NFL 2015 Season Predictions, Part 2: The Falling Stars

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On Monday, I started this four-part team-by-team preview by looking at the eight teams I expect to compete for the first pick in the 2016 draft. After seeing Christian Hackenberg get mauled by Temple on Saturday, that pick doesn’t seem quite as compelling as it did last week. Today, let’s move forward by getting to the next eight teams, the ones I expect to decline — either in terms of record, level of performance, or both — in 2015.

Now, before you get angry, I’m not saying these teams will all be bad. (This will not stop you anyway.) This isn’t a list of the ninth-to-16th-worst teams in the league. I’m suggesting these teams will be worse than they were a year ago and also won’t be among the eight top contenders for the Super Bowl. Even if I’m right, these teams could still very well be competitive; indeed, I think one of these teams will end up making the playoffs. And I won’t be right.

As a reminder, you can read about the numbers that appear in this preview in this statistical primer from 2012. And if you’re interested in hearing more thoughts on these teams, you can listen to the eight divisional preview podcasts I did with Grantland’s Robert Mays during August.

Arizona Cardinals

Key 2014 Results
Record: 11-5 (NFL rank: 6)
Pythagorean Wins: 8.3 (NFL rank: 16)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-2.7 (NFL rank: 1)
Record in Close Games:1 4-1 (NFL rank: 4)
Strength of Schedule: 0.521 (NFL rank: 6)
Turnover Margin: plus-8 (NFL rank: 5)

I wrote about the Cardinals and the likelihood they would decline back on August 5, and since then, the situation hasn’t gotten much rosier.

Arizona’s offensive line, in particular, looks to be in shambles. Left guard Mike Iupati, the team’s most expensive free-agent signing, revealed on August 19 that he needed knee surgery. Right tackle Bobby Massie was suspended for the first three games, a punishment dropped to two games on appeal. Arizona’s centers were so bad in camp that the Cardinals had to re-sign 2014 starter Lyle Sendlein, who had sat on the free-agent market for five months after being cut in March. And first-round pick D.J. Humphries struggled badly in camp, earning public criticism and the nickname of “Knee Deep” from Bruce Arians, who explained that putting a foot in Humphries’s ass wasn’t enough to motivate the Florida product. I would have quit football the moment I got that nickname. That’s an emotional knockout.

Best-Case Scenario: Arians continues to defy the odds as Carson Palmer comes back chucking to breakout receiver John Brown. The offensive line eventually gets right as the Cardinals find a one-two punch with Andre Ellington and David Johnson, and with Patrick Peterson’s diabetes properly treated, the defense stays toward the top of the pack in an 11-5 campaign.

Worst-Case Scenario: The numbers are right. Palmer comes back too early and is an interception machine before he’s benched for Drew Stanton, who doesn’t do any better. The offensive line never jells, the running game never appears, and the defense misses Todd Bowles dearly. Arizona finishes as the league’s biggest disappointment at 6-10.

Carolina Panthers

Key 2014 Results
Record: 7-8-1 (NFL rank: 19)
Pythagorean Wins: 7.1 (NFL rank: T-22)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-0.42 (NFL rank: 12)
Record in Close Games: 4-2-1 (NFL rank: 11)
Strength of Schedule: 0.502 (NFL rank: 14)
Turnover Margin: plus-3 (NFL rank: 13)

Last year, the Panthers managed to finish as the league’s ninth-worst team per DVOA, just below the Browns and narrowly ahead of the Vikings. Carolina fell off by 4.5 wins from its 12-4 mark in 2013, but when its competitors choked, Carolina was able to ride a hot stretch and a return to form in December to become the first repeat champions in the NFC South.

The numbers don’t have a strong opinion about the Panthers the way they did this time last year. They see Carolina as a middling team neither likely to improve nor decline. My concern if I were a Panthers fan, then, would be about the teams around the NFC South getting better. Think about those teams, their weaknesses, and what they did this offseason.

The Falcons had a terrible head coach, the league’s worst defense, and a moribund pass rush. They brought in the defensive coordinator from the league’s best defense, Dan Quinn, to be their head coach and used their first-round pick on arguably the draft’s best edge rusher in Vic Beasley. The Saints had a dismal defense anchored by an awful secondary. They signed Brandon Browner, imported the CFL’s best corner in Delvin Breaux, and used first- and second-round picks on linebackers. I’m not sure they’ll be better, but you can see the case for them improving. The Buccaneers had problems all over, but they replaced Josh McCown with Jameis Winston. Chances are that’s a modest improvement at worst, and upgrades at quarterback reverberate around the rest of your roster unlike swaps at any other position.

I’m not sure the Panthers are a better team on paper today than they were last season. This was supposed to be the offseason when the Panthers stopped shopping at the dollar store, but that wasn’t really the case. They didn’t bleed talent the way they did after the 2013 campaign, when they lost Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, and most of their secondary, but this roster doesn’t seem to be much better. General manager Dave Gettleman has done incredible work over the past two seasons, but the Panthers still seem to be stuck shopping in that bargain bin.

The much-needed additions to shore up major problems on the offensive line and in the secondary ended up being Michael Oher, Charles Tillman, and Kurt Coleman. Oher, one of the league’s worst right tackles over the past two seasons, will be moving to the more difficult left side to protect Cam Newton. The long-wonderful Tillman slipped badly in 2013 before tearing his triceps, an injury that recurred and ended his season after two games in 2014. At 34, he is an enormous question mark at best. Coleman was a reserve safety for the Chiefs last season. These aren’t moves that are likely to drastically improve the Panthers.

Sadly, the improvements they made at their other key position of need, wide receiver, won’t stick in 2015. While Gettleman added a similarly cheap retread in former Panthers player Ted Ginn, he traded up during the draft to grab Michigan wideout Devin Funchess in the second round. It was easy to imagine the Panthers taking another step forward at receiver with Funchess and 2014 first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin improving alongside tight end Greg Olsen, but Benjamin tore his ACL during the preseason and will miss all of 2015. Nominal replacement Philly Brown was so bad during the preseason that there was talk of releasing the second-year UFA, and the Panthers were stuck sending a conditional seventh-rounder to the Seahawks for second-year project Kevin Norwood. Through no fault of their own, the Panthers are likely to be worse at receiver than they were last season.

For the Panthers to claim the South again, they’ll need to hope their rivals all falter and/or they’ll need to get more out of the strengths they have left. After adding coverage linebacker Shaq Thompson in the first round, they should have the best sub-package linebackers in football. They’ll need Charles Johnson — owner of the league’s fourth-largest cap hit in 2015 — to prove he can beat regular double-teams without Greg Hardy around after falling to 8.5 sacks last year. With DeAngelo Williams gone, they’ll need Jonathan Stewart to stay healthy and productive in his first real season as the primary back. And yes, they’ll even want to see some growth from Newton, whose QBR by year points out that he’s been the same guy since entering the league:

Best-Case Scenario: The strides made by the defense toward the end of 2014 stick around, and the Panthers do enough on offense to finish 9-7 and claim their third straight division championship.

Worst-Case Scenario: The secondary is a mess, the offensive line can’t keep Newton upright, Stewart gets hurt and takes the running game with him, and the improvements around the division leave the Panthers in last place.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key 2014 Results
Record: 11-5 (NFL rank: 6)
Pythagorean Wins: 9.6 (NFL rank: T-10)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.4 (NFL rank: T-4)
Record in Close Games: 4-3 (NFL rank: 12)
Strength of Schedule: 0.480 (NFL rank: 25)
Turnover Margin: 0 (NFL rank: T-16)

Cincinnati Bengals

Key 2014 Results
Record: 10-5 (NFL rank: 10)
Pythagorean Wins: 8.6 (NFL rank: 14)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.9 (NFL rank: 2)
Record in Close Games: 3-0-1 (NFL rank: 2)
Strength of Schedule: 0.512 (NFL rank: 10)
Turnover Margin: 0 (NFL rank: T-16)

I also wrote in August about the Bengals and Steelers and why it was natural to expect them to decline, and while the Bengals have managed to stay under the radar, the Steelers are running into the buzz saw they avoided last year: player availability.

The big injury was suffered by Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery for a broken ankle. If he’s placed in Pittsburgh’s IR-recall spot, which seems likely, he’ll miss more games (eight) than Pittsburgh’s 11 offensive starters missed (seven) last season. And while they’re not injured, the Steelers already have two starters suspended for a total of six games, with star halfback Le’Veon Bell out for the first two games and second-year wideout Martavis Bryant gone for the first four. The Pittsburgh offense will be good as long as Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are still breathing, but to hit the lofty heights of 2014, when it was second in offensive DVOA, it’ll need all hands on deck.

Best-Case Scenario: The rest of the offense stays healthy, and the jettisoning of legends like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor creates some much-needed space for new blood. Brown wins offensive player of the year as the Steelers go 12-4.

Worst-Case Scenario: Brown gets hurt, Bell gets hurt, Roethlisberger gets hurt, and an unrecognizable Pittsburgh offense can only be matched by an unmentionable Steelers defense as Mike Tomlin’s team goes 6-10.

Just to be terrible, let’s compare the Bengals to a team from the recent past in terms of our moderately advanced metrics:

The Mystery Team is the 2012 Texans, who had a stable coach (Gary Kubiak) who had been there forever and a quarterback (Matt Schaub) who was just good enough to produce competent numbers and look bad in almost every key game. The Texans seemed steady and set to sing their same song for another season, yet the bottom absolutely fell out, as they won their first two games by a combined nine points before losing their final 14, including nine games decided by one score or less.

It would be wrong to say the Bengals are going to decline by 10 wins because they share some superficial or even statistical similarities to that Texans team, but I’m bringing it up to point out how quickly things can change, even if the coaching staff or roster stays static. As much as it seems like Cincinnati has settled in at this spot where it wins 10 games and loses in the first round of the playoffs, there’s no such thing as settling in from year to year in the NFL.3

Best-Case Scenario: The defense gets healthier, the offense responds to the much-needed return of Tyler Eifert, and the Bengals make another playoff run at 11-5.

Worst-Case Scenario: You read the bit about the Texans, right?

Detroit Lions

Key 2014 Results
Record: 11-5 (NFL rank: 6)
Pythagorean Wins: 9.2 (NFL rank: 13)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1.8 (NFL rank: 3)
Record in Close Games: 6-1 (NFL rank: 3)
Strength of Schedule: 0.489 (NFL rank: 21)
Turnover Margin: plus-7 (NFL rank: 6)

If the Cardinals are the poster child for teams likely to decline because their underlying statistics don’t match their win-loss record, the Lions are … the smaller poster children. Although the gap between their win total and their expected win total isn’t quite as large as Arizona’s, there’s plenty to suggest the Lions will decline in 2014.

That 6-1 record in one-score games sticks out like a sore thumb, especially given that the Lions were a league-worst 6-14 in close games during 2012 and 2013. I’ve heard some people suggest the shift from Jim Schwartz to Jim Caldwell is responsible for some of that change, which is an interesting idea. Caldwell’s Colts teams were 13-9 in one-score games, which isn’t enough to prove anything, but that splits into two very distinct groupings. Caldwell was 12-4 in close games with Peyton Manning as his quarterback and then 1-5 during the year Manning missed after neck surgery. Manning was also 53-22 in those close games under Tony Dungy, which makes me think it’s Manning who is the outlier and not Caldwell. I guess we’ll learn more in 2015.

As I mentioned in our NFC North preview podcast, the Lions were two different defenses during 2014. Their first-half/second-half splits are interesting:

The Lions spent that second half without defensive tackle Nick Fairley; it would be unfair to link the decline entirely to his absence, but it has to be part of the equation. It’s hard to imagine that a Lions secondary featuring starting journeymen Rashean Mathis and James Ihedigbo suddenly became one of the league’s best, even if Detroit got a career year out of Glover Quin and saw Darius Slay take a big step forward. This was a team built on getting pressure, and that pressure came from the front four.

That front four simply isn’t the same. Haloti Ngata is an excellent player, but he’s not the interior pass-rusher that the departed Ndamukong Suh has been over the past several seasons. He’s a replacement, but not a Suh replacement. Former Saints tackle Tyrunn Walker, who played 304 snaps in the interior of the league’s worst run defense last year, simply isn’t a Fairley replacement. Even rotation tackle C.J. Mosley would be a welcome sight here, and he’s also gone. As good as Slay and Quin and DeAndre Levy and Ziggy Ansah can be, this is a totally different defense without its two interior linemen.

That leaves the Lions somewhere between the 2012 and 2013 editions and last year’s playoff participants. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the offense improve from 19th in DVOA, where it’s been each of the past two seasons, if Calvin Johnson can return to health. Ameer Abdullah is certainly exciting, although it’s always smart to be hesitant about trusting preseason performance. The Lions may very well get something out of Eric Ebron, the player who may famously go down as the guy they chose before Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham Jr. Even if the offense improves, it’s just so much easier to see the defense from the second half of 2014 showing up than the dominant group from the opening two months.

Best-Case Scenario: Ansah blossoms into one of the league’s five best edge rushers, Ebron delivers on the Vernon Davis comparisons as a sophomore, and a healthy Megatron helps the Lions toward one of the league’s best offenses. Abdullah wins offensive rookie of the year as Detroit goes 10-6.

Worst-Case Scenario: The defense collapses without interior pressure, the secondary’s torched on a weekly basis, and the Lions end up in a series of weekly shootouts.

Houston Texans

Key 2014 Results
Record: 9-7 (NFL rank: 13)
Pythagorean Wins: 9.8 (NFL rank: 9)
Pythagorean Difference: minus-0.8 (NFL rank: 25)
Record in Close Games: 2-4 (NFL rank: 23)
Strength of Schedule: 0.454 (NFL rank: 32)
Turnover Margin: plus-12 (NFL rank: 2)

The Texans were last year’s Buccaneers, a team the numbers projected for considerable improvement. And sure enough, improve they did; their seven-win jump was the largest in football by a considerable margin, with no other team improving by more than four wins. Granted, the Texans took advantage of an easy schedule, but they also took the Cowboys to overtime in Dallas and twice came within a drive of beating or tying the Colts.

With a little more luck or some fortuitous timing, the Texans could very well have been a playoff team in 2014. And given that Houston got only four games out of first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and had to turn to three starting quarterbacks last season, none of whom would be considered good in most classical senses of the word, it would hardly be out of the question to project another step forward in 2015.

So, why be skeptical? Our old nemesis is here. Bill James’s Plexiglass Principle holds that teams that take an enormous step forward one year often give away some of those gains the following year. It’s certainly the case in football. From 1990 to 2013, 20 teams improved by seven or more wins in a given season. Exactly one of those teams — the 1998 Jets — managed to improve again the following year, doing so by three wins. The 2013 Colts famously defied the statistical evidence and maintained their 11-5 record. The other 18 teams all declined, giving away just under half (48.2 percent) of their improvement from the previous year.

It seems unfair and reductive to think about teams that way, but it does put the things that went right for the Texans in 2014 into context. They turned the ball over only 22 times all season, a remarkable figure for an offense that featured Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, and Tom Savage at quarterback. They forced a league-high 34 turnovers, and while J.J. Watt is going to scare other teams into giving the ball away, the same Watt-led defense was last in the league in takeaways in 2013. Fitzpatrick and Mallett were injured and Arian Foster missed three games, but Houston’s offensive line managed to make it to 79 of 80 possible starts, as the Texans finished sixth in offensive Adjusted Games Lost. Foster is already out until at least October after groin surgery.

The other factor that wouldn’t normally be in Houston’s favor to repeat is the ridiculous softness of last year’s schedule, but it shouldn’t be much harder this season. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 predicts the Texans will face the league’s sixth-easiest schedule, while Vegas has them in fifth. There’s still a lot to like in Houston, even without Andre Johnson, but this is likely a consolidation year for Bill O’Brien’s team.

Best-Case Scenario: Clowney returns from microfracture surgery as a monster in limited snaps, forming the terrifying one-two pass-rush combo Houston envisioned when it drafted him first overall. Brian Hoyer looks more like the guy from the first five games of 2014 than the one who lost his job to Johnny Manziel, and the Texans stomp an easy schedule en route to 10-6 and a wild-card berth.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offense slows to a crawl without Foster or Johnson, Clowney’s knee problems continue to flare up, and the Texans drop back to 5-11.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key 2014 Results
Record: 10-6 (NFL rank: 11)
Pythagorean Wins: 9.6 (NFL rank: T-10)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-0.4 (NFL rank: T-12)
Record in Close Games: 3-3 (NFL rank: 13)
Strength of Schedule: 0.498 (NFL rank: 18)
Turnover Margin: minus-8 (NFL rank: 26)

And then we arrive at the league’s most fascinating team. I’ve already written at length about Philadelphia’s whirlwind offseason back as it was occurring, so I won’t recap everything. And furthermore, while I was thinking about those offseason moves in terms of player valuation and opportunity cost, very little of that matters when it comes to actually trying to figure out how the Eagles will play in 2015. Philly probably overpaid for Byron Maxwell — OK, it definitely overpaid for Byron Maxwell — but he’s still an upgrade at cornerback. We can worry about the value during the offseason.

The early returns on all of these moves are very promising. Philadelphia’s offense looked devastating in the preseason, dropping 115 points over its first three games. Even after the backups settled for a mere 18 points in the final exhibition against the Jets, the Eagles finished with 33.3 points per game during the preseason. That’s nearly a full touchdown ahead of the second-place Chiefs at 26.5 points. The NFL has preseason data available going back through 2000, and it’s the highest scoring average any team has posted over that time frame.

After this year’s Eagles, the second-highest average is split among three teams, who each made it to 131 points over their four preseason games. One of those teams is the 2002 Washington offense of Steve Spurrier, which promptly finished 25th in points per game during the regular season. Next up were the 2006 Bengals, who were a very respectable eighth. And the third? That would be the 2014 Eagles, who finished third in points scored during the regular season. It’s the system, damn it! In all, there’s only a very modest correlation (minus-0.21) between preseason rank in points per game and regular-season rank in the same statistic. It’s not a useful indicator of future performance.

It’s really not much of a surprise that Philadelphia’s offensive schemes would look great in the preseason, either. Teams are running vanilla zone coverages more often than not, and Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks should have little trouble reading those simple looks and making easy throws for steady gains. That includes Sam Bradford, who was downright incredible in an unmentionably small sample, going 13-of-15 for 156 yards with three touchdowns, no picks, and no sacks.

Bradford may very well perform at a high level once the regular season gets going, but I’d be skeptical that we learned very much about how he’ll do from that 15-pass stretch. For one, it’s 15 pass attempts. There’s also the reality that Philadelphia’s opponents have had the most success attacking Kelly’s offense by playing physical man coverage and daring his receivers to get open. Stopping the Eagles is far more complicated than that, but it’s a style of play that just doesn’t show up anywhere near as frequently during the preseason.

And there’s reason to be concerned that Bradford’s receivers may not be up to the task. After shedding DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in consecutive seasons, the Eagles are left with a lot of promise at receiver, but little more. Nominal no. 1 receiver Jordan Matthews was effective as a rookie and has the size to beat that man coverage, but he’ll have to transition to running more of his routes outside this year, where it’s easier to get jammed — and everyone else is a question mark. First-rounder Nelson Agholor might very well be a Maclin clone, but he’s a rookie wideout. We’re spoiled by coming off one of the best rookie wideout classes in league history; more often than not, these guys have an adjustment period. Zach Ertz still hasn’t broken out and underwent a groin operation that could keep him out for Week 1. Riley Cooper and Miles Austin are Riley Cooper and Miles Austin. This could work out great, and it’s not as if the Eagles have a potential-less group like the Browns, but there’s still reason to be skeptical.

There’s also the natural concern about whether Bradford will stay healthy. He has looked athletic this preseason, especially for a player who has torn his ACL twice in less than two years, but there’s an interesting conundrum with Kelly’s Eagles teams. Perhaps owing to their coach’s emphasis upon sports science, the Eagles have been rather healthy over the past two years, ranking fifth in Adjusted Games Lost last year after finishing first the previous season.

The one position the Eagles haven’t managed to keep healthy, though, is quarterback. In 2013, both Michael Vick and Nick Foles went down with injuries, eventually forcing Philly to turn to the now-traded Matt Barkley. Before suffering a fractured collarbone last year, Foles was knocked down at a rate that would have made him the second-most hit quarterback in football over a full season. It’s fair to say both Vick and Foles might be prone to injuries, but it’s also reasonable to wonder whether there’s something about the scheme that’s getting Kelly’s quarterbacks hit so often.

Philadelphia’s offensive line, the best in the league in 2013, has also been stripped down to make way for changes elsewhere. Both guards are gone, as the Eagles released Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans without replacing either player with a single draft pick or veteran free agent. Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner will step into the starting lineup after heading into last season as reserves. The line is perilously thin, and even if everyone stays healthy, it’s not going to be as good as it looked during the dominant 2013 campaign.

We’re out of time and haven’t even gotten to the defense! Or the running backs! There’s so much to say about this team, but let me distill it down to this: The Eagles should be good. I think they’ll make the playoffs at 9-7, and they were very nearly on my list of top eight Super Bowl contenders. If everyone stays healthy, they could very well be the best team in football.

But there are so many risks and so many question marks attached to just about everybody on this roster that it would be crazy to think everything will go right. Maybe Bradford stays healthy. Maybe DeMarco Murray defies that crazy workload and his history and makes it through 16 games. Maybe the wideouts develop fast and the guards work out and Maxwell’s really a no. 1 corner and Brandon Graham’s a top pass-rusher and Kiko Alonso comes back and covers everything. Any one of those things is possible. Asking for them all to happen at the same time is a little much. If most of them occur, the Eagles make the playoffs. If most of them don’t, they’re on the outside looking in.

Best-Case Scenario: The maybes in the previous paragraph actually occur, the Eagles win 14 games, Sam Bradford wins comeback player of the year, Chip Kelly wins coach of the year, the Eagles win the Super Bowl. No big deal.

Worst-Case Scenario: All the injury-prone guys get hurt, Maxwell is a bust when he’s not surrounded by the Legion of Boom, the offensive line disappoints, the wideouts don’t break out, the Eagles go 5-11, Kelly goes back to a college gig. No big deal.

San Diego Chargers

Key 2014 Results
Record: 9-7 (NFL rank: 13)
Pythagorean Wins: 8.0 (NFL rank: 17)
Pythagorean Difference: plus-1 (NFL rank: 7)
Record in Close Games: 5-2 (NFL rank: 9)
Strength of Schedule: 0.512 (NFL rank: 11)
Turnover Margin: minus-5 (NFL rank: 22)

Because the Chargers and Chiefs play in the same division and finished with the same 9-7 record, most of the previews I’ve seen this offseason have treated them as roughly similar heading into 2015. This is a place where underlying statistics can be revealing. While both teams won nine games, the Chiefs outscored their opposition by 72 points and had the Pythagorean Expectation of a 10.1-win team. That places them ahead of the Colts and a half-win behind the Cowboys.

The Chargers, meanwhile, battled their opponents to a draw. They finished the season having both scored and allowed 348 points, a figure that naturally leaves them with the Pythagorean Expectation of a team that would win exactly 8.0 games. They were far closer on a per-play basis to the 49ers (7.0 wins) and Browns (6.9 wins) last year than they were to the Chiefs. They even finished with a DVOA of minus-0.6 percent, which was 16th in the league, while Kansas City was 10th at 10.4 percent. The Chargers were about as average as it gets last year.

And even seeing those numbers, I have to admit that I look back and feel like the Chargers were better than the numbers say. Philip Rivers looked like an MVP candidate during the first half of the season. I remember that win over the Seahawks, a 30-21 game in which the Chargers did a better job throwing the ball against the league’s best pass defense than any team I’d seen before. There was that frantic comeback victory against the Ravens in November, too. Weren’t they better than average?

Well, in those games, they were. Even when they were playing well, they otherwise weren’t as impressive. While San Diego won nine games, Seattle was the Chargers’ one real standout victory where they beat a good team by more than one score. The Chargers won only two games by more than two touchdowns, and those wins came against the Jets (31-0) and Jaguars (33-14). Their two wins over the Raiders were by a combined 10 points. They beat the Rams and 49ers by three points each, needing two fourth-and-long conversions in a two-minute drill to push the latter game into overtime. These aren’t dominant victories.

The weird thing is they started 5-1 before finishing 4-6 and somehow started to play better as the season went along. They were 31st in defensive DVOA during the first half of the season before improving to 14th during the final eight weeks; the offense responded by mostly staying stagnant, finishing 12th in the first half and 10th in the second half. The improvements didn’t match San Diego’s record because the Chargers played a tougher schedule during those final eight weeks, including the season-ending five-game stretch that put them up against the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Chiefs. It looks like the Chargers slumped and it cost them their playoff hopes, but they really played better, just not so much better that they were able to keep up with the competition.

San Diego’s best case for improvement would be to get healthier. The Chargers seemingly went through a different center every week last year. Their top two halfbacks went down with injuries, forcing them to rely on Donald Brown and undrafted free agent Branden Oliver. First-round cornerback Jason Verrett lasted only six games. 2012 first-rounder Melvin Ingram made it into nine. Just 12 of San Diego’s 22 offensive and defensive starters made it through the entire season without missing a game. The Chargers finished 31st in Adjusted Games Lost, only finishing ahead of the perennial health doormat Giants.

Even if the Chargers are healthier, they won’t be as good in one-score games. (They were 4-5 during their playoff run in 2013 with Mike McCoy quietly being one of the worst fourth-down decision-makers in football.) The running game will be better with Melvin Gordon taking carries away from Brown and Oliver, and the Chargers should hopefully be better at guard after pushing failed tackle D.J. Fluker inside and signing Orlando Franklin away from Denver, but they’re also already out four games of Antonio Gates. And this is without even considering the specter of any possible move north, which could keep fans away and eradicate San Diego’s home-field advantage. The Chargers were an average team that looked better than that last year; this time around, they should play average and get average results.

Best-Case Scenario: The resurgent running game gives San Diego a top-five offense, and the return of Verrett finally gives San Diego an impressive secondary. The Chargers beat the Broncos in a Sunday-night play-in game in Week 17 to finish 11-5 and win the AFC West.

Worst-Case Scenario: It’s the last year of the San Diego Chargers and they’re not even good.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell