Archive for August, 2014

NFC West Predictions

Posted: 08/30/2014 by levcohen in Football

Now, for the division you’ve all been waiting for: the NFC West, which is nearly universally considered the best in football. This is a division that has four tough defenses, the Super Bowl champions, last season’s two NFC Championship representatives, and the only team with more than eight wins to miss the playoffs (the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals). Last season, the NFC West went 42-22 and 30-10 outside its division. Will it be as good this year? As you’ll see, I don’t think they’ll tally as many wins, but I’d still argue that it’s easily the toughest division in football to play against. Remember, this is a division whose defenses allowed the first, third, sixth, and 11th fewest points allowed this season while outscoring opponents by 359 points. The next best in that department was the AFC West, who outscored opponents by 249 points. Now onto the predictions.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4): I don’t think the Seahawks will win 13 games again this season, but that’s more because of luck than anything else, as they won two overtime games last season. With that said, I think this team will be nearly as good as the one that cruised to the #1 seed in the NFC and were the eventual Super Bowl champions. Their schedule is tough at first, so don’t be surprised or all that worried if the Seahawks are 2-1 or even 1-2 heading into their week four BYE (they play the Packers home in the first game of the NFL season, before heading to San Diego and returning home to play Denver in a Super Bowl rematch in week three). After the BYE, though, they should start reeling off the wins. This is, after all, pretty much the same team as the one that dominated the league last season. This team won’t always be this stacked with talent, as they’ll eventually have to start paying their young studs (Russell Wilson is the main one, but there are others), but they haven’t had to worry about that yet. The offense, in fact, might be even better. Percy Harvin will presumably play more than a game and catch more than a single pass this season, and, even if he plays less than half the season, he should make a huge impact. With the exception of a departed Golden Tate, the rest of the offensive weapons, headed by Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, are back, although Lynch is likely to leave after this season. Outside of Harvin the receiving options won’t impress you, but the running game is so potent and Wilson is so good that the offense finished 7th in DVOA last season. With Harvin returning, they should maintain an above-average offense. When you pair that with a defense that will likely be the best in the league again, that’s scary. About that defense: it’s pretty good. You probably realized that in last year’s Super Bowl, when the defense terrorized Peyton Manning en route to a 43-8 (that score is still shocking) thrashing of the Broncos. The core of their terrific defense is all back, from defensive backs Richard Sherman (possibly the best corner in football), Earl Thomas (the best safety in football), Kam Chancellor, and Byron Maxwell to linebackers Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin to linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. The scary thing? All eight of those guys are between 24 and 28 years old, so each is squarely in his prime. Last year, this team finished 7th in offense, 1st in defense, and 5th in special teams in terms of DVOA en route to being by far the best team in football. I don’t think much has changed, and they should win 12 or 13 games and a first round BYE again this season.

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7): I already stated my concerns about the 49ers in my “three overrated teams” post, so I won’t really touch on them again. Just a couple things: Colin Kaepernick isn’t a great quarterback and the defense is missing its two best players (NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith) for at least the first half of the season. There’s also this: the 49ers play the Broncos, Saints, and, of course, the Seahawks away from home. Three away games against three of the four best teams in football? That’s tough. The offensive line might also take a step back along with running back Frank Gore. With all that said, I have the 49ers edging out the Cardinals on a tiebreaker and winning the second wildcard spot again. Last year, they won the second wildcard at 12-4. This year, they’ll win it at 9-7 or 10-6. I just don’t think there will be four 12-4 teams in the NFC again this season.

3. Arizona Cardinals (9-7): Poor Cardinals. They are the holders of the: “Best Team To Miss The Playoffs So Everyone Feels Bad For Them” award, and I think they might win that made-up award again this season. This is a pretty talented team. The offensive weapons, in particular, are pretty darn good, especially when compared to their division rivals’ weapons. Running back Andre Ellington is super quick and set to break out this season; last year, he gained 652 yards on just 118 carries, or 5.5 yards per carry. And that was when he was in a timeshare. Quarterback Carson Palmer’s receiving options are also pretty darn good, and this is a team that looks like it’s going to be able to put up some points. Larry Fitzgerald is still Larry Fitzgerald, and he’s joined by Michael Floyd, who’s a great deep threat and is set to break out in his third year, and rookie John Brown, who has already been compared to Marvin Harrison (obviously premature, but still…). The offensive line has also improved from below-average to adequate, as they splurged on left tackle Jared Veldheer and also are counting on the return of last year’s first round pick Jonathan Cooper, who missed all of last season. With all that said, the quarterback is still Carson Palmer. That’s never a good thing, especially for a team with playoff aspirations. With a good quarterback, this team could be 11-5, but Palmer can’t be considered good at this stage of his career. The 34-year-old had a career high 22 interceptions last year next to only 24 touchdowns, so his 4,000+ yards were somewhat hollow. Expect that to be the case again this season as the Cardinals will remain adequate but unspectacular offensively. The defense was a different story, allowing the sixth fewest points in football despite being put in bad positions after Palmer interceptions time after time after time. The secondary will be good again, thanks to a cornerback duo of Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie that might be the best in football. The defensive line should also be good, although the linebackers are a different story. Inside linebacker has always been a huge weakness for the Cardinals, and it will be again this season. With all that said, I don’t think they’ll finish #2 in defensive DVOA again this season, but the secondary, d-lineman Calais Campbell, and ageless wonder John Abraham (36 years old, 11.5 sacks last season) should keep them around the top-5. I really like this team, so I was surprised that I only ended up picking them to win nine games, but this division is just so tough.

4. St. Louis Rams (7-9): Since the Sam Bradford injury, a lot of people have been saying that the Rams are going to fall off a cliff and finish around 5-11. I don’t see it: Bradford missed about half of last year (they were 3-4 when he went down) and the Rams still finished 7-9. Besides, Shaun Hill is a much better quarterback than last year’s backup, Kellen Clemens, is. Some would argue that Hill is better than Bradford. I wouldn’t go that far, because, while he definitely has better stats, he has attempted just 16 passes since 2010 and is now 34-years-old. Still, Hill is a respected backup in this league, and shouldn’t be a train wreck. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have great offensive weapons to work with, so I don’t think this offense will be any better than last year’s, which finished just 22nd in DVOA and 21st in total points. Luckily, the Rams should be able to gain a lot of field position from their special teams, which finished 4th in DVOA last year mostly thanks to the returning skills of Tavon Austin, an exciting and speedy young player who hasn’t yet figured it out as a route runner or pass catcher but definitely has as a returner. The defense, which finished 11th last year, could crack the top 10 this season. The defensive line is absolutely devastating, without a doubt the best in football. People could make a case for the Texans, who have J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney coming from each side, but the Rams are deeper and better over all. Robert Quinn challenged for the NFC DPOY last season with 19 sacks, 12 stuffs and countless quarterback hits, and he’s joined by Chris Long, who has recorded at least 8.5 sacks in each of the past four seasons. There’s also 2012 first round pick Michael Brockers and the guy I’m most excited about, first rounder Aaron Donald. Donald is an absolute beast: in his Pittsburgh career, he had 29 sacks and 66 tackles for loss. He’s also been a monster this preseason, so it’s safe to say that he’s set to be a star. The defensive line is going to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and protect a relatively weak secondary. The linebacker core is also pretty good, so this is going to be a good defense, albeit not among the elites. The problem is that, with the current state of the offense less than ideal, they’ll probably have to be elite in order to challenge for a playoff spot. I don’t agree with all the doomsday predictions, because I think Hill is competent and the defense is good, but this is unlikely to be a playoff team. Another 7-9 season and top 12ish pick seems like a safe prediction. If Hill is better than expected and some of the weapons (Austin, among others) develop quickly, this could be a nine-win team. They could also be a disaster, unable to put up points in the tough NFC West. I’ll take the middle ground and say they’ll be competitive but eventually come up short in a bunch of games.

NFC South Predictions

Posted: 08/28/2014 by levcohen in Football

Next up is the NFC South, which, like the North, has a clear favorite: the New Orleans Saints are the Green Bay Packers of the NFC South. Everybody and their mother is picking the Saints to win this division, and that’s for good reason: along with having one of the best offenses in football, they were also quietly good defensively last season. The difference between this division and the last one I previewed, though, lies in the teams that won’t win the division. Any order that the Tampa Bay-Carolina-Atlanta trio finishes in will not surprise me, assuming New Orleans. These three had very different seasons last year, as while Carolina broke out and went 12-4, the other two were among the league’s worst. That could conceivably flip this year, which is pretty crazy. The point is that all three are very high variance teams. If you told me that Atlanta will finish 5-11 I wouldn’t be surprised, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they went 10-6. The same goes for Tampa and Carolina. But where will they finish? That’s hard to predict, but I’m going to try to do that now:

1. New Orleans Saints (12-4): The Saints went 11-5 last year, and I think they could be even better this season. By that I mean first round BYE good. Maybe even #1 seed good. They’ll crack the 12-win barrier for a number of reasons. First of all, it needs to be said that the Saints, by virtue of playing their home games in the Superdome, have a great home field advantage. They are 37-11 at home since 2008, and that includes the quirky, Sean Peyton-less bountygate marred season of 2012, when they were just 4-4. In fact, they’ve gotten unbeaten at home in two of the last three years, with 2012 the exception. With all that said, it’s a good thing that most of the Saints’ toughest out-of-division games are in the friendly confines of the Superdome. They play the NFC North, and they get the Packers at home. They play the AFC North, and get the Bengals and Ravens at home. Their extra games are against the 49ers and Cowboys; naturally, they are home against the 49ers. Their toughest out-of-division road games are in Chicago and Pittsburgh. So the schedule works in their favor. They also have some pretty good players. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in football, and he has plenty of weapons to work with. Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham return, and they are joined by the rookie wide receiver gaining perhaps the most positive buzz in Brandin Cooks. Cooks could well be the difference between a top-five offense (they finished 5th in DVOA last season) and rivaling the Broncos for the best offense in football. That’s how good I think he’s going to be. And when your offense is that good, it doesn’t take a great defense to win 12 games. Of course, the Saints defense isn’t too shabby. They finished 10th in DVOA last season and are poised to be just as good this year, thanks in large part to their safeties: after replacing Malcolm Jenkins with huge free agency coup and former Buffalo Bill Jairus Byrd, they have perhaps the best safety pair in all of football, especially now that 2013 first round pick and instant success Kenny Vaccaro will have had another year to develop. They might not finish in the top-10 again defensively, but they should remain in the top half of the league, and along with the expected offensive boost and relatively soft schedule, that will be enough for them to improve to 12-4.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8): Even predicting an 8-8 season for the Buccaneers requires a huge leap of faith, as they went just 4-12 last season and have only won as many as half their games once since 2008. But I think they’re going to bounce back in a big way. First of all, everything that could have gone wrong last year did. Josh Freeman, who was supposed to be the QB of the future, flamed out and started just three games before being cut. The team quit on coach Greg Schiano. Multiple members of the team contracted MRSA, shortening their seasons. They also had, by Football Outsiders’ estimation, the worst schedule in football. None of those things should be an issue this year. The QB situation isn’t ideal, but Josh McCown was great last year and is a huge improvement over Freeman. If he fails, the Bucs have a competent young quarterback in Mike Glennon behind him. They replaced Schiano with Lovie Smith, formerly of the Bears and long considered a good and perhaps more importantly respected head coach. MRSA is gone from Buccaneers training camp, and the team has been in pretty good health to this point. The schedule also shouldn’t be as bad, as instead of playing the AFC East and brutal NFC West, they get both North divisions. Their extra games are St. Louis and Washington after getting Arizona and Detroit last season. And, above all, this team is pretty talented, with a returning Doug Martin and a couple new weapons set to supplement last year’s #8 defense nicely. What the Buccaneers did this offseason with their offense was really smart. They realized that McCown succeeded in Chicago partly because he had a few big weapons to throw to in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, so they added Mike Evans (6’5″) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6’6″) in the first two rounds of the draft. Along with Vincent Jackson, Evans and Seferian-Jenkins will make this offense more explosive than it has been in years. The return of Martin also cannot be understated. He was good as a rookie in 2012 and was set to become a star running back before his injury midway through last season. He should bounce back and make this team’s running game a potent one. The offensive line is still not great, but the recent trade for former Patriots guard Logan Mankins should help. Even without cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was replaced by Alterraun Verner, the defense should be as good as it was last year. In Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David they have two of the best and most explosive defenders in football, and have quality guys like Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Michael Johnson, and Mason Foster aiding them. They are full of talent on both sides of the ball, but I can’t predict them to win more than eight games because Evans and Seferian-Jenkins haven’t proved themselves yet, and because they have a journeyman quarterback starting for them. In a few years, though? Look out.

3. Atlanta Falcons (7-9): I’ll keep this one shorter, because you’ve probably heard enough about the Falcons in HBO’s show Hard Knocks, which focuses on an NFL team each preseason and features the Falcons this year. Atlanta was great in 2012 and terrible in 2013, and I think they’ll be in between those two extremes this season. On the surface, this looks like a team that will be much better than 7-9. In particular, the fact that quarterback Matt Ryan will be throwing to both Julio Jones and Roddy White is intriguing. But this is a team without much depth, and one that has a very suspect defense. They’ll need to be at their very best and healthiest if they want to make the playoffs, and I just don’t think that’s likely to happen. What happens if Jones gets hurt again? How about Ryan? It’s a compliment to Ryan that I think they’ll even win seven games, because I think the rest of the team is that lackluster. There’s a lot that having a top-10 quarterback can negate. I don’t think it can negate both a lack of depth and very poor defense (27th last year) though.

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9): Yes, I think the Panthers will be a full five games worse than the 12-4 they were last year. Why? First of all, their schedule looks brutal, especially before their week 12 BYE: @TB, DET, PIT, @BAL, CHI, @CIN, @GB, SEA, NO, @PHI, ATL. Look at weeks 6-10. That might be the worst four week stretch any team in football has this season. If you go through those first 11 games one by one, and then consider that they have to play at the Superdome after that BYE, 7-9 looks possible. Last year was a magical run, one that included six wins and zero losses in games decided by four or fewer points. They also scored 30+ points six times including four in succession, although they did it just once after week nine. Last year’s success is probably not repeatable by this roster, one that had a lot of turnover over the offseason. They have a whole new secondary and wide-receiver core, and I don’t see how they’ll replicate the offensive production they had last season, especially since quarterback Cam Newton already has a rib injury. Newton’s a big and tough guy and should be back in week one, but how many hard hits can a guy take? Cam is absolutely vital to any chances the Panthers have of repeating as AFC South champions, and the fact that he’s already injured is troubling. The defense, which finished third in DVOA last season, should be good again, thanks in large part to a fearsome pass rush led by Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks last season, and a strong group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly, who had 156 tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions and won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in his second season. It probably won’t be top-3 again because the secondary is questionable, but top-7 is likely. The problem is the offense: I’d be shocked if they finished #10 in DVOA as they did last season. In fact, I think a huge decline is likely, into the bottom third of the league, thanks in large part to a wide receiver core that’s best non-rookies are Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, who weren’t very good five years ago and certainly aren’t now. Yes, they have a solid tight end in Greg Olsen, but Olsen isn’t going to make huge plays, so this offense is going to take a big step back. That, along with the brutal schedule and relative lack of depth (it’s not as bad as the Falcons, but this team doesn’t have much depth, either), should be enough to knock the Panthers from 12 wins all the way down to seven.

NFC North Predictions

Posted: 08/26/2014 by levcohen in Football

Now onto my NFC North predictions. Because this division probably has more talent than the NFC East, it will be more fun to watch than the NFC East. It has skill position studs galore, from Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the Packers to Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the Bears to Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush on the Lions to Adrian Peterson on the Vikings. That’s a lot of talent, and I haven’t even started talking about Aaron Rodgers. It seems to be, however, a less wide open division than the NFC Eat. Whereas all four teams have realistic chances to win the NFC East, I think only two (the Packers and Bears) can win the North, although Lions fans could make an argument, which, as you’ll see soon, I’d disagree with. I’m probably not going too far out on a limb here by saying the Packers will win the division, but what comes afterwards may (or may not) surprise you.

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5): Now is when I’ll start talking about Aaron Rodgers. He’s really, really good. In my opinion, he’s in the “best QB in football” conversation with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Manning is probably the best right now because of what he did last year, but that could easily change this year, and Rodgers is as good of a bet as any to take over that title. He has it all: he can pass, he’s smart, he’s athletic, and he even has solid running ability for a quarterback. I think that he and Andrew Luck are the future of the quarterback position. The only issue? Health. The Packers’ season hangs in the balance of their quarterback’s health. While he’d missed only two games in first five years as a starter, Rodgers was limited to nine games last year with a broken collarbone. I just have a hunch he’ll stay healthy this year, which means the Packers are likely to win the NFC North. Rodgers has plenty of help, mostly from the aforementioned Lacy, Nelson, and Cobb. Eddie Lacy is a beast. To me, he looks like a much younger version of Marshawn Lynch. That’s quite a nightmare for defenders to deal with, especially when they also have to play against a top-tier passing game featuring Nelson and Cobb, who have been really overlooked in discussions of top-10 receivers. Nelson can do it all. He has speed, he has route-running ability, and he is a great pass catcher. What else can you ask for out of a wide receiver? This is one of the best offenses in football, and with a good defense could be a 13-win team. I’m skeptical, though, about the defense, which finished 31st in defensive DVOA last season. I don’t think they’ll be that bad this year, because they were really ravaged by injuries last season: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Brad Jones, Morgan Burnett, and Sam Shields, arguably five of their seven most important defenders (B.J. Raji and A.J. Hawk being the other two). That shouldn’t happen again, although Raji is already injured and out for the season. The secondary is suspect again (addition of first round pick safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix aside), but the run prevention should be at least average and the pass rush should be better with the return of Matthews. I think the Packers will be 20-25 in defensive DVOA this season, which isn’t great but is a sizable improvement. That, along with the explosive offense featuring a top QB, RB, and two top receivers (if they had a decent tight end and a shutdown offensive line, it would be unstoppable, but that would be too good to be true), should be enough to get to 11-5.

2. Chicago Bears (10-6): The Bears were one of the three teams I had as underrated, so I won’t go into too much depth with them. I just think that with their talent (they and the Packers have better offensive weapons than any other team), with an improved defense, and with a better offensive line, they can make the improvement from eight to 10 wins. I think they are a playoff team.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9): Most people have the Vikings finishing fourth in this division, and I agree that they have less potential to be a 10-win team than any other NFC North team. But I don’t think this team is going to lose double digit games like they did last season, when they went 5-10-1. Why? Well, let’s start with their schedule, which is not easy but also not too difficult. They play the AFC East and NFC South, both of which are less than stacked divisions (I actually think the NFC South is pretty good, but there’s only one super good team in the Saints). They’ll have winnable games against the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Panthers. Because they finished last in the division last season, the Vikings also get to play the Rams and Redskins in their two extra games. Add two games against the Lions and that’s 10 games in which the Vikings have a reasonable claim of being the better team. I don’t think they are better than all those teams, and none of them are really really bad, but still. The beginning of their schedule is tough (weeks 2-5 is brutal: Patriots, @Saints, Falcons, @Packers. That’s a lot of good QBs), but they have a lot of winnable games after that. There’s also the addition of Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator. Turner isn’t a good head coach, but there’s ample evidence that he’s one of the best offensive coordinator’s in football. That should give a below average offense a boost. And remember, the Vikings were 3-3 in games current starter Matt Cassel started last season. I have moderately high hopes for this offense. The running game is the best in football simply because the Vikings have Adrian Peterson, and i think the passing game will take a big step up this year with Cordarelle Patterson set to break out and Kyle Rudolph due to have a bounce back season. The defense was bad last year and should also improve. Top-10 pick Anthony Barr fills a huge void at linebacker, and the Vikings have continued their youth movement by letting longtime starters Jared Allen and Kevin Williams go and replacing them with Everson Griffen, who has a ton of career sacks considering his limited playing time, and Sharrif Floyd, a 2013 first round pick. The secondary is also young and talented, with Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, first round picks in 2012 and 2013, starting alongside big time free agent signing Captain Munnerlyn. So while this team probably isn’t as talented as the Lions, I just have a gut feeling that they finish ahead of them this season. Seven wins isn’t a lot, but it’s a good improvement from last year and is probably a record Vikings fans would accept this season.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10):  Jim Caldwell? Really? The Lions replaced ridiculed coach Jim Schwartz with Caldwell. It was a surprising move, since Caldwell has a suspect resume. He lucked into coaching Peyton Manning and the Colts, but had a 26-63 record at Wake Forest and went 2-14 when Peyton got hurt. He also was the offensive coordinator for the Ravens last year, and the Ravens put up one of their worst offensive seasons in recent history. I don’t see how Caldwell will make a 7-9 team with largely the same core much better. At this point, Matthew Stafford basically is who he is. He’ll put up huge stats, but he also has bad mechanics and makes too many mistakes. He’s 24-37 in his Lions career. It’s hard to know how much of that is his fault, but that’s a worrying record nonetheless. Another worrying thing is the defense, which finished 30th in DVOA last year and frankly probably won’t be much better this year. Ndamukong Suh leads a good defensive line, but the secondary has been bad forever and there’s no reason it won’t be bad again this year. In a division with Aaron Rodgers, that’s not a good thing. When looking at this Lions team, it’s easy to see them winning a lot of games. But you could’ve said the same thing about the Lions every year for the last bunch of years, and they have 12 losing seasons in the last 13 years. Read that again. I’ll bet on the Lions history, and that they’ll underperform thanks to poor defense and costly mistakes. 6-10 is harsh, and the Lions have the talent to make me look foolish, but given that they’ve had so little success in recent history, I’m not that worried that they’ll overcome their bad defense and return to the playoffs.

NFC East Predictions

Posted: 08/25/2014 by levcohen in Football

I started my NFL 2014 preview by naming the three most underrated and overrated teams based on Bovada’s preseason over/under wins odds. With the season less than two weeks away (!) from starting, it’s time to continue the preview. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll predict the final order and records of each of the eight divisions, starting with the NFC and then going over to the inferior AFC. Today, I’ll start with the NFC East, which was once one of the best divisions in football but in the past few years has fallen off a cliff. But while no team in this division is elite or a shoo-in for the playoffs, all four are extremely interesting, thanks in no small part to the four polarizing quarterbacks who will lead these teams in week one. As is often the case, the team with the best quarterback will likely win the division. Three of these teams are offensive-minded, while the New York Giants are more defensively oriented but at this point are below average offensively. This division is hard to call, but I’ll try my best.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6): I’m predicting the Philadelphia Eagles to win the division for the second straight year with the exact same record. Given that the Eagles are a similar team to the one that were surprise winners last season, this seems like an easy and obvious prediction to make. Of course, it isn’t. In fact, a 10-6 prediction seems to be at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of preseason predictions. Many people think this team is going to step back for a few reasons. The first is that some people think the loss of DeSean Jackson is going to hurt a lot. The second is that, after a rough 2012 season in terms of injuries, this team was very healthy last season, especially at the offensive line position. A good offensive line is key to Chip Kelly’s offense, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to stay as healthy this season. Finally, people think that this offense is going to step back because defensive coordinators will have had an entire offseason to prepare for Kelly’s no-longer-new offense. I agree somewhat with all three reasons, which is why I don’t have the Eagles improving on last year’s season. I find the health issue especially concerning, even more so now that right tackle Lane Johnson has been suspended for the first four games of the season, depleting an already thin line. The other two reasons for a Philly regression hold less sway with me. The Jackson loss will definitely hurt, but I think the offense has added enough to sustain its proficiency. Darren Sproles is the flashy acquisition, and I think he’ll have a huge impact. As we’ve already seen in the preseason, the Eagles are going to use Sproles and rushing champion LeSean McCoy together in innovative ways. Defenses won’t be able to contain both. The Eagles also get Jeremy Maclin back from a torn ACL. Because he’s been injured so much, I think people are now underestimating Maclin’s talent. At one point, he was the yin to Jackson’s yang, and there was a big debate as to who was better. Jordan Matthews, the second round pick, should have an immediate impact in the slot. But who will replace Jackson’s big play threat? Well, I don’t think anyone on this team will be as good as Jackson was on deep plays, but I do think tight end Zach Ertz is going to explode this year. He’s a physical specimen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns into the next Jimmy Graham-esque weapon. That probably won’t happen this season, but Ertz is going to have a huge second season. Given that I think the offense will be just as good as last season, I was tempted to give the Eagles 11 wins, because I think the defense will be at least a little better. Last year, the new 3-4 formation was new to everyone on the team, and in the second year, it should be less foreign. Expect guys like Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole, and Brandon Graham to look much more comfortable in the defense this season, which should lead to more sacks. The defense still won’t be good, but I think it could make the jump from near the bottom of the league up to the 20th range. I just realized that I forgot the biggest reason people expect regression: quarterback Nick Foles. Foles put up spectacular numbers last year, and those are obviously unsustainable for any quarterback, let alone an arguably mediocre one like Foles. I don’t expect Foles to put up top-5 numbers this year, but I also think he’s good enough to succeed in Kelly’s system. He might not be the asset he was last season, but I don’t think he’ll be an obstacle to another 10-win season. The bottom line is that, if everyone stays healthy, this team has the realistic upside of 11 wins. But if they have a ton of injuries and Foles is worse than we think, they could take a big step back. I’ll take the middle road and say they have a similar season to last year.

2. Washington Redskins (8-8): The Redskins are the sexy pick to win the NFC East, if almost by default. The Eagles won it last year, which eliminates them. The Cowboys are the Cowboys, and the Giants have an uninspiring offense and a successful recent history. Meanwhile, the Redskins have an exciting if polarizing (notice the theme?) quarterback in Robert Griffin III, leading a team including DeSean Jackson, who was recently cut by the Eagles and is surely out to prove a point. It’s a group of players looking to prove a point, and Griffin is the poster boy, so it makes sense to start with him. If he ever puts it together, Robert Griffin III will be among the best quarterbacks in football. He’s fast and elusive and has a strong and often accurate arm. The main problem is that he’s already been injured once, which cast a shadow over last season, a year in which he should have taken a big step forward. And in the preseason this year, he’s continued to take hit after hit after hit. If he doesn’t know how to avoid the big hits, he’s going to get hurt again, and if RGIII gets hurt again, this team won’t sniff .500. If he does, however, stay healthy, he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with. The aforementioned Jackson is going to be the big play threat and should open up defenses, while Pierre Garcon should put up similar numbers to last season, when he caught more passes than anyone else in football. Andre Roberts, who was signed in the offseason, is a fine third option, while young tight end Jordan Reed broke out last season and should be a good safety valve for Griffin again this year. The Redskins also have a solid one-two punch in the backfield in Alfred Morris (the better runner) and Roy Helu (the pass catcher). The swap of coaches (Mike Shanahan is gone, replaced by Jay Gruden) also cannot be ignored, as Gruden did good things in Cincinnati and should maintain a balanced attack in Washington. All in all, this is going to be a good offense. The defense might be a different story. They looked good in their most recent game against the Browns, but that was the Browns, and the preseason doesn’t mean much anyway. I just don’t see the pieces here, and this will likely be a below-average defense again. Last year, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The defense fell apart, Griffin was benched at the end of the season, and the result was the firing of Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, among others. I don’t think they’ll be as bad this year, but I also don’t think they have the defense (secondary in particular. I’ve always thought Redskins’ top corner DeAngelo Hall is extremely overrated, especially by himself) to be any better than average. Even giving them eight wins was tough for me to do, but the offense should be dynamic enough to get Washington to .500.

3. New York Giants (7-9): The Giants were generating some positive vibe prior to the start of preseason, with a new offense implemented and the defense set to be by far the best in the division. All of that has dissipated throughout the preseason, as the offense looks as ineffective as ever. Any argument with an Eli Manning supporter will likely start with: “he has two rings,” but I don’t see how that’s relevant now. He hasn’t won in the last few years, and last year was his worst as a pro. He threw pick after pick after pick, looked generally frustrated (look up: Eli Manning face. That should do it), and cost the Giants a couple wins. I don’t think he’s going to be that much better this year, although he surely can’t be much worse. The problem is that, even after the Giants had a huge roster turnover in the offseason, I just don’t think they have the weapons to improve the offense or the defense to carry the team to the playoffs. First of all, while the defense is solid, it’s not the Seahawks, especially with the loss of Justin Tuck, long one of the best defensive ends in football, although not recently. And it might need to be the Seahawks for this team to make the playoffs. That’s how pessimistic I am about this offense. Yes, they added Rashad Jennings, who came out of nowhere last year for the Raiders and looks like a solid running back. And yes, Victor Cruz is still an exciting receiver, albeit one who struggled for stretches of last season (was it Manning’s fault of Cruz’s? It’s a chicken-and-egg debate. As usual, I’d tend to give both some blame). Who else is there, though? Reuben Randle? Rookie Odell Beckham? Outside of Cruz, I struggle to find an established average receiver on this team. That’s a huge problem, and it’s the reason I’m not confident the Giants will be much better this year than they were last. They could easily be worse than 7-9, but I think Manning is still average enough to keep this team from being too bad. The games might not be fun to watch, though, even with the supposedly new and more exciting and all-gun’s-blazing offensive system. In a division with three offensive-minded teams, the Giants are the clear outlier. That could be a good strategy, but I don’t think this team has the personnel to make it work.

4 Dallas Cowboys (5-11): I’m not going to write about the Cowboys, because I already did in my post about overrated teams. I feel pretty strongly about this, and I’ll leave it at that, because any more words written about “America’s Team” will be too many words written about the 2014 iteration of the Dallas Cowboys. I do think Tony Romo has been unfairly criticized and I feel bad for him, but even a healthy Romo won’t make a big difference for a team with a defense as bad as the Cowboys’.

3 NFL teams that will be worse than expected

Posted: 08/19/2014 by levcohen in Football

Last time, I outlined three teams that I thought would outperform expectations, based on Bovada’s team over/under lines. Those three teams were the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans. Today, I’ll do the flip side. Which teams are being overrated by Las Vegas and will be worse than expected?

Cleveland Browns, under 6.5: The Browns haven’t won more than six games since 2007. They won four games last season and five two years ago. What has changed? Well, for one, the Browns drafted incredibly popular quarterback Johnny Manziel. That’s probably influenced the over/under. Unfortunately for Browns fans, Manziel is not close to a finished product. He’s said as much, and he has been pretty bad throughout the preseason. It’s safe to say that, at least for the first half of the season, the Browns will have below average play from their QB. Manziel is a rookie QB who fell to the back half of the first round, while Brian Hoyer is a journeyman who had a few good games last year but is unlikely to sustain that over a long period of time. They also don’t have the offensive weapons to lift a below-average starting quarterback. Josh Gordon took over the league last year, but looks set to miss at least half the season due to yet another violation of the NFL’s drug policy. He’s appealing his original year-long suspension and might get it reduced, but he’s sure to be sidelined for at least the first quarter of the season, if not more. The Browns have been frantically looking for a suitable Gordon replacement (bar Megatron, nobody can post the numbers Gordon did last season) by acquiring Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, and Nate Burleson. All three are established NFL receivers, but none can come close to having the impact Gordon has had. The Browns’ best receiving option is now Jordan Cameron, the tight end. Cameron is very good, but it’s a problem when he’s the only explosive weapon in the passing game. The running game figures to be a bit better, led by Ben Tate (until he gets injured) and supported by rookie Terrance West and a solid offensive line. That improvement in the run game, however, probably won’t be enough to lift last season’s 26th ranked offense by DVOA (per Football Outsiders) into mediocrity. I’m more optimistic about the defense, which looks good in the preseason and should be tough to throw on. This could be a league-average defense, if not better. I expect the Browns to start out slowly, with a rookie QB (assuming Manziel starts) and without Gordon. They could lose their first four games, at Pittsburgh, home against New Orleans and Baltimore, and at Tennessee. They would then face an uphill battle, as they have tough road games in Cincinnati, Atlanta, Carolina, and Baltimore in the second half of the season. I think they’ll be slightly better than last year’s 4-12, but I’m pretty confident that they won’t top six wins. 5-11 or 6-10 are the most likely scenarios for this team, which puts them solidly under the 6.5 line.

Dallas Cowboys, under 7.5: How could I pick the Dallas Cowboys, a team that seemingly defines mediocrity and finishes 8-8 every year, to finish with a losing record? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with their offense. I actually think their offense will be pretty good, with the obvious caveat that Tony Romo must stay healthy (no sure thing given his back issues). Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams are a scary duo on the outside, and they’re supplemented by Romo’s friend, steady-as-ever tight end Jason Witten. DeMarco Murray is one of the most talented all-around running backs in football, although he has frequently been injured. The Cowboys have also continued to improve their offensive line, focusing on the interior in the first round for the second straight year by drafting guard Zack Martin a year after taking center Travis Frederick. Those two should both be good, and they are joined by one of the best young left tackles in football: Tyron Smith. So the offense, which has star power and depth, should put up numbers. They should be balanced, as the run game is perhaps the biggest strength on the team. But if what I think will happen does indeed happen, and I think it will, then the result will be a lot of big deficits and, therefore, more throws. Why will they be down early and often? Because their defense is probably the worst in the NFL. Think about this: the defense that allowed the most yards in football by nearly 20 per game is now without their two best defensive players. Sean Lee, the sensational middle linebacker, is out for the year with a torn ACL (granted, he misses most of every year. It’s a shame, because he’s really good). Meanwhile, longtime defensive playmaker DeMarcus Ware is also gone, so the Cowboys will be without their sack leader. Now, their best defensive player is probably Brandon Carr. Outside of Carr, I struggle to name a single defensive starter on the Cowboys. That’s a problem, and the Cowboys defense, which was already bad last season, will be worse this year. It’s easy to see a scenario that the Cowboys are 4-12 or 3-13 this year. It starts with a Romo injury, which is unfortunately not unlikely. Then, the team will have to rely on the run game, which will be fine.. until DeMarco Murray also gets hurt, as he does every year. Couple an injury-prone quarterback with an awful defense, this team could be the worst in football. I’m not predicting that, but I also think it’s unlikely that they win eight games.

San Francisco 49ers, under 10.5: This one is more controversial, and it’s more of a gut feeling. This is a team that has been so good and so consistent over the last few years, highlighted by trips to the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship game in the last two years. I just think that’s a run that’s hard to sustain, especially without an elite quarterback and in a tough division. The 49ers still absolutely have the talent to win 11 games again this year, but I don’t think they’re as good as they have been over the past two years. The offense should mainly be the same as the one that was very up-and-down last season. Most of that inconsistency, of course, has to do with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Along with Robert Griffin III, Kaepernick is one of the most divisive quarterbacks in the NFL. At his best (think 2012 NFC Championship game against the Packers), Kaepernick terrorizes defenses with both his legs and his arms. He’s big, fast, and has a strong arm, and is one of the more dominant players in football when he’s on. Far too often, though, he’s not on. For example, after he threw for 412 yards in week one, he completed less than half of his passes in three of the next four weeks, including blowout losses at the hands of the Seahawks and Colts. In the end, Kaepernick completed just 58.4% of his passes last year, 31st of 37 qualified quarterbacks. Who was he above? Eli Manning, who had a terrible year last season. And then he was ahead of Terrelle Pryor, Jason Campbell, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, and Brandon Weeden. On a team as good as the 49ers, with a good offensive line, a good running game, and good weapons, that 58.4% is awful. I don’t know how much that will improve this season, so the offense will continue to be inconsistent. Frank Gore returns, but he’s now 31 years old, well into the danger zone for running backs. The 49ers are still without a really explosive wide receiver, with tight end Vernon Davis serving as the closest thing to it. Outside receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are both good route runners and big guys, but they don’t have the speed that it takes to break down elite defenses. In all, this should be a good offense, but it’s not going to be one that will carry the team. I think the defense is going to take a step back this year. Donte Whitner is gone, which further weakens a secondary that is probably the weakest part of the team. Against teams with top receivers, the 49ers could give up huge chunks of yardage. Unfortunately, they will have to go against Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, and Larry Fitzgerald all in the first three weeks. The 49ers are also going to be without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, arguably their two best defensive players, for the first half of the season (Bowman due to injury, Smith with a suspension). A defense that was once teeming with talent still has Patrick Willis and a soon-to-be-35-year-old Justin Smith, but much of the defense is a question mark. Pair a similar offense with a downgraded defense, and you see the cracks. Another thing that is sure to go against the 49ers’ favor is their schedule. They have six games against their own division, which doesn’t have a weak team and is the toughest in football. They also play the AFC West, which has arguably the best team in football (Denver), along with another possible playoff team in San Diego. They lucked into playing the NFC East, but their two extra games are against the Bears and the Saints. That’s a tough schedule, one with very few “gimme” games. In the end, I just have a feeling that the 49ers are going to take a step back this year, one that’s admittedly been reinforced by 23-3 and 34-0 losses in their first two preseason games. They’ll still be a fine team and win nine or 10 games, but I don’t think they’ll win any more than that.

3 NFL teams that will be better than expected

Posted: 08/17/2014 by levcohen in Football

With the NFL preseason basically half over and the season just a few weeks away, I figured now would be as good of a time as ever to start some preseason predictions. Besides, there’s not much going on in the other major sports (although the Premier League just got under way in England), so we could do with a little more football in our lives. Today, I’m going to look at Bovada’s team over/under regular season win totals and pick three teams who I think are being underrated by Las Vegas and will overperform their expectations.

Chicago Bears, over 8.5: I was pretty surprised to see that the Bears’ line was set at just 8.5 wins. This is a team that was, frankly, unfortunate to finish at 8-8 last season. They finished 11st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, led by their sixth ranked offense. If you’ve followed the Bears over the past decade or so, you’ll be surprised to see that the offense was the strong suit of the team last year. Historically, the defense and special teams have been terrific while the offense has lagged, but last year the roles were reversed; the defense finished 25th in DVOA (they were average against the pass but the worst in football against the run) while the special teams ended 11th, which is not terrible but not up to their normal standards. Now, onto this year and why I think they’ll win at least nine games. First of all, the fact that the NFC North plays the AFC East this year helps. The Jets, Dolphins, and Bills won’t all be terrible, but expect all three of those games to be very winnable. Secondly, I think the offense will take the next step up, moving from above-average to elite. I have a lot of confidence in Jay Cutler, who was in the midst of a career year before missing five games due to injury. Much of that success has been attributed to the “quarterback whisperer,” coach Marc Trestman. Trestman surely made an impact, but Cutler is also an extremely talented quarterback who was helped by two other factors: the improvement of the offensive line and the emergence of stud second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery. He cut down on his turnovers, and became an above-average quarterback. I think he’ll be even better this year. He’s looked extremely good in the preseason (not that preseason means much), and the offensive line looks even better this year. There’s also the fact that Cutler has terrific weapons: Jeffery should be even better, and it’s hard not to notice 6’4″ Brandon Marshall, who has played with Cutler for most of his career and is one of the best and most consistent wide receivers in football. Running back Matt Forte is a great pass catcher as well as a good rusher, and he’s also one of the five best all-around running backs in football. There’s a lot of star power on this offense, and also some breakout candidates, young wideout Marquess Wilson among them. The addition of Santonio Holmes is just another depth piece.
So the offense will likely be just as good as it was last year. How about the defense? Well, they surely won’t be worse than last year, and I think they’ll be a lot better. The Bears spent their first three draft picks on the defense, from CB/safety Kyle Fuller to defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. They also signed two marquee defensive end free agents in Lamarr Houston, formerly of the Raiders, and Jared Allen of the Vikings. Both of those guys can sack the quarterback, with 17.5 combined sacks last season. With DJ Williams now healthy and likely to plug the middle linebacker hole and Lance Briggs back from injury, this is a transformed defense. I think it will be a lot better, and while it probably won’t be above-average, I think the defense will make the jump from poor to average. Coupled with a slight offensive improvement and a consistently top-10 special teams unit, this looks like a good football team. I think they’ll go 10-6.

Indianapolis Colts, over 9.5: This is a really dangerous pick, because I’m relying on two things: Andrew Luck and the easy schedule. In 2013, for the second straight year, the Colts won 11 games despite having the point differential and, perhaps, roster of an 8-8 team. Not coincidentally, those 11 win seasons have also come in the first two years of Luck’s career. I don’t love the rest of the roster, so this is, again, dangerous. If Luck gets injured in the first game of the season, this could easily be a 5-11 team. And a Luck injury, while impossible to predict, isn’t unlikely, because he takes a ton of hits and has a poor offensive line. But I’m just going to assume that the third year quarterback stays healthy. Looking through the schedule, it’s just hard to believe that the Colts will lose seven games with their star quarterback under center. If you assume that they go 5-1 in their poor division (they were 6-0 last year), they need to go just 5-5 outside of the division to beat the 9.5 projection. And given that the other divisions they have to play are the NFC East and AFC North, those five wins should not be hard to come by, with beatable teams like Dallas, Washington, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh on the schedule. In fact, the only two elite teams they have to play are New England and Denver. Give them losses in those two games, but I think they are as good as any other team they’ll play this year. If they can avoid bad losses or get a win against one of the elite teams, and I think Luck is capable of that, they should be a lock for double-digit wins again. There’s also some upside in the pieces surrounding Luck, with Reggie Wayne returning and Trent Richardson unlikely to be as bad as he was last season. Throw in the signing of Hakeem Nicks, and you have a productive offense to go along with a defense that was average last season. This team is below average without Luck, but with him, they’re a lock to win double-digit games.

Houston Texans, over 7.5: Yes, they won just two games last year, and yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick is their starting quarterback. But I find it hard to believe that this Texans team, one that is comprised of most of the same players who made up the 2011-12 teams that won 22 combined games and two division titles, wins less that eight games. Last year was the absolute worst-case scenario. After winning the first two games of the season, they didn’t win again. Quarterback Matt Schaub was run out of town, and the team gave up rather early in the season. With all that said, they were still a few good breaks from being a six or seven win team. From October 20th through December 5th, they lost seven straight games by seven points or fewer, after taking Seattle to overtime in week four. That makes eight games that they easily could have won, and if they had won half of them, they’d have gone 6-10. Still not great, but it’s a lot better than 2-14. But maybe the 2-14 was a blessing in disguise, as it got them the #1 pick and Jadeveon Clowney, a once-in-a-generation talent who, when paired with J.J. Watt, will be part of perhaps the fiercest pass rush in the league. The terrible season also got them a great schedule. Here’s what that schedule looks like: WAS, @OAK, @NY, BUF, @DAL, IND, @PIT, @TEN, PHI, @CLE, CIN, TEN, @JAC, @IND, BAL, JAC. They play four games against teams who were above-average last year, and none of those teams (Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Indy twice) is great. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and one of the three other NFC East teams will also likely be at least decent this season. That means that the Texans will have nine games against teams they are almost definitely better than, and seven more against teams with a similar number of holes. They don’t have an elite team (DEN, NE, GB, NO, SEA, SF qualify as elite) on the schedule. If they have even a top-10 defense, and they definitely have the personnel to be at least that, this team could make the playoffs. Starting Fitzpatrick at quarterback is not ideal and could well keep the Texans from the playoffs, but he’s an adequate quarterback, and adequate is all a team this talented needs to avoid a losing record. I’m not going to predict double-digit wins, but 9-7 is an attainable record for this team. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win more, but I don’t think they will finish with a losing record. They could well end up being this year’s Chiefs, a team that was terrible one year and made the playoffs the next with a new coach (Andy Reid for the Chiefs, Bill O’Brien for the Texans). In fact, this team probably has more talent than last year’s Chiefs, which should bode well for their playoff chances.

What makes the LLWS so intriguing and popular?

Posted: 08/15/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

It’s that time of year again: the Little League World Series. It started with South Korea’s 10-3 blowout win over Czech Republic yesterday afternoon, and there will be a whirlwind of action over the next week and change, culminating in the Little League World Series Championship on August 24th. That seems fun, but here’s the kicker: every single game, and there will be around 30 in total, is televised nationally, either on ESPN, ESPN2, or, for the biggest games, ABC. That’s incredible for a tournament featured players who are mostly preteen. Why are these games so popular? Why do so many people enjoy watching them so much?

First, let me describe what the LLWS, held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania every year, is. It features 16 teams, each of whom earned their spot through qualification. There are two sides to the bracket: the US side, and the International side. Naturally, there are eight squads on each side of the bracket. Those eight compete for their respective championship and then face off against each other for the ultimate prize: the World Series Championship. There also can’t be six teams from Japan or six from California, because there is one team selected from each of eight US regions and each of eight international regions.

So that’s the background. Now, back to that question: why are these games so popular? I think there are a few reasons. The first is simply that these games are incredibly exciting. Given that these games are being played by 12 and 13 year old boys and girls, they aren’t extremely well played, which doesn’t help baseball purists but does make games more interesting. There are errors galore, many runs, and tons of intriguing decisions that managers have to make. People have long predicted the downfall of Major League Baseball because it’s simply not exciting enough. That predicted downfall hasn’t happened yet, but MLB is losing popularity due to a lack of excitement. The LLWS doesn’t have that problem.

Another possible reason that people enjoy these games so much is that it means so much to the players. Think about, for example, a 12-year-old from Tokyo or Nashville or Guadalupe (three cities that are represented in this year’s LLWS). How unreal must this experience- being televised nationally- be? Very, and ESPN does a good job of personalizing their joy. Viewers can really connect to these athletes, because the announcers delve into their background and because we hear the kids themselves talk about their favorite players, among other things. Every year, there seems to be at least one shocking and moving story about one of these players or even an entire team. That reaches not just hardcore baseball fans, but also your average Joe, who is intrigued by these stories and watches the games not because he’s particularly interested in baseball but because he wants to see the kids play.

The next reason that these games are popular is less sentimental. It takes place in the middle of August, which is a pretty dead time in sports. We’re not quite at the point of the baseball season that people really start paying close attention daily, so the only thing going on right now is NFL preseason. And a person can only endure so much talk about Johnny Manziel and training camp battles. The LLWS is refreshing and a welcome distraction from the dog days of August. It’s short and exciting, so people can actually watch it without any concerns about what their team will do in the coming months and years. It’s just about how these 16 teams play over the next week.

There’s also the aspect of pride, both regional and international. If, for example, you are from Chicago, it’s hard to resist watching and cheering on the Jackie Robinson West LL, a team from the inner-city and part of the Little League Urban Initiative, which was formed in 1999 to support local Little League programs in urban neighborhoods in need. Likewise, if you’re from Japan, you are going to have to watch these games, because Tokyo Kitasuna LL is representing your country and can prove that Japan is the best country for baseball by simply winning a few games. The pride aspect might not seem big and is hard to quantify, but it’s surely part of the average fan’s interest.

No matter what the reason is, these games are very popular, which is great for the players and for Little League baseball as a whole. For a week, there are games all afternoon, which is great for sports fans, culminating in the International and US championship games on August 23rd and the LLWS Championship on the 24th. It’s fun and entertaining, and it’s a tournament that many, myself included, look forward to. Instead of watching disgruntled millionaires play baseball, you can watch 12-year-olds play the game they love with a joy that’s hard to find at the big league level. That’s the magic of the Little League World Series.