300 points, and didn't win nuttin' – even with Brady at the helm in 2002 and 2005.
Montana himself is proof perfect of the importance of 300: from 1981 to 1991 – a stretch which includes all of Montana's seasons as the No. 1 starter in San Francisco – the 49ers defense NEVER surrendered more than 300 points in a season. Not once. So while Montana and the offense garnered all the headlines, it was a defense of remarkable consistency that helped lift Montana to his four Super Bowl titles. So there ya go.
The Jets story is nearly as well documented as New England's. You see, there was this gang in Manhattan, and they could dance really good and ...
Oh, wait, wrong Jets. Sorry.
These Jets live across the Hudson and traded in a 237-year-old quarterback last year for a rookie quarterback this year. That's not good a growth plan. Quarterbacks hit their sweet spot in their late 20s and early 30s, but apparently the Jets did not get the memo. However, at least this year they decided to plan for the future rather than relive some other team's glorious past, and traded up to get what they hope will be their first franchise quarterback since Joe Willie.
But the concern with the J-Men is pretty obvious: teams with rookie QBs and rookie coaches (Rex Ryan) rarely do anything.
Yes, we realize rookie QB-&-coach thing worked out last year in both Baltimore and Atlanta. But you won't get rich gambling on lightning to strike three times in the same place. Plus, the Jets still probably have holes in their pass defense (88.1 Defensive Passer Rating last year) – and we know that can spell trouble for any team.
However, the Jets looked fairly impressive in the preseason – at least statistically. As usual, we do NOT put much stock in the preseason. There's little to gain from these games as a predictive force. But in this case, the 2009 preseason looked a lot like the 2008 regular season – some big numbers, but a meager 2-2 record. Again, it may mean nothing, but it is consistent. And it leaves the Jets on the outside looking in at the playoffs once again.
We were intrigued by Miami's off-season moves. In our eyes, the Dolphins were a shaky 11-5 team last year (+28 in scoring differential) that still needed building-block players on the offensive line – their statistical weak link from 2008. GM Bill Parcells disagreed, and devoured offensive and defensive playmakers in the draft. Given the unprecedented turnaround the Tuna engineered in Miami last year, who are we to agree.
Miami's off-season acquisitions were highlighted by former West Virginia quarterback Pat White – one of the great runners in college football last year, even though the letters "QB" preceded his name in the program. (In fact, he set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback.) Given the success of the "wildcat" last year, White's selection in the draft was more than intriguing. After all, this is the offense that ended New England's record 21-game regular-season win streak last year and lifted the Dolphins to their shocking division title (they edged out the Patriots for the division title on tiebreakers).
A tough schedule featuring a brutal first three weeks (at Atlanta, vs. Indy, at San Diego) is the only thing that keeps us from predicting another 11-5 season in Land Shark Lager Land.
Buffalo is an intriguing story. We'd generally predict that the arrival of TO – arguably the greatest impact receiver in history – would lead to big improvements for the Buffalo offense in general and QB Trent Edwards in particular.
But the signs out of camp this year have not been good. In fact, we haven't seen this many heads roll since "A Tale of Two Cities" hit the silver screen. The Bills axed offensive coordinator Turk Schonert the day after the last game of their dreadful 1-4 preseason, a 17-6 loss to – ouch! – Detroit. They cut Dominic Rhodes, a free agent pick-up from Indy who was supposed to provide veteran leadership in the locker room, one day later. And then just this week they dumped 30-year-old left tackle Langston Walker, who has started the team's last 32 games.
That's more than a shake up. That's a bloodletting. And it comes from a team that needs to climb more statistical mountains than Tenzing Norgay to reach the playoffs this year. The final standings last year say that the Bills finished 7-9, but they feasted on a weak schedule. They were 0-7 against Quality Teams and were outscored nearly 2-to-1 against these clubs. Only the Bungles and Cowardly Lions were worse in 2008 (0-9 each).
Division champ: New England
Bold prediction! The Ravens will prove a more solid all-around team than the Steelers this year and surpass their masters for the division title.
Useless prediction! Eric Mangini packs on another 25 pounds so that he's big enough to join the CHFF staff as a consultant after he gets fired in Cleveland.
- Bengals Cold, Hard Football Fact: The sad-sack Bengals (0-8 at one point) had a better record over the second half of 2008 (4-3-1) than the NFC champion Cardinals (4-4).
- Browns Cold, Hard Football Fact: The disappointing 2008 Browns ranked 27th in our Offensive Hog Index and 29th in our Defensive Hog Index – only the 0-16 Lions (32 and 30) were cumulatively worse than the Browns in the trenches.
- Ravens Cold, Hard Football Fact: Baltimore's defense had no weaknesses last year. They led the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating (60.8) and scored more touchdowns (5) than they surrendered on the ground (4).
- Steelers Cold, Hard Football Fact: Pittsburgh became the second consecutive team since we introduced the Defensive Hog Index in 2007 to lead the league in this indicator and go on to win the Super Bowl.
The race for team-of-the-decade status between Pittsburgh and New England will be one of the red-hot storylines percolating beneath the story of the 2009 season – you know, like lava.
The Steelers can wrest control of that title – or at least grab a share of it – with another Super Bowl run here in 2009. They're certainly well equipped. The Patriots have the best QB in football, but an unproven and like undominant defense. Pittsburgh's QB is not far behind – but its defense is far ahead. The great unknown in the Steel City is the offensive line. It was a dreadful unit last year and it was something of a miracle the team was still good enough on defense and at QB to overcome this deficiency. We don't know if it will improve much this year. The Steelers themselves did no seem overly concerned by the issue.
In fact, as Mike Tomlin said late last season, "Each time I come to the office I walk by five Lombardi Trophies (now 6), not five rushing titles."
But the inability to run the ball was not the big problem with the OL. The big problem was the lack of protection of the quarterback. Lawyers can only do so much. The Steelers got away with it last year. But this year they face stronger foes in the rejuvenated-Tom-Brady Patriots and in the rock-tough Ravens, whose quarterback looks like he's about to emerge as the AFC's next big quarterbacking star.
Over in Baltimore, the fans are so giddy that we can hear them giggling in their nightgowns as they paint their toenails and make crank calls to the cutest guys on the offensive line.
Their mirth is understandable: the defense was dominant last year, it seems that Joe Flacco and not Homo Erectus is the great missing link, and the preseason has been nothing short of encouraging in the wake of the great 2008 regular season. The Ravens dominated their opponents in exhibition play this year – again, we don't want to overstate the importance of preseason games, but when it's consistent with other trend lines, we consider it evidence.
The loss of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is a big one. His 10-year job as an assistant coincided with Baltimore's rise as the most consistently strong defensive club in pro football. But rarely do organizations live and die on the comings and goings of coordinators, and it seems Baltimore's defensive prowess is is no danger of dying anytime soon. The Ravens dominated our defensive indicators last year: No. 3 in Bendability, No. 3 in our Defensive Hog Index and No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating, and also No. 1 in our Big Play Index.
Paired with an emerging-star quarterback, that's a dead combination.
Cleveland & Cincinnati? We'd love to spend a lot of time with these guys, but neither team has a shot in hell of climbing past both the Ravens and Steelers and reaching a spot in the playoffs.
Plus, we've said just about all there is to say about these guys here in the offseason.
The Bungles? Well, the only thing more shocking than the outfit that Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons wore on MTV in the 1980s is the fact that Marv Lewis still has a job as an NFL head coach (one winning season in six years at the helm, and that was back in 2005). Only in Bungle-ville will a 4-11-1 record save your job.
Meanwhile, across Ohioland, new Cleveland coach Eric Mangini is walking through a minefield this season and, at his weight, it's tough to crawl along softly, slowly and quietly. (Believe you us, we know a bit about weight problems and minefields ... just look at our past relationships.) Something is bound to blow up in his face.
Division champ: Baltimore
Bold prediction! The new-look Colts will retake the division from the Titans in 2009 but yet again fail to win a single playoff game; Vince Young will replace Kerry Collins as Tennessee's quarterback sometime in October.
Useless prediction! Jeff Fisher's pornstache will join Ryman Auditorium as official landmarks of the city of Nashville.
- Colts Cold, Hard Football Fact:Indy's defense tied for dead last in the NFL last year with the sad-sack Chiefs in third-down success, allowing opponents to 47.4 percent of their attempts.
Jaguars Cold, Hard Football Fact: The disappointing Jaguars ranked 20th or worst last year in every one of our Quality Stats except for Defensive Hog Index (15th).
- Texans Cold, Hard, Football Fact:Would you believe the 2008 Texans were one of the best passing teams in football last year? They ranked 4th in our Passing Yards Per Attempt category (which adjusts for sacks).
- Titans Cold, Hard Football Fact:Kerry Collns ranks 14th in NFL history with 37,393 passing yards – just 3,159 yards shy of replacing Joe Montana (40,551 yards) in the all-time Top 10. However, Collins has passed for just 186 touchdowns (38th), including a meager 12 in 15 games last year.
The AFC South kicks off with a pair of statement games. The Titans, who led the NFL with a 13-3 record last year, walk into Pittsburgh Thursday night for a d*ck-measuring contest against the Super Bowl champs.
The Colts, meanwhile, host AFC South rival Jacksonville on Sunday, a team that had been knocking on the door of division supremacy for years, before their disastrous 2008 season. With a poor showing against the Colts, Jacksonville's season will be over as soon as it begins, and the Jack Del Rio watch (51-48 including playoffs) will officially begin.
The Jaguars are excited by their young players, not to mention the acquisition of wide receiver Torry Holt. In his prime, he may have been the best receiver in the game. But it's a team that was loaded with statistical holes in 2008, most notably its pathetic pass defense (28th in Defensive Passer Rating).
We don't see enough improvement in that area for the Jaguars to make a serious run. The schedule is not particularly kind, either, with eight games against their powerful division rivals from Tennessee and Indy and against the potentially tough AFC East. All four teams there are capable of beating the Jaguars, and three of them will likely beat the Jaguars.
The Texans are the other team that's been knocking on the door in recent years, but with nothing to show for it but a pair of 8-8 seasons, the best years in the short franchise history. However, Matt Schaub has emerged as a solid NFL quarterback, with a gaudy average of 7.9 yards per attempt over the past two seasons, and 15 TDs last year (11 games) with a 92.7 passer rating. Schaub, in other words, is a quarterback that the Texans could win a Super Bowl with.
However, the defense remains the big liability in Houston, despite the fact the team has dumped tons of resources into the defensive side of the ball, especially in the draft. Last year's unit, for example, ranked 27th in Bendability, 23rd in our Defensive Hog Index, 26th in Defensive Passer Rating and 27th in scoring. You can't win that way. In fact, given those numbers, it's something of a minor miracle – like a CHFF Troll passing on a plate of Buffalo wings – that the team went 8-8 last year.
The Texans went to the defensive well again in the draft, grabbing USC OLB Brian Cushing with their No. 1 pick and Cincinnati sack specialist Connor Barwin with their second. If these guys live up to the billing, the Texans have a fighting chance to make some noise.
The Colts are the Colts. As we noted earlier this off-season, it's a year of transition on paper, but not in reality. Marvin Harrison is gone, but he was a non-factor the past two years and Peyton Manning still managed to win MVP honors in 2008, while the team still went 25-7 in the regular season. Coach Jim Caldwell is an obvious question mark, as are all rookie coaches. But as a longtime member of the proven Tony Dungy system, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt until evidence proves otherwise, and as long as he's paired with the prolific Peyton.
The Colts should extend their record-setting streak of 10-win seasons to seven in a row. Injuries are already plaguing the Colts, as they so often have in recent years. NFL 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, for example, may miss half the season, or at least the month of September.
But Indy is aided by a fairly soft schedule. Other than their October and December divisional battles against Tennessee, and their back-to-back meetings against the Patriots and Ravens right before Thanksgiving, there are few if any landmines in the schedule. Even if they lose all four of those games, the Colts could easily go 10-6.
Tennessee remains the great wildcard of the AFC South. We were thrilled that they took our advice and invested heavily in receivers in the draft (a rarely needed move that we rarely recommend). But the Tennessee passing game needs all the help it could get.
Kerry Collins drew rave reviews for his steady leadership while guiding the Titans to their league-leading 13-3 record last year. But he produced perfectly pedestrian numbers, even substandard numbers, by today's barometers:
242 of 415 for 2,676 yards, 6.4 YPA, 12 TD, 7 INT, 80.2 passer ratingThat's simply not champion-caliber quarterbacking. And we saw how it all ended for the Titans last year: in a frustrating mess of turnovers and lost opportunities in their 13-10 loss to the Ravens in the divisional playoffs.We fear that there will be no improvement out of the Tennessee passing game this year, while the defense will struggle to match the standards of 2008, when they ranked No. 1 in Bendability, No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 5 in Defensive Hog Index. The loss of free agent DT Albert Haynesworth to Washington, Tennessee's best defender last year, certainly hurts the cause.Likely declines in play on both defense and at quarterback represents a bad confluence of events. Look for fans to start clamoring for Vince Young a few weeks into the season if 36-year-old QB Collins fails to meet the pedesetian standards of 2008. The inconsistency will leave Tennessee on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.Division champ: IndianapolisWildcard: noneAFC West
Bold prediction! The Broncos race out to a 3-0 start, only to suffer five straight losses, ending any hope of challenging for the AFC West title by Nov. 1. Useless prediction! Shawne Merriman celebrates his team's AFC West title with a few Tequila shooters.
Broncos Cold, Hard Football Fact: The Broncos posted a pathetic 98.5 Defensive Passer Rating last year. Only the 0-16 Lions were worse.
Chargers Cold, Hard Football Fact: Philip Rivers boasts a 92.9 career passer rating – the same mark as Tom Brady.
Chiefs Cold, Hard Football Fact: The Chiefs fielded what were easily the worst Defensive Hogs in football last year, 32nd on our Defensive Hog Index. They ranked 5th with Jared Allen in 2007.
Raiders Cold, Hard Football Fact: The Raiders suffered double-digit losses in just four of their first 43 seasons in pro football. They're destined for their seventh straight season of double-digit losses here in 2009. If the Denver off-season unfolded on the web, we'd call it a virtual disaster. Instead, it unfolded in real life, so it was an actual disaster.From the fallout over the Cutler-for-Orton trade, to the departure of longtime head coach Mike Shanahan, to the poor decisions on draft day, to the 1-3 preseason, to Jay Cutler's performance in his exhibition appearance in Denver on Aug. 30 (15 of 21, 144 yards, 1 TD), to Kyle Orton's pesky dislocated index finger on his throwing hand, nothing has gone particularly well for Denver this year. The pass defense last year, meanwhile, was among the worst in football (98.5 Defensive Passer Rating) – in fact, only 0-16 Detroit, which fielded the worst pass defense in NFL history (110.8 DPR) was more ineffective at stopping teams through the air. There's little reason to believe the pass defense will improve spectacularly in 2009. The Broncos still managed to finish atop the weak AFC West last year with an 8-8 record, losing out to the Chargers on tiebreakers. But it's hard to see them reaching 8-8 again this year – and 8-8 won't cut it atop the top of the quartet here in 2009. There is hope: the Broncos open with a September so cushy so we might use it as futon. The travel to Cincinnati in Week 1, host the Browns in Week 2 and then visit Oakland in Week 3. Those are three teams who were a combined 13-34-1 (.281) last year. Perhaps the Broncos can gain some momentum from a 3-0 start – but they'll definitely need it. Over the next five games, they face Dallas and then a murderer's row of AFC powers: New England, San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That 3-0 can turn into a 3-5 real fast. The Chargers, meanwhile, are clearly poised to capture the AFC West for the fourth straight season – which is kind of like beating your 3-year-old daughter in arm wrestling four straight times. San Diego was much like Philly over the NFC – a statistically dominant team that didn't see its efforts show up in the win column. The Chargers finished in the top eight in six of our eight Quality Stats last year – yet went just 8-8. It makes for a lot of symmetry and a great game of crazy eights, but also makes for a lot of frustration among the San Diego faithful. The defensive line was a big weakness for the Chargers last year – 22nd in our all-important Defensive Hog Index. But they attacked this weakness aggressively in the off-season, especially in the draft, when their first-round pick (Larry English) and third pick (Vaughn Martin, a fourth-rounder) went to the D-Hogs. Both should see plenty of playing time, especially if the Shawne Merriman situation continues to percolate. The Hogs should improve. In addition, the Chargers can almost count six wins on their ledger already, thanks to two games each against divisional patsies Kansas City and Oakland, as well as contests against the Browns and Bengals. If they simply split the other 10 games, we're talking an 11-5 team and an easy trip to the division title. We've documented the problems in Oakland several times this off-season and don't need to rehash it all here (drafting a wide receiver in the first round baffled us; trading a first-round pick for a guy that they'll have for just one year embarrassed us). But you know the stories by now. The bottom line is that Al Davis is asleep at the wheel and that the organization is unlikely to uncover any time soon. This a team that suffered 10 or more losses just four times in its history (1960-2002). Yet it's destined to lose at least 10 games for the seventh straight season here in 2009. But things could be worse, Denver and Oakland fans. You could live in Kansas City. The House that Herm Razed was easily the worst team in the AFC last year and only historically bad seasons by the Rams and Cowardly Lions kept the Chiefs out off the league-wide basement. The Chiefs have a new head coach (Todd Haley), new GM (Scott Pioli) and new quarterback (Matt Cassel). But the glimmer of hopes snapped like an ACL when Cassel went down with a knee injury in the preseason. He's been back practicing and could start at Baltimore Sunday – but it was a big psychological blow and kept the inexperienced QB from gaining valuable time under center with his new team. In either case, considering the opponent Sunday, maybe he should just take the week off to, you know, heal. The most encouraging news came out of the draft when the Chiefs made the used their top three picks, including the No. 3 overall selection (DE Tyson Jackson), on harvesting young studs on the defensive front and in the secondary. Jackson will start at defensive end, while the addition of former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel adds plenty of veteran leadership from a guy with a closet full of Super Bowl rings who can still play at a high level.Division champ: San DiegoWildcard: none
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