Thursday, October 8, 2015

2015 AFC quarter-pole analysis

By Kyle Ross (posted by Rick Morris)

Safely In (The Playoffs)

New England (3-0, +49 point differential):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (15-1)

There were three reasons why the Patriots might take a step back following a fourth Super Bowl win in 15 seasons. One was the potential four-game suspension of Tom Brady. Two was an inability to maintain a +12 turnover differential from last year (tops in the AFC). Three was a secondary that on paper looked significantly weaker.

As you know, #1 never happened and as a result #2 and #3 really don’t seem to matter as Brady and the offense (ranked #1 in DVOA by Football Outsiders) keeps giving the team double digit leads. The Pats have actually enjoyed a double digit lead in every half this season. They’ve been behind only once, very briefly, at the start of the Buffalo game.  Even with trips to both Denver and Indianapolis, it is hard to envision this team not being the #1 overall seed in the AFC.

Denver (4-0, +28): Preseason Projection (12-4) | Current Projection (12-4)

While the Patriots currently boast the league’s best offense, it is the Broncos who have the best defense. The narrative here has been the complete 180 degree turn in identity with Peyton Manning and a struggling offense taking a back seat to the other side of the ball. Wade Phillips absolutely has to go down as one of the great defensive coordinators of recent times. However, like Wade, I’m not sure Gary Kubiak is a great head coach.

I think the Broncos have one of the clearer paths to a division title. They still do have to play New England, Green Bay and Cincinnati (all at home) as well as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh (with Roethlisberger) on the road. That will keep them from finishing first in the conference, but expecting a bye is reasonable. They were somewhat lucky to win in Kansas City (forced five turnovers), but still have yet to concede more than 325 total yards in any game and lead the league in sacks. It is shocking that the biggest question mark is Manning himself as he is on pace to have the worst year of his career, statistically speaking.

Legit Contenders

Cincinnati (4-0, +44):  Preseason Projection (8-8) | Current Projection (10-6)

Baltimore (1-3, -11): Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (10-6)

I am not ready to concede the AFC North to the Bengals at this time, even though they own a de facto four game lead over the Ravens due to a 28-24 win in Baltimore.  I also reject this notion of “better than ever” in Cincinnati. It was just two years ago that this team went 11-5 with three of its losses coming by a field goal or less (two in overtime!) and they went 3-0 against Green Bay, New England (held them to 6 pts) and Indianapolis (scored 42 pts).  Last year’s team regressed (10 wins despite only +21 point differential), which is why I was cold on them coming into the year.

Meanwhile, there’s no reason to give up on the Ravens, whose three losses are by a combined 13 points, two of those to Denver and Cincinnati. They have Cleveland and San Francisco on deck, meaning they should be right back to .500 after six games. They also have a more favorable schedule down the stretch with seven home games still to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if the division was decided in Week 17 at Cincinnati.

Injuries are a concern right now for Baltimore, but Cincinnati should be concerned with regression as they are now 5-0-1 in games decided by seven points or less since the start of last season (2-0 this year).

Kansas City (1-3, -25):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (10-6)

San Diego (2-2, -14): Preseason Projection (8-8) | Current Projection (8-8)

In making our playoff picks before the start of the season, both Rick Morris and I had Miami getting a Wild Card. We were split on the other with him taking San Diego and me going with Kansas City.  While I’m clearly ready to back off that Dolphins call, I’ll continue to ride the Chiefs until further notice. Their current record isn’t too concerning when you consider they just got done playing Denver, Green Bay and Cincinnati.  While the remaining road schedule is a little daunting (Denver, SD, BAL), the six home games they have left all seem pretty favorable.  Losing a home game to London might seem like a disadvantage, but considering they draw the winless Lions there, it may not be a big deal.  My main concern is still Alex Smith and his inability to get the ball downfield.

San Diego still seems pretty average to me and has yet to play a complete game. Of course, I do love them Monday night at home vs. Pittsburgh.  But Philip Rivers looks like he will have to carry this team while operating behind a much banged up offensive line.  Looking at the final month of the season, the Chargers draw Denver twice while Kansas City draws Oakland twice. The one head to head matchup is in Kansas City and the Chiefs’ final two games are at home as well, against Cleveland and Oakland. 

NY Jets (3-1, +40):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (8-8)

Buffalo (2-2, +18):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (8-8)

For the record, I could see the Jets finishing 9-7 and the Bills 7-9, but not the other way around.

Both teams’ outlook now looks rosier because of better than anticipated play at the quarterback position.  In the case of the Jets, it was a bit of dumb luck as Geno Smith’s broken jaw was a blessing in disguise. Ryan Fitzpatrick clearly is the better option and there should be no debate over whom the starter should be when Smith’s jaw heals.  With Buffalo, they made the right call with Tyrod Taylor as both Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel were cases of “been there, done that.”  It will be interesting to see if Fitzpatrick or Taylor can continue their surprisingly solid play.

With the exception of a trip to New England, the Jets’ next seven games could go very well for them. Going 5-2 is reasonable, which means they’d be 8-3.  Right now, only the Pats and Bengals have better point differentials in the AFC.  Football Outsiders has their defense #2 in DVOA.

I trust Taylor less than Fitzpatrick and like the Bills remaining schedule less than the Jets as well. Buffalo’s two “marquee” wins (over Indianapolis and Miami) also don’t look as impressive in retrospect.

The Winner of This Year’s Worst Division

Indianapolis (2-2, -21):  Preseason Projection (12-4) | Current Projection (9-7)

Tennessee (1-2, +12):  Preseason Projection (6-10) | Current Projection (6-10)

That’s right. I’m not ruling out the Titans winning the AFC South. If regression hits the Colts even harder than expected, then there has to be SOMEBODY to “steal” the division.  Tennessee has actually outgained all three of its opponents thus far.

Keeping Indy afloat is two things: an incredible ability to consistently win close games and their domination of division rivals.  Since Andrew Luck came to town three-plus years ago, the team is 22-4 SU (preposterous!) in games decided by seven points or less while going 18-2 against the rest of the AFC South.  Their two wins this year are against the Titans and Jaguars by a combined five points.

There’s always next year

Pittsburgh (2-2, +21):  Preseason Projection (9-7) | Current Projection (7-9)

It’s dangerous to start writing the epitaph for a model franchise this early in the season.  Just ask Trent Dilfer!  But while Black and Gold supporters will optimistically point to the return of Ben Roethlisberger, I wonder what kind of a hole the team will be in by that time. The upcoming schedule with Mike Vick is not kind as they travel to San Diego (Monday night) plus Kansas City and have to host Arizona and Cincinnati (who will be off a bye).  I had this team regressing anyway this year (1st place schedule) and the Big Ben injury clearly makes that regression even worse. 

Miami (1-3, -36):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (6-10)

Every offseason, we all fall in love with some team for no good reason and their inevitable failure to live up to the hype makes us all look foolish.  This year, that team is Miami.  Having fired Joe Philbin after four games is basically an admission of being fundamentally flawed. I don’t know much about interim Dan Carpenter, but he has the feel of a Mike Singletary-level disaster.  Short-term, there will be a temporary resurgence, but temporary is the key word there.

The reason everyone (myself included) was high on the Dolphins is that across the board improvement was expected in all three phases of the game.  On offense, Ryan Tannehill was given weapons.  On defense, Ndamukong Suh was signed to a massive deal.  Special teams, a highly volatile facet of the game, ranked 32nd in DVOA last year and could only go up. So far, the only positive I can find for the Fins is that they currently rank 11th in special teams DVOA.

Houston (1-3, -31):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (5-11)

Regression was pretty much inevitable here after jumping from 2 to 9 wins a year ago.  Bill O’Brien’s juggling of the QB situation has taken that inevitability and made it even worse.  The reality of the matter is that neither Brian Hoyer nor Ryan Mallet are viable starting quarterbacks in this league. It would not be the worst thing in the world for the Texans to finish with one of the worst records in the league and use a high draft pick on a franchise signal caller, something they have never had. 

Oakland (2-2, -11):  Preseason Projection (5-11) | Current Projection (5-11)

Unlike some of the other teams in this tier, there’s some legit excitement here.  But the bottom line is that the Raiders still have a long ways to go to respectability.  They clearly have drafted well the last two years and that’s a good start. Honestly, when Denver does eventually fall off in the next couple years, it might be the Silver and Black that grabs the AFC West mantle.

Cleveland (1-3, -17): Preseason Projection (3-13) | Current Projection (4-12)

Even though the Browwwwwns lost two of their first three games (perceived to be the “easiest” part of their schedule) and could very likely be 2-8 heading into the bye, I gave them a one-game bump in the win column.  It’s splitting hairs and not really meant to be taken as a positive.  I have them at 3-12 hosting a 7-8 Steelers team in the final week, which would be a meaningless game that could go either way. It’s head-scratching why Josh McCown is still the starter here as you might as well throw Manziel to the wolves just so you can see if there’s a need to draft ANOTHER QB with ANOTHER high draft pick next spring.  More disappointing has been the defense.  The Browwwwwwns have been outgained in all four games this year.

Jacksonville (1-3, -45): Preseason Projection (4-12) | Current Projection (3-13)

Gus Bradley is going to get fired. Even in a division where no team is projected to win 10 games, Jacksonville figures to finish at least tied for the worst record in the AFC.  A failure to develop Blake Bortles and just plain terrible injury luck with this year’s top draft choice (Dante Fowler, Jr) has doomed the Bradley regime. 

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