Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The National Football League

Both our editors are high on Rodgers and the Pack, but where will they finish in 2013?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Well, we're almost here.

We've already covered every division in the league individually - if you missed them, you can find links in the sidebar to the right. Now we're here to recap all of that and make picks and predictions for all the things we haven't already covered.

To start, we're going to go through every team in the league one more time. In the table below, we've listed every team, their over/under line for wins this season (with corresponding odds for each pick), followed by our predictions. You'll notice that our final predictions may deviate from the picks that have been appearing in each of the divisional previews - that's because we made those picks almost a month ago and in some instances, new information has come to light, and in others, we just decided that our original prediction was too optimistic (or pessimistic). The picks below will serve as our "official" predictions for the season.

For those not familiar with how the odds work, here's a quick refresher, using Arizona as the example:

Arizona's line is 5.5 wins, and you have to predict whether they will win more than 5.5 games (i.e. 6 or more) or less (i.e. 5 or fewer). The odds for "OVER" is -160, meaning you would need to bet $160 in order to win $100. The odds for "UNDER" is +130, meaning a $100 bet would yield a $130 profit. Some teams (like Atlanta) have a line of a whole number - if they finish with that number of wins, the bet pushes, and regardless of your bet, you get your money back.

For the purposes of this exercise, in the instances where our picks match up with the Vegas line (pulled from the Bovoda Sportsbook website on Monday afternoon), like Jeremy's New England prediction (the line is 11 and he predicted them to be 11-5), the "pick" of over or under corresponds to which direction we think the team is more likely to fall on either side of that line. Here are the picks:

Storyline(s) to Watch:


There are a number of AFC teams that I am completely and totally willing to write off from playoff contention - in no particular order, Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Oakland. In the NFC? It's just two - St. Louis and Arizona. That's it. There are 14 teams in the conference with legitimate postseason aspirations.

It's entirely possible that the two best teams in the league are in the AFC (Denver and New England), but top to bottom, the NFC is clearly the better conference. If there's an inter-conference matchup leaving you in doubt (like, say, Week 1's Cincinnati @ Chicago), just take the NFC team. You'll end up being right more often than not.


Jeremy's Playoff Picks:

1. Denver (13-3)
2. Houston (11-5)
3. Baltimore (11-5)
4. New England (11-5)
5. Cincinnati (10-6)
6. Pittsburgh (9-7)

Denver (+220) over Houston (+700)
Sleeper: Cincinnati (+1200)

1. Atlanta (12-4)
2. Green Bay (11-5)
3. San Francisco (11-5)
4. New York Giants (10-6)
5. Seattle (10-6)
6. New Orleans (10-6)

Green Bay (+650) over New Orleans (+1200)
Sleeper: New York Giants (+1500)

Joe's Playoff Picks:

1. Denver (13-3)
2. New England (12-4)
3. Cincinnati (11-5)
4. Houston (11-5)
5. Indianapolis (10-6)
6. Baltimore (10-6)

Denver (+220) over Cincinnati (+1200)
Sleeper: Baltimore (+1500)

1. Atlanta (13-3)
2. San Francisco (12-4)
3. Green Bay (12-4)
4. Washington (11-5)
5. Seattle (11-5)
6. New Orleans (11-5)

Atlanta (+850) over Green Bay (+650)
Sleeper: Washington (+1600)

Player(s) to Watch:

Drew Brees (10-1)

Here's the case for Drew Brees to win the MVP:

1. The Atlanta Falcons out-performed their expected win-loss record (as a function of their point differential) by a full two wins last year (the second-highest mark in the league). They were also 7-2 in games decided by seven points or less (the fourth-best mark in the league). They also recovered 64.3% of fumbles last year, much higher than the "expected" 50%. These three factors suggest regression for the Falcons, as Bill Barnwell pointed out Tuesday on Grantland. If Atlanta regresses, the Saints could sneak into the top slot in the NFC South
2. If the Saints win the NFC South, they're guaranteed at least one home playoff game. The Saints have not lost a home playoff game with Drew Brees at quarterback (yes, the MVP is a regular season award, but if the Saints get a top-4 seed in the NFC that will go a long way).
3. Three other "major" candidates (Manning, Brady, Rodgers) may regress from last season - Brady and Rodgers because of diminishing offensive talent around them, Manning because of age. Colin Kaepernick (also with 10-1) odds is a very good player, but doubtful to win the MVP when San Francisco's defense is so good.
4. We may see the Saints playing with a 2007 Patriots edge to them, flipping the league the bird after being disgraced by the bounty scandal. If Drew Brees spends the year running scores from 31-17 to 45-17, he could end up with 5000 yards and 50 touchdowns. That'd be hard to ignore.
5. He's never won the award before. Manning, Brady, and Rodgers all have. It's less of a trend in the NFL than in other sports, but in any voting-based award, there's a tendency to give the award to players who haven't gotten one before when all else is equal.


Aaron Rodgers (8-1)

Last season we saw Peyton Manning come back from a debilitating injury and Aaron Rodgers continue his development as the best quarterback in the league. Well, neither of them won the MVP, largely due to Adrian Peterson's super-human recovery from knee surgery and subsequent 2,000 yard rushing season. But this season, the quarterbacks will reign supreme again.

I honestly believe you're splitting hairs between what Peyton Manning did last season coming off kneck surgery and what Aaron Rodgers has done over the past three seasons, earning himself the title of "best quarterback on the planet," and I do have Manning going to the Super Bowl, so clearly I believe his team will be more successful.

But,  I'm going with Rodgers for a few reasons. First of all, I just think he's a better player. His efficiency numbers are better than Manning's, and he simply throws more touchdowns with less interceptions. Secondly, he's mobile, something Manning hasn't been for close to half a decade now. Rodgers can escape the pocket and make things happen on the fly when the play breaks down.

But, the real reason he is going to win the award is because he has to overcome more to make his team a contender. While the AFC is no cake walk, with the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals and Texans to contend with, it is nowhere near the meat grinder that the NFC has become.

To come out of that conference, you will have to beat two or three of the following teams: San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, New York (G), Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and God help you if Detroit gets it's head out of it's butt, or if Chip Kelly rejuvenates Michael Vick's career in Philly.

Heck, just making the playoffs with that many quality teams is an accomplishment, so a division title for the Packers should be more than enough to lock down his second MVP award in three years. Also, Rodgers will have to overcome an inferior defense to the one Manning has in Denver. Last season, the Broncos ranked the in the top-5 in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense, plus first in sacks. The Packers, meanwhile, were able to rush the passer (No.4 in the league), but still finished outside the top-10 in ever relevant defensive category.

The Packers actually aren't as bad as you think on defense, but they're bad enough for Rodgers to win the MVP without leading the best team in football.


Super Bowl Picks: 

Green Bay (+1200) over Denver (+650)

I'm not taking Green Bay over Denver because I think the Packers have specific matchup advantages over the Broncos. For me to spend several hundred words talking about X's and O's specific to these two teams would be stupid, considering it's the first week of September and the season hasn't even started yet.

I'm taking Green Bay over Denver for the reason I mentioned above - I just think the NFC is better than the AFC this year. Yes, Denver might be the best top-to-bottom team in the league, but not to the extent that I expect them to roll through everyone like the 2004 Patriots or 2009 Saints. I think the top six or seven teams in the league are within the same range, and I think on par, the NFC is better than the AFC. Hence, I'm taking the NFC Champion over the AFC Champion. You could swap out different teams and I'd take San Francisco over New England, or New Orleans over Houston, or Atlanta over Baltimore. That's just the way my picks are going this year - NFC over AFC.


Atlanta (+1400) over Denver (+650)

It's certainly hard to argue with Jeremy's NFC over AFC logic, but I'm also taking the Falcons as my Super Bowl pick for a few other reasons.

1. I believe Atlanta has the best receiving duo in the league in Roddy White and Julio Jones, and the addition of Steven Jackson and continued development of Jacquizz Rodgers should help Matt Ryan take the next step as a quarterback. Oh, and getting that Tony Gonzalez guy back should help.
2. The Falcons won a lot of close games last year, but it's important to look at how they won those close games. This wasn't the bounce of the ball here or there, Atlanta entered most of those games with the lead, sometimes a substantial one, and allowed teams to hang around. Out of Atlanta's seven wins by a touchdown or less, only once did they trail in the fourth quarter, and once they entered the final frame tied.

Only on a road trip against the Redskins did the Falcons truly have to "gut" out a win, and twice they held double-digit leads in the final eight minutes, but simply couldn't close the door.

So, basically, they couldn't run the ball/clock at the end of games, something the addition of Jackson will help, but they also couldn't pressure opposing quarterbacks without blitzing, and finished 28th in the league overall in sacks. That's where former Giant pass rusher Osi Umenyiora comes in. Despite only racking up six sacks in 2012, Umenyiora appears to be fully healthy this season, and a change of scenery should serve him well after he and Giants management seemed to grow weary of each other.

Add in the fact that he's two years younger than the departed John Abraham, and that the Falcons drafted two corners they think can improve the secondary immediately, and I'm high on a defensive turnaround in Atlanta. If that happens, and Julio Jones continues to improve, the Falcons will be very tough to beat, especially if they get to play their playoff games in the Georgia Dome.


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