AFC North Preview; NFC East Preview; AFC East Preview

 

 

bengals
AFC North a 3-way slugfest with Bengals, Steelers and Ravens
by Bob Christ
www.gamingtoday.com

The AFC North’s record-tying five-year stretch of supplying at least one wild-card team to the postseason tournament ended last year when only first-place Cincinnati received a playoff invite.

Pittsburgh and defending champion Baltimore languished three games behind at .500, while cellar-dwelling Cleveland was out of sight and mind for a third straight season.

In fact, the cumulative mark of 31-33 was their worst the past 10 seasons.

This year, based on odds provided by the LVH SuperBook, the division figures to be a three-way slugfest between Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals are the slight favorite at 8/5.

Two of these top-tier teams, however, will have a scheduling disadvantage (Cincinnati, Baltimore), which might be just enough to enable the Steelers to regain their footing atop the loop, which they won five times from 2002-10.

Here’s how this year’s race figures to shape up, with teams listed in order of predicted finish:

Pittsburgh (9/4 division; 25/1 Super Bowl): The Steelers came on like gangbusters last year after a 0-4 start to finish 8-8 and almost earn the final wild-card berth.

Helping to trigger the resurgence was that the Steelers’ offense began to operate on short fields. Through their first five games, only once did Pittsburgh start a drive in enemy territory. Over its 6-2 close to the season, Pittsburgh had 20 short fields – all coming in its victories.

Boosting the Steelers’ hopes is that all five members of the offensive line have returned in front of QB Ben Roethlisberger and they have added powerhouse RB LeGarrette Blount, who had games of 189 yards in Week 17 and 166 in the postseason for New England.

Defensively, it’s a young, promising group that could benefit from the fact the Steelers won’t face a top-10 offense from last season until Week 13.

Note: Schedule-wise, the Steelers are catching a break in that they’ll have the fewest air miles of any team. Plus, in the final five weeks of the season, three times they’ll face a team that’s on a short week after playing Monday night.

Cincinnati (8/5; 18/1): The Bengals might have the most talent in the division, especially with the return of All-Pro DT Geno Atkins from a knee injury.

Skeptics have piled on because of the weak play of QB Andy Dalton the past three postseasons. Dalton steered the Bengals off a cliff in one-and-done fashion with a total of one TD throw and six INTs.

Before the postseason all seemed well with the 2013 Bengals, who were one of three teams to have a perfect home regular-season record (also 8-0 ATS). At the end came a dreary 27-10 WC-round loss in Cincinnati to San Diego that extended the Bengals’ playoff victory drought to 23 seasons, the longest current streak in the league.

Making matters troublesome for Cincy is its first-place schedule. It is stuck facing Denver and New England. No division rival has to face either team.

Note: Cincinnati’s defense has the capability of carrying the club. Last year, four enemy QBs had their worst passer-rating day of the season against the Bengals, including Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Baltimore (9/4, 25/1): In 2013, the Ravens returned to earth without a parachute a year after a Super Bowl run highlighted by QB Joe Flacco’s 11 postseason TD throws with no INTs.

Then came last year, with Flacco throwing a franchise-record 22 INTs and former running standout Ray Rice averaging only 3.1 yards a rush, the worst for any RB in the top 45 in ground gaining.

On top of that, the tough-guy RB will be serving a two-game suspension to open the season, which happen to be home games against Baltimore’s top division rivals – Week 1 vs. Cincinnati and four days later vs. Pittsburgh.

At least new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will have the benefit of working with newly acquired WR Steve Smith and TE Owen Daniels.

Note: If the Ravens can remain in playoff contention entering mid-December, the schedule gets favorable with games against Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland in Weeks 15-17. That group went a combined 10-38 last year, and only the Texans figure to show much improvement.

Cleveland (6/1; 60/1): How seriously can the Browns be taken if the QB duel is between veteran clipboard holder Brian Hoyer, off knee surgery, against rookie Johnny Manziel, whose work ethic has been questioned.

Vegas visitors might have even seen Johnny Football carousing in their hotel pool earlier this season after he was selected in the first round of the draft.

Outside of the team’s 10-6 mark in 2007, Cleveland has lost at least 10 games each season since 2003. There’s a lot of decay to scrape away for first-time coach Mike Pettine, who was Buffalo’s DC the past four seasons.

If he somehow leads the Browns to the NFL title it wouldn’t be the first time a coach in Cleveland took over a losing team and won the crown.

Adam Walsh did so in 1945 with the Cleveland Rams, the only time in league history a coach directed such a speedy turnaround.

Note: The Browns’ best player last year, WR Josh Gordon, had a league-high 1,646 yards. But he could be facing a lengthy suspension for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at BobChrist@GamingToday.com

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redskins cheer

NFC East figures to be the wildest crapshoot of all the divisions
by Bob Christ
www.gamingtoday.com
Top to bottom, the NFC East figures to be the wildest crapshoot of all the divisions, with no team rated worse than a 7-2 shot to win the loop, according to odds provided by the LVH SuperBook.

The past two seasons have produced worst-to-first finishes for Washington (2012) and then Philadelphia, resulting in an 11th straight year a team has leaped from last to win a division in the NFL. By contrast, from 1920 to 1967 it never happened.

This division used to be one of the sturdy kingpins of the NFL, with Philly, Washington, Dallas and the N.Y. Giants hogging six of the eight NFC wild-card berths from 2006-09. But over the past four seasons, no teams earned a WC berth, the longest current division drought in the NFL.

Perhaps that will change this year, since the teams will be playing the AFC South in its non-conference games this season. That division was a collective 16 games under .500 in 2013.

Here is how the NFC East should fall into place this year, with teams listed in order of predicted finish.

Washington (7-2 to win division; 50-1 Super Bowl): The Redskins, with QB Robert Griffin III, are tied with Dallas as the longest shots to win the flag. But Washington was the longest shot in 2012, too.

In fact, the Redskins will be trying to do what only one team in history has done – go from last (2011), to first (2012), back to last and then to first again in a four-season stretch, matching Cincinnati’s performances from 1987-90.

What made RG3 extra special in his rookie season of 2012 were his healthy knees and an ability to dazzle while running the read-option. What should make him a different kind of special this year are savvy WRs Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Garcon led the league with 113 catches last year and Jackson averaged 16.9 yards on 82 receptions for the Eagles.

Combine them with RB Alfred Morris, who led the league with 10 runs of 20-plus yards, and the Redskins will be hard to stop under new coach Jay Gruden.

On defense, the unit was harshly criticized for its poor tackling, but made marked improvement down the stretch last year – yielding an average of only 294 yards the final six games. Only the Super Seahawks did better over the course of the season.

Note: The team’s linebacking corps endured a complete makeover. If the new guys can provide semi-solid play, the Redskins could be playing host to a playoff game in January.

Philadelphia (7-5, 20-1): Is Nick Foles really the league’s best passer? His passer rating of 119.2 was tops in 2013 and the third best in league history.

Foles seemed to be unable and/or reluctant to make quick decisions and avoid the rush. Even behind a talented line last season, he went down 43 times, which is puzzling considering he had league rushing champion Shady McCoy as a threat and a stout offensive line.

With Jackson gone to Washington, who’s going to catch Foles’ wounded ducks? Not to mention, his quarterbacks guru, Bill Lazor, has moved on to Miami.

Defensively, no team gave up more passing yards than the Eagles. But then again, the defense spent more time on the field – 1,150 plays – than any team since the 1999 Browns. How long can this group maintain its stamina?

Note: Last year everything fell into place down the stretch for the Eagles, such as facing the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, the Cardinals without RB Andre Ellington, the Vikings without RB Adrian Peterson (Philly lost anyway) and the Cowboys without QB Tony Romo in the decisive finale. The Eagles likely won’t have such good fortune this year.

NY Giants (5-2; 40-1): Giants backers surely are beaming over the team’s rebound from a 0-6 start last year to a 7-9 finish and semi-relevance late in the season. But back-to-back wipe-out losses to San Diego and Seattle in Weeks 14-15 should have tempered the excitement.

Part of the reason for that midseason turnaround could be attributed to NYG getting to face a stream of third-team QBs in victories over Minnesota, Philadelphia and Green Bay, wrapped around a game against Oakland, that led to a four-game winning streak.

That’s not going to happen again.

QB Eli Manning is coming off the worst year of his career (18 TDs, 27 INTs), thanks in part to having an inept ground attack, which averaged 3.5 yards a carry, tied for third worst in the league. All of which is why the Giants will be learning a new way of life under new OC Ben McAdoo.

Defensively, the Giants improved 23 spots on the charts for yards yielded – 51.2 fewer a game over 2012 – but didn’t come close to creating enough turnovers to account for Manning’s play as the Giants finished at -15.

Note: In Weeks 9-11, the Giants will face a murderers’ row of Indianapolis, Seattle and San Francisco coming out of their bye. If they don’t reach that midseason break with at least a 4-3 mark, they could be toast by Thanksgiving.

Dallas (7-2; 50-1): The Cowboys are coming off three consecutive 8-8 seasons and looking for their first playoff berth since 2009.The last time a team had three straight .500 seasons was Tennessee from 1996-98. The next year the Titans went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl.

What’s going to make it extremely difficult for Dallas to mirror that performance is Jason Garrett is still coach, plus the fact QB Tony Romo is coming off major back surgery and rickety RB DeMarco Murray is the NFC East’s version of Darren McFadden. Neither can be counted on to get out of the whirlpool on game day.

Defensively, what are the chances there will be a major improvement on a worst-rated unit that gave up the second most first downs in league history (388) and now is missing its two best players off that squad – departed sackmaster DeMarcus Ware and MLB Sean Lee (knee)?

Note: If Romo and Murray can stay healthy and WR Dez Bryant plays like most guys entering a contract year, the Cowboys’ offense could thrive behind a nice-looking offensive line. But that unit is going to have to put up Bronco-like numbers to counter what should be another woeful defense.

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at BobChrist@GamingToday.com.

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patriot cheer

Pro Football Division Previews: AFC East
by Bob Christ
www.gamingtoday.com
The New England Patriots have been the gorillas of the four-team AFC East since the NFL’s current division format was invented in 2002, going a collective 102 games above .500 and winning 10 of the past 11 flags.

By contrast, the loop have-nots – Miami, Buffalo and the N.Y. Jets – have gone a cumulative 64 games under .500 the past 11 seasons.

According to odds posted by the LVH SuperBook, things shouldn’t be much different this season considering only New England (10.5) has an over/under win total of more than 8 among the four teams.

Thus, the Patriots are the 1/3 choice to earn a sixth consecutive division crown, which would be one short of the NFL record set by the LA Rams from 1973-79 in the NFC West. The only unknown would be if the second-place team can earn a wild card.

Here’s how the division figures to shake out, with teams listed in predicted order of finish:

NEW ENGLAND (1-3 to win division; 7-1 Super Bowl): The Patriots are coming off a 12-4 season in which they earned the AFC’s No. 2 seed and reached the conference title game before crashing in Denver.

This year, though, QB Tom Brady won’t open the season without his five leading receivers from the previous season. Plus, the defense appears to be extra stout, bolstered by the improved health of LB Jerod Mayo (torn pec) and NT Vince Wilfork (Achilles), veteran stalwarts who missed the bulk of 2013. Not to mention the acquisition of highly regarded DB Darrelle Revis.

The offense has all five of its starters back on the line, which will come in handy in a division that features fearsome defensive fronts. Missing from the attack will be RB LeGarrette Blount (Pittsburgh), who was stupendous late in the year, with 189 yards in the season finale vs. Buffalo and two weeks later with 166 ground yards in the divisional round vs. Indy.

Note: If the ball winds up in RB Stevan Ridley’s hands again, fumbling could be a big issue.

NY JETS (8-1; 50-1): New York has one of the best defensive lines in football, spearheaded by Sheldon Richardson (6-3, 294) and Muhammad Wilkerson (6-4, 315). What’s up front will be the backbone of a team trying to support the QB play of second-year man Geno Smith, whose ratio of 12 TD throws to 21 INTs (minus 9) matched the worst by any passer the past five years. Backup Michael Vick could be in the lineup in short order.

In an attempt to juice the ground game, the Jets signed ex-Titan Chris Johnson, who was one of 13 RBs last season with 1,000-plus yards (1,077), but the only one who didn’t average at least 4 yards a carry (3.9). Under new coach Rex Ryan, Johnson should have something to prove.

In Weeks 5-7, the Jets have a back-breaking schedule against three playoff teams from 2013. After traveling cross-country to San Diego to face the Chargers, they fly home to meet Denver. Four days later, they travel to New England for a Thursday game.

Note: If the Jets can somehow take two of three during that stretch, which precedes their bye, they could be off and flying.

BUFFALO (8-1; 50-1): The Bills have finished last in the division six straight seasons, an NFL record for any team in any division/conference. So, even third place would be an accomplishment.

The Bills boast the 1-2 running punch of C.J. Spiller (927 yards, 4.6 norm) and bulldozing Fred Jackson (896, 4.3), who finished 15th and 16th on the rushing charts. No other team had two ground-gainers in the top 20.

Defensively, Buffalo had a team-record 57 sacks, with Mario Williams leading the way with 13, and totaled 23 INTs, second best in the league. But this unit will have to do without LB Kiko Alonso (torn ACL), the third-leading tackler in the league last year, and departed ballhawk Jairus Byrd.

Buffalo finally has a zippy WR thanks to drafting Clemson game-breaker Sammy Watkins in the first round, who replaces Stevie Johnson, now in SF.

Note: Twice last season then-rookie QB EJ Manuel was knocked from the lineup and missed a total of six games.

MIAMI (5-1; 40-1): Last year the Dolphins got off to a torrid start (for them), winning their first three games and in the process becoming the first team to triumph as an underdog in two season-opening road games in 22 years. But Miami wound up missing the playoffs thanks to dreary losses to the Bills and Jets to close an 8-8 season.

Miami scored a total of seven points the final two weeks, helping to cost OC Mike Sherman his job. He’s been replaced by Bill Lazor, who was the QB whisperer for top-rated Nick Foles in Philly last year.

On the offensive line, the Dolphins have four new guys after last year’s “Bullygate” ravaged the unit. Along the way, QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times. Maybe the addition of ex-Bronco RB Knowshon Moreno, an accomplished pass protector, will make a difference.

Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon combined for 20 sacks last year and are a key to keeping Miami alive despite a relatively weak secondary.

Note: If Wake or Vernon go down, Miami could be staring at its team-record sixth straight non-winning season.

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at BobChrist@GamingToday.com.

 

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