by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramble team is split over whether the Village People or the Pet Shop Boys better harmonized the theme of our forthcoming over/unders.
Bryan: Scramble is embarking on a westward expedition, to coincide with the major networks’ obsession with the two divisions this week. Thursday sees the Raiders and Cardinals clash on a nationally televised preseason broadcast, Monday sees the 49ers and Broncos close out the week, and on Sunday you get both a Seahawks game and a Chargers game to enjoy/endure. It’s as we’ve been saying for years; the national media has a clear West Coast bias.
Andrew: In this instance, the obsession is justified: this week’s column features two of the four teams from last year’s conference championship games, one of which made the big dance, and both of these divisions sent a wild-card team to the playoffs. Add to that the annual delight that is Hard Knocks, focused this summer on the ever-functional never-misfit Oakland Raiders, and this week’s teams are very much in the national spotlight.
Bryan: Frankly, it’s hard to blame them. I may be massively biased because I wrote the chapters on the AFC West in Football Outsiders Almanac 2019 (still available!) and I’m a fan of one of the teams in the other division, but I don’t think we’ll have a more interesting set of eight teams this year than this lot. From Super Bowl contenders to laughingstocks, analytically focused teams to very much not that, the western divisions kind of have it all.
Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” below list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number.
Andrew: Historically, the AFC West is one of our more interesting divisions. Even if it hasn’t always been the greatest — two 8-8 winners in four years around the start of this decade — it’s one of the few divisions in which every team has had some kind of run of dominance in the past 20 years. Even Oakland, hard as it is to believe now, had two AFC Championship Game appearances in three years and a Super Bowl at the start of the century.
Bryan: They even still have the same coach as those glory days! Please ignore all years between 2002 and 2017 for the purposes of this comparison, thank you.
Andrew: But not the current team, oh no. If you ignore the current team, you run the risk of not understanding what will surely be 90 percent of this column’s mockery this year, give or take about ten percent.
But still, the Chargers had their run in the late 2000s, the Denver Mannings dominated utterly in the early 2010s, and now the Chiefs are looking to continue a run of three straight titles achieved even while transitioning from a veteran to a young first-round pick at quarterback. Will they continue their run of success? Read on to find out!
Denver Broncos (7)
Last Over: 2016 (9-7, Head coach: Gary Kubiak/Quarterback: Trevor Siemian)
Last Under: 2018 (6-10, Vance Joseph/Case Keenum)
Andrew: Take what you said about Washington last week, and I’d say this is the slightly bigger-budget edition. The defense has just about everything you could want, whereas the offense appears set to spend the year very much in game-management mode.
Bryan: I’m really glad Vic Fangio finally got the chance to show what he could do in charge of a full team; he has been a good and well-respected coordinator for decades at this point. Also, after a couple offseasons where every head coaching job seemed to go to someone who once served coffee to Sean McVay, it’s kind of refreshing to see an older-school defensive guy take the reins. It’s just, you know, too bad…
Andrew: Ah, but would Homer Simpson have drafted Chad Kelly?
Bryan: Homer would have drafted Patrick Mahomes, and then traded him to Andy Reid after being enticed by some Kansas City BBQ, some Duff, and some donuts.
Mmmm … donuts.
Andrew: I don’t really have much of a handle on how good this year’s team is likely to be. Joe Flacco is about perfectly described by that clip. Sure, it could probably be worse, but really that’s all you could come up with? He has proven that he can just about stay out of the way of a Ravens-level defense, and Denver under Fangio possibly could be that, but it’s a lot of hope to put in a guy who hasn’t been worth his contract since his rookie deal.
Bryan: My first version of the Broncos’ chapter was about 5,000 words too long, because I spent a good three pages just listing a litany of “What, Joe Flacco?” stats that Ravens fans have become far too familiar with, but are new to Broncos fans. He has more counting stats — completions, attempts, yards, etc. — than any player who has never been to the Pro Bowl, in an era when guys like Matt Cassell, Vince Young, and David Garrard have made trips out there. He has been below average in adjusted net yards per attempt for four straight seasons while still maintaining his stranglehold on a starting job, making him only the 11th quarterback since the merger to pull off that feat, alongside luminaries like Mark Sanchez, Joey Harrington, and Rick Mirer. He is the failed completion king. He hasn’t been even an adequate quarterback since 2014, and the Broncos gave things up to trade for him? Drew Lock might not be ready yet, but he may be ready one day. Flacco … no, it feels like John Elway grasping at straws to fill a position he has only successfully managed when arguably the greatest quarterback of all time was surprisingly available in free agency.
Andrew: In Elway’s very partial defense, he did put an elite enough defense around Manning that even when Manning’s body completely failed him, the defense was good enough to win it all anyway. The problem is, that hasn’t really proven to be a reliable strategy for anybody in the past, what, 40 years? Good defense will keep a team in contention, but it’s rare for a franchise to turn even consistently elite defense into multiple titles without some level of competitive offense to match. Somewhat ironically, the last team to manage that was probably … Joe Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens, bookending the career of one Ray Lewis. Even that Ravens team had a better offense (3.0% DVOA, 13th) than I expect from the 2019 Broncos.
Bryan: You’d be hard-pressed to find many teams who have been as consistently good on defense as the Broncos, mind you, and that papers over a lot of issues on the other side of the ball. They’ve had a top-10 defense in six of the last seven seasons, they’ve got Von Miller and Bradley Chubb coming off the edge, they added some new cornerbacks this offseason — it should still be a very solid unit. Trouble there is that Vance Joseph’s and Vic Fangio’s defenses are about as different as you can get while still running the same basic front. There are going to be some growing pains as players are asked to do different things than they’re used to. That might last six weeks, it might last two years, but it probably means the defense will take a half-step back before going forward. Plus, they don’t have the middle linebackers that Fangio really loves and are crucial to his scheme. Fangio has had guys like Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson; Ray Lewis and Bart Scott; Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Even Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith are better than Josey Jewell and Todd Davis.
No, I think the defense takes a step back and the offense doesn’t rise above mediocre. Coaching should be improved, if simply because fewer coaches struggled more with gameday strategic decisions than Joseph did, but I really think hitting a seven-win over/under is pretty much the best-case scenario for Denver this season, much less going over it. This line is at least a game too high. The Raiders might be more fun to dunk on this year, but I think the Broncos will be the worst team in the division, if only by a hair. I’m an under.
Andrew: Worst team in the division is a bold, bold claim considering the state of Gruden’s grinders, and the Broncos are the first even-number line I’ve seen this year that I think has an equal chance between over and under. Really though, after two straight seasons under, only the change of coach really gives me hope for improvement, and against a tough schedule another 6-10 isn’t so outlandishly crazy. I’ll be boring and join you with the under.
Kansas City Chiefs (10.5)
Last Over: 2018 (12-4, Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes)
Last Under: 2017 (10-6, Andy Reid/Alex Smith)
Bryan: Here’s another bold, bold claim: Patrick Mahomes will not be as good in 2019 as he was in 2018. Shocking stuff from an analytics-based website, I know.
Andrew: I’m claiming my moment in the sun for Mahomes here. I tipped him to lead the league in touchdowns and interceptions last year, and it turns out he led the league in touchdowns and adjusted interceptions. This year, while he probably won’t be as good, he’s unlikely to suddenly turn into a pumpkin either. Absent major injuries or Tyreek Hill doing something else unspeakable and (to you and me) unpredictable, this year’s Chiefs are going to look a lot like last year’s Chiefs. Great offense, cover-your-eyes defense. They get to play their “road” game against the Chargers in, at least hypothetically, pro-Chiefs Mexico City, and should be capable of outscoring all but maybe three of the teams on their schedule if they start getting into shootouts.
Bryan: Oh, yeah. Apart from maybe the road game in New England in December, I don’t think there’s a game on the schedule the Chiefs can’t win, and I don’t think they’ll really be challenged at Arrowhead. The defense should be better — if for no other reason than it kind of has to be — and Mahomes might just tick down from “one of the best seasons we’ve ever recorded” to “very, very good.” I mean, they were an offside penalty and an overtime coin toss away from the Super Bowl last season. If I’m not sure they’ll win the division, well, that’s more because of how much I like the next team on the list than anything negative I have to say about the Chiefs.
Andrew: At the very least then, we’re probably looking at the No. 5 seed in the AFC, and quite possibly the No. 1 or 2 seed. The latter of those isn’t going to happen with fewer than 11 wins, but I don’t expect the Chiefs to finish with fewer than 12. Put me down for the over on a line I’d actually expected to see a touch higher than it is.
Bryan: I can imagine a scenario where the Chiefs fall down, albeit not all the way to a losing record. Mahomes falls a bit back to earth, as the trust he puts in his arm leads to interceptions rather than touchdowns; the defense takes time to adjust to Steve Spagunolo’s new scheme; a tough schedule plays a little bit of havoc on the roster. But no, it would be very disappointing if the Chiefs didn’t at least get to double-digit wins, and I’m comfortable taking the over here, after whiffing so hard on them last season.
Los Angeles Chargers (10)
Last Over: 2018 (12-4, Anthony Lynn/Philip Rivers)
Last Under: 2017 (9-7, Anthony Lynn/Philip Rivers)
Andrew: You’ve already pledged your undying love at the altar of … what exactly IS their stadium called this season, anyway? (Checks notes.) “Dignity Health Sports Park,” eh? Maybe they can book Deacon Blue for a Thursday night halftime show or something.
Bryan: They may call it the Dignity, but it’ll always be the StubHub Center to me. Some of us prefer the classics.
Andrew: Set it up, then. You’re the one who has already proclaimed his adoration for the Chargers. Tell us what unearthly force could move you to the over on this franchise’s run of good fortune.
Bryan: There are plenty of reasons to assume the Chargers will take a step back in 2019. They went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown last season; that’s not sustainable. They had good kicking luck for the first time since, I’m going to say the Carter administration. Melvin Gordon is holding out. Russell Okung is dealing with a pulmonary embolism. Plus, you know, they’re the Chargers. There’s plenty of reason to fade them. But…
If — and this is a big if, I will grant you — their offensive line finally plays up to what the Chargers think they can do, this is the most complete team in the AFC. They don’t have the defensive question marks the Chiefs have; they don’t have the receiving question marks the Patriots have; they don’t have the chaos and offseason drama the Steelers had. They may have the best edge rushing duo in the NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and now they’re adding Jerry Tillery to that line. They have Derwin James, who basically can play anywhere on defense and helps make their system work, and they’re unlikely to have to fight through as many injuries as they did a year ago. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson can, if necessary, replace Gordon. Hunter Henry returns to join Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. And they were third in DVOA last year; it just gets forgotten a little because they played second-fiddle to rivals in their own division and own city. This might well be the year when Ringless Rivers finally becomes the last member of the big 2004 quarterback class to win a championship.
Andrew: I can’t believe you’d write off Matt Schaub’s chances like that! The Falcons are surely back in contention!
You would imagine that the Chargers might make it to the postseason with more than one healthy linebacker on the roster this time, it’s true. Still, we’ve seen those noises about the offensive line before, and it sure seems like the Chargers always have a disproportionate number of key injuries. Also, all of those other teams you mentioned have a long track record of success. The Chiefs have won 10 or more games in each of the past four seasons. The Patriots in the past … what was it, 16? The Steelers just had their first season below double-digit wins in five years. The Chargers are coming off their first season above that threshold since Norv Turner was their coach. Yes, they’ve had a lot of nine-win seasons, but the money line is ten. Ten wins is a lot for a team that hasn’t won its division in a decade.
Bryan: Your point about the historical trends of success is well taken, but it’s not like the 2007 Patriots or 2016 Chargers are going to have much to say about the outcome of the 2019 season. Again, I’m not sure they’ll win the division, but that’s more about how much I like the previous team we covered as opposed to anything negative I have to say about the Chargers.
Andrew: Certainly so, and I don’t mean to sound negative about the current team at all. I’m just interested in the height of the line for a team that only has one season playing up to that standard, and has a division rival with probably the best young passer in the sport, and gives up a home game against that very rival for a trip to a stadium that will probably favor said rival. It’s just this franchise’s luck that their best season in 13 years comes as their division rivals find an apparent generational quarterback having a debut season for the ages. I’m not sure where I stand on this line given some of that context.
Bryan: If you’re not sure where you stand, let me give you a little nudge. The powder blues are back! That has to be worth a win — to quote Deion Sanders, you look good, you feel good; you feel good, you play good.
Andrew: I think what ultimately does give me a little nudge is the schedule. Playing the Dolphins instead of the Patriots should be a huge advantage. They get two of the three potentially good NFC North teams at home. I think they get the AFC South in the exact locations they would want to face them too — stronger two at home, weaker two on the road. It’s not hard to find four potential losses on the schedule, but it’s also not hard to find 12 potential wins, and a repeat of last season’s record is well within reach. A team with this ability should be a postseason lock, and 11 wins will be enough to guarantee that. Over.
Bryan: The AFC West battle is going to be so huge — the two Kansas City/Los Angeles games (almost wrote San Diego, it’ll never stop feeling weird) might well determine who gets at least a first-round bye, and possibly home field advantage, and who has to slog through the playoffs on the road. Get your popcorn ready and all that jazz. I, too, will take the over — 10-6 is a real possibility (damn those whole number lines!), but this feels much more like an 11-ish win team than a nine-ish win team.
Oakland Raiders (6)
Last Over: 2016 (12-4, Jack Del Rio/Derek Carr)
Last Under: 2018 (4-12, Jon Gruden/Derek Carr)
Andrew: It’s low-hanging fruit at this point, but while we all expected Antonio Brown to get cold feet over his move to Jon Gruden’s Raiders, I don’t think most of us expected him to be quite so literal about it. In an age in which political metaphors write themselves, Antonio Brown’s offseason is a living metaphor for … Antonio Brown’s offseason.
Bryan: The Brown saga is moving so fast that it takes a lot of effort from your two humble Scramble writers to keep up, as Brown has had issues from his head to his toes. We’ve moved past Brown getting frostbite from improperly using a cryogenic chamber — is there a level above first-world problems, there? Zeroth-world problems? — on to a grievance against both the league and his own union to be allowed to wear a decade-old helmet that no longer meets the agreed-upon safety standards. Brown even attempted to repaint his old helmet to try to trick Oakland’s staff into believing he was wearing a new one, which I assume he got from the Wile E. Coyote playbook. And now, he is openly going on Twitter and asking if anyone out there has a slightly more recent model of his favorite helmet that he could use to be grandfathered in. I wouldn’t trust a second-hand bicycle helmet that I didn’t know the history of, much less something to protect my head in a sport where 300-pound guys regularly attempt to detach it from my body.
“I’m looking for a Schutt Air Advantage Adult Large Helmet that was manufactured in 2010 or after. In exchange I will trade a signed practice worn @Raiders helmet.”
— AB (@AB84) August 13, 2019
Andrew: Really, you wouldn’t imagine it would take a genius to trick the current Raiders staff. If Jon Gruden’s Raiders moves are anything to go by, he’s still playing fantasy football with rosters pasted together out of (the stupidly titled) Madden 25.
Bryan: To be fair, this year’s model looks a lot more logically put-together…
… no, I can’t finish that sentence, let me try again.
To be fair, this year’s model looks a lot more promising than last year’s collection of aging veterans and never-wases. Brown might be a headcase, but he’s one of the two most talented receivers in the league (albeit at the point of his career where things should begin to decline). Tyrell Williams is a heck of a deep threat (albeit one for a quarterback who never saw a deep pass he wouldn’t pass up). Trent Brown is a massive upgrade at tackle (albeit one who is now overpaid and playing the historically less valuable right tackle position).
Andrew: … and being coached by Tom Cable…
Bryan: Yeah, don’t confuse a more competently put-together roster for actually being good. The Raiders could take quantum leaps forward in both pass protection and pass rush, and still be very bad at both of those things. Derek Carr is floundering and probably at the end of his rope; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Las Vegas Raiders gamble on a new quarterback in 2020. I’d be surprised if the Raiders start out any better than, oh, 1-7 or so, though the schedule lets up a bit in the back half. This is not a good football team, but they’re going to be a more fun football team than they were a year ago, and that counts for something … at least in a goofy column like Scramble.
Andrew: The schedule does ease off noticeably in the second half, but jeepers. It still isn’t what I would call in any way friendly for a bad team. At least three of the hypothetical four easier games are at home, as is the game against Detroit in Week 9. Those four are winnable, if far from guaranteed. The trouble is just about nothing else is. I expect them to be trounced by all except maybe Denver from their opening seven games. They might pick up three or four of their next five home games, but oh-fer on the road is entirely realistic. Brown might be a great player, but he wouldn’t be the first elite receiver we’ve seen outright quit on the Silver and Black.
Bryan: I said that Denver would be the worst team in the division, and I stand by that. However, Denver has a longer tail on the high end of their possibilities; you can come up with cogent, logical arguments for the Broncos to hit, oh, 7-9 or so with a good young quarterback and a strong defense. Even in the best-case scenario, I can’t really picture the Raiders avoiding double-digit losses for the third consecutive season. I do think they’ll be better than they were last year. I do not think they’ll be better than they were in the last year before Gruden retook the reins. It’s not as easy an under as Denver — the line’s a game lower, after all — but it’s still an under from me.
Andrew: As I’ve already indicated, I just don’t see where six wins come from, never mind seven. They’ll probably win a game I expected them to lose, but they’ll also probably lose a game I expected them to win. Even 5-11 would slightly outperform my expectation, which is a very firm under on a line I had expected to be lower.
Bryan: This is the first division we’ve talked about where I think you can make logical arguments for any of the four teams to make the playoffs — or any of the four teams to stay home. That’s not to say that the division is a muddle or that everyone has an equal chance; I think it’s pretty easy to rank them one-to-four without too much debate. It’s just that even the teams at the bottom have significant reasons to hope for something better, and even the teams at the top have signs that things could come crumbling back down. I said last year that the NFC West was the most interesting division in football, and I think it’s only that much more interesting this year.
Andrew: I’m not sure about an argument for the Cardinals to make the playoffs, unless Kyler Murray is immediately going to play at a Patrick Mahomes level, but there is a lot of intrigue to be found in this division. All of the potential contenders are flawed. The one with the fewest flaws has a question mark at the most important position. The one with that position settled has a ton of question marks about their strategy. San Francisco is somewhere in between — a great offensive coach with a lot of potential for success, tied to a multi-year veteran quarterback on a big contract who still hasn’t played a single full season’s worth of snaps.
Arizona Cardinals (5.5)
Last Over: 2017 (8-8, Bruce Arians/Carson Palmer)
Last Under: 2018 (3-13, Steve Wilks/Josh Rosen)
Bryan: Alright, let me give you my pitch for how the Cardinals make the playoffs in 2019. Both Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are not only as good as advertised, but better. The Air Raid sweeps the league, as the pass-pass-pass offense encapsulates everything we’ve been saying about the relative value of passing versus rushing. Vance Joseph’s new scheme plus an infusion of free agent talent helps boost the defense. The Cardinals, with all that going for them, go … 8-8, but in a weak year in the NFC, and thanks to some upsets over both the Rams and Seahawks, that’s enough to squeak in as the sixth seed and get blown out by, oh, let’s say the Packers in the wild-card round. No, I don’t think that’s likely, and they’re the second team we’ve covered (after Miami) that I could see putting up a goose egg in the win column, but it wouldn’t be the craziest thing we’ve seen.
Andrew: It would be pretty darn crazy, however. This is not a good roster. If the strategy and the quarterback mesh together, I can see the Cardinals being variable enough to shock some teams. There will be a point when they run into an opponent that can’t cover their aggressive offense well enough for four downs, and isn’t in tune enough with the strategy to hit back. I can also see them being generally bad enough that basically any win they get could be considered a shock, Murray taking a beating behind D.J. Humphries and Justin Pugh, and them finishing with another top-five pick. That would be considerably less surprising than 8-8. When your wildest imaginings are an 8-8 playoff berth, you aren’t exactly set up for a winning season.
Bryan: Yeah, despite thinking that path is realistic, I am, in general, more down than most people when it comes to both Kingsbury and Murray. Kingsbury seems to have been anointed a coaching genius despite a career record of 35-40 at Texas Tech and one win in the Holiday Bowl. His quarterback guru credentials rest heavily on Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, and not quite as heavily on Case Keenum, Davis Webb, and Johnny Manziel. I do not follow college football as closely as others do, but what I have seen of Kingsbury isn’t enough to make me think that he’s going to revolutionize the game or anything, as some people seem to think.
I also worry about the plan the franchise has in general, as drafting a first-round quarterback only to ditch him for a different first-round quarterback the next year isn’t exactly the hallmark of a team run with a grand design in mind. I actually liked Josh Rosen as a prospect more than I like Murray. Now, obviously, we now have one year of Rosen on an NFL team (if you can call the 2018 Cardinals an NFL-quality team), and that changes things dramatically, but I mean, dumping a prospect that quickly over some new hotness makes you doubt if the front office really knows what they’re doing. That doesn’t fill me with confidence, in general. I’m taking the under at 5.5 wins. I think they’ll be interesting, and much more watchable than the 2018 edition, but I need to see the Air Raid, used to this extent, working on an NFL level before I’ll buy into it fully.
Andrew: I have five wins as the realistic best-case for a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback on a talent-starved roster against a tough schedule. A couple of surprise wins wouldn’t shock me over the course of the season, but a lot of double-digit losses would shock me even less. The best the Cardinals can hope for is a flicker of hope itself. This looks like a bottom-five roster, and that is an under.
Los Angeles Rams (10)
Last Over: 2018 (13-3, Sean McVay/Jared Goff)
Last Under: 2016 (4-12; Jeff Fisher/Case Keenum)
Andrew: Here is another franchise whose heralded running back has been prominent in the offseason headlines, and not in a good way. Todd Gurley is not the key question for the 2019 Rams though; the team has shown that they can plug in a midseason free agent and be fine without Gurley, but the Super Bowl has … it may be overstating the case to say “exposed,” but certainly spotlighted some lingering concerns with Jared Goff.
Bryan: It’s really quite astonishing to see how much worse Goff (and the rest of the offense) looked when Cooper Kupp went down for the year — and how much they didn’t look worse with Gurley out of the lineup, for that matter. It does feel like Goff is a good quarterback who is elevated by his supporting cast, rather than a great quarterback who elevates the players around him, if you get what I mean by that distinction. That’s probably fine for right now, but it will be interesting to see what happens when his rookie contract runs out.
That’s a problem for the Future Rams, though. The 2019 Rams are on the cutting edge of offensive philosophy — just look at their personnel splits or their play-action rates; it’s like hitting fast-forward on league trends and arriving five years in the future. I’d also expect their defense to rebound a little after falling to 18th in DVOA last year, so that bodes well for them.
Andrew: Kupp’s return is going to help a lot, assuming he’s at something close to full health. Likewise, adding Eric Weddle to the secondary was big; I always felt the safety play was a bit suspect, and a veteran safety such as Weddle can go a long way toward covering for a gambling cornerback such as Marcus Peters. The Rams are likely to be neither appreciably better nor worse on offense; Sean McVay has already spoken in detail about lessons he received from the Super Bowl. On defense, the talent and coaching should be enough to return them to above-average.
They have a difficult opening couple of games, assuming the Panthers are back to their usual selves after a very poor winter in 2018 and the Saints come in fired up after the NFC title game, but after that the schedule settles down. They’ve won double-digit games both seasons under Sean McVay, and I don’t see much reason to expect anything different this year. Somewhere in the region of 12 wins, with a competitive playoff field determining who gets what seed. That’s firmly in over territory, Super Bowl hangover be damned.
Bryan: When I went and did my game-by-game predictions, I actually ended up putting the Rams at 9-7, losing out on the division title by tiebreakers — but that just doesn’t seem right to me. The problem was there were a lot of games that I felt could have gone either way, and I ended up, without realizing it, giving most of those toss-ups to other teams. Like you mentioned, the Panthers (Week 1) looked really good over the first half of 2018 before injuries started taking their toll. The Browns (Week 3) are nearly everybody’s darlings this season. The Seahawks (Week 5) were a playoff team last year, despite zigging when the rest of the league zags. The Falcons (Week 7), Cowboys (Week 15), and 49ers (Week 16) could all prove solid challenges on the road. But, man, even if you think the Rams would be slight underdogs in all of those games (which in itself isn’t exactly an inarguable point), they’re not going to lose all of them. So I’m going against my own predictions and taking the over as well. A little slip back could end up with a significant impact on the Rams’ record — remember, they were 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were a little lucky to have as good a record as they did a year ago — but they can slip from 13-3 and still finish with double-digit wins atop the division.
San Francisco 49ers (8.5)
Last Over: 2013 (12-4, Jim Harbaugh/Colin Kaepernick)
Last Under: 2018 (4-12, Kyle Shanahan/Nick Mullens)
Andrew: Hmm. San Francisco. We are well into the rebuild process here, and now is about the time that we really need to start seeing results. They’ve added a lot of good players over the past couple of seasons. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa might even provide a pass rush! But boy, this line feels way higher than it should be. The 49ers haven’t even surpassed six wins in four years, yet here they are with a line of 8.5!
Bryan: Remember when they were everybody’s preseason darling last year, and then their big free-agent running back got hurt and their big-money quarterback got hurt and their defense forgot that it was legal to take the ball away from the other team? Yeah, that was fun. I really enjoyed the 2018 season; it was definitely not the most recent painful experience in a long line of painful experiences since Jim Harbaugh left town.
Andrew: Jimmy Garoppolo has started games in three seasons since being drafted in 2014. He has been injured within three games in two of those three seasons. He ought to have approximately 25 starts under his belt by now; he has 10.
Bryan: What worries me about Jimmy G was the fact that the 49ers offense in the three games with Garoppolo last season was … mediocre, with a -6.2% offensive DVOA, and just a -2.2% passing DVOA. You can blame a lot of extenuating circumstances for that — Jerrick McKinnon was supposed to play a huge role last season, but was lost for the season on the last play of training camp, and the 49ers weren’t really prepared for that; the young receiving corps didn’t start coming into their own until the end of the season; yadda yadda — but excuses only get you so far.
Now. If Jimmy G and the 49ers offense look as good as they did in the last six weeks of 2017, or as good as Garoppolo played in New England, we’re talking a whole new ballgame. The 49ers have some intriguing toys at wideout to go along with all-world tight end George Kittle; they have a backfield filled with moving parts — too many running backs, honestly, but that’s the way Kyle Shanahan likes it. Assuming Nick Bosa does come back from his latest injury in time for the start of the season, the 49ers should have a pass rush. Maybe Richard Sherman will go from above average back to good or higher a year removed from his Achilles injury. There’s almost no way the 49ers can have as few takeaways as last season. There’s a path here, if you’re an optimist, for a good team. A really good team, in fact.
Andrew: I mentioned that the 49ers have added a lot of good players. I like some of this year’s moves a lot. Kwon Alexander is a good fit as a modern outside linebacker; the contract’s massive, but the 49ers had the space for it.
Bryan: Oh, don’t get me started on the 49ers’ contracts; John Lynch never saw a player he wouldn’t overpay (hello, $5.25 million a year fullback Kyle Juszczyk.)
Andrew: I won’t hear a word against Juszczyk. He pays you back at least half of that contract just in Scrabble value (though admittedly in Polish Scrabble, “Z” is only worth one point). And again, the 49ers do have cap room. So with that, in comes Tevin Coleman, a perfect Shanahan back. Weston Richburg is a very good veteran center … though there will be trouble ahead if Richburg is not back in time for the regular season. Dee Ford addresses one of the team’s biggest needs, though they’ll still need more from their other pass rushers — and yes, a healthy Nick Bosa would be a huge asset.
Still, I’m just not convinced. I’m not convinced about Garoppolo. I’m not convinced about Lynch. I’m very unconvinced about depth, and no team is getting by with only 25 or so players. They could be very good, but they could also very easily not be.
Bryan: We will find out very quickly what kind of team the 49ers are, I think. They start off the season with road games against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Those are the kinds of games playoff contenders win, and I’m just not 100 percent convinced the 49ers are there yet. I think last year’s 4-12 record is an absolute floor for this year. I think they’ll be relevant into December, possibly even to the point where their Week 17 game against Seattle is a play-in game. But they feel more like a 7-9 or 8-8 team that just misses the playoffs rather than a full-on contender at this point in time. Steps forward, for sure, but I think I’m taking the under.
Andrew: Man. I was really hoping for some disagreement here. I thought maybe Handsome Jimmy G would win you over with a boyish grin or a flicker of light from his marble posterior.
Bryan: If quarterback handsomeness was a predictive stat, I’d have the 49ers winning the Super Bowl.
Andrew: If only ’twere so. Alas. Once more, we are in accord. Under it is.
Seattle Seahawks (8.5)
Last Over: 2018 (10-6, Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson)
Last Under: 2011 (7-9, Pete Carroll/Tarvaris Jackson)
Bryan: We’ve agreed on seven of the eight teams so far. Is Seattle going to tear us apart?
Andrew: I would hardly consider this a joy division, but let’s find out shall we? For: Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett. Against: 20th century offensive tactics that minimize the impact of Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett.
Bryan: I have written a half-dozen stat analysis articles this offseason, and it seems in every single one of them I’ve gone back and explained how Seattle was the one team to buck league trends. Their offense is, frankly, baffling, and I think their success last season had more to do with finally cutting off the lead weight that was Tom Cable than it was Brian Schottenheimer’s ’70s-inspired offensive designs. In a division where you have Kingsbury, McVay, and Shanahan pressing on the cutting edge of what offenses do in the modern NFL, you have Seattle — the only team in the league to run more than throw it in 2018. The only team to pass less than 45 percent of the time on early downs. An offense that is seemingly designed to eliminate yards after the catch, in favor of bombing the ball downfield.
And despite all the evidence that these are the wrong strategic decisions on a league-wide level, despite all the trends going away from everything the Seahawks are doing … it worked last year. They finished sixth in passing DVOA while essentially eschewing the short passing game altogether. That’s impressive, in a weird, counterproductive sort of way.
Andrew: There’s something to be said for zigging while everybody else is zagging. Bill Belichick appears to be moving his roster somewhat in that direction, though with a degree of necessity rather than choice in his case. I still feel like Russell Wilson is making the Seahawks work a heck of a lot more than Brian Schottenheimer is, and I think it’s safe to expect that Tyler Lockett won’t repeat his 66.3% receiving DVOA, but Seattle’s still a pretty good team, a very tough road trip, and a threat to the Rams for the division if things break against L.A. Unless the 49ers are much better than I expect them to be, I have Seattle once again as the second-best team in the division, and they should either be a wild card or only just miss out on it.
Bryan: Yeah, as I said in the intro, there’s a pretty clear hierarchy from Rams to Seahawks to 49ers to Cardinals in the division, and if everything goes according to plan, that’s the order they should likely finish in. It’s possible the Rams will falter, and the Seahawks are best poised to take advantage of it. It’s possible the 49ers will be better than expected, and the Seahawks are the most likely team to fall back in response. But they’re a pretty clear No. 2 in the division, and should be in the wild-card race down to the wire.
Which brings us to the line. Seattle has a really interesting stretch early on in the season: versus the Saints, at Arizona, versus the Rams, at Cleveland — road games against promising teams that haven’t proven anything yet, home games against teams that should be contenders. It feels like the Seahawks need to go 3-1 over that stretch in order to hit the over. I do think they’ll pull it off, but once again, we’ll learn pretty early on just how good this team actually is. I’ll take the over, if only just.
Andrew: As a Saints fan, book Week 3 as a Seahawks win. The Saints will throw everything they have at the Rams in Week 2, and Week 3 will combine a tough road trip with a serious hangover. If that goes as I expect, I have Seattle finishing 7-1 at worst at CenturyLink, and they’ll find a couple of road wins from Arizona, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 9-7 looks about right, with a playoff spot at 10-6 or 11-5 a possibility. 8-8 wouldn’t shock me, but that to me is a rough floor unless the bottom falls out of the defense with the departure of Earl Thomas. I’ll take the over, and sigh as we agree on all eight teams from what we considered a couple of interesting divisions.
Bryan: Interesting doesn’t necessarily mean divisive, of course, but so much agreement gets under my skin! We’ll see if the arctic north divisions can dig up some contention when we get to them next week.
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