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Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview Part II

Who will fail to live up to expectations?

For Part I of our Mega NFL Preview featuring the Bills, Bears, Bengals, Jaguars, Seahawks, Titans, Dolphins, and Redskins click here.

Today our NFL preview continues with a look at the teams we expect will decline during the 2011 season. Before we get started, it’s important to clarify what “decline” means here. Some of the bottom-of-the-barrel teams we broke down on Friday are going to decline, of course, but this group will decline from their 2010 records without threatening to be the worst team in football. Every team in the category was 8-8 or better last season, and while we expect these franchises to slip up during this upcoming season, a couple of them should still be good enough to make the playoffs. In fact, several of them will be better than the improving teams that we break down tomorrow, but these eight organizations will all fail to live up to their lofty expectations. Here, as everywhere, the term “decline” is relative.

Atlanta Falcons

Odds to win the NFC South: +131

The 2010 Falcons were the 32nd team since the strike year of 1983 to go 13-3. Of the 31 teams before them, only two three (the 1990-91 Bills, 1996-97 Packers and the 1999-00 Titans) were able to repeat their 13-win season. The average team, in fact, won an average of only 9.4 games the following season. A lot of things have to go right for a team to win 13 games, and those breaks just don’t come every single season. Atlanta has the talent base to compete for the next five years, but there are a couple of reasons why they won’t be the third team to repeat 13-3.

The Pythagorean expectation suggests the Falcons were the luckiest team in football last year. An old Bill James concept from baseball implemented in the sport by current Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey while he was a researcher at STATS, the Pythagorean expectation revolves around the idea that the difference in a team’s points scored and points allowed serves as a better indicator of its future win-loss record than its actual win-loss record itself. Historically, that’s been true; we’ll get to a rare exception later. The formula itself1 resembles the Pythagorean theorem you’ll remember from junior high algebra, which gives the concept its name.

When a team has a win-loss record that outstrips its expected win-loss record by the Pythagorean expectation, it’s considered to be trading in luck. Last year, the Falcons went 13-3, but their point differential suggested that they should have won 11.2 games. That 1.8-game difference was the largest in the league. Since the advent of the current 17-week NFL schedule in 1993, 43 teams have outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a total of between 1.5 and two wins. Those teams declined by an average of two wins in the subsequent season. In addition, Atlanta was a remarkable 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That was even better than the 7-3 record put up by the Bears.

Injuries are also more likely to be a factor for Matt Ryan and company this upcoming season, as the Falcons’ 22 starters on offense and defense missed a total of just seven games last year. Seven! In 2009, Ryan and Michael Turner combined to miss seven games by themselves. Atlanta got 80 games out of its five starting offensive linemen last year, but we already know that’s not going to happen in 2011, as center Todd McClure will be off saving Tony Orlando’s house with his brother Troy during Week 1 after undergoing a knee scope.

And while the Falcons sent away two first-round draft picks and three other selections to procure Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth pick, there’s no guarantee Jones will be able to produce as a rookie. Wide receivers taken in the first round since 1990 have averaged just 36 catches and 500 yards during their rookie campaigns. Even the rookie seasons of future superstars like Calvin Johnson (48 catches, 756 yards, four touchdowns) and Torry Holt (52 catches, 788 yards, six touchdowns) weren’t all that impressive. Jones may very well end up being a dominant receiver at the pro level, but Falcons fans hoping for a repeat of Randy Moss’ rookie season are likely to be disappointed.

Best-case scenario: Jones actually duplicates Moss’ rookie season and then proceeds to recreate the rest of Moss’ entire career, down to mooning Packers fans and owning a juicery. Ray Edwards improves the pass rush enough for the Falcons to get to the Super Bowl.

Worst-case scenario: Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham are too old to contribute, the secondary falls apart without a pass rush, and the Falcons get knocked out of the playoff hunt by the Saints on the night after Christmas. The Eagles win the Super Bowl, and Michael Vick records a cover of “Single Ladies” that he dedicates to Atlanta.

Ed Reed

Baltimore Ravens

Odds to win the AFC North: +138

There are certainly reasons to believe the Ravens are capable of being better in 2011 than they were in 2010. Their schedule should be much easier, as they swap out the AFC East and NFC South for the AFC South and the NFC West. An offense that ranked just 16th in points scored got rid of several big names who weren’t producing very much with their opportunities, and the defense can hope to get more than 10 games out of Ed Reed, who still managed to lead the NFL with eight interceptions in 2010.

Even without Reed, the Ravens have one of the deepest secondaries in football. Pencil in improvements from their young playmakers, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, and it adds up to 13 wins. Right?

Not so fast. There are a lot of things that also went right for this team last year that aren’t necessarily going to happen this year. Even if they do get 12 games from Reed and benefit from an easier schedule, there are some reasons for alarm in Charm City.

Let’s start with the pass rush. If you want to win a bet, ask a friend which team finished last in sack rate (sacks divided by quarterback dropbacks) last season. And give him or her 15 chances. Believe it or not, the answer is the once-feared pass rush of the Baltimore Ravens, who took down opposing quarterbacks on just 4.3 percent of their dropbacks. Terrell Suggs hit double digits for the first time since 2004 by taking down opposing quarterbacks 11 times, but after Haloti Ngata’s 5.5 sacks, nobody else on the team had more than three. The secondary combined for just one sack, while starting outside linebacker Jarret Johnson had only 1.5 sacks despite starting 16 games.

This isn’t a one-year fluke, either, as the Ravens rank just 25th in combined sack rate over the past three years. The devastating pass rushes of the Rams, Patriots, and Seahawks have all sacked quarterbacks more frequently over the past three seasons than the Ravens have. Baltimore undoubtedly hopes that 2010 pick Sergio Kindle, who missed his rookie season with a fractured skull, will be able to make an impact as a situational pass-rusher in 2011.

The scary thing is that, outside of Kindle, the Ravens couldn’t have asked for much more from their front seven in 2010. Their starters played in 111 of 112 games, which is only the second time they’ve been able to stay that healthy since the Super Bowl season of 2000. The secondary was beset by injuries, which is part of the reason why their sack rate hit rock bottom, as the Ravens stopped blitzing to protect an inexperienced secondary. In 2010, Football Outsiders noted that the Ravens rushed just three players on pass plays 6.2 percent of the time, which was 14th in the league. Last year, they rushed three and dropped eight defenders into coverage 17.3 percent of the time, which was the fourth-highest rate in football.

While the secondary will be healthier in 2011, there’s no guarantee that it will actually be good. Outside of Reed, whose availability will remain a fluid situation for the rest of his career, the unit is full of question marks. Salary-cap constraints forced the team to let safety Dawan Landry walk this offseason, and he’ll be replaced by Bernard Pollard, a castoff from the miserable Texans pass defense of 2010. Yikes. The Ravens could go four-deep with effective cornerbacks this year after injuries ravaged them there last season, but each of their corners has question marks. Domonique Foxworth is coming off of an ACL tear and spent most of the past year serving on the front lines of the lockout fight as a key member of the players’ union. Chris Carr is undersized and a much better fit in the slot than he is on the outside. Lardarius Webb is both undersized and inexperienced, having struggled last year after an ACL tear of his own in 2009. Cary Williams has been a practice-squad player for most of his career, and while first-round pick Jimmy Smith was often brilliant at Colorado, counting on rookie cornerbacks to contribute much is often a fool’s errand. The Ravens have named Williams and Smith as their starters to begin the season, but expect that to change repeatedly as the season goes along.

If the defense declines, there’s no guarantee that the offense will be able to pick up the slack. While adding wide receiver Lee Evans and offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie to shore up weak spots in the offense during training camp sounds like a great idea, Evans hasn’t produced over the past three seasons in Buffalo, and McKinnie has been out of shape and subpar for two consecutive seasons in Minnesota. They also both still need to learn the playbook. If either of those two were to fail, a rookie would take their place in the lineup.

Oh, and while the Bears undoubtedly got hosed by the new kickoff rules, spare a rose for the Ravens. After years of mediocrity, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff had one of the more remarkable breakout seasons in the league last year, tying the league record with 40 touchbacks. He had just 11 touchbacks in his previous seven pro seasons. Advanced NFL Stats estimates that Cundiff’s proclivity was worth about as much as 20 sacks with regard to field position. The Ravens also found a budding star in return man David Reed, who led the league by averaging 29.3 yards per kickoff return (minimum: 20 returns). The new kickoff rules will remove virtually all of the competitive advantages gained from having Cundiff and David Reed on the roster.

Best-case scenario: Ed Reed stays healthy and plays all 16 games, freeing up new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to go after the opposing quarterback. Kindle has 10 sacks in a part-time role. New fullback Vonta Leach clears out massive swaths of space for Rice, who proceeds to win the rushing title. They finally beat the Steelers in the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Lewis and Reed aren’t able to answer the bell for 16 games. Combined. The pass rush continues to struggle, the secondary isn’t great, and they slip to third place in the AFC North behind the Browns.

Manning/Collins

Indianapolis Colts

Odds to win the AFC South: N/A (Ask your local bookie and expect to get laughed at.)

The short and sweet answer for why the Colts will decline, as you already know, is that we don’t know what’s up with Peyton Manning’s neck. While the Colts went through the same sort of hemming and hawing about Manning’s availability before the 2008 season because of a knee injury, nobody was reporting that he would miss four to six weeks on September 1 of that year. They also didn’t give a veteran quarterback $4 million in guaranteed money to come out of retirement the way they did with Kerry Collins just two weeks ago. We won’t know for sure that Manning’s out until Collins actually steps onto the field against the Texans in five days, but this feels like it’s really happening.

Even advanced metrics struggle to accurately gauge just how valuable an elite quarterback is to a particular team. Over the past nine seasons, the Colts have won 13 more games than their points scored and points allowed totals would have predicted, outperforming their Pythagorean expectation in every year during that stretch.2 The only team that’s come close to that over the past decade, as you might expect, is the Patriots. They have exceeded their Pythagorean expectation in eight of the past 10 seasons, accruing 8.1 extra wins. (Although you might expect that one of the years they came up short was the Matt Cassel season in 2008, that wasn’t the case.)

I haven’t been able to find a similar case in recent history. Joe Montana’s 49ers teams exceeded their expected total by 4.7 wins, but they didn’t reach their expected total in four of his 10 seasons as the established starter. Dan Marino’s Dolphins teams were eight wins better than expected, but like Montana, the teams failed to hit their Pythagorean expectation five times. John Elway produced 9.9 extra wins as the Broncos starter, but his teams also came up short five times. No single quarterback in league history has ever been able to pull off a stretch like this for more than six consecutive seasons. If Manning isn’t around, it’s hard to fathom how the Colts can exceed expectations for a 10th straight year.

The Colts are also reeling after years of subpar drafting. A list of their first- and second-round picks since then reveals a group that has failed to contribute much at all. Indy used two first-round picks on running backs, but neither Joseph Addai nor Donald Brown has been able to reach the heights of Edgerrin James’ time with the team. Tony Ugoh, a 2007 second-rounder, was expected to be the team’s next franchise left tackle, but he’s currently out of football. First-rounder Anthony Gonzalez hasn’t stayed healthy and is fourth on the depth chart at wide receiver. Compare that to their first- and second-round picks from the previous five years, a list that includes elite players such as Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, and Bob Sanders. Even allowing for the fact that the recent guys still have some development time left, it’s clear that the Colts just haven’t been hitting April the way they used to.

Best-case scenario: Manning was just kidding. He comes back with a robotic neck sponsored by Sony and wins 14 games out of spite.

Worst-case scenario: Manning never comes back and the Colts go through the equivalent of that one Spurs season in which David Robinson broke his foot and missed the entire year. They actively go on a hunt to try to get Andrew Luck to be the Tim Duncan to Manning’s Robinson, but come up just short when Curtis Painter leads the team to three consecutive wins over AFC South competition to end the season.

Matt Cassel

Kansas City Chiefs

Odds to win the AFC West: N/A (Thanks, Matt Cassel’s ribs.)

If you’re reading all these pieces and doubting that a team’s performance in close games and/or strength of schedule really matter, consider the 2009-10 Kansas City Chiefs. In 2009, the Chiefs were 2-6 in games decided by one score or less. They played the AFC North and NFC East and went 2-6 against them, too. If you ignored those two very important pieces of information, you wouldn’t have had any idea what was coming for Todd Haley’s team in 2010.

Without adding a significant free agent, the Chiefs somehow improved by six games last season, winning the AFC West with a 10-6 record. How did they do that? They started the season with wins in two straight close games, and finished the year 4-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The schedule brought them the NFC West, against whom the Chiefs promptly went 4-0. They split four games with the AFC South and beat the two last-place teams they got because of their finish in 2009, the Browns and Bills, by a total of five points. Even though the Chiefs went only 2-4 in their division, a little bit of luck in close games and the mere presence of the NFC West on their calendar was enough to bring them a division title. This stuff matters.

Although the Chiefs perennially rank as one of the healthiest teams in football, 2010 was a particularly spotless year for them. Their 22 starters missed a total of only 11 games all season, with the offensive starters combining for just three lost games all season. That’s remarkable, and we already know it’s not going to happen again in 2011 since starting tight end Tony Moeaki is out for the season after tearing his ACL in the Chiefs’ final preseason game. Matt Cassel also reportedly suffered a broken rib in that game, which would push Tyler Palko into the starting lineup for Week 1.

Despite Jamaal Charles’ grossly outplaying Thomas Jones in every situation imaginable, Jones still got 15 more carries than Charles did during the regular season. It makes sense to give Charles regular rest, but there’s no possible explanation for giving Jones more carries than Charles. A 70/30 split between Charles and Jones would make sense. An 80/20 split would be even better. Fifty-fifty is absurd.

Even if the Chiefs can avoid the injury bug once the season starts, their schedule is going to be too difficult for them to compete. They get the AFC East and NFC North in town this year, and then face fellow division champions in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis to finish off their out-of-division slate. With the only true weak sister among those 10 opponents — the Bills — set to visit a Cassel-less team in Week 1, how many of those games can you really expect the Chiefs to win? Could they go 0-10 in those games? The huge home-field advantage afforded them by Arrowhead Stadium will help, and they’re a young team that should be getting better every season, but the Chiefs aren’t going to be competitive in 2011.

Best-case scenario: Charles is the second coming of Eric Dickerson, and Cassel’s rib injury opens up an opportunity for Tyler Palko to emerge in the same way that Drew Bledsoe’s sheared chest gave Tom Brady a chance. Palkomania sweeps the AFC West.

Worst-case scenario: Cassel’s never healthy, and his interception rate spikes back up after last year’s ridiculous 1.6 percent rate. The team starts 0-5 before its bye and then quits on Haley, who gets canned by the end of the year.

Terrell Thomas

New York Giants

Odds to win the NFC East: +297

The past two months have not been very kind to the Giants. After starting with an over/under of 9.5 wins at -110 on either side, the under on the Giants now sits around -180. A line of -180 suggests that the market believes the Giants have a 64.3 percent chance of finishing with nine wins or fewer. And with the injuries facing the Giants before the season has even started, that might be generous.

No more than a handful of NFL teams will lose a starter for the entire season because of an injury in the preseason. The Giants have been bitten by the injury bug in preseasons past, but they’ve never faced anything like the onslaught of injuries that have hit them since the end of the lockout.

Cornerback looked to be a deep position for the Giants after they selected Nebraska corner Prince Amukamara with the 19th overall pick in this year’s draft. Amukamara broke his foot during his first day with the team and is out until at least Week 5, if not longer. His injury came shortly after reserve corner Bruce Johnson tore his Achilles tendon, which ended his season. Two weeks later, starting right cornerback Terrell Thomas tore his ACL, which finished his season. In July, former first-round pick Aaron Ross was considered a bust who might not even make it through training camp; now he’s a starter.

The front seven was also hit. Holdout defensive end Osi Umenyiora immediately complained about knee pain upon returning to the team and promptly had his knee scoped, which could keep him out for the first two to four weeks of the regular season. Second-round pick Marvin Austin tore his pectoral muscle four days later, which ended the defensive tackle’s rookie season before it began. And then Clint Sintim, who was in the mix to start at outside linebacker, tore his ACL for the second season in nine months. That’s six defenders who were expected to make significant contributions this year, four of whom are already done for the year. Last season, the Giants’ 11 defensive starters missed only four games all year. This year, we can already safely pencil them in for a minimum of 20.

Even before the injuries, it was already reasonable to expect the Giants’ defense to decline. Big Blue’s defense ranked third in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) last season, but one of the causes for that ranking is unlikely to recur again. In 2010, the Giants forced 38 fumbles in 16 games. That was 10 more than the Saints and Steelers, who were tied for second. Umenyiora forced 10 fumbles himself, which was as many as he had produced in his three previous seasons combined. In all, the Giants forced fumbles on 10.6 percent of meaningful drives by the opposition, the highest rate in the league. That’s totally unsustainable. Over the previous four years, the Giants had forced fumbles at a rate that was never lower than 4.1 percent and never higher than 4.8 percent in any season. That’s where their fumble rate will return to this season, and that will put more snaps and more points on a defense already stretched for depth.

After years of the Giants’ defense carrying their offense to success, Eli Manning’s crew will need to flip the narrative this year. It will be easier said than done. The famous offensive line that took apart opponents in 2007 and 2008 is now in pieces, with left guard Rich Seubert and center Shaun O’Hara released. Former 49ers center David Baas was signed in the offseason, while left tackle David Diehl will move to guard. Former Connecticut tackle William Beatty will move from the bench into the starting lineup at left tackle, where it will be his responsibility to protect Eli Manning’s blind side.

The good news for the Giants is that they shouldn’t miss Umenyiora and Amukamara much while they’re gone. They have to play the AFC East, but they also get the NFC West, and most of their games against the worst division in football come before their Week 7 bye, at which point they should have both Umenyiora and Amukamara back in the lineup. Outside of their game at Philly in Week 3, the Giants start the year with Washington, St. Louis, Arizona, Seattle, and Buffalo.

After the bye and a game against the Dolphins, though, the schedule gets hellish. They start by going to New England in Week 9, and after a trip to San Francisco, they return home for a rematch with the Eagles. Then they’re away at New Orleans, home against Green Bay, and at Dallas for their rivalry game against the Cowboys. The good news is that they don’t travel after that, as their one remaining away game is “at” the Jets on Christmas Eve. The bad news is that they might prefer to be on the road with the record they’re likely to have at that point.

Best-case scenario: Eli takes the team on his shoulders and carries it through a series of shootouts in the first half of the year, and the Giants’ traditional second-half struggles aren’t enough to keep them out of the playoffs. The injury to Umenyiora just creates an opportunity for Jason Pierre-Paul, who becomes the next great Giants pass-rusher.

Worst-case scenario: The team quits on Coughlin for the fifth or sixth time during its nightmare schedule in November. After years of giving him more rope, the organization fires him on Christmas morning after an embarrassing loss to the Jets the night before.

Mark Sanchez

New York Jets

Odds to win the AFC East: +176

Much like the Chiefs, the Jets were an extremely healthy team in 2010. Veterans like LaDainian Tomlinson took the meaningless Week 17 game against the Bills off, but before that, the only offensive starter on the team to miss a game was right tackle Damien Woody, who missed only two meaningful games during the regular season. Oft-injured defensive tackle Kris Jenkins went down for the season in Week 1 with a torn ACL that eventually forced his retirement during the offseason, but the other members of the defense combined to miss just 12 starts before Week 17.

The lockout was also not kind to this team. As a veteran team that crammed $135.7 million in spending into 2010′s capless season, the Jets were never going to be able to return the same team they had a year ago. Gone are valuable role players such as Jerricho Cotchery, Brad Smith, and Jason Taylor. Jenkins and Woody have retired. Unproven players such as Wayne Hunter (right tackle) and first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson (defensive end) will be forced to step in and take over where productive veterans left off.

The Jets have been able to succeed during the Mark Sanchez/Rex Ryan era by running the ball effectively and playing great defense. The arrival of the running game dates back to the selections of left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold with the team’s first-round picks in the 2006 draft, but the veterans with whom the team surrounded Ferguson and Mangold with are mostly gone. Rebuilding a line creates hiccups and easily turns a great running game into an average one thanks to a lack of continuity and the resulting decline in performance. And that’s assuming the Jets stay incredibly healthy for the fourth year in a row. Meanwhile, the defense increasingly relies on the brilliance of Ryan and Revis (and criminally underrated linebacker David Harris) to compensate for declining talent around them.

Best-case scenario: Sanchez actually does break out in his third season, the defense stays mostly healthy for another season, and the Jets go 13-3 en route to the top seed in the AFC and a Super Bowl appearance. Pink “SANCHEZ” jerseys become the top-selling item in the NFL’s online store before they dominate some hapless NFC team in the big game.

Worst-case scenario: Uh-oh. A tough schedule zaps the Jets before Halloween, as they head into their Week 8 bye on a four-game losing streak and in third place in the AFC East.3 Their schedule gets easier after that, but the Jets are unceremoniously removed from the playoff hunt after getting stomped by the Eagles in Philly on December 18.

Darren McFadden

Oakland Raiders

Odds to win the AFC West: N/A (Still angry at you, Matt Cassel’s ribs.)

The Raiders flip all the negative indicators we’ve been mentioning on their heads. Oakland was 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, notably losing by one point to the Cardinals in Week 3 when star kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed a 34-yard field goal at the end of the game. Their Pythagorean expectation suggested that the 8-8 Raiders should have won 8.9 games. Their 22 starters on offense and defense combined to miss 25 games, which is a relatively healthy season but not extraordinarily so. While it’s been easy to make jokes about the Raiders since the invasion of Iraq, this is a team that had the best sack rate in all of football last season. They weren’t a punch line.

So why are they going to decline in 2011? Well, there’s one other primary indicator we use when looking at a team’s performance that didn’t get mentioned in the previous paragraph: strength of schedule. Last year the Raiders remarkably went 6-0 within their division (although one of those wins came against the Chiefs in Week 17 when they had nothing to play for). They beat the Chargers twice to break a 13-game losing streak against San Diego. They blew out the Broncos by 45 points in Denver. They dominated the AFC West.

Elsewhere, though, the Raiders struggled mightily. Their other two wins came against the Rams and Seahawks, meaning they split four games against the dreadful NFC West. They were 0-4 against the AFC South. The Steelers and Dolphins beat them by a combined 48 points. To recap, that means the Raiders were 8-2 against the two worst divisions in football and 0-6 elsewhere. Fortunately, they get to play the AFC West six more times this year, but they’ll also have to play the AFC East, the NFC North, the Browns, and a road game in Houston.

In addition, the Raiders were lucky to recover 35 of the 54 fumbles that hit the ground in their games. Historically, teams have not shown a consistent ability to recover fumbles at a rate higher than league average, which suggests that the act of recovering fumbles is far more luck than skill. Certain fumbles are more likely to be recovered by one team or another (the offense, for example, is more likely to recover a fumbled snap), but a team with average fumble “luck” should recover about 50 percent of the fumbles in its games over the course of a season. The Raiders recovered at a rate approaching 65 percent, including all six of the fumbles in their Week 5 victory over the Chargers. That’s not going to happen again.

Oakland also had a terrible offseason. Al Davis let head coach Tom Cable go against his players’ wishes, replacing him with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who’s never been a head coach at any level. The Raiders lost Nnamdi Asomugha, by far their best defender, to the Eagles. While Darren McFadden is their best offensive player, their next-best players on offense were tight end Zach Miller and guard Robert Gallery. Both followed Cable to Seattle.

The team was without a first-round pick because of the Richard Seymour trade, and they used their second-round pick on Penn State left guard Stefen Wisniewski, whose best asset is his last name. The Raiders took Wisniewski, the son of a former star Raiders guard, at least one round ahead of where most draftniks listed him. You can guess whose fingerprints are all over that.

The Raiders will also be disappointed with the league’s new kickoff rules. Janikowski turned 31.2 percent of his kickoffs into touchbacks last season, the second-highest rate in the league. Rookie return man Jacoby Ford, meanwhile, tied for the league lead with three touchdowns on kickoff returns. As with the Ravens, whatever competitive advantage the Raiders got from Janikowski and Ford will be blunted by the new rules.

It’s a shame, too, because there’s a lot of talent in Oakland waiting to get national attention. McFadden and Ford are electrifying playmakers on offense and special teams, while defensive end Matt Shaughnessy is the best player in football nobody knows about — a burgeoning superstar in the mold of Jared Allen.

Best-case scenario: McFadden stays healthy all season and wins the rushing title, while the Raiders’ pass rush takes over games and helps make a Ewing Theory candidate out of Asomugha. They beat the Chargers at home on New Year’s Day to clinch the AFC West.

Worst-case scenario: They start the season 1-6 before their bye, at which point Al Davis gives up hope and sells the team to Kreayshawn.

Josh Freeman

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Odds to win the NFC South: +765

The Bucs finished the 2010 season with wins over Seattle and New Orleans.4 Neither team had anything to play for when they took on Tampa. Take away those two wins and you’re left with an 8-6 team that was outscored by 10 points despite facing one of the easiest schedules a team could imagine.

The Bucs’ eight other wins came against teams that were a combined 37-91 on the season. That’s roughly akin to beating the Bills eight times. Even with that easy schedule, they weren’t exactly stomping their weak competition. They started the season by going 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They went 4-0 against the NFC West, beat the 2-14 Panthers twice, picked up two wins against the weak sisters of the AFC North, the Bengals and Browns, and had a one-point victory over the Redskins that was sealed when Washington missed a game-tying extra point with six seconds left.

Outside of the win against the semi-Saints, they were 0-5 against teams with winning records and were outscored by a total of 67 points in those five games. The Bucs were one of eight teams in 2010 to play just six games against teams with a .500 record or better. Six of those eight teams that got to play such an easy schedule won 10 or more games. And from 1994 to 2009, 36 teams played a schedule that had only six .500-or-better teams on the slate. They won an average of 10.4 games that year. In the following season, they won an average of just 7.6 games. After getting to play the AFC North and NFC West last season, the Buccaneers will have to face the NFC North and AFC South this season.

There are reasons to believe that the Buccaneers might be able to avoid the downswing. They played well in two narrow losses to the Falcons and lost to the Ravens on the road by only one score. The second half of their season was marked by a series of season-ending injuries to key players, including star cornerback Aqib Talib and the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The McCoy injury was part of the reason why the Bucs allowed 4.7 yards per carry on the ground, the second-worst rate in the league. Talib also managed to duck a suspension for his offseason arrest on felony assault charges. The Buccaneers will sport one of the league’s youngest lineups for the second season in a row, with the distinct possibility that at least 18 of their 22 starters on offense and defense will be 28 or younger heading into the season. Josh Freeman looks to be the best quarterback out of the 2009 draft through two seasons, although the miraculous drop in his interception rate (from 6.2 percent as a rookie to 1.3 percent last season) has no hope of sticking. The Bucs are one year away from really emerging as a serious contender in the NFC West, but they’re going to struggle to hit .500 this year.

Best-case scenario: Freeman takes another leap forward and becomes the best quarterback in the division, a healthy defense finally starts to stop the run, and Tampa heads into the playoffs as an emerging dynasty in the NFC South.

Worst-case scenario: Freeman’s interception rate goes north of 3 percent, Talib gets arrested again and goes the way of Pacman Jones, and a tougher schedule pushes the Bucs back to 5-11.

(All lines courtesy pinnaclesports.com)

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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