Thursday, October 8, 2015

2015 NFC quarter-pole analysis

By Kyle Ross (posted by Rick Morris)

Safely In (The Playoffs)

Green Bay Packers (4-0, +42):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (14-2)

The Packers join the Falcons and the Bengals as they only three teams to start the season 4-0 SU and ATS.  They were actually outgained in the opener at Chicago, but since that time have rolled to three straight, rather comfortable double digit victories. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, hands down, and the Packers (along with Arizona) are one of only two teams currently to rank in the top 7 on both offense and defense in DVOA. 

Green Bay had a number of close wins last year (6-1 SU in games decided by 7 pts or less) and also led the league in turnover differential (+14).  Throw in the fact they jumped from eight wins in 2013 (Rodgers missed significant time) to 12 in 2014 and I did not believe they could match last year’s win total. I clearly was wrong.  A tremendous homefield advantage means they aren’t likely to lose more than once at Lambeau, if they lose there at all, and the only game the Pack will be a dog in all season is when they visit Denver (which could be a battle of unbeatens.)

Atlanta Falcons (4-0, +44):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (13-3)

My god, look at that schedule! Here are their remaining non-division opponents: Washington (H), Tennessee (A), San Fran (A), Indy (H off a bye), Minnesota (H), Jacksonville (A).  That’s exactly one playoff team from last year plus six games against a division where no team finished with a winning record in 2014!  While Dan Quinn has emerged as a frontrunner for Coach of the Year, let’s not overlook the fact he walked into an extremely ideal situation here.  He inherited a top 10 QB (rare!) and a team that had grossly underachieved back to back years. The Falcons have what appears to be the easiest schedule in the league.

Of course, they have gotten better under Quinn, but mainly on the side of the ball that is not his specialty.  The offense is second in the league in points scored and 4th in DVOA.  Be careful of attributing too much credit to Quinn for improvement on the defensive side of the ball as Atlanta ranked dead last in the league there last season, so they could only go “up” anyway. 

Seattle Seahawks (2-2, +16): Preseason Projection (12-4) | Current Projection (11-5)

What looked to be the best team, on paper, coming into the season, certainly has its flaws.  The offensive line was bad last year, so dealing center Max Unger away has only made that issue worse and compounding matters is that tight end Jimmy Graham has been a virtual non-factor through the first quarter of the season. That despite an identity change on offense, where the Seahawks seem to be moving away from a run-heavy approach.  Yet, their most effective plays still tend to involve Russell Wilson scrambling.

The defense is the defense and has not allowed a TD in two games since Kam Chancellor returned. Of course, it helps that they faced Detroit and Chicago.  Like Green Bay, the Seahawks are almost impossible to beat at home, so based on that alone they should get to double digit wins rather easily. Facing two of the six remaining unbeatens in the next two weeks will give us a better idea of just where the two-time defending NFC Champs are at in 2015.

Arizona Cardinals (3-1, +75): Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (10-6)

It pains me to do this, but Bruce Arians is doing it again. Only this time, his team is most certainly “for real.”  The Cardinals are top five on both offense and defense in DVOA plus they have the top scoring differential in the league right now.  Of course, it helps to play New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco. A bevy of non-offensive touchdowns (four) to this point will be almost impossible to sustain. I have the NFC West being decided in Week 17 at Arizona and looking at my current projections, you can tell who I have winning between the Seahawks and Cards.  While an injury at QB is a concern for every team, I feel Carson Palmer still remains more susceptible than most.

The Wide Open NFC East

NY Giants (2-2, +20):  Preseason Projection (10-6) | Current Projection (10-6)

Right now, I’m feeling pretty good about my “Giants to win the division” prediction, even if it comes almost via default.  That being said, the G-Men have had a double digit lead in the fourth quarter of every game and are still “due” to have a couple of close games go their way (they were 0-3 SU in games decided by 7 pts or less last year). I’m not sure what has been the more pleasant surprise to this point; Eli Manning not turning the ball over very much or the front seven.  Manning is still the most proven commodity at quarterback in the division and Camp Coughlin seems poised to “circle the wagons” one more time.

Philadelphia (1-3, -8): Preseason Projection (8-8) | Current Projection (9-7)

Because of all the offseason moves, I really struggled to pin a record on this team prior to the start of the season.  I don’t think anybody would argue that the Eagles haven’t underperformed, but despite that I have them now finishing better than I initially expected and possibly even sneaking into the playoffs. Keep in mind that some of that has to do with the unforeseen decline of Dallas due to the Romo injury.  All of the team’s games have been close so far, even though they’ve yet to outgain a single opponent.  Things can only get better from here and I think the division gets decided in Week 17 vs. the Giants.

Dallas (2-2, -6): Preseason Projection (9-7) | Current Projection (7-9)

The Romo injury is catastrophic, especially when paired with the injury to Dez Bryant.  After being one of the most talent-rich teams in the league at the skill positions last year (top 10 QB/RB/WR), the Cowboys are now left to lean on what is still perhaps the league’s best offensive line.  Brandon Weeden actually has not been terrible in place of Romo, at least when compared to his own previously poor standards. Losing your star quarterback for this much time is a season-killer for a team that was due to regress anyway. 

Washington (2-2, -1): Preseason Projection (5-11) | Current Projection (6-10)

No, Kirk Cousins is not a viable long-term option as the starting QB (he would be one of the better backups, however!). But then again, neither was RG3.  Washington joins the Jets as the league’s unlikely duo to have outgained every opponent thus far, so the team certainly is performing better than expected. Consider they are one punt return away (vs. Miami) from being 3-1.  Being average is definitely a step in the right direction for Washington, but they are not going to be “good” until they get a real quarterback. 

Legit Contenders

Carolina Panthers (4-0, +37): Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (9-7)

One could make an argument that the NFC playoff field is already set.  You have the four teams I listed as “safely in” at the top, pick your winner of the NFC East and then there’s also Carolina sitting at 4-0. History gives teams that start 4-0 SU an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs. That means five out of six.  There’s currently six 4-0 teams.  That means one might come up short.  I’m looking at you, Carolina!

After opening last season 2-0, the Panthers then went 1-8-1 over a 10-game stretch.  Somehow they rallied to win their final four regular season contests and take a historically bad division, which means they’ve now won eight straight regular season contests after a 1-8-1 stretch.  I say these next 12 games will see the Panthers finish likely 5-7 or 6-6 because, well, that’s simple regression to the mean type stuff.  So far, they’ve beaten Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans (no Brees) and Tampa Bay, but actually been outgained in the process.  A big help has been leading the league in turnover differential (+8). 

Let’s assume Indianapolis does win the AFC South and I give Carolina at least a Wild Card here in the NFC. That would mean, under current projections, we would have NINE returning playoff teams from a year ago.  There has never been more than eight since the 12-team format was instituted in 1990.  Carolina is clearly the most vulnerable 4-0 team, so I probably should project them as being “out.” It’s only then a question of whether the final Wild Card comes from the NFC East (Philly?) or one of these two teams:

Minnesota Vikings (2-2, +7):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (8-8)

St. Louis Rams (2-2, -15):  Preseason Projection (8-8) | Current Projection (8-8)

I still maintain that the Vikings are closer to average than good.  Their Week 4 loss to Denver illustrated both the good and bad of Teddy Bridgewater.  The fact is that Minnesota has never beaten a team with a winning record since Bridgewater took over.  I certainly believe him to be the best QB selected in the 2014 Draft, but I also believe there’s been a “rush to anoint” due to the fact he’s clearly better than the two QBs chosen ahead of him (Bortles, Manziel). 

What helps Minnesota though is the same thing that hurts St. Louis, at least in my opinion.  That would be the respective divisions.  With Detroit and Chicago both floundering in the NFC North, the Vikings could (should!) finish with a winning division record. The Rams are theoretically in a harder position trying to make it three teams from the NFC West, even though they already hold wins over both the Seahawks and Cardinals.  Still though, St. Louis is the most schizophrenic team in the league and it’s hard to put a ton of faith in them.  Another edge the Vikings have in this two-team race is they host the Rams in Week 9.

There’s Always Next Year

New Orleans (1-3, -18):  Preseason Projection (8-8) | Current Projection (7-9)

I suppose that in the Saints’ case, the headline for this tier should read “there was always the past.”  Because, whether they want to admit it or not, the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era is rapidly coming to a close.  The defense is still bad (32nd in DVOA) and the offense is nowhere even close to what it once was. They can still maintain mediocrity this year, but beyond that will be a lengthy rebuild that neither Brees nor Payton will likely want to be a part of.  Those two will never have to buy a drink in New Orleans again, which is good because pretty soon they’ll be drinking like the rest of us on a Sunday afternoon.

Tampa Bay (1-3, -45):  Preseason Projection (9-7) | Current Projection (6-10)

That preseason projection was clearly an idealistic, best-case scenario, one that I quickly “threw away” after the Bucs lost their home opener to Tennessee, 42-14.  They still haven’t won a home game since 2013 (11 straight losses).  The factors pointing up this year for the Bucs were: improved QB play (still hasn’t really materialized), a likelihood to improve at home (see above) and a likely better record in close games (hey, they are 1-0 SU in those decided by 7 pts or less!).   Save for the opener, they’ve actually been a little more competitive than the final scores show, in particular vs. Carolina where they outgained the Panthers 411-244, but were undone by five turnovers.

Detroit Lions (0-4, -30):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (5-11)

The league’s only winless team at the quarter mark.  Coming into the year, there were three NFC playoff teams from a year ago that I think many of us believed would win fewer games and possibly miss the playoffs entirely:  Dallas, Arizona and Detroit.  Arizona is clearly not going to regress because Bruce Arians has magical powers.  Dallas will, but only because of the Romo injury.  Detroit right now just looks like a team that was very lucky last year.  They are regressing much harder than even the biggest skeptic would have thought.

Defensive decline is not a surprise because Ndamukong Suh left. But this offense, despite having Calvin Johnson (and Golden Tate), not to mention a former #1 overall DC in QB Matt Stafford, stinks.  Coordinator Joe Lombardi clearly is not living up to his namesake. Of all last year’s playoff teams, this one has fallen the hardest. 

Chicago Bears (1-3, -57):  Preseason Projection (7-9) | Current Projection (4-12)

The Bears hideous start is somewhat overstated due to six-plus awful quarters of Jimmy Clausen.  With Jay Cutler under center, the team has stood toe-to-toe with Green Bay, traded touchdowns with Arizona and picked up its lone win so far (over Oakland).  But let’s not sugarcoat this thing one iota.  The best thing for all parties is for the team and Cutler to part ways and a new QB to be chosen high in next year’s draft.  What was I thinking with the notion that this team could be respectable in 2015?

San Francisco 49ers (1-3, -62): Preseason Projection (4-12) | Current Projection (2-14)

We will have not seen a two-year decline like this since the dying days of the Jake Delhomme era in Carolina (which resulted in Cam Newton being drafted).  When I picked the 49ers to win in Week 1, I made sure to note that there wouldn’t be many more victories coming their way and now the outlook looks even grimmer.  When Jim Harbaugh is beating Michigan State and Ohio State, I hope Trent Baalke is watching. 

No comments: