This time around we’re looking for teams that will make a leap this year. I’m not talking about a slight improvement or one of those luck-based improvements. I want to see 3 or 4 wins better than last season and a playoff berth.
Honorable mention goes to the Patriots who are sure to look more dangerous this year with Tom Brady back and a schedule so easy that you’d swear they’re a Pac-10 school (ranked easiest in the league by Football Outsiders). That said, they finished 12-4 last year, so it’s hard to predict too much improvement on the record. I don’t see them finishing 15-1 or 16-0, that’s for sure.
Below are my top 3 teams that have a chance to feel like they hit the hyper-drive button and leaped forward.
#3 – The Chicago Bears
In my NFL Preview Part I I spent a lot of time talking about how much worse off the Broncos would be without Jay Cutler. Well, the flip side of the coin is how much better Chicago will be. Last year the Bears developed some semblance of an offense with the addition of Matt Forte. That said, despite jumping 9 spots in offensive DVOA ranking, it was from 31st to 22nd. Not exactly something to strike fear into opposing defenses. The main issue was opponents could stack the box. Kyle Orton didn’t have the arm strength or the vision to exploit opposing defences selling out versus the run. While he was reasonably proficient, he is a care-taker. Jay Cutler is a gameplan-changer. Not only does he have the arm-strength to go deep when opponents stack the box, but his completion rate was 4% better than Orton’s. He could turn Devin Hester into the weapon that Eddie Royal was last year and free up acres of running space for Forte. And he will love throwing to Greg Olsen at TE, who turned into a bonafide weapon last year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chicago’s offensive rank jump to 15 or 16.
Combining the Bears offensive improvement with a perennially solid defense that has been ranked in the top 10 for the last 5 years and only the 24th hardest schedule in the league, means Chicago could expect an extra 2 or 3 wins in my approximation. 11-5 or 12-4 is playoff territory.
#2 – The San Diego Chargers
While FO believes they could have one of the best statistical years ever, I just can’t buy into it to the same extent. If Shawn Merriman comes back in full force, their defence will be completely different. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They will be scary. That said, LT seems to have hit the wall, which is depressing. I was, however, amazed to learn that they were one of the top-rated passing teams in just about every category you could think of . The Chargers offense has transformed largely without most casual fans realizing it. They’ve gone from a LT-dominated running attack with play-action to an all-world TE, to a team that dominates through the air and has a solid running game. Name me one Chargers wide receiver other than Vincent Jackson. I thought so. Philip Rivers is WAY better than most of us thought, proving again that college starts and completion percentage is a much better indicator than arm strength for a QB’s potential NFL success. I’d take this guy over Eli Manning any day.
The biggest issue I have with a San Diego resurgence is Norv Turner. Norv has been a head coach for 11 NFL seasons, yet has a 77-95-1 career record. His best season before San Diego was 10-6 with Washington in 1999. He took over a Chargers team that had gone 35-13 over a 3 year stretch in which they were widely regarded as the “most talented team in football”. What has he done with them? He’s racked up 11-5 and 8-8 seasons in a terrible division. Last year they were lucky to make the playoffs. I don’t know any other way to describe him other than to say he looks like a parent who’s never played video games before. He’s clearly concentrating, trying his best and thinks he’s got the hang of it, until you turn the difficulty level off of “Rookie Mode”. This guy is overmatched against every decent coach in the league. And if you think I’m alone on this fact, check this out.
On the bright side, they get to play Denver, Oakland and KC twice. They have absolutely the best chance of winning the AFC West. I could see them going 12-4 and making a deep run in the playoffs, but I could also see Norv losing control of the team and they finish 7-9 due to a number of blown play calls and off-field incidences with boat parties and “making it rain” at gentlemen’s clubs. Anything could happen with Norv at the helm.
#1 – The Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks finished 4-12 last year after one of the worst injury bugs on offense the NFL has seen in quite some time. They had 66.3 Adjusted Games Lost for offensive starters alone. They had to sign 2 wide receivers off the street to start, by Week 3 and both those guys (Billy McMullen and Michael Bumpus) were gone for the season by Week 6. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck attempted less passes than backup Seneca Wallace and the entire starting O-line was out at one time or another, and never played as a unit once. In a related note, Seattle’s offense ranked 26th in the league.
As the writers at FO constantly remind us, injuries are random and tend to regress back to average. The odds of the Seattle offense missing so many starters again are incredibly unlikely.
On defense, the loss of their only decent pass rusher, Pat Kerney, in week 8 didn’t help either. They lost Julian Peterson in the offseason, but picked up Corey Redding and Colin Cole at DT, which should make them solid up the middle. I love the Seattle linebacking core. Lofa Tatupu had an off year but is a great middle ‘backer, Leroy Hill is tough against the run and they added Aaron Curry in the draft. Most football people project Curry to have a bigger impact than AJ Hawk, OJ Mayo or Patrick Willis did in their rookie years. Bringing Ken Lucas back to play corner opposite Marcus Trufant will be a boost too. He’s a solid veteran with size and he played in Seattle for years. If their safeties weren’t so terrible, I’d chalk them up for a top 10 defense this year. My advice to opposing offenses is to throw bombs, Tecmo Bowl style.
I also like the coaching change in Seattle. I’m a firm believer that the lame duck coach is a team-killer. When a player knows his coach won’t be around next year, what’s his incentive to throw his body around to impress him? I know Jim Mora Jr. was already on the staff, but you have to believe that hurt the situation a little bit. It made Holmgren appear to have even less authority.
Mora is 26-22 as an NFL head coach, which is decent, but not overwhelming. That said, he found a way to get the best out of Mike Vick and put together a Falcons defense that brought a lot of pressure. I think he has more talent to work with in Seattle and they play in a division that’s easier than Paris Hilton. They should be able to guarantee 4 wins just from playing St. Louis and San Fran this year.
Unfortunately for Seattle, they’ve drawn the AFC South & NFC North to play against this year, which means no cakewalks other than Detroit, but they are very capable of a 9-7 or 10-6 record, which could be enough to win the division or get into the playoffs on a wildcard. From 4-12, that’s a pretty big turnaround.
Next up, NFL Preview Part 3 – my division predictions.
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