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.

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