Bryan: Hello, and welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, Thursday edition! After handling the NFC West yesterday, today we move on to their AFC counterparts, the land of young passers! Patrick Mahomes! Justin Herbert! Uh, Drew Lock! … Derek Carr?
Man, I’ve got to start reading more than just the headlines of these things.
Andrew: I said yesterday that these two divisions have high ceilings and high floors, and I broadly stand by that, but they get there in different ways. No team in all of football has a higher ceiling than the Chiefs, because Patrick Mahomes exists on a different plane than the rest of us. The only thing stopping Mahomes last year was the total annihilation of his offensive line, a flaw the team has spent a heap of resources to address this year. Herbert’s team might be the most variable in the entire sport, and the other two both have fairly clear potential strengths but lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Though I guess it’s possible that nous sachions quoi, depending how deep the analysis segment goes.
Bryan: Man, I’m American; you’re lucky if I manage to speak one language correctly. Or if I can describe the Broncos or Raiders quarterback situations without resorting to four-letter words and colorful invective.
Andrew: If that is true, you might be the only person in the entire world of sports media who can muster a passionate reaction to Derek Carr. Or Teddy Bridgewater, for that matter.
Bryan: Oh, come now. Everyone loves Teddy, up until the point where they have to put him on the field to play football. Which leads us nicely into…
(Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” below list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number. Yes, that’s awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. Support groups meet on Wednesdays.)
Denver Broncos (8.5)
Last Over: 2016 (Head Coach: Gary Kubiak; Quarterback: Trevor Siemian)
Last Under: 2020 (Vic Fangio/Drew Lock)
Bryan: We get to start a brand new game today, one I’m calling Explain Why Team X Passed On Justin Fields. So, why did the Broncos pass on Justin Fields, instead taking Patrick Surtain and dooming themselves to a Drew Lock-Teddy Bridgewater quarterback “battle?”
Andrew: While that is a fun game, I think Derrik Klassen does a strong job of explaining the appeal of Surtain in the Almanac chapter. For my money, Denver is a franchise and a coaching staff that needs to win a decent number of games this season. The defense is the clearest path to them immediately doing so, unless you believe that Fields is a clear and immediate upgrade over Lock and Bridgewater. While he obviously could be, I’m not sure that’s either clear or immediate enough for Vic Fangio and the 2021 Broncos.
Bryan: You’re right in that Surtain has appeal, especially when you consider that the Broncos ranked 26th against receivers split wide in 2020; there’s no question that that needed to be addressed, hence Surtain. And Kyle Fuller. And Ronald Darby. I’m not necessarily sure they needed to add all three, but they saw a weakness, and they took steps to fix it. A+ job there.
But man, it is clear at this point that Drew Lock is not the answer. And Teddy, for how great his comeback story is, isn’t the answer either. The AFC West is becoming an arms race, and Denver’s out here with water pistols. If John Elway hadn’t had some personnel control wrested from him, I’d expect him to be suiting up by Week 3.
Andrew: In many ways, the quarterback battle is also a philosophical one. Bridgewater gives you the even keel. His floor is solid, low-tier starter/high-tier backup quarterback play. His ceiling is the exact same thing. Drew Lock is way more volatile. If Fangio goes with Bridgewater, we’re looking at a team that is relying on its defense to win games, and its offense to not screw up. If he goes with Lock, that may be a recognition that he needs the higher potential from the offense, and is willing to accept that it could go horribly wrong.
Bryan: There was a small but vocal group of Broncos observers—and not just fans, but writers and analysts and reporters—who were convinced the reason Denver passed on Fields was that there was a deal in the works to bring Aaron Rodgers to town, spurred on by the Adam Schefter report on draft day. That smoke dissipated, of course, but it has been a gradual awakening over the past few months as one by one, people have realized that, no, there is no grand plan at the quarterback position. This is it. And that’s frustrating, because the pieces around the quarterback are really good!
Andrew: And not for the first time. Remember when the Broncos had a Super Bowl roster being quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler? Remember Trevor Siemian? The Broncos are perennially one player away from contention. Unfortunately, that player is a quarterback, and they currently have the worst one in the division, regardless of who they name the starter. Which means, while I am excited to see what Fangio does with the defense, I have a hard cap on my expectations for this Broncos team. I simply don’t see a path to a good offense, and I think every other team in the division has higher potential as a result.
Bryan: I think I’m a little higher on the team as a whole than you are. I’d go so far as to say that the Broncos are the best team in the league … who do not have a chance of making the Super Bowl. The defense is going to be top-10; the offense under either Bridgewater or a somehow improved Lock probably has a floor of being below average and a ceiling of also being below average, and that’s going to win them a decent number of football games. They get the NFC East, they get Detroit, they get the Jags and Jets. I’m actually going to take the over here … which might be a disaster, because I don’t think it’s an over with a chance of making any noise in 2021, and it would be too many wins to have a chance at a top passer in the 2022 draft. And so the cycle of retreads and washups continue at the quarterback position, as far as the eyes can see.
Andrew: The schedule is very friendly, I admit. A 3-0 start is entirely plausible. Detroit and Cincinnati in December is also appealing. That’s five wins without searching too hard. However, as we have already seen, I’m a bit higher than you are on the NFC East. Denver this year is not that different from Washington last year. I’m envisioning something akin to the Mark Sanchez Jets in concept, but I’m also envisioning eight- or nine-win mediocrity even with a terrific defense. Put me down for an under that is better than last year, but still desperately weak at the game’s most critical position.
Kansas City Chiefs (12.5)
Last Over: 2020 (Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes)
Last Under: 2019 (Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes)
Andrew: Once again, this is a “will Patrick Mahomes stay healthy?” line.
Bryan: This line is bait, is what it is. It’s a “can you find five losses for the Chiefs? Really? OK, it’s your funeral” line. And yes, yes I can, but man, it’s a tough argument. This is a case of Vegas maybe not being able to set the line high enough; it’s the highest line in the league and you still only get +105 if you take the over.
Andrew: The Chiefs were the best team in the league last year right up until they lost their last remaining starting-caliber lineman. They’re even better this year, thanks to the resources they’ve poured into fixing that one flaw. I’m not convinced by the defense, but I don’t need to be; they only need to hold their own while the offense tears things apart. There are three, maybe four teams on the schedule that I see competing with them, and they play three of the four at home. They might lose a couple of other games, especially in division, but they’ll also beat at least one and possibly all of their close competitors.
Bryan: When I went game-by-game and picked wins and losses—which isn’t the way to approach these things, but is a fun exercise—I ended up only chalking up Ls for Kansas City against Baltimore on the road and then in Week 18 against the Broncos when they’d be resting starters. That being said! They certainly made a habit last season of not blowing teams away when they had the chance, letting teams hang around and around. It generally did not bite them in 2020, but it’s not too hard to imagine a world in which they slip up a little more often and lose some of those tight games. They were 14-2, but with only 11.9 estimated wins last season, so I mean, it’s possible, right?
Andrew: It’s also possible that Mahomes gets banged up, the loss of Sammy Watkins hurts them a bit more than most people realize, and they somehow end up starting Mike Remmers at offensive tackle in the year of our Lord twenty-twenty-one. I will not be the man who is caught betting on that. The Chiefs are better in pretty much every department, Watkins’ replacement excepted, and the clear favorites to pick up at least 13 wins. 14-3 is entirely realistic, even resting starters in Week 18. Over, and it would be over even if the line was a full win higher.
Bryan: I don’t think the Chiefs are stone-cold locks to win the division; they’ve got questions about depth and questions about third receiver behind Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and questions in the secondary. But these are questions with possible answers, and Mahomes, Andy Reid, and company are too good to not find at least some answers. Plus, at the end of the year, I’d rather be the guy who put too much faith in the best quarterback in football as opposed to not enough faith. Over as well, even if Vegas hasn’t given me much room to work with on the over.
Las Vegas Raiders (7)
Last Over: 2020 (Jon Gruden/Derek Carr)
Last Under: 2018 (Jon Gruden/Derek Carr)
Bryan: I suggested that it was possible that the Chiefs won’t win the division. Well, in that case … no, it still won’t be the Raiders. The Raiders aren’t in contention for the division. They’re not in contention for a wild-card spot. They’re not in contention for the first overall pick. I guess they’re in contention for neatest new stadium, now that fans get to show up, but that’s about it. Is there a more boring team in football than this? Or at least, a more mediocre one?
Andrew: If you hadn’t been so much faster than I am at this typing lark, I would have opened this segment by asking, “what exactly are the Raiders?” Like, philosophically. Holistically. What are they assembling here? What’s the approach? Where’s the payoff? When and how does it come together?
Bryan: That was one of the running themes in the offseason stat articles I wrote—what, exactly, is the intent behind the Raiders’ offense? At every turn, they leaned away from what they were good at and just slapped together a series of plays based on … and I don’t have a way to finish that sentence. The ever-changing whims of Chucky?
Andrew: The Raiders are a midlife crisis of a football team. They look around, and they have the things they thought they wanted: a franchise quarterback, a new stadium in a city they’d never lived in before, a couple of shiny toys in Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller, but it’s all a bit anticlimactic and leaves them wanting more. So they offload the safe, reliable Rodney Hudson and bring in the unsettled Yannick Ngakoue, as though they think “different” and “more” are synonymous; but onlookers see through it as an attempt to generate spice, unlikely to work out any better than what they had before.
Bryan: And, I mean, moving to Vegas seems exactly like what you’d do if you had a midlife crisis, so consider your theory endorsed. I’ll raise your what are the Raiders question and ask you why are the Raiders? I feel like, just by talking about them for five paragraphs, we have already given them more thought than they deserve.
And then you have guys like Arden Key, coming out of Las Vegas saying what a terrible time they had there, being stuck at the wrong spot in the wrong system. Or the Raiders bringing in Solomon Thomas, and then questioning if he actually fits at defensive tackle, as if the 49ers hadn’t already demonstrated the answer to that question. Like … I don’t get it. I don’t get the Raiders at all.
Andrew: The closest I come to emotion about this Raiders team is that I think I kinda want to like them, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that the team has taken on the persona of Derek Carr, like a cat owner taking on the personality of its cat (while, naturally, believing it’s the other way around). The Raiders aren’t going to be bad, but they aren’t going to be good. They won’t implode like the Texans, and they won’t break out like the Bills. They’ll play games, and get results, and everybody will nod with momentary interest when they beat somebody like the Ravens or the Chiefs, but forget all about them again by the time they lose to Washington and the Browns.
Bryan: The front office is frantically trying to figure out how to go .500 in a season with an odd number of games, so expect them to play for the tie at some point in the 2021. As either 8-9 or 9-8 is over the seven-win line, I’m taking the over here, but I think it’s far more likely that Denver wins the AFC West crown than it is that Las Vegas does anything of note.
Andrew: They have enough easy games that their floor should be quite high, and enough hard ones that their ceiling should be another offseason of questions about what that missing ingredient is, trying something, anything to get them over the hump. Or to help them identify where the hump is, and how they might think about scaling it. The hump will be more interesting than the Raiders. Over.
Los Angeles Chargers (9.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Anthony Lynn/Philip Rivers)
Last Under: 2020 (Anthony Lynn/Justin Herbert)
Bryan: And we save the most interesting for last! There may not be a team where the general opinion and Official Football Outsiders Projections differ as much as with the Los Angeles Herberts. Chargers! Chargers. I meant Chargers. Betting odds have them as a clear second to the Chiefs in the division, sitting at +450 to win it outright and at +105 to make the playoffs, or 48.8% even after the vig. And yet, Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 has them last in the division with 7.3 average wins and just a 25.6% chance of making the postseason. This probably would have raised more indignation on the Internet if Chargers fans were a thing that existed rather than a theoretical construct—though, again, Justin Herbert is sort of willing them into reality.
Andrew: There’s a lot to like about how the Chargers have approached things around Herbert. I’m a fan of their receiving corps, beyond the obvious headliners of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Chargers fans question the Josh Palmer selection, but Palmer is the most pedigreed receiver behind the top two, and Herbert has already enjoyed success with Tyron Johnson and Jalen Guyton. Jared Cook has his moments, but he is a very good receiving target at tight end and should be a safer bet than Hunter Henry to stay on the field. Corey Linsley could be a fantastic pickup at center, and first-round pick Rashawn Slater across from Bryan Bulaga could result in the best offensive line they’ve had since Nick Hardwick and Kris Dielman were in town. There is a ton of potential for this to be a very dangerous offense.
Bryan: My primary thought, looking at this line, is that Vegas is very smart. Your argument is 100% plausible, and you can add in optimism about Brandon Staley repeating his magic on a Chargers defense with Derwin James coming back—remember how we all went crazy for the Chargers’ all-dime look two years ago, with James as pointman?
Andrew: If James could stay healthy, he would be a Hall of Fame safety. And to quote Don Meredith, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.
Bryan: And Vegas sees all of this, and sees everyone excited about the Chargers, and knows they can lift this line up a win or two above maybe where it should be. People seem to want to believe the Chargers are going to put it all together, because all the pieces are there. And that’s entirely possible! But there’s also the fact that Staley, as successful defensive guy, has a sample size of one, and that was in a year with Aaron Donald. And there’s the fact that Herbert was really good under pressure in 2020—unsustainably good, in a split which generally has more to do with luck than with talent. It’s entirely possible that Herbert can both be a better fundamental quarterback in 2021 and still have less success than he had as a rookie.
Andrew: On defense, the loss of Melvin Ingram hurts. I’d feel considerably better about their pass rush if he was still there. Carolina signing away Denzel Perryman also hurts the Chargers front seven, and while I love Chris Harris and Derwin James, I have questions about that secondary.
Bryan: This isn’t a case where a line is ludicrously high and impossible. I don’t have to stretch at all to imagine a 10-7 season for the Chargers, and you can probably pump that up a little more if you have more imagination than I do. But it’s not Vegas’ job to set a line so that a team is 50/50 to go above or below it; it’s their job to set a line that draws the money 50/50 on either side. And I think they have correctly diagnosed the betting public as being higher on the Chargers than the fundamentals really support. I think there’s too much room on the under for me to go with anything else here.
So, I am apparently OK if Justin Herbert makes me look like an idiot, but not if Patrick Mahomes does, for the record.
Andrew: A four-game win streak to finish last year is doing too much heavy lifting for a team that, for all Herbert’s success, only beat the Bengals, Jaguars, and Jets prior to December 13. Much of what I like about the Chargers offense was already in place last season, or at least an equivalent was, and the defense has lost more talent than it has added. It’s easy to look at Herbert and imagine what he could be with another year of development, but this is more than a one-year project. It’s a year too early for a 9.5-win line. Under.
Bryan and Andrew return next week as they head down south. Does Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill give the Saints the best chance of contending? Will age ever come for Tom Brady? And what to make of the infidelities of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, hereditary King of Bohemia? These questions and fewer answered next week, same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.