Happy Football Wednesday, friends. I’m back with some thoughts today on 2 more divisions, and my plan remains to stick to the following schedule.
Tuesday: AFC East, AFC North
Wednesday: AFC South, AFC West
Thursday: NFC East, NFC North
Friday: NFC South, NFC West
Tonight, the season kicks off with the Giants playing the Cowboys. Also, Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Convention. Joe’s comments 4 years ago in Denver went a long way toward getting the dumbasses on the Hall of Fame veterans committee to consider his Syracuse classmate Floyd Little, and ultimately, to elect him. Whether you like his politics or not, it was cool to see a Vice Presidential nominee, and soon-to-be Vice President, take up for a great Bronco, and help right an egregious wrong. I don’t think Joe knows Randy Gradishar, though, so if you want to just watch tonight’s game, that’s cool.
Edit - 7:52 PM : Biden doesn't speak until Thursday night. My mistake - I should have checked before I used his speech to set up my joke/complaint about Randy Gradishar. TB
Anyway, on to analyzing a couple of divisions. I promised the AFC South and the AFC West, and I’m going to deliver. Ready… BEGIN!!
The team that should win: Houston Texans
Houston can run the ball, and they’re pretty solid on defense, but I worry slightly about their passing game. I think they’re going to miss Joel Dreessen a lot, and I’m still troubled by their lack of a threatening second wide receiver. They overdrafted DeVier Posey, thinking he could be that guy, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The right side of their offensive line is very questionable, too.
I do think that the Texans can play Kubes ball, and beat a lot of teams by running the ball and keeping turnovers down. I’m not going out on too much of a limb to pick them, and I think the AFC South may be the weakest division in the NFL this year.
The team that could win: Indianapolis Colts
Here’s where I go out on a limb. From what I saw in the preseason, the Colts already have the best QB in this division. Matt Schaub is solid, and he fits what the Texans like to do, but he’s not in Andrew Luck’s class. Luck may or may not struggle with turnovers as a rookie, but I think he has a shot to have a playoff-caliber rookie year. He’s very advanced for a rookie QB, especially in terms of ball-handling, accuracy, and anticipation.
Offensively, the Colts have good-enough talent at the skill-positions, and their offensive line, on the whole, looks better to me than it ever did while Peyton Manning was there. The Colts are likely to have some talent issues on defense, but I can make a case for 8-8 or 9-7 for this team, on the strength of Luck’s ability, and quality coaching. If they can get passable play out of their inside triangle of NT Antonio Johnson, and ILBs Jerrell Freeman and Kavell Conner, their defense might not be so bad.
If the Texans suffer some injuries, and lose their first place games (at Denver, vs Baltimore), and the Colts stay pretty healthy and win their last place games (at Kansas City, vs Cleveland), I could see Indianapolis winning this division at 9-7.
The team that’s worse than you think: Tennessee Titans
Tennessee went 9-7 last year, and have the shell of an average team in place. I think their choice of Jake Locker as starting QB is going to sink them in 2012, though. I have issues with Locker’s accuracy and decision-making, and I’ll be interested to see if he improves upon them with NFL experience. I also see Locker as a guy who lost a ton of games in college, and didn’t really elevate his team. Some will say, yeah, but Jay Cutler and John Elway, but the truth is that both of those players did elevate their teams in college, despite the lesser talent around them.
I also worry about how this team takes the promotion of Locker over the superior player in Matt Hasselbeck. I’ve never seen playing for the future work out well in the short-term, particularly thinking back to Eli-over-Warner, or Cutler-over-Plummer. The teams went into the tank in both cases, and played like they felt like they weren’t expected to seriously compete anymore. In the long run, both were the right moves, but in the short-term, the team struggled. I see that happening with Tennessee this year, and I’m doubtful that Locker is the right answer going forward, either.
The team that’s better than you think: Jacksonville Jaguars
I see the Jags as a sleeper to finish around .500 this year, and I think they may be on the right track. They’re thought of very poorly primarily because Blaine Gabbert struggled a lot as a rookie, but I thought he looked much better in the preseason than he ever did last year. I expect Gabbert to show signs of competence as a second-year player, and eventually, to make some plays that lead to victories. If the Jags can get some good receiver play out of Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, and Cameron Bradfield holds up at RT, this could be a solid offense.
I think Jacksonville will probably struggle to hit the QB on defense, but they have a chance to be better at that if rookie DE Andre Branch catches on quickly, and George Selvie looks as good as a situational guy as he did in the preseason.
This team is a work in progress, and I don’t think they’ll probably have a winning record in 2012, but they won’t be a total pushover either. I don’t expect the Jaguars to be in the mix for the first overall pick in the 2013 Draft, that’s for sure.
The team that should win: Denver Broncos
I know, I’m picking the team that I want to win. I had an assignment for my MBA Strategy class recently to pick the winner of the Presidential election, and I wrote some analysis on why President Obama is going to win. The professor gave me a B on the assignment, which is bad in grad school, basically because she wants to hear qualitative reasons why the still-lagging economy is going to help Mitt Romney win. Nobody serious really thinks that’s going to happen, though. Check out 538, or any of a number of outlets that does serious analysis. The President is a prohibitive favorite to be re-elected, with the probability running around 76% right now, and likely about to get a bounce from the DNC. (Romney got no discernible bounce whatsoever from the RNC, which is a really bad sign for a challenger.) Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to be rooting for the likely winner.
I think the Broncos have an all-time great QB on their roster, and that the talent around him is better, 1-53, than any team he ever had in Indianapolis. That makes the Broncos a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and the favorites to win this division. You’ll be hearing a lot from me on the Broncos this season, so I’m not going to belabor the point right now.
The team that could win: San Diego Chargers
San Diego looks to me like they might have shored up their defense in the running game, but I still view them as being deficient on the offensive line. Further, I think their receiving corps has gotten quite a bit worse from 2011. Robert Meachem is talented, but he’s primarily worked as the third or fourth option in New Orleans, against nickel corners. I’ll believe he’s a legit #1 guy when I see him beat over-under coverage. Eddie Royal is still Eddie Royal – talented, dangerous in the open field, and no feel for getting open against zone coverage.
The Chargers do have Philip Rivers, who declined last season, in my opinion. I’ve always see Rivers as very similar physically and stylistically to Bernie Kosar, and Kosar ceased to be a useful starting QB at age 30. Rivers just turned 30, and he’s had a similar injury history to Kosar. I’m not saying the dude is going to fall off a cliff right now, but I do think he’s significantly less likely to age well than other QBs. For the moment, he is the second best QB in the division.
Defensively, I did like the drafting of Melvin Ingram, and I do think he’s going to be very good player, even as a rookie. I’m less high on Kendall Reyes at this point, though, and I don’t love a lot of the holdovers on the defensive line.
The team that’s worse than you think: Kansas City Chiefs
The 2010 Chiefs overachieved, and won the AFC West, and the 2011 Chiefs had some injuries, lost some blowouts, and won some close games late in the season, finishing with a respectable 7-9 record, given their medical issues. The conventional wisdom seems to be that they’ll return to division-winner form in 2012. Like usual, I don’t agree with the CW.
The main problem I have with Kansas City is the QB Matt Cassel, who I think had a career year in 2010, and probably can’t duplicate it. I also doubt the ability of Jamaal Charles to return from his torn ACL and be the same back, right away, that he was in 2010. I expect that fewer carries will be good for Peyton Hillis, who has some pretty clear durability issues. I dislike the interior offensive line (Jon Asomoah, Rodney Hudson, and Ryan Lilja), and I’m not crazy about Jonathan Baldwin outside. You could say that I view the Chiefs’ offensive talent less favorably than some people seem to. I see their scoring productivity being slightly below league-average.
I do like the Chiefs’ ability to defend the pass, but I wonder how well they’ll handle the departure of Brandon Carr. Stanford Routt is a lesser player, and I think their backup CBs are weak. Eric Berry has the ability to be the best safety in the NFL, but I need to see him do it before we anoint him. The Chiefs are still very susceptible against the running game, and that makes them susceptible to the play-action game.
With an average head coach, I’d say this is an average team. I view Romeo Crennel as a below-average head coach, though. I lived in Cleveland throughout his tenure, and I just don’t believe the guy has what it takes to be the man in the big office. There’s something to be said for command presence, and Romeo lacks that completely.
The team that’s better than you think: Oakland Raiders
The narrative around the NFL says that Oakland is almost surely destined for fourth place, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. They have a good RB, and a very good defensive line. Obviously, I think they hired a good young head coach in Dennis Allen, and the signs that I see from the front office are positive too.
Carson Palmer has always had a lot of ability, even as his throwing skill has diminished with injuries and time. He’s always been a disappointing, underachieving kind of player, though, even when his numbers were good. I expect him to continue to do worse than his talent level would maximally allow, because that’s just the way the guy is.
Darren McFadden has durability issues too, like White Boy Day does, but he can be pretty dynamic when he’s healthy. The Raiders have a couple of solid #2-to-#3 receivers in Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, but I don’t see either one as being capable of being a #1. There’s nothing at TE, and the offensive line is average, at best.
On defense, the Raiders are good up front, and at safety, but their linebackers are below average, and their CBs are one of the worst sets in the NFL. If you can protect your QB, you can throw on the Raiders. You can probably run on them pretty well, too.
To me, the Chiefs and the Raiders are pretty close to the same level, but they have different expectations and conventional wisdom around them. They can both finish 7-9 or 6-10, and I’ll be right in both cases.
I’ll be back tomorrow with more, this time shifting to the NFC East and NFC North. Somebody asked me about a Digesting the Steelers article yesterday, and the answer is that I’m going to do something analyzing the next opponent this year, but it will probably be less extensive than last season. That was a really time-consuming article to write every week, and I have a lot of balls in the air lately, even more than usual.