Friday, September 7, 2012

Summer's Over: It's Football Time!

After a two month hiatus, I'm back and ready for some football. My last post was before the NBA Draft, and my recap of that and the rest of basketball's offseason moves has been on hold during this busy summer. After working with the national champions of summer league baseball, the Santa Barbara Foresters, I went to Las Vegas for my 21st birthday and later to Reno for my dad's birthday with some time back home in between. We explored various sports books looking for the best football odds, and here's what I put my money on:
  • -110 that the Colts will win OVER 5 games: $50 to win $45.45
  • +105 that the Niners will win OVER 10 games: $50 to win $52.50
  • +550 that the Niners will win the Super Bowl: $35 to win $192.50 
  • +220 that the Niners will win @ Green Bay in Week 1: $15 to win $33
I feel very good about the value I got in these bets, with the latter two obviously being ambitious and less likely, but after seeing the odds at some other sports books, I know that I got good deals. If I am being honest with myself, I think that the real Super Bowl favorites, the Packers, will win it all, but where's the fun in that? That's what my season preview is for. (For the most part, I was spot on in my picks last year with one glaring omission, but we'll get to that later...)
Came close to betting this SB matchup, but is that my pick?
Part 1: The Big Picture
(Parts 2 and 3 will go team by team through the conferences)

Playoff Teams

1. Houston Texans 13-3: Last year, I loved how new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips overhauled the defense to his preferred 3-4 scheme. Signing free agents Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning, drafting J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed, and Brandon Harris in the first two rounds, and moving Glover Quin back to safety from his old cornerback slot were genius moves. This year, I'm not as ecstatic about their moves since they let Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, their former defensive stars from the 2006 draft, leave since they were better fits in the older 4-3 scheme. They also lost the right side of their offensive line, possibly their biggest strength, in order to afford an extension for arguably the best runningback in the NFL, Arian Foster. 
   So why do I still have them as the best team in the AFC? Because although the rest of the teams in the AFC South are improving, they still don't pose a threat to the Texans, especially with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson fully healthy again to augment the passing game alongside the rushing attack of Foster and Ben Tate. They should be able to coast to the #1 seed in the conference.

2. New England Patriots 13-3: My Super Bowl pick last year came agonizingly close to making me look surprisingly smart, and I loved what they did in the offseason. They really missed Andre Carter's pass rushing after he went down with an injury and Mark Anderson left in free agency after the rebound year I had hoped for, but they remade their front seven into more of a 4-3 look, and first round pick Chandler Jones has reportedly looked like a monster at defensive end in training camp. Their other first round pick, Dont'a Hightower, should help form an awesome trio of linebackers with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes since all three are capable of playing middle linebacker. They're hoping for better things out of their shaky secondary with some better health for Patrick Chung back at strong safety, a bounce back year from stud corner Devin McCourty, and the addition of Steve Gregory at free safety.
   On offense, they brought back former coordinator Josh McDaniels after failed coaching stints in Denver and St. Louis, so the signing of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was perfect. McDaniels was able to finally get the most out of Lloyd's talent in 2010 with the Broncos and, to a lesser extent, last year with the Rams after a midseason trade. As incredible as the last two years have been, Tom Brady has lacked a downfield option outside the numbers since Randy Moss left town, so Lloyd should be an outstanding addition to an already explosive offense that should have a more versatile running game with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen getting the bulk of the carries this year. The main concern will be keeping Brady upright since the offensive line is in disarray after the retirement of left tackle Matt Light and possible retirement of right guard Brian Waters. Nate Solder was drafted in the first round last year to be the left tackle of the future, but he will experience some growing pains. Overall, I can definitely see this team making yet another run to the Super Bowl, but I just don't have a good feeling about them this year.
T-Sizzle balled too hard and has to sit out.

3. Baltimore Ravens 12-4: This might have been my Super Bowl pick had it not been for the Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs, tearing his Achilles tendon in April. As it stands now, the hope is that he will be activated during the latter half of the season and be ready for the playoffs after being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. With his absence, Paul Kruger, second round pick Courtney Upshaw, and the injury-riddled Sergio Kindle have a lot of pressure on them to produce pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Haloti Ngata still anchor this stout defense, but more blitz packages may have to be used to compensate for the loss of Suggs on passing downs. Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, and Jimmy Smith are talented enough in coverage for such situations, but it is risky.
   If the up tempo offense Joe Flacco unleashed in the preseason keeps up, then I really like Baltimore's chances to compete for a championship. Runningback Ray Rice is still the heart of this attack, but if Flacco is allowed to open things up with more downfield throws to second year speedster Torrey Smith, then that should create more running room for Rice, who is also an adept pass catcher anyway. Anquan Boldin is still a reliable target as well, and I think athletic tight end Ed Dickson could have a breakout season along with Smith and Jacoby Jones, who was a nice addition.

4. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6: The AFC West is wide open with four competitive teams, so I'm going with the winner from two years ago because I'm counting on a year of better luck after a injury-plagued 2011 campaign. Star safety Eric Berry, star runningback Jamaal Charles, and stud tight end Tony Moeaki all had torn ACLs by Week 2 of last year, so they should be fully healthy and ready to contribute for newly appointed head coach Romeo Crennel. With former coach Todd Haley out of the picture, quarterback Matt Cassel should bounce back under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and a revamped offensive line. Runningback Peyton Hillis had his breakout season in 2010 in Cleveland with Daboll as his offensive coordinator and was a smart signing to help Charles carry the load like Thomas Jones did two years ago. I'm also high on runningback Cyrus Gray, who was a steal in the 6th round, and last year's first round pick Jon Baldwin should have a much better second season.
   Berry's return to the secondary should help offset the loss of Brandon Carr in free agency. Raiders cap casualty Stanford Routt was signed to replace him at corner and should be adequate across from shutdown corner Brandon Flowers. Tamba Hali will miss the beginning of the season due to a suspension, but fellow pass rusher Justin Houston had a strong rookie season, and I like the rest of the this front seven with Derrick Johnson, Tyson Jackson, and Glenn Dorsey stopping opposing rushers. Nosetackle Dontari Poe was a bit of a reach with the 11th overall pick, but overall this was a strong offseason to get back in the playoff picture.

Dwyer could run away with the starting gig.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5: I have learned to never count out the Steelers and strongly considered a +700 bet in Vegas that they would win the AFC. However, they just have a bunch of question marks. After Stanford guard David DeCastro fell to them with the 24th pick in the first round in the first round, he unfortunately tore up his knee in a preseason game and will miss most, if not all of the regular season. Second round pick Mike Adams failed to win the left tackle job, so Max Starks will reclaim his starting spot. Stud receiver Mike Wallace finally reported to training this week after failing to get the big contract he hoped for, and now he has to play catch up in learning new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense. Runningback Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in Week 17 and was expected to miss the first half of the season, but now reports indicate that he will compete for carries in Week 1. I still expect third year 'back Jonathan Dwyer to have a breakout season, but Mendenhall's early return and the presence of Isaac Redman makes things more cloudy.
   Of course, the success of this team relies upon its defense and Big Ben's proven ability to quarterback a team to the Super Bowl. If former first round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward can step up and contribute on the defensive line, then star linebackers Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, and James Harrison can really shine. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark form one of the best safety duos in the NFL, but after veteran Ike Taylor, someone will have to emerge from the group of intriguing young corners that includes Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen. If some of these question marks can solve themselves, then I just might regret not placing that bet.

6. Buffalo Bills 10-6: After the four elite teams, there is a bit of a drop off in the conference, but I think the Bills can emerge after their splurges in the offseason. Mario Williams should pair with last year's #3 overall pick Marcel Dareus to form a dominant left side of the defensive line. Mark Anderson parlayed a rebound season with the Patriots into a four year free agent deal, and Kyle Williams completes this dangerous defensive line. I wasn't the biggest fan of Stephon Gillmore being the 10th overall pick, but he is talented and the rest of this secondary all has superb ball skills as well. 
   The offensive line is a bit shaky with rookie 2nd round pick Cordy Glenn starting at left tackle, but Ryan Fitzpatrick gets the ball out so quick in this passing attack that it shouldn't be too much of a hindrance. Fred Jackson was having an outstanding year running and catching the ball before his injury, and former first round pick C.J. Spiller emerged in his absence. I think receiver Stevie Johnson could have a monster year at receiver among these various options on offense, and the Bills might surprise some people.

1. Green Bay Packers 13-3: Once Aaron Rodgers became the starter in 2008, I went from hating the Packers to loving them, and I can see them creating a dynasty. I picked them in their championship season two years ago, and I picked them to lose in the big game last year with the best record in the league, the latter of which they achieved. Their defense was banged up a bit, with ball hawking safety Nick Collins being the biggest lost, so I loved how they aggressively drafted multiple defensive players in the early rounds. Unfortunately, Collins had to be released due to his neck injury and stud linebacker Desmond Bishop tore his hamstring in the preseason, but the new additions and Charles Woodson's new move to safety to pair with rising star Morgan Burnett should restore this defense to Super Bowl form.
   Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton was released after failing a physical, but young Marshall Newhouse has some experience along with the rest of this offensive line to protect Rodgers. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson had the breakout year I expected across from the attention grabbing Greg Jennings, and the passing attack has a multitude of options overall with tight end Jermichael Finley being an athletic freak and second year return specialist Randall Cobb poised for more playing time thanks to his impressive run after the catch ability. Runningback Cedric Benson was recently signed to give some stability to the running game since incumbent 'back James Starks and the potential filled Alex Green are dealing with injury issues, but this is definitely still a pass first offense. When healthy, I believe in Starks the most, and if any of these 'backs can just provide any semblance of balance in the offense, I like the Packers chances of getting another Lombardi Trophy.
They'll always be linked from '05, but both ended up in good situations after rough starts.
2. San Francisco 49ers 12-4: A lot went right under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh last year, and some expect things to "balance out" in a sense that would see the team regress. I am not one of those people. They may not repeat a 13 win season, but I definitely see them as the second best team in the conference and capable of winning at least 11 wins (hence the bet from the opening). They are basically returning every starter from a team that was arguably a muffed punt away from the Super Bowl, and after flirting with Peyton Manning, they added some explosive playmakers to the offense by drafting wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and runningback LaMichael James in the first two rounds and signing free agent receivers Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and runningback Brandon Jacobs. I'm not sure that they needed to add that many new skill position players, and I would have rather had LSU's Rueben Randle, who was ironically taken in the 2nd round by the Giants to replace Manningham. I was also hooping for a trade up to snag Harbaugh's former Stanford player David DeCastro to replace the lone departed started, Adam Snyder, at guard, but that may not have been a possibility. I have long been confident in the ability of Alex Boone, who is now the starting right guard after being the primary backup tackle the last couple of years, and surely at least some of the new additions shall help improve the mostly conservative offense of last year. Alex Smith looked especially confident toward the end of the season and in the playoffs and has finally had some stability with an offensive system, so I would expect to see a lot of throws like the touchdowns to the unstoppable Vernon Davis in playoffs.
   Of course, the defense is the calling card of this team, led by linebacker Patrick Willis, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons. Justin Smith is the anchor of a stout defensive line that was amplified by Isaac Sopoaga finally moving inside to nose tackle to allow Ray McDonald to get a chance to start at defensive end, where he had a breakout season. Furthermore, the outside pass rush emerged at long last with Ahmad Brooks having a career year that led to a contract extension and Aldon Smith setting a franchise record for sacks by a rookie despite not starting. Many people were surprised when Smith was the 7th overall pick, including my dad (who wanted J.J. Watt, a fair choice), but when we went to an open practice in training camp, I told him that we were watching the next DeMarcus Ware. This new pressure on opposing quarterbacks allowed a reworked secondary to shine, with Carlos Rogers proving to be one of the best free agent bargains. Nickelback Perrish Cox looks to be a similar bargain this offseason after not playing last year due to legal issues that he has since been acquitted. Dashon Goldson only signed his one year franchise tender, however, and some of the safety depth was lost, although Reggie Smith is a possibility to return after being cut by the Panthers. That could prove to be an issue down the line, but right now, this team looks poised for another deep run.

3. Atlanta Falcons 11-5: The NFC South should be one of the toughest conferences in the league this year, but I am a believer in Matt Ryan opening things up under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Julio Jones had a great rookie campaign and is ready to have a monster year across from fellow stud receiver Roddy White. I think slot receiver Harry Douglas will benefit from more passing plays, and runningback Michael Turner will stay fresh a lighter workload.
   I was a big fan of former middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who signed with the division rival Saints, but Akeem Dent should be ready take over in his second year. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon should help him with the transition, and this is a tough front seven overall. I love that they were able to steal Asante Samuel from the Eagles for just a 7th round pick and restructure his contract. He joins a strong secondary led by safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. As long as new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can draw up some pressure on the quarterback, this team could go far.
Who's about to score over there? Julio Jones, that's Ju.
4. Philadelphia Eagles 11-5: After a disappointing year for the "dream team," I'm expecting a bounce back year after some crucial changes. The interior of their defense was a huge weakness last year, and they addressed that in the draft big time. First, they traded up to draft defensive tackle Fletcher Cox 12th overall, then they drafted linebacker Mychal Kendricks and defensive end Vinny Curry in the second round, then they drafted cornerback Brandon Boykin as a steal in the fourth round, and finally, they acquired middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans from the Texans for just a fourth round pick and moving down in the third round, where they were still able to draft backup quarterback Nick Foles. With corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin still in tact, this certainly is a star studded bunch.
   The biggest issue is always going to be the health of Michael Vick, though. Foles can become a good quarterback down the line, but Vick can make magic happen when he's healthy. I fully expect receivers Jeremy Maclin and the newly extended Desean Jackson to have monster years, with Maclin especially capable of breakout numbers.LeSean McCoy is in the argument for the best runningback in football, and although I don't expect another 20 touchdown season, his combination of shiftiness, acceleration, and pass catching ability makes him dangerous on every down. The loss of left tackle Jason Peters to a ruptured Achilles in May was a huge loss (literally), but the rest of the offensive line should be solid this year. After the tragic loss of head coach Andy Reid's son, Garrett, I have a feeling that the team will rally together for a great season.

'Twas love at first sight in '07.
5. Dallas Cowboys 11-5: For maybe the first time in my life, I like the 'Boys this year. Every year I think they're overrated, and while I don't think Super Bowl aspirations are legit, I think they're going to have a strong year. I've absolutely loved DeMarco Murray since the first time I saw him play in the Oklahoma spring game back in 2007, so I thought he was a complete steal in the 3rd round in last year's draft. He proved me right with a strong rookie campaign once he became the starter before his bad injury luck struck again to end his season. He's in store for a huge season as the feature back, and he'll be running behind an offensive line that should improved under new position coach Bill Callahan. That should allow Tony Romo to have some time in the pocket for a change, and I think this is the year Dez Bryant finally harnesses his talent to challenge Calvin Johnson for the touchdown crown among wide receivers. Miles Austin is still a beast when healthy, so if he and the ever reliable tight end Jason Witten are at full strength after some issues in the preseason, then I like this offense to put up big point totals.
   Of course, last year the problem was usually allowing too many points through the air. To address this, they gave cornerback Brandon Carr a big free agent contract and moved up in the draft to snag LSU's shutdown corner, Morris Claiborne. Inside linebacker Dan Connor was signed to be reunited with his former Penn St. teammate Sean Lee, who is an absolute stud. Throw in last year's second round pick Bruce Carter and the devastating pass rush combo of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spence, and that is a strong group of linebackers behind a strong defensive line. I am a little concerned with their safeties, but there is so much corner depth that the 'Boys are likely to make it back to the postseason.

6. Tampa Bay Bucaneers 10-6: Much like the Chiefs pick above, I'm doubling down on my worst playoff picks from a year ago now that new coaches are in place. I didn't like the selection of safety Mark Barron at 7th overall, even after trading down, but I loved the moves to trade up for runningback Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David. With Barron on board, veteran Ronde Barber moving to safety, star cornerback Aqib Talib in tact, and corner Eric Wright signed to a big free agent deal, the secondary looks strong. I really like the defensive line as well after defensive end Adrian Clayborn's strong rookie season. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is supremely talented when healthy, so there is a chance that this could be a dangerous unit.
   The other big free agents, receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks, should help boost the offense after a disappointing campaign from quarterback Josh Freeman. The running game should be the focus with Martin filling a Ray Rice role under new head coach Greg Schiano, who had Rice at Rutgers, and Freeman should thrive with play action bombs to Jackson. If Freeman does have the bounce back year I expect, then the Bucs should take advantage of a relatively easy schedule to gain a playoff berth.

Playoff Rounds

3. Ravens over 6. Bills
5. Steelers over 4. Chiefs
3. Falcons over 6. Buccaneers
4. Eagles over 5. Cowboys

-The Bills can't get anything going on offense in Baltimore. The Steelers avenge their playoff trip out west from a year ago. Matt Ryan finally gets his first playoff win with relative ease at home. The Eagles win a bitter rivalry match at home with too much speed for the Dallas safeties. 

These Hall of Famers always have great battles.
5. Steelers over 1. Texans
3. Ravens over 2. Patriots
1. Packers over 4. Eagles
2. Niners over 3. Falcons

-The AFC North pulls two upsets on the road thanks to strong defensive matchups. The NFC bracket holds to form with the road teams unable to upset clearly better teams.

3. Ravens over 5. Steelers
1. Packers over 2. Niners

-The Harbowl is not meant to be as the home teams hold on against old rivals. Aaron Rodgers can mount a game winning drive in tight games with the best of them while Ed Reed and the Ravens defense won't blow a lead at home even if it is of the narrowest margins.

Super Bowl
Packers over Ravens

-For as much as Joe Flacco has improved, he is still no Rodgers, and the Packers just have too many options with which to score. If Terrell Suggs is anywhere near full health by this point, he could prove to be the X-factor, but I like the chances of Clay Matthews creating a big play on defense like he did in the 45th Super Bowl.
You can't stop the Clay Maker.

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