The NFL Week 2 moneylines are listed below, in sequential order based on TV time slot. There’s also some picks you can confidently bet against, as TheSportsNotebook takes its crack at picking the games.
For new readers, not familiar with the moneyline, it’s simply the odds on a team winning the game straight-up, no point spread involved. Those odds are expressed in $100 increments. If you bet Denver as a (-750) favorite over Kansas City, you need to lay out $750 to get a hundred bucks back (on top of your original bet of course). If you take the Chiefs at (+600) you need only bet a $100 to multiply your profit sixfold. The difference in the moneylines, the -750 to +600 spread, reflects the house advantage that exists on all bets.
I was (-375) in Week One. I had the Miami and Tennessee upsets, but got popped on the losses by St. Louis and New Orleans, and then just in general fell in with the rash of upsets that marked Week 1. If you see my pick as “Pass” on a game that seems to have a sure winner, I learned the hard way last year that it only takes one big favorite (i.e., Denver, which I’m passing on) to lose and you’re set in a deep hole. My approach this year is going to be avoid the games where you have to get outside the (-300) range to take the favorite.
THURSDAY NIGHT Pittsburgh (+130) Baltimore (-150): Pittsburgh
I was giving the Steelers a slight edge in the AFC North as it was, and would have picked them to win this game. I’m almost wondering if the Ray Rice saga isn’t going to briefly spin in Baltimore’s favor though, with a “rally the troops” mindset as players just want to play football. Even so, I’m sticking with the Steelers at the underdog price.
SUNDAY EARLY Detroit (+130) Carolina (-140): Carolina
Jacksonville (+225) Washington (-255): Pass
Dallas (+175) Tennessee (-195): Tennessee
New England (-155) Minnesota (+140): New England
New Orleans (-270) Cleveland (+240): New Orleans
Atlanta (+220) Cincinnati (-245): Atlanta
Miami (-110) Buffalo (-110): Miami
Arizona (-105) NY Giants (-115): Arizona I haven’t seen the official TV listings yet, but I’m assuming the games that will go to most of the country will be New England-Minnesota on CBS and Atlanta-Cincinnati on Fox.
SUNDAY LATE St. Louis (+225) Tampa Bay (-255): Tampa Bay
Seattle (-250) San Diego (+220): Seattle
Houston (-140) Oakland (+130): Oakland
NY Jets (+340) Green Bay (-395): Pass
Kansas City (+600) Denver (-750): Pass
It was tough to pass on the Packers, even at that price. I can’t see them losing a game that’s close to must-win at home. But who knows, maybe this is the year Green Bay comes back to the pack, no pun intended. And a loss at (-395) is just too stiff.
Chicago (+265) San Francisco (-300): Pass The price tag rule is the primary reason for the pass, but I really do look for Jay Cutler to have a strong bounceback game. I’m a Colin Kaepernick believer and think he can step up his game this year to compensate for a defense that will be weakened until they get players back midseason. This game is a spot where Colin has to step up.
MONDAY NIGHT Philadelphia (+150) Indianapolis (-165): Indianapolis
I’m in a pool with six other guys were we picked the Over/Under wins on all 32 teams. These two teams, along with the Saints, were the only ones where the unanimous pick was “Over”. It was modest number, 9 for Philadelphia and 9.5 for Indianapolis. This is the Monday Night showdown game.
The 2014 NFL season is nine days from kickoff next Thursday night, when the Seattle Seahawks hoist their Super Bowl banner for the NBC audience against the Green Bay Packers. It’s time then, for the Notebook Nine, the nine key predictions I’m taking into the season. In the NFL’s case, they make doing nine easy—just one pick for each of the eight divisions, and then an overarching Super Bowl pick. Here we go…
AFC EAST: If you think the New England Patriots’ run is going to end, you can bet the entire group of three (Miami Dolphins, NY Jets, Buffalo Bills) against them, and be assured of more than doubling your investment if any of the three win the AFC East. But I don’t think Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are done. And with Tommie Kelly healthy on the defensive line and Darrelle Revis at corner, I think the Pats are as good as ever.
AFC NORTH: This has the feel of a division where it’s three legitimate contenders, the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, will all end up between 8-8 and 10-6, just like they did a year ago. The Steelers’ young offensive line is getting better and I expect them to move the ball. The Bengals have the talent, but lost both coordinators. The Ravens have pretty good talent, but will they find leadership in the post-Ray Lewis era? I’m taking the Steelers, with the Ravens close behind and Cincy falling to third.
AFC SOUTH: The Indianapolis Coltsare another team that’s a big enough favorite that you can bet the division field against them and turn a profit if you’re right. This division comes down to two questions—are you believer in Jadeveon Clowney at defensive end and Bill O’Brien at head coach in Houston? If the answer is yes, we have a legitimate two-team race. If the answer is no, the only question left is whether Indy gets a first-round bye in the playoffs. And my answer is no. The Colts take it in a walk.
AFC WEST: The Denver Broncos, unsurprisingly, join New England and Indianapolis as top-heavy division favorites. I think the Kansas City Chiefs are headed for a bit of slippage—not enough to take them off the radar, but enough that they won’t challenge Denver. I like San Diego a lot—there’s not great talent there, but there’s enough and Mike McCoy instilled a toughness and discipline in that organization that was sorely lacking under Norv Turner. The Bolts will challenge, but the Broncos win it.
NFC EAST: Are you buying in that Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles can do it two straight years? If so, you’re in the majority, as the Birds are yet another heavy favorite. And in this case, I’m not buying in. Nick Foles will match his interception total from last year (2) in Week 1. The problem is that it’s easy to tear down a favorite and harder to identify one specific challenger. As a Redskins fan, I hate myself for what I’m about to say–my gut says this is finally the year for the Dallas Cowboys, albeit at 9-7.
NFC NORTH: The Green Bay Packers are in their usual status as the top-heavy favorite. I believe the Packers will do it, although I guess I thought there would be more hype for the talent level of the Detroit Lions and the offense of the Chicago Bears. In this case, the betting market and I are on the same page, as these teams will find a way to mess it up and the Vikings just aren’t ready yet.
NFC SOUTH: With all the focus on the NFC West, don’t be surprised if this division ends up being the toughest. The betting market is looking for Carolina to slide and has the New Orleans Saints a solid 5-9 favorite. But what if the Panthers defense is for real, and Cam Newton keeps progressing? What if Matt Ryan engineers a turnaround in Atlanta? What if Lovie Smith plugs the defensive holes in Tampa Bay and their offensive talent plays up to their potential? I’m high on the Saints and believe they’ll win it, behind an MVP year from Drew Brees, but this race will be good.
NFC WEST: The beast division might have a hard time living up to expectations. The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona both have suffered key injuries on defense. St. Louis has to get some offensive consistency and Seattle has to stay hungry. I’m taking the 49ers to nip the Seahawks to win the division because I love Colin Kaepernick, and Seattle to make the playoffs of course, but I think we’re looking at a modest step back for the NFC West as a whole.
FINAL PREDICTION: I would rank my AFC division winners in the following order—New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, with the Colts being very close to the top and the Steelers being closer to the playoff bubble. The wild-cards will be, in order, San Diego and Baltimore.
The NFC division winners are ranked thusly—New Orleans, San Francisco, Green Bay and Dallas. Then the wild-cards are Seattle and I’m going to take a flyer on Lovie Smith and Tampa Bay. The Seahawks, of course, rank up with the Saints and 49ers as the real Super Bowl contenders. The Cowboys and Bucs are the playoff bubble and the Packers are somewhere between the two.
That leaves me with a Super Bowl matchup of New Orleans and New England. I’m picking the Saints. I jumped on their bandwagon in about October of last year, with the way Rob Ryan had rejuvenated the defense. They slipped at the end of the regular season, but I think winning a road playoff game in Philadelphia and they playing competitively in Seattle was a big mental breakthrough for the Saints. They cash that in and ride it all the way to a second Super Bowl ring for Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis has been going full-bore through the month of August, completing previews on all 32 teams individually, as well as a separate overview on each of the eight divisions, exploring their betting odds, recent history and including links to the team previews of its members. Now it’s time to tie everything together into one last preseason preview.
Below are the links to each of the eight division overviews. I have included my pick of each team’s final W-L record for the 2013 season. One thing to note is this—in each team’s preview, I make a prediction for how they will fare against the Over/Under win prop number posted for them in Las Vegas. It’s possible that what you see here may contradict with those predictions. It’s not an accident, and not because I’m trying to have it both ways.
I simply feel that Over/Under picks on an individual team, and league-wide predictions like this, are a different animal. In the former you play the percentages—pick which side of the line there’s the most room to maneuver and go with it. I never, with a win prop, make a pick that requires an extreme—a 12-win or 12-loss season for example.
Whereas a league-wide prediction like this isn’t about percentages, it’s just trying to thread the needle and hit the bullseye. We know there are teams who will win 12, and those that will lose that many, and I’ll try and pick them. The combined record of every team in this little exercise has to equate to 256-256, whereas no such exactness is required in the win props.
With those differences clarified, let’s get on with the 2013 NFL season. Here’s my final predictions, with the projected playoff bracket and how it will play out below, as we start The Road To New York City, and the Super Bowl in February. Where you see ties in the standings, the teams are listed in my order of preference.
New England: 12-4
NY Jets: 5-11
Kansas City: 7-9
San Diego: 6-10
NY Giants: 10-6
Green Bay: 11-5
New Orleans: 10-6
Tampa Bay: 8-8
San Francisco: 11-5
St. Louis: 9-7
Editor’s Note: In the original article, an error omitted Seattle from the playoff projections in favor of New Orleans. This was never intended, and was simply an oversight. Hence, the crossed-out edits you see below.
(3)Pittsburgh over (6)Cincinnati
(5)Baltimore over (4) Houston
(3)Atlanta over (6) New Orleans (6)Washington over (3) Atlanta
(5)Washington Seattle over (4) NY Giants
(5)Baltimore over (1) New England
(3) Pittsburgh over (2) Denver
(5)Washington over (1) San Francisco
(2)Green Bay over (3) Atlanta (5) Seattle
Pittsburgh over Baltimore
Washington over Green Bay
Washington over Pittsburgh
Two points should be made about the projected playoff bracket. The most obvious is why a team that’s lower seeded would be projected to win. It’s not that it can’t happen of course, but it typically is something that takes a lot for me to do when projecting something four months out.
I see New England and Denver padding their records against lousy divisions, and they really aren’t that much better than the teams of the AFC North. In the case of Washington, I think it will take them a little bit to get their sea legs as Robert Griffin III works his way into form and that will cost them just enough to finish behind the Giants. But we’ve seen in recent years that it’s the peaking team, not the higher seed, that wins in the postseason and I believe Washington will be peaking.
The Super Bowl pick is a bit off the wall—actually it’s rather far off the wall. And I’ll admit the fact I’m a Redskins fan who also has fond memories of living nine years in Pittsburgh played a role—but a small, tiebreaking role.
I really see this as a year when all the favorites look vulnerable, and I think we’re going to see a Super Bowl matchup that will look, at least from the lens of September 3, 2013, as a little crazy. I like San Francisco, Seattle, Green Bay, New England and Denver. They’re solid football teams. None of them shout “Super Bowl” to me. Think 1999, the year St. Louis played Tennessee. The Titans were a wild-card who got on a roll. The Rams were a #1 seed, but if you backtrack to August, no one thought they had a prayer and no one had even heard of Kurt Warner. I see 2013 in the same vein.
So while I’m not going to the barricades to defend a Redskins-Steelers pick for the Super Bowl in New York, I will stand on this—2013 will be a year it’s worth betting a dark horse, or even a longshot to be in the Big Apple. Let’s play ball.
The AFC East has been virtually the exclusive territory of the New England Patriots since the turn of the calendar into the 2000s and the subsequent NFL realignment of 2002 that moved the Indianapolis Colts out of this division and into the newly created AFC South. The Patriots have won the AFC East every year, save for ’02 when the Jets snuck in, and in ’08 when the Dolphins won. Even here, in both cases, New England lost first place only on a tiebreaker.
Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriot Machine come into the 2013 NFL season as a heavy favorite to secure yet another AFC East crown. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas have posted them as a 5-13 favorite. The math is such that you if you want to bet against the Patriots in this division, you need not pick a challenger. You could bet the three rivals at equal levels and turn a profit so long as one of them came through.
The Miami Dolphins are getting the most love as a challenger for the coming year, at 7-2. The New York Jets then come in at 12-1, and the Buffalo Bills are 13-1.
Only the Jets have any kind of recent track record that inspires confidence, with their AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009-10, including a big playoff upset of the Pats in 2010. But the last two years have seen the Jets become a parody of themselves and that they’re considered 12-1 just to win a division title tells you how much respect Rex Ryan has lost.
TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis has previewed each of the four AFC East teams, and you can read more at the links below. Included in each preview is a prediction on how each team will fare against their Over/Under win total posted in Las Vegas.
I’ll make final NFL predictions here at the end of the preseason. For now though, there’s no doubt about what direction to go in the AFC East—in spite of the unfavorable odds, just play the favorite.
Week 1 of the NFL is in the books, so let’s go division-by-division with some observations…
NFC EAST: The big stories of Week 1 are all right here and there’s plenty of chances to overreact. Does Robert Griffin III’s fantastic debut—called the best ever by a rookie quarterback in the NFL yesterday by the normally reserved Michael Wilbon on ESPN—mean the Redskins are a division contender? Do Michael Vick’s four interceptions mean more than the fact he ultimately led a game-winning drive to push Philadelphia past Cleveland? Are the Giants headed for another pedestrian regular season or are the Cowboys now real Super Bowl material? For now, let’s just focus on the last point—we already know Dallas is capable of looking very good. What we don’t know is if they’ll string together consistent wins or if a clunker home loss is waiting in the wings. How about we see if they can at least go like 4-1 or 6-2 before we book passage to New Orleans for the Super Bowl?
NFC NORTH: I’m going to hold back on Green Bay’s poor defensive showing against San Francisco and Chicago’s win over Indy, since the Packers-Bears play Thursday night and we’ll talk about both teams more in depth in just two days. For now, let’s look at Detroit. Does their narrow home win over St. Louis mean a warning sign for the Lions, or instead an indicator the Rams will be improved? I’m concerned about Matthew Stafford’s three picks, but given the presence of Jeff Fischer on the St. Louis sideline and the talent the Rams have on the defensive front I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to St. Louis and say this was just a case of a team going from awful to at least semi-competent and semi-competent in the NFL means you can at least compete week-in and week-out.
NFC SOUTH: Just like Detroit gets the benefit of the doubt, so does Carolina. I think Tampa’s 16-10 home win over the Panthers is more a sign that the Bucs are going to be respectable this year than it is a sign of Carolina being overrated. At the start of the year I picked Carolina to go 9-7 and Tampa to shoot up to 8-8, so a home win for the Bucs fits that landscape.
NFC WEST: We’ll look at San Francisco in more depth tomorrow after their win in Green Bay has moved them to the forefront of Super Bowl discussion (to the extent the Niners weren’t there already). But I want to throw a second-guess at Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, or at least whomever handles the play-calling. The Seahawks trail Arizona by six points, and have three shots at the end zone. Russell Wilson is a quarterback who’s short, with some accuracy issues, but very mobile and good on the run. So does Seattle roll him out and let him create something? No, they run three straight pure dropback passes and fail to get in the end zone. I like to give coaches the benefit of the doubt, because I think they probably often have legitimate reasons for their decisions, even if they don’t work out. I’ll give the same to Carroll and his staff regarding this play-calling. I just wish I knew what the rationale was, because it escaped me.
AFC EAST: I know the media will want to talk about the Jets, but I can’t get past just how bad Buffalo was. I wasn’t a part of the modestly crowded Bills’ bandwagon to start the season, but I wouldn’t have expected the team to be this bad. How much longer do they stay with Ryan Fitzpatrick, after he throws three interceptions? And the most alarming stat anywhere in the NFL? Buffalo, after signing Mario Williams in the offseason not only ends up with zero sacks—against a questionable offensive line—but zero QB hits.
AFC NORTH: Even those of us who think Baltimore is in decline (I say “those of us” as though there were more people than just me thinking that) have to do a double-take after last night’s 44-13 thrashing of Cincinnati. Joe Flacco played the part of the quarterback having a breakout year and the defense produced four sacks. The concern? Cincinnati established the run, with 129 yards on the ground.
AFC SOUTH: Very disappointing effort from Tennessee. The Titans might not have been expected to win against New England, even at home, but the rushing game was non-existent and if that’s going to be a pattern than it will be a long year in Nashville. And though Jacksonville didn’t play badly in an overtime loss at Minnesota, if they can’t beat the Vikings, where are the wins going to come from?
AFC WEST: I’m sure everyone has heard plenty of pundit-talk about Peyton Manning’s play on Sunday night and this is a case where the mainstream commentary is pretty well right on. San Diego got a nice win on the road over Oakland, but that has the look of a game that was more about Raider incompetence offensively. And though Phillip Rivers’ completed 24/33 passes, the fact those completions only got 231 yards against a lousy secondary has to be a least a yellow flag. Last night might have been a 7-9 team beating a 5-11 team.
We’ve been running NFL team previews here for the last month at TheSportsNotebook, including projections on whether teams would hit their Las Vegas over/under number for wins. We’ve also had contributor Isaac Huss weigh in with key storylines and predictions for both the NFC & AFC, and then yesterday Isaac laid out why he thought the New England Patriots would win the Super Bowl. Now it’s time for me to jump in with my own final set of NFL predictions.
A couple notes on the picks. I made sure that the predicted W-L records did average out to 8-8 across the board, so it’s realistic. But if you read the individual team preview and then the final record, you may notice a discrepancy between my Over/Under prediction in those articles and the exact record predicted here. The reason is that I view the O/U number as more about range—set about a four-game window for where you think a team will fall and just pick what side there’s more room. For these, I’ll play my hunches as to who will get to their ceiling, who will hit their floor and then further adjust to make sure everything adds up to a .500 composite record for the league as a whole. So with that said, here we go. An asterisk is next to the two teams in each conference I’m picking for wild-card berths…
NY Giants (10-6)*
Green Bay (12-4)
Tampa Bay (8-8)
New Orleans (7-9)
San Francisco (10-6)
St. Louis (6-10)
NOTES: As you can see, I’m a believer that the effects of Bounty Gate are going to hit New Orleans hard this year and overall I think the balance of power has shifted back to the NFC, as I’ve got two 10-win teams, Chicago and Carolina, missing the playoffs, along with a 9-7 Dallas team. All three of these teams would be in the league’s best 12 overall though.
New England (11-5)
NY Jets (8-8)
Kansas City (9-7)*
San Diego (9-7)*
NOTES: Picking up the NFC Is Stronger Theme, there is no team in this conference that really stands out for me, and I hate myself for picking the Chargers to make the playoffs. But I’m even more convinced that the Steelers & Ravens—who’ve joined together to be the best rivalry in professional sports the last four years—are going to see their window close and that AFC North race will be a study in mediocrity. If it does work out that way, fans in the four cities can take heart—that’s how the NFC East was a year ago and we saw what happened with the Giants once they survived it.
1st-Round Playoff Games
(3)Philadelphia over (6)Detroit—the last teams these teams met in the playoffs was 1995 and the Eagles won 58-37. Not that crazy this time around. (5)NY Giants over (4)San Francisco—another thriller to the road team in a carbon copy of the NFC Championship Games from both last year and 1990. (5)Kansas City over (4)Cincinnati—suffice it to say this won’t be the matchup getting a lot of hype. (3)Denver over (6) San Diego—can this finally get A.J. Smith and Norv Turner fired in San Diego?
2nd-Round Playoff Games
(1)Green Bay over NY Giants—Rematch Road doesn’t go as well for Eli and the Giants this time. Philadelphia over (2)Atlanta—Overall I think the Eagles are a better team, but they finish with a lower regular season seed based on the presumption Michael Vick misses a few games. He’s healthy here and returns to his old stomping grounds to continue Atlanta’s playoff frustration. (1)Houston over Kansas City—A raucous crowd at Reliant Stadium wills Matt Schaub to his first playoff win, after he was injured during last year’s postseason. (2)New England over Denver—Peyton comes back to Foxboro and in a repeat of playoff losses in 2003 & 2004, again comes up short in the cold.
Conference Championship Games
Green Bay over Philadelphia–If both teams are at full health, this is an even-money battle, but the guess here is that Mike McCarthy figures out a way to piece together some pass protection over the course of the year and just enough of a running game to enable Aaron Rodgers to complete this two-game playoff run through the NFC East.
Houston over New England—If this matchup really comes to fruition(and since I’m picking such, it’s highly unlikely) this would be an incredible storyline. The Texans are clearly the more talented team. They’ll also have a coach who’s never won a championship and a quarterback who entered the season never even played in, much less won in a postseason game. Is it pointing out the obvious to say New England doesn’t have those problems? Yeah, probably. But it’s not obvious that Bill Belichick would have had an entire year to get rookies Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones integrated into his front seven. Still, I’ll give Houston the benefit of the doubt and say their time has come.
Green Bay over Houston—There’s no better tandem of playmakers than Rodgers on offense and Clay Matthews on defense, which is why I’m making this the third year in a row I’ve picked Green Bay to make the Super Bowl and the second straight I’ve picked them to win it.
Editor’s Note: Earlier in August, Notebook contributor Isaac Huss offered key storylines to watch in both the NFC & AFC, and as part of those pieces, picked New England and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl. Here he ties it all together and lays out why he thinks the Patriots will win the whole thing.
Preseason predictions are an inexact science, to say the least. Obviously, that’s why you play the games- what’s important is not which team some random dude thinks is going to win the Super Bowl, we care about who actually goes out and wins the damn thing.
So why bother reading an article about which team some random dude thinks is going to win the Super Bowl? Because we have nothing better to do before the teams actually start playing, that’s why.
In case you do have better things to do, here’s the cliffs notes version: The Packers, in my mind, were the best team in the NFC over the course of the entire season a year ago. That being said, it was obvious that the Giants were the better team in the end, but they’ve lost significant players.
The Patriots came thisclose, again, to beating the Giants in the Super Bowl, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t get right back there again. So how did I choose between the Packers and the Patriots? Well, I’m a Vikings fan, so I can’t choose the Packers, and that left the Patriots. Juuuuust kidding. Mostly.
So the rest of this article will flesh out just why I think the Patriots the best pick to win the Super Bowl this year, and why the Packers the next best choice.
First things first: it’s worth saying that I’m not sure that either the Pats or the Pack are the best team in the NFL. That’s because a big part of either teams, aren’t very good at all. When it’s time to play defense, both teams might as well roll out a bunch of dice on to the field, because I’m not sure even the coaches know what to expect from that side of the ball.
And as for their running games, Cedric Benson and Stevan Ridley might as well be life-sized (er, NFL running back-sized) question marks, because it’s largely unknown what sort of contributions to expect from either, albeit for different reasons.
For both teams, the reason they are Super Bowl contenders yet again is thanks to their all-world, record-setting, Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, and don’t you forget it. Which of the two ends up winning another Super Bowl will be decided by how much of a complete team actually ends up surrounding each quarterback.
Defense Both of these units were suspect a year ago, and both of these units will again be liabilities. New England’s pass defense was 31st in the league, while Green Bay’s was 32nd in the league. Both were better against the run, at 17th and 14th respectively, but why run on either of these teams when it was so easy to throw?
Incredibly, they finished 15th and 19th in points given up (21.4 and 22.4 ppg, respectively), thanks largely to turnovers. Green Bay intercepted 31 passes (thanks, Christian Ponder) in addition to seven forced fumbles, while the Pats had 23 and 11, allowing them to lead their respective leagues.
Clearly, these were feast and famine, opportunistic defenses a year ago. Can they again, by smoke and mirrors, keep their teams in the game to allow their quarterbacks to do the rest? Much will rely on rookies. USC OLB Nick Perry could pair with Clay Matthews in the Green Bay to terrorize QB’s all the more. Meanwhile, the Pats spent their first six draft picks on the defense, including two first-rounders, LB Dont’a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones.
Neither team suffered significant losses in the offseason, so what you see is what you get here. I can’t imagine Green Bay reaching 31 interceptions again, and New England was slightly better last year overall.
Edge: Patriots (barely)
Again, these teams are almost identical. New England was second in the league in passing yards, Green Bay third. Green Bay was first in points scored, New England second. Where they start to diverge is in the running game, where the Pats were a semi-respectable 20th while GB was 27th. However, NE let their starting running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk, expecting/hoping that Stevan Ridley is ready for the lead role.
Meanwhile, Green Bay upgraded with Cedric Benson, although it’s a legitimate question as to what he has left in the tank, enough of a question that he was a free agent through mid-August. The Patriots’ main offensive upgrade is WR Brandon Lloyd, who should provide QB Tom Brady with his most dynamic downfield threat since Randy Moss.
Then there’s the two-headed Patriots TE monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and with Lloyd and WR Wes Welker, add it all up and you have the best set of receivers in the league. But Rodgers’ set ain’t bad, either, while perhaps without the same top-end talent. The wild card here is Jordy Nelson, who came out of nowhere to lead the team in yards and touchdowns. Flash in the pan or just the beginning? It’d be tough to match his incredible numbers (over 1,200 yards, 15 TD’s) again, but I think he’s legit.
The Packers’ weakness on offense, other than the running game, was in protecting their prized quarterback. They did add C Jeff Saturday, who should be a slight upgrade in the middle, but the left side remains unchanged, unfortunately for Rogers. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ struggles in protecting Tom Brady this preseason has been well-documented, and at the ripe old age of 35, he can only take so many hits.
And that’s why we’ll give the Pack the slight edge here. Brady, while turning in one of his best seasons last year, has to slow down sometime. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers is younger and can provide the extra threat of moving out of the pocket and running if need be. As long as that running doesn’t lead to another concussion…
Slight edge: Packers
Special Teams The Patriots were fourth in the league in net yards per punt, thanks to P Zoltan Mesko, who might have the best name in the league. They were also better in covering kickoffs. However, the Packers were better in field goal %, thanks to K Mason Crosby, and kick and punt returns, thanks to rookie WR/Returner Randall Cobb.
Razor’s edge: Packers
Coaching Comparing coaching performance is an iffy proposition. Mike McCarthy and Bill Belichick are two of the best in the biz, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Few coaches get the most out of their players like these two, and can both be credited with proving that even an average running game is simply unnecessary to a dominant offense. Both have won the Big One, but the edge here goes to Belichick. Love him or hate him, he led his team to three Super Bowl wins in four years from 2002-2005, and near-misses last year and in 2008. There simply isn’t a better coach in the game today. But he hasn’t won one in seven seasons, suggesting that the gap may be shrinking.
Legitimate Edge: Patriots
Both the Pack and the Pats have significant motivation this year, coming off heartbreaking losses in the playoffs and Super Bowl, respectively. Both have made veteran upgrades to their offenses and have added promising rookies to their defenses. Most importantly, however, they employ the two best quarterbacks in the universe, and are led by two of the very best coaches in football. The coaching edge, however, that Belichick gives his team puts them over the top. Soon enough we’ll see for ourselves which of these two teams (or another one) is best. Bring on the games!
The Detroit Lions finally broke through last year. Matthew Stafford stayed healthy at quarterback, the team won 10 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and posted its first winning record since 2000. Now NFL fans are wondering if Detroit can take the next step—this is an organization that has never been to the Super Bowl, much less won it, and their last title was in 1957. Is this the year in Motown? TheSportsNotebook takes a close look at the Lions to find out…
OFFENSE: Stafford has the weapons in the passing game and they start with Calvin Johnson, whom some believe is better than Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and virtually anyone would consider those two to be the NFL standard at the position in either case. But defensive coverages can’t lock in on Johnson, because Nate Burleson is a potent threat, second-year-man Titus Young is emerging as a quality #3 and tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a reliable target over the middle. With Stafford showing he won’t beat himself—his TD/INT ratio last year was 41/16, the only way to stop the Lion passing game is to put the quarterback on the turf.
Unfortunately for Detroit getting to Stafford is more than feasible. The team can’t keep a running back healthy, so there’s nothing to stop lineman from turning loose and disregarding the run. The offensive line has weaknesses in the interior, where Dominic Raiola is aging at center and Stephen Peterman is mediocre at guard. Neither is awful, but there’s also no standouts anywhere up front. At the very least, Jeff Backus is competent at left tackle and taking care of Stafford’s blind side. The whole task of pass protection would be made much easier if running back Kevin Smith could stay healthy. Smith’s ability to cut back would make defensive lineman pay a price if they just turned loose on the snap, as that creates a lot of space on the backside of a running play for someone like Smith.
DEFENSE: The offense line can take heart in one thing—the defensive front best equipped to beat them is the one they face in practice. Detroit can get tremendous gut pressure in its 4-3 as tackles Ndamakong Suh and Corey Williams crush the pocket and defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch can pound the edges. This is as good a front four as there is in football and they’re backed up by a linebacking corps that’s steady in making the plays the need to make.
Where Detroit’s got issues—big issues in fact, is the secondary. Jacob Lacey is a liability at one corner, as is Amari Spievy at strong safety. Louis Delmas, the free safety, has a knee problem that leaves him questionable for the start of the regular season. When you consider that even a talented, healthy starting four would still have its hands full with Chicago and Jay Cutler and still need additional reinforcements against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and has array of targets, you can see how big this problem is going to be for the Lions. The front four will get the kind of pressure that will cover a lot of weaknesses, but it won’t cover all of them.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9—This number surprises me, given the general current of optimism surrounding the team. It isn’t often you can take an up-and-coming team to just match its previous win total and cash the Over, and you’re guaranteed a push as long as they win more than they lose. For that reason I’m on the Over. I can only speculate that the strength of the NFC North is driving the number downward. I know there are concerns with this team—I’ve outlined some, and we can that Suh’s immaturity on the field does make him kind of a poster-child for the team. They’ve got the talent, but do they have the intangible quality of a champion that it will take to move past Green Bay? On that question, the answer is now. But Stafford and the passing game, along with the defensive front can deliver them ten wins.