Andrew: Hello, and welcome to not only another edition, but a new season of Scramble for the Ball. Well, the prelude to a prospective new season, at least. Whether we get one, and how much of it we get, is still … let’s just say uncertain, for reasons well outwith our control.
Bryan: As always, we’re going to kick the year off with our look at over/unders around the league. That, of course, assumes that there’s a 16-game schedule with which to work and, look… We live in the same world you live in. We see what’s going on, both inside and outside the sports world. The last time I wrote a Scramble, the league we covered immediately folded … followed by the rest of sports and, indeed, much of society itself. All I can say is, my bad.
Andrew: Bryan’s sentence for this heinous crime is to spend yet another chunk of his life writing this column with me, Football Outsiders’ (sort-of) European Correspondent. I believe that our fifth season together makes us officially the longest-running Scramble duo in the column’s history*. Naturally, such an historic milestone can only possibly be overshadowed by the total destruction of modern civilization.
(*Editors Note: Nope, Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower still hold that record with six years from 2009 to 2014. This is the level of accuracy you can expect from Scramble for the Ball’s upcoming predictions.)
Bryan: So, into this odd and uncertain future we go. The NFL is still currently planning to play a season, and they’re planning it to go off without a hitch. Sure. Why not! But, just as we as a society would love to see football games on Sundays to help take our mind off, y’know, all this, we hope that Wednesdays filled with stupid jokes about poor coaching decisions and unnecessarily complicated charts and graphs will help pass the time. We all do our part, yeah?
Andrew: And thus we stride, quixotically, into the first batch of this season’s over/unders. We’re assuming, as ever, a 16-game season played by something akin to the first-string squad of each team. We all know that this is not a normal season, and that these are not normal circumstances, but as the site’s resident fantasists we’ll try to keep any references to COVID from here out appropriately veiled and distanced.
Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” in the following text list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number.
Andrew: If the over/unders are any indication, we start with what Vegas pegs as the most unchanged (least changed?) division in football. Not one of these teams has moved more than half a point from last preseason to this, with only the Bears and Lions lines dropping half a win each. Last year, we diverged quite widely on the likely outcomes for this division. Have you seen anything to make you view it differently this time around?
Bryan: Last year, I said that I felt that the NFC North was a bit of a mush, and that I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner was 8-8 or so, with no true standouts. Of course, the North turned around and produced two 10-win teams, with the Packers reaching the NFC Championship Game. Oops. This year, however, I wrote the chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (available now!), so I’ve spent most of the offseason reviewing, analyzing, and trying to best grapple with the North, and my conclusions are…
… I hate this entire freaking division. All of ’em. I’m doubling down on last year and calling for another hodgepodge of mediocrity. I had to watch Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles run offenses. I had to listen to Matt Patricia explain game plans. I had to watch Kevin Stefanski call offenses. I had to watch the Packers’ receiving corps. Months of my life! No, no, no, no, no. Boo. Boo to all of you.
Andrew: Hodgepodge of mediocrity it might be, but is it a predictable hodgepodge of mediocrity? Chances are somebody’s going to come out of this with 10 wins. Can we guess which team?
Bryan: Can we say none of the above? I’m saying none of the above. Let’s dive into this thing, so I can air my grievances from having to watch these guys.
Chicago Bears (8.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Head Coach: Matt Nagy; Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky)
Last Under: 2019 (Matt Nagy, Mitchell Trubisky)
Andrew: I’m guessing we can both agree that if this division contains a 10-win team, it probably won’t be Chicago.
Bryan: Well, the Bears were a 10-win team just two years ago, when Mitchell Trubisky took a half-step forward and the defense was lights out, so it’s not like we’re trying to dig back into ancient history or a different roster to find a 10-win squad here. Of course, the guru behind that defense is long gone, and Trubisky spent basically all of 2019 dumping the ball 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to Tarik Cohen, so 2018 does seem very, very far in the proverbial rear-view mirror.
Andrew: Meanwhile Nick Foles, ostensibly the guy brought in to light a (metaphorical!) fire under Trubisky, spent the first half of 2019 on IR with a fractured collarbone and the second half being benched for a sixth-round rookie. The standard of quarterback play in the Windy City looks very much in keeping with tradition. I saw some debate this offseason about whether Jay Cutler was the best quarterback in Bears history, and perhaps the saddest part of the debate is that the assertion wasn’t obviously wrong.
Bryan: I didn’t write 40,000 words on NFL history this offseason to put up with this Sid Luckman slander! The sad thing is, those Bears offenses in the 1940s were more entertaining to watch than the Bears’ offense in 2019, and that’s kind of a problem.
I still think the best-case scenario for the Bears is Trubisky winning the starting job in a fourth-year breakout. Those are really rare, but not unheard of; Drew Bledsoe is probably the best example thereof. If Foles was going to be a consistently OK starter at this point in his career, he would have shown it by now; instead, he’s a frustratingly streaky, inconsistent player. He has actually had a lower DVOA in each of the past three seasons than Trubisky has, though that doesn’t include his Super Bowl run (which is kind of a big thing not to include, I know). Unless Magical Super Bowl Foles or Magical 2013 Foles is limbering up in the locker room, Bears fans hoping that he can bring some of that Eagles magic to Chicago are more likely to be disappointed by some of that Jacksonville magic, and that’s about as depressing an idea as can be.
Andrew: The resemblance between the Jaguars and Bears in recent seasons goes beyond just Foles, of course. That one season of defensive magic was not enough to set either team up for the long term, and this could well be the final year for both of those coaching staffs. So what optimism is there? The front seven is still very good, headlined by Khalil Mack but also including Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith. Allen Robinson is a tremendous wide receiver who deserves much better quarterback play than he has had to this point in his career. Eddie Jackson is a star at safety. They have cornered the market on journeyman NFL tight ends…
Bryan: The path to victory for them starts with Mack and the rest of that front seven; it’s just a shame that all their first-round draft picks coincidentally evaporated into nothingness the moment he arrived. Offensively, I just don’t see anything there outside of Robinson, and even he sometimes gets too much of the benefit of the doubt for poor play around him, I feel — like, he gets bumped up a slot or two too much in people’s minds because they see footballs fluttering to the ground a CDC-mandated distance away from him on a regular basis. About the time this article goes live, our piece on slot/wide splits for running backs will go out, which goes into a lengthy discussion of A) why Tarik Cohen is not good, and B) why Matt Nagy is not good at using Tarik Cohen. The offensive line is a shambles. But all of that, all of that could be mitigated if they had a solid presence under center. Which they don’t. Again. Under.
Andrew: The lack of a reliable quarterback has been a killer for Chicago since at least the 1980s, and there’s nothing to suggest that’s about to change. Even that, however, could be mitigated some if they had a talented, well-designed offense around him. Which they don’t. Again. Under.
Detroit Lions (6.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Jim Caldwell, Matthew Stafford)
Last Under: 2019 (Matt Patricia, Matthew Stafford)
Andrew: Even all the might of EdjSports processing the genius of Aaron’s maths cannot solve the conundrum that is the Detroit Lions.
Bryan: I have come away with two separate yet equally important beliefs about the Detroit Lions. I believe that, from top to bottom, they have the most talented roster in the NFC North. And I believe that, from top to bottom, they have the worst coaching staff in the NFC North. Finding a balance between those two things is … tricky, to say the least.
Andrew: I’m not sure it is. When coaching is bad but talent is good, coaching trumps talent. When talent is bad but coaching is good, talent trumps coaching. It’s not that I expect the Lions to be bad, mind you, but I don’t expect them to play up to the level of their roster. Last year, I thought they would, and to be fair Matthew Stafford was having an excellent season until his injury. This year … look, they won one game after Week 3 last year, and that was at home against the also-very-bad Giants. They managed to tie a game in which they had a 24-6 fourth-quarter lead against a coach and quarterback making their NFL debuts. Those things don’t happen by fluke.
Bryan: I think you have to throw everything post-Stafford out the window when talking about last year’s Lions; they didn’t have a backup quarterback on the roster who could sort of guide them into decent results afterwards or a coaching staff that could scheme around his loss. Those issues still exist, for sure, but I still think it’s more useful to think of the Lions as a 3-4-1 team rather than a 3-12-1 team. Stafford was having the best year of his career before he got hurt; if he can return this year and be anywhere close to that (still up in the air; back injuries are a hell of a thing), the Lions have a real shot.
They’ve also brought in a flotilla of defensive reserves to help try to make something out of Matt Patricia’s defensive soup. Jamie Collins is coming off a career-revitalizing year in New England, and this time, he’s moving to a team that at least plays the same basic scheme. Danny Shelton’s another veteran of the Belichick machine. Desmond Trufant … is a guy whose best days are behind him, but he still has some value to use. Duron Harmon is probably a better fit than Quandre Diggs was, though the mid-season trade of Diggs is still a head-scratcher. Jeff Okudah is the best cornerback prospect I’ve seen in years. Adding a ton of talent to the defense didn’t work in 2018, but adding a ton more talent should at least help — eventually, they have to reach a tipping point where there’s too much talent to fail, right?
Andrew: Only if they aren’t shedding their best veterans at the same time. Okudah isn’t supplanting the No. 2 cornerback, he’s replacing Darius Slay. Diggs is now a part of one of the league’s best secondaries, and it’s not in Detroit. While the Lions do have a lot of good players, “too much talent to fail” is a high bar I don’t think they’re quite ready to clear.
Bryan: Another counterpoint — Darrell Bevell’s “why don’t we make the entire offense out of throwing deep?” strategy really worked well last season before Stafford went out. Kenny Golladay really benefited from the increased emphasis on deep passing, to the point where he passed Marvin Jones as the team’s best receiver — not that Jones has gotten worse, mind you, just Babytron breaking out.
If this team was coached by literally anyone else, I think people would be talking about them as a sleeper to make a deep run — and our projections do have them winning the division. I have to dock them points because I’ve yet to see any evidence that Patricia can run a team, or garner respect in the locker room, or really do anything better than his predecessor, Jim Caldwell. But I don’t think 7-9 is out of the question at all. I think I’m going over, despite the obvious reasons not to.
Andrew: I’d say the biggest point in Detroit’s favor is they’re the only team in the division that has specifically made moves to try to get better this year. Minnesota has shed talent. Chicago’s basically the same team as last year. Green Bay has aggravated their hypercompetitive starting quarterback, which could either go very well or catastrophically for them. Detroit has upgraded both lines and the back end of their defense. I don’t, however, think that’s the difference between 7-9, which is their prorated record with Stafford last year, and the playoffs. I can buy 7-9 though, or even 8-8, marginally more easily than 6-10. That puts me very, very faintly over, albeit grudgingly.
Green Bay Packers (9)
Last Over: 2019: (Matt LaFleur, Aaron Rodgers)
Last Under: 2018: (Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers)
Bryan: Bart Starr spent 16 years as a Packer before retiring. Brett Favre spent 16 years as a Packer before moving on, pushed out by a young kid named Aaron Rodgers. And now Rodgers is entering his 16th year as a Packer, so, logically, this is it, right? I mean, that’s just math. You can’t argue with math.
Andrew: I’d like to introduce you to 2020, in which people will argue with literally anything, including maths.
Bryan: I really think that if the Packers had gone 10-6, with everything else being the same up to and including the NFC Championship Game loss, the discourse around Green Bay would be a lot … saner, for lack of a better word. 10-6 would have been a significant improvement in Matt LaFleur’s first season. We’d be talking about the significant strides made on both offense and defense — they’d be clearly pointed in the right direction, albeit with obvious holes that needed fixing in Year 2. That’s a great start! It’s a cause for optimism! But no, instead, they’re the second-worst 13-3 team in DVOA history, and are shouldered with an immediate “we must be the favorites!” aura that they haven’t really earned to this point.
Andrew: The entire “one game from the Super Bowl” aspect is also clouding things, even in the mind of their current quarterback. This is a team that is more than a first-round wide receiver away. One 13-3 season does not make a perennial contender, especially not in a conference this loaded. That said, the Packers are still a good team, in that weird spot where the kickback against people overrating them might be leading to them being slightly underrated.
Bryan: I sense our first disagreement of the season! A rare event, considering the hive mind that comes with writing this dang thing for half a decade. These moments should be cherished.
Andrew: Very well. To keep this clean and simple, I’ll let you make the case for the under.
Bryan: I am, in general, a fan of drafting for talent over need. If you drill down too closely into one position to the point where you reach for a player, you’re generally not going to be building a good team. So I’m not going to eviscerate the Packers for not grabbing a much-needed receiver in the apparently loaded 2020 draft class; if they weren’t happy with any of the players available, you have to go with your scout’s evaluations. But using your first three selections to draft a first-round quarterback who won’t see the field for at least one season and probably two; a running back to sit behind your already superstar running back and his more-than-adequate backup; and an H-back is probably the most bizarre draft class I have ever, ever seen.
If Green Bay’s brain trust wasn’t in love with the receivers, fine — but why not a defensive tackle, after the Packers’ line got run over early and often, most notably against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game? Why not an inside linebacker — they were so undermanned there in 2019 they had to basically stick in dime on nearly every snap, and that was before losing Blake Martinez? Why not an offensive lineman to patch up the other guard spot, or to replace the departed Bryan Bulaga? Ricky Wagner and Christian Kirksey do not move the needle for me in any way, shape, or form, so the Packers are really just trying to run back a lesser version of their squad from last season and hope that that’s good enough. Davante Adams is basically the entire receiving corps — Allen Lazard was promising in a small sample size, but that’s not something I would be confident about going forward, while offseason pickup Devin Funchess A) is not good, and B) will be sitting the season out anyway. And that’s all before we get to the fact that, well, Aaron Rodgers isn’t AARON RODGERS anymore. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still good, and can still make plays that no one else in the league can, but he has lost the every-down consistency that made him one of, if not the, best passer in the league in the early part of last decade. I get why the Packers drafted Jordan Love, even if I think it was probably a year too early.
Argh, I could go on a rant about these guys, I swear. To sum up, the basic argument is: they weren’t as good as their record was last year; their DVOA was more along the lines of a nine- or 10-win team, and I feel they’ve gotten worse in the offseason. I don’t think they’ll fall to a losing record or something, but I think 8-8 is more likely than 10-6, and possibly by a significant margin. Hence the under, and also damn whole-number lines.
And for the rebuttal?
Andrew: Whole number lines are evil, and I’d be happier making the case for nine wins than 10, but here goes: Aaron Rodgers isn’t AARON RODGERS anymore, but he’s at worst the second-best quarterback in the division and we already discussed the coaching liability that applies to the best. Davante Adams and a bunch of No. 3 and 4 receivers isn’t exactly an unfamiliar situation for Rodgers, and it’s reasonable to expect progress and improvement from at least one of the younger guys behind Adams. The offensive line is still good, and another year in the Shanahan zone scheme that Matt LaFleur favors will benefit most of those guys.
On defense, they kept the most important pieces while replacing the most replaceable. I’m a big fan of Mike Pettine as a defensive coordinator, and think he’s in the anti-Patricia category of coaches who make their players better. The talent deficiency showed up against the 49ers in the playoffs, and those two teams play again this year, but most of the teams they play this season won’t be as well-placed as San Francisco to take advantage of Green Bay’s weaknesses. The wild card for me is Aaron Rodgers. I don’t claim to know the man at all, but he has a reputation for being difficult to coach, so how he responds to the team drafting Jordan Love will make or break the Packers’ season. My guess is he sets out to prove a point. A dialed-in Rodgers makes Green Bay quite clearly the most likely 10-win team in the division, so they’re the team I’m picking to hit double digits. I don’t expect another 13-3, but 10-6 or 11-5 is entirely possible. Over.
Bryan: I should at least say here that I have the Packers tying for first place in the division, depending on how the tiebreakers and whatnot work out (and figuring that out in 2020 is going to be fun), so it’s not like I think they’ll be irrelevant or anything. I just think they may have trouble outdistancing…
Minnesota Vikings (9)
Last Over: 2019 (Mike Zimmer, Kirk Cousins)
Last Under: 2018: (Mike Zimmer, Kirk Cousins)
Bryan: Can I put money on the Vikings winning the 2021 NFC North now? Because I really do think they’re the team best set up for the future at this point in time.
Andrew: We’re still trying to figure out if the 2020 season will even happen, and you’re trying to make bets on 2021? My, you are optimistic.
Bryan: Counterpoint — wouldn’t you like to fast-forward to summer 2021 right about now?
Andrew: Do I get full credit for this year’s uni modules? Cos sure, if so, though I’m sorry to miss out on weeks in France and Germany in the spring.
Bryan: Oh, right, you’re in Europe. Slightly different set of circumstances, I suppose. Anyway.
If the Packers do falter, I still think the Vikings are the most likely to pick up the pieces. I think Kevin Stefanski moving on is addition by subtraction; I’m excited to see what Gary Kubiak does with complete control of the offense rather than just as an advisor. I still like Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook is a good weapon in a run-first offense (just please, stop slamming him into the line on 70% of first downs), Justin Jefferson makes a good addition to Adam Thielen, and then on defense…
… oh. Oh my.
Andrew: This is also why I picked the Packers to win the division. The loss of Stefon Diggs is a big deal for the offense. The loss of half the starting defense is a big deal for the defense. I do think they eventually bring back Everson Griffen, if Griffen is looking to play this year, but I have no idea what to make of that back seven.
Bryan: The Vikings manipulated the salary cap for years to keep their defensive corps together to try to make a Super Bowl run. It didn’t work, but they knew that the piper eventually had to be paid, and I think, all in all, they did as good of a job as one could hope for in managing the eventual bill. I’d argue they had the best offseason in the division, what with getting out of an $11-million salary cap hole and picking up a small flotilla of draft picks both this year and next. Now, they’ll need those rookies to eventually develop into something; right now, that back seven has a bunch of mystery boxes as depth, any of which could develop into something useful. I’m not sure a gacha game is the model I’d use to rebuild my team, but the Vikings at least have plenty of potential contributors.
But yeah, this feels like a bit of a step back year to retool everything. The closing of one door and the opening of another, hopefully without slamming said door on their own toes.
Andrew: The comfort for next year is that they weren’t exactly rebuilding an all-conquering roster, so trading some wins now for potential in the future isn’t a disastrous scenario. Next year’s potential doesn’t always help this year’s win column though. Relying on young guys with very little depth is what got the Panthers the worst defense in the league last year. Minnesota won’t be that bad, but they didn’t have a lot of margin for error as a playoff team and they appear to have declined significantly. A 7-9 or 8-8 season looks considerably more likely than another 10-6 playoff appearance, and that puts me firmly under the money line.
Bryan: I agree, and I think taking the under is the easiest choice in the division. I will say, though, that it’s an optimistic under; it’s an under with plenty of potential going forward. And I can imagine the world in which Mike Zimmer whips his new defensive recruits into shape faster than anticipated, and the offense, no longer doomed to second-and-9s from a poorly thought-out first-down game strategy, does enough to keep them competitive. But no, I’m taking the under for 2020 and putting my chips on them next season.
Bryan: Moving on to the junior circuit, I think we’re probably looking at the best division in the AFC here, right?
Andrew: Mmmaybe, I guess. Pretty clearly the best top two, at least in theory, though a lot of that hangs on Ben Roethlisberger’s return from almost a full-season absence. And I guess whichever Ohio team comes last might be the least bad last-place team in the conference, given the multi-Floridian and -Californian competition. So I suppose that means, top-to-bottom, it should be the best division in the AFC. Consider me reluctantly persuaded.
Bryan: That may say more about the relative strengths of the two conferences than the strength of the AFC North, but, hey, both conferences get a Super Bowl berth, so it’s worth somethin’! Some tough lines to work with, too, so let’s dive right in.
Baltimore Ravens (11.5)
Last Over: 2019 (John Harbaugh, Lamar Jackson)
Last Under: 2018 (John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco)
Andrew: This is a murderous line for the most complete roster in the AFC. 11.5 wins is a Patriots-level figure, the type of number reserved for teams that not only dominate, but have little in the way of real opposition.
Bryan: At time of writing, it’s tied for the highest line available with Kansas City — being a great team in the AFC brings with it very lofty expectations.
Andrew: Those two teams face each other in Week 4, too, in what could be the greatest game of football
Bryan: At the very least, on paper, it would look to be the potential difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, which matters a ton more now thanks to the expanded playoffs — no more bye weeks for second place! Sure, playing, say, the Jaguars or Jets in the first round of the playoffs may feel like a bye, but that’s neither here nor there.
Andrew: If the AFC’s No. 2 seed is playing the Jaguars in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, something has gone very wrong somewhere along the line.
Bryan: 2020: Something Has Gone Very Wrong, Somewhere Along the Line™.
I suppose the big question surrounding the Ravens is simply whether or not they can run back last year’s success. The Chiefs, at this point, have multiple years of high-level play to back their high line up. The Lamar Jackson Ravens have one half-season of being kind of meh, and then one season of being the best team in football by DVOA. That’s significantly less track record to rest on, and some regression has to be expected. They were the seventh-best team in DVOA history a year ago, and teams don’t repeat those high-level performances. That doesn’t mean they won’t have better results, mind you, but expecting another 40.0% DVOA season is … unrealistic.
Andrew: My first step when faced with a line this high is to look at the schedule and see where I think the losses might come. And the 2020 Ravens schedule justifies the high line just about as much as the reigning MVP does.
Bryan: I’d tend to agree. There are plenty of tough matchups — on the road against the Pennsylvania teams, who knows how tough the Colts and Patriots will be with new quarterbacks, et cetera — but I don’t think there’s a single game there where I would be surprised if the Ravens won. If there’s a 16-0 team in the AFC, I suspect it would be the Ravens, and not the Chiefs. Getting Kansas City at home, even in a season with likely lessened home-field advantage, does help.
I also have a problem finding real holes to poke. It’s not the world’s best receiving corps, I suppose, though I like Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead on paper. Marshal Yanda retiring will hurt. They lost Josh Bynes? Does that tip the needle in any way?
Andrew: It’s arguably the best secondary in the league, and the best run game, plus a team that always puts together a solid back half of the roster. They have the best coach in their division, and at worst the third-best in the conference. They’ll drop a game or two, because most teams do, but I won’t quibble over the difference between 15-1 and 13-3. Even 12-4 is over this line, and I fully expect the Ravens to reach 12 wins with games to spare.
Bryan: This is the toughest line for me today, just because 11.5 is such a high bar to clear. I don’t see any way the Ravens tumble to a losing season, barring a catastrophic injury to Lamar Jackson. I do think opposing defenses will do a better job at guarding against Baltimore’s option running game, but that just means Jackson will have a better year passing the ball. I don’t think the Ravens will reach 12 wins with games to spare — but I do think, push comes to shove, that they’ll get there. Call it an over, but a very close one, and don’t be stunned if Baltimore is more than happy with an 11-5 season.
Cincinnati Bengals (5.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton)
Last Under: 2019 (Zac Taylor, Andy Dalton)
Bryan: I feel there’s an argument, if things go varying degrees of right for them and varying degrees of wrong for their opponents, for seven of the teams we’re covering today to win their division. And then we have the Cincinnati Bengals.
Andrew: Getting Joe Burrow is great news for the Bengals. Getting Joe Burrow then putting him on a field behind Xavier Su’a-Filo and Bobby Hart is terrible news for Joe Burrow. That will hopefully not be how Cincinnati’s line looks on opening day, because we don’t need another franchise Lucking their top draft pick out of the league. There are some things to like in Cincinnati: the receiving corps has talent and depth, the edge rotation likewise, and the Bengals have been the main beneficiaries of the Vikings secondary exodus. Even so, there are many, many holes to fill on this roster.
Bryan: Those holes seem mainly focused on the offensive line, which does resemble a piece of swiss cheese. I suppose getting Jonah Williams back after he missed his entire rookie season is basically adding a first-round pick to the offensive line, which just leaves them with three question marks in five positions, a significant improvement!
I mean, we can spend a lot of time talking about the poor linebacker corps, or the trouble the Bengals had coming to grips with Lou Anarumo’s defensive scheme and how the new talent will mesh and all that, but this does kind of feel like it all comes down to Burrow. If Burrow can hit the ground looking anything like the record-setting college player he was last season, maybe the Bengals do hit six wins. If not, it’s going to be another long season. And I do think six, maybe seven wins is all the team can really hope for; I don’t see any way the Bengals manage to get to .500.
Andrew: The trouble, then, is whether we expect the Bengals to be 5-11 bad or 6-10 mediocre. I lean more toward the former. That’s a lot of holes for even a very good rookie quarterback to fill.
Bryan: Maybe it’s because I don’t watch a ton of college football, so most of my exposure to Burrow comes from highlight film and scouting reports, but I just can’t see him turning the franchise around in one year. Let’s say he’s the next Peyton Manning — in Manning’s first year with the Colts, he took a 3-13 team and turned it into a different 3-13 team. I get that getting A.J. Green back and Williams back probably makes this better than your average 2-14 squad, but, still. This is not a one-player-and-we’re-fixed rebuild. It’s a tough line, because you’d expect a competent team to at least manage six wins. Under.
Andrew: There’s still a lot that isn’t clear about the state of the roster and franchise right now. How healthy is A.J. Green, and will he stay that way? How much do some of those veteran defenders have left? Will the safeties be better with, theoretically, better cornerback play ahead of them? Did the coaching staff add or subtract value during a very bad season? There’s a good chance that at least some of those possibilities roll snake eyes, and the Bengals don’t really have that margin for error. The Bengals will look at their schedule and see a handful of winnable games. Every other team will look at their schedule and see the Bengals as a winnable game. A narrow under is still an under.
Cleveland Browns (8.5)
Last Over: 2007 (Romeo Crennel, Derek Anderson)
Last Under: 2019 (Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield)
Bryan: Yes, the entire “last over/last under” gimmick is meant to highlight how terrible the Browns have been, because that is always funny.
Andrew: Every other team in this article has some recent justification for both their over and their under. The Browns are the only team that hasn’t been over their 2020 money line since 2017. Instead, they haven’t been over theirs since 2007. And this money line is a full win lower than it was last year!
Bryan: Well, you know what they say. Fool me seven times, shame on you. Fool me eight or more times, shame on me.
I suppose the most optimistic angle to take for the Browns is that Freddie Kitchens was the problem — unprepared, underqualified, and unusually poor at his job. Then again, wasn’t the argument for last season the same thing, only replacing “Freddie Kitchens” with Hue Jackson? And wasn’t Jackson the same thing, but for Mike Pettine … who was the same thing, but for Rob Chudzinski … who was the same thing, but for Pat Shurmur … who was the same thing, but for Eric Mangini?
I’m just saying, this feels like a lot we’ve seen this before, and not just because the Browns have (wisely!) gone back to something very close to their classic uniforms.
Andrew: This was a six-win team last season. Where does the improvement come from? Is it just from Myles Garrett not getting suspended for the league’s dumbest on-field assault? Possibly not employing a left tackle so bad you can cut him at the end of preseason in the assurance that no other team will pick him up before opening day?
Bryan: Well, let’s look at this a little. Baker Mayfield’s success in college came from a play-action-heavy scheme at Oklahoma. Kevin Stefanski comes over from Minnesota, where he just saw significant improvement in his offense after implementing a play-action-heavy scheme. So maybe the match of playcaller to quarterback will be a better fit than Kitchens and Todd Monken were a year ago.
Then again, Stefanski was the one calling the plays on an offense that decided that the best thing to do was to run the ball into the line on first down 70% of the time. Some of that was Mike Zimmer looking over his shoulder, I am sure, but one day, coaches will realize you don’t have to establish the run for play-action to work; you can just, like, do it.
Andrew: So now we’re hoping that a coach who did a strategically dumb thing was only doing so because his boss wanted him to. It’s hardly the most convincing case. Baker Mayfield was not good last year. Cleveland’s DVOA was right where you would expect based on their record. Their strength was the run game on offense, which is not what you want your major strength to be. Every other team in the division appears set to be better than they were last year, except the team that was already the best team in the sport. I can see the case for a Browns team that reaches .500. I’m not sure I see the case for one that posts a winning record.
Bryan: They did bring in significant talent this offseason. Jack Conklin should be an upgrade on the offensive line. Austin Hooper gives the Browns yet another tight end to work with, and Odell Beckham probably will be healthier, one would think. I see why some Browns fans would be optimistic.
I am not one of them. It’s an under, and an easy one — 8.5 wins? For the Browns? What, are we going to a 20-game schedule in 2020? Get outta here with your 8.5 wins.
Andrew: I’m with you there. I’ll need to see it to believe it, and right now I don’t see it. Under.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9)
Last Over: 2018 (Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger)
Last Under: 2019 (Mike Tomlin, Mason Rudolph)
Andrew: This, to me, is the wild-card team in the AFC. I don’t mean in terms of playoff slots, although that is where I expect them to end up. If Ben Roethlisberger comes back strongly, the Steelers could be the third-best team in the conference. If not, they should still be sniffing around the playoff field, but as fodder to make up the numbers rather than an actual contender.
Bryan: The defense nearly dragged Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph into the postseason last year. I know defense is more variable from year to year, but I would expect them to at least hit a floor of “pretty good,” which is a nice place to start working from. Trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick was a great move. You’d have to assume that Roethlisberger provides a higher floor than the quarterback mess the Steelers muddled through last season, but he’s 38 years old; that’s beginning to get to the point where injuries are less one-year setbacks and more an ongoing problem. And he had already declined from a top-five passer to a top-10 passer before getting hurt. I agree, this is a heck of a hard team to project, because so much of it is riding on Roethlisberger’s return.
They’re helped by their schedule, which we project as the second-easiest in the league. Getting the Bengals and Browns twice each is pretty nice, as is facing the NFC East and AFC South. I really think 9-7 and a wild-card berth is a solid, realistic set of expectations to have for the Steelers, which makes this whole-number line another terrible thing to have to try and parse.
Andrew: Normally, picking a team to hit 10 wins is picking them to win the division or at least have a strong chance at it. I think that’s too high an expectation here, because the Ravens are a class apart. In a shallow conference, however, a 10-win wild card from the strongest division sounds entirely reasonable. The Steelers might have the second-best defense in the conference, given New England’s losses to free agency and opt-outs. They have hit 10 wins in four of Big Ben’s last five healthy seasons, and the other was the Antonio Brown meltdown year. I fancy them to make it five of six, even with Ben having declined some. Over.
Bryan: The Steelers don’t quite have the widest range of plausible outcomes for me — I’ll take another aging great quarterback for that, and we’ll get to them in a couple of weeks — but it’s close. I could see them sliding back a bit to 7-9, because, oh, Roethlisberger’s toast and it’s time for an offensive rebuild. I could see them jumping to something great like 13-3 or 14-2, winning the division as Roethlisberger comes back at full steam and the defense remains stifling. None of that would surprise me. But again, a nine-win line means we’re trying to judge whether the team’s more likely to go 8-8 or 10-6, and unless Roethlisberger is just toast, I have to believe in the latter. That’s seven for eight for us on agreements, Andrew, as I’m going with the over as well.
Andrew: The world around us changes, but the hive mind remains. Our search for absolute football truth nears its inevitable conclusion. Join us next week as we glance over the desolate wasteland that is the AFC and NFC East.
Bryan: Assuming that both “next week” and “the AFC and NFC East” are concepts that continue to exist. Never can be too careful, you know.