Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

Scramble for the Ball: 2019 North Over/Unders

27 min read

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello again and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramble team laments/celebrates (delete as applicable) the demise of the Great Northern Houses of Old. Last year was the first time since 2006 that neither the Packers nor the Steelers made the postseason, whether as a division winner or a wild card. In their stead, the Baltimore Ravens took the AFC North for the first time since their improbable 2012 Super Bowl-winning season, and the Chicago Bears won the NFC North for the first time since the Lovie Smith era (2010). The strong potential for different champions in both divisions this year makes this probably the most interesting pair of divisions on our compass-point whistle-stop tour.

Bryan: Yeah, the big question in the northern divisions are whether last year was a fluke, or if we’ve seen an actual, factual changing of the guard. Many fans of the North would like to pretend the most recent season never happened, and are instead waiting for a better sequel to their favorite show.

I meant “teams.” I have no idea why I typed “show” there.

Andrew: And you had the cheek to call me out…

Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” below list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number.

AFC North

Andrew: This division is traditionally quite suited to adapting the old Gary Lineker quote about soccer as “a simple game — 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Substitute 90 minutes for 17 weeks, and Germans for Steelers, and you get the general idea. However, it should be noted all three professional franchises in this division have won it at least once in the past four seasons, and each of those three has also made the playoffs as a wild card over the same period. This is one of the most competitive divisions in the sport, not just because of the variability in the standings, but also the … let’s be polite and say “no holds barred” mentality of most of the divisional encounters.

Bryan: Interesting — I’m not sure I would have used the phrase “most competitive” here, but I do think it’s one of the more fascinating divisions this season. I have a fairly heavy favorite to win the division, but again, the three professional teams playing all have really interesting potential, and even the moribund franchise from Ohio at least has some good storylines going for them. And it isn’t even the same moribund franchise from Ohio! Viva la change.

Baltimore Ravens (8)
Last Over: 2018 (Head Coach: John Harbaugh, Quarterback: Joe Flacco)
Last Under: 2015 (John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco)

Bryan: Talking about the Ravens without talking about Joe Flacco is weird. Refreshing, but weird.

Andrew: The Ravens might be the most curious and even the most variable team in the league this year. It seems like everybody has an opinion on the new quarterback in town, for better or worse, and naturally everybody’s assessment of the team is heavily skewed by their opinions on the merits or demerits of that young passer.

Bryan: I know preseason doesn’t matter (and as a 49ers fan, I am very, very pleased that preseason doesn’t matter), but Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense has looked a bit more traditional so far. That’s good — not because the Ravens will be more boring, no; I assume they’re saving the quarterback runs and whatnot for situations that actually matter. But because it’s showing that Jackson has improved as a passer so far, which was vital for the Ravens to repeat last year’s success. Jackson running around like Madden NFL 2004 Michael Vick is a lot of fun, but it’s nice to see him progressing in 2010s football rather than 1920s style.

No, I’m far more concerned about the defense and its mass exodus of talent than I am about the offense.

Andrew: Isn’t “mass exodus” overselling things a touch? They’ve lost some big-name veterans, but they haven’t exactly been slouches about replacing at least one of those. There aren’t many teams who could lose a player of Eric Weddle’s caliber and still come out with an upgrade, but that might just be what the Ravens have achieved this summer.

Bryan: The Ravens had the second-most loss in AV over replacement on defense since 2003, trailing just the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, per Football Outsiders Almanac 2019 (cheap plug!). C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, Brent Urban … Earl Thomas is great, of course, but that’s a lot of talent to replace in one go. And if the defense crumbles, even an increase on offense might not be enough to save them — remember, their big run at the end of last season came on the back of the second-ranked defensive DVOA in the league over the last seven weeks.

Andrew: Yet I look at the current defensive roster and don’t exactly see a lot of holes. In theory, that looks awfully like the best secondary in the league to me — perhaps a dead heat with Weddle’s new employers — and the Ravens are past masters at replacing departed defensive starters with players they’d developed specifically for that situation. Losing Suggs hurts the edge rush rotation, and they might miss his veteran presence, but Suggs is only five months younger than me, for pity’s sake. They were always going to have to make a move there eventually.

Bryan: True, but making all those moves at the same time is the issue — you’d prefer to phase out contributors on a more staggered basis than suddenly “Pop! Surprise, new defense.” I still think the defense is going to be good, mind you, but the difference between a good Baltimore defense and a great Baltimore defense might be the difference between January football and January tee times.

Andrew: It’s interesting that the only two seasons since 1998 (!) that the Ravens have missed the top ten in defensive DVOA are the two seasons Suggs has missed time with an Achilles injury (2012 and 2015), but that record of success to me speaks volumes about the quality of the coaching there — not just the head coach, as this covers the Brian Billick era too, but the general development and coaching of defensive players. I fully expect the Ravens to be fine at worst, and really much better than fine on defense.

If they aren’t, then they’ll be in a tough spot, but this is a staff that has only failed to reach eight wins once in 11 seasons. It’s quite easy to find eight wins on their schedule if — and I fully accept that this is a fairly major “if” — Lamar Jackson and company keep up their end of the bargain, and I think there’s more room for this team to go over that than under. I doubt they’ll go much over — think 9-7, not 11-5 — but I’m happy to gamble on that given their long-term record. Over.

Bryan: Despite my worries, I tend to agree with you. I think their ceiling is higher than their floor is low, and a .500 record isn’t the most difficult mark in the world to hit. I don’t expect them to be up with the Super Bowl contenders or anything, but I’ve got them penciled in as a playoff team myself. Over.

Cincinnati Bengals (5.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton)
Last Under: 2010 (Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer)

Bryan: The Cincinnati Bengals have played exactly one season in the AFC North without Marvin Lewis as their head coach. That is insane.

Andrew: There are many, many reasons why that is insane, not least of which is the feeling that Lewis had been living on borrowed time for … actually, for years now, even during their recent five-year streak of playoff appearances. The only thing that made Lewis’ departure in January anything of a surprise is the fact that the team finally moved on. Though 2016-2018 was the first time they had recorded three straight losing seasons, Lewis’ teams always gave the impression of a wild-card defeat being pretty much their absolute ceiling — an impression that proved true in the end.

Bryan: And now they come crashing back down, where even a wild-card defeat would seem far, far greater than people are giving them credit for — this is tied for the second-lowest line in the league, just ahead of Miami’s 4.5. It’s not unusual for us to be talking about an Ohio team with no chance of making the playoffs; it’s just odd that it’s the one in stripes. They haven’t finished 5-11 or worse in Andy Dalton’s tenure, so we’re talking about expectations for the bottom to fall out entirely. Not that is necessarily a bad thing after the last three seasons of, shall we say, mediocrity, but it’s just kind of a weird paradigm shift.

Andrew: The line does seem quite low for a team that, for all its flaws, does still have plenty of talent on the roster. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd aren’t the worst pair of targets, Joe Mixon is a talented back, Carlos Dunlap could be a very good edge rusher, they have a strong track record in the secondary — this isn’t a Dolphins or Cardinals situation, where in many cases all you have is the hope that somebody’s going to show up. The offensive line is the biggest worry, because they’re going through left guards like Spinal Tap drummers and a poor line amplifies all of Andy Dalton’s worst traits, but there are enough pieces in place here to make a serious run at 7-9.

Bryan: Print that on some posters and sell those season tickets!

Bengals fans hope that new coach Zac Taylor can bring some of that Sean McVay magic over to Cincinnati, but the dude has barely even been an offensive coordinator on any level (like, five minutes in Miami and one year in college). Taylor working with Dalton, to see if he can be more than an average quarterback? Sounds good. Taylor working with the entire team? Color me skeptical. This is the only team we’re looking at today that I can’t see making the playoffs in any scenario — there’s a lot of rebuilding work to be done here; a lot of bad draft picks leading to a fairly weak roster overall.

That being said, to go under 5.5 wins, you have to be utterly devoid of talent, like Miami. I don’t think Cincinnati is going to go much better than 6-10 or so, but that’s enough to get them over a very, very small line. This is going to be a year of rebuilding; of evaluating what’s left and beginning a plan to reshape the team. That’s good in the long run, bad for now.

Andrew: As the rest of what I said here probably communicated, I agree. The Bengals don’t look good, but they really don’t look that bad either. 6-10 or 7-9 looks about right; that’s a very slight over, but still an over.

Cleveland Browns (9)
Last Over: 2007 (Romeo Crennel, Derek Anderson)
Last Under: 2018 (Hue Jackson, Baker Mayfield)

Bryan: 2007! The last time the Browns were as good as everyone thinks they’re going to be this year, they got the benefit of one of the flukiest quarterback seasons in history and then immediately crashed back down to Earth. Since then, they’ve yet to have even a .500 season. We’ve seen some atypical historical lines this offseason, but this one not only takes the cake, but the entire Baker-y.

Andrew: The Browns have a ton of talent. A massive amount of talent. They’re also somehow still slated to be starting Jarvis Landry at wide receiver and Greg Robinson at left tackle, which tells me that the roster building is not quite finished yet. There’s a lot to like here, but this is a team that has won more than nine games exactly once in its 20-year history — ignoring the weird new-Browns/old-Browns franchiseyness thing.

Bryan: But if we ignore the new-Browns/old-Browns thing, we can’t note that the second-to-last time the Browns beat this mark, their head coach was Bill Belichick! The sheer extent of the Factory of Sadness is awe-inspiring. Like one of those massive prehistoric chalk pictures you can’t really get a full picture of without an aerial camera.

Andrew: I was about to mention that Derek Anderson has no bearing on this year’s team; the Belichick era might as well be the Byzantine era as far as Baker Mayfield and company are concerned. Even the Hue Jackson reign is just a millstone they’re glad to finally be able to shed. Still, this is a huge amount of hype for a young team in a tough division under a first-year head coach, playing for a franchise that hasn’t had a postseason appearance since before MySpace even existed.

Bryan: And you have to go back to Martyball to find any extended period of success. So, yeah, Vegas is asking us to believe quite a lot when they put this line up at nine wins.

I can’t do it. Not yet. And it’s not just because of historical malaise or anything like that. I like Baker. I like OBJ. I am not sure about the offensive line. I don’t see a replacement for Kevin Zeitler — I’m not sold on Austin Corbett. Relying on Greg Robinson on the blind side has not, historically, been a key to success. I’m not sure I fully agree with our projections of the Browns’ defense regressing, though all the reasons why (turnover luck, terrible tackling) make sense.

I dunno. Asking me to buy a 10-6 team in Cleveland? It’s not impossible (and when was the last time we could say that?), but that’s a heck of a pill to try to swallow. I’ve gotta take the under.

Andrew: If this line was even half a game lower, I could maybe, maybe be persuaded. Wins against the Dolphins, Cardinals, Bengals, Bills at home, maybe the Titans on opening day … it’s possible to see how that could come. Like a bad MOBA player though, I refuse to push, and the world is not ready for the 10-win Cleveland Browns. I’ll be quite happy if I’m wrong on this one, but the line is at last a game and a half too high for my liking. Under.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9)
Last Over: 2018 (Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger)
Last Under: 2013 (Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger)

Bryan: So this is how the Killer Bs end … not with a whimper, but with a bang. The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell never even reached a Super Bowl, much less won one. They played together in just three postseason games, not including the 2016 AFC Championship Game when Bell had to leave early. It is surprising that a group that talented could never get it all together at the same time, bad luck or no bad luck.

Andrew: Now, minus two of those B’s, the Steelers aren’t generating nearly the same buzz. That is perplexing; the Steelers have only gone consecutive seasons without making the playoffs once this century. They haven’t had a losing record since 2003. They’ve only missed out on the DVOA top ten twice over that same period — the two 8-8 seasons that made up that two-year playoff absence. Ben Roethlisberger has been a top-ten quarterback for a decade now; the offense has been top-eight for five straight years. The Steelers are perennially good, occasionally excellent, yet they aren’t clear favorites for the division. I’m not sure I understand that.

Bryan: It seems like people want to make this Lamar vs. Baker, and that seems to be an exciting potential for the 2020s … but it’s not like Big Ben crumbled into dust last season or something. And at least the Steelers can move on from last year’s drama, with Bell’s contract in New York and Brown’s helmet in Oakland. I don’t think James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are as good as Bell and Brown, but they are at least very solid replacements, with James Washington serving well as a replacement to Smith-Schuster. People are writing off the Steelers too early; they would have been in the playoffs if Mike Tomlin had started a healthy Roethlisberger against Oakland.

… Mike Tomlin is not the world’s greatest coach, is what I’m saying here.

Andrew: Neither is he the worst. We’ve had more than enough Mike Tomlin arguments on this site for one lifetime. Fun Steelers random fact: Ryan Switzer had the second-best catch rate in NFL history (minimum 40 targets) last season. Ryan Switzer finished with -11.1% DVOA. The offense, for all its production, would probably benefit from some strategic tweaking, and that is the one area that does not seem to be Tomlin’s strength.

Bryan: Randy Fichtner kept up a lot of the sins from the Todd Haley era, including the damnable love of receiver screens on third down — Brown was targeted on a league-leading 25 screens, and JuJu was tied for fourth with 18 of his own. Combine that with a very unbalanced pass/run ratio — we’re in favor of passing whenever possible, but the Steelers attempted 45 more passes than any other team in football, and threw the ball a league-leading 67 percent of the time — and it felt like the Steelers didn’t get the most out of their offense last year. I think you’re dead on — some strategic tweaking can, and will, go a long way. And, I mean, they were still sixth in offensive DVOA last season; they basically lost out on the playoffs on the margins.

I don’t see the Steelers having a losing season in 2019. 8-8 maybe, and 9-7 seems possible, but there’s just not a lot of room on the under here for me. I think they rebound quite nicely in a quieter and less drama-filled year, get to double-digit wins, win the division, and lose to New England in the playoffs. You know, like they’re supposed to. Over.

Andrew: We really should disagree at some point, but that pretty much covers it. I’d describe their absence from the playoffs last year as a fluke result of some things that went much worse than expected, and 8-8 has been an absolute worst-case scenario for most of the past two coaching regimes. When 8-8 is the floor, there’s not a lot of room for the under. Over.

NFC North

Bryan: This is the second division we’ve covered so far where I feel any of the four teams could make the playoffs, and any of the four teams could stay at home. Unlike the NFC West, however, where it was because everyone had potential and the division seemed prime to produce multiple playoff teams, this is a much bigger ball of mediocrity, and someone has to win the division, right? I mean, we’ve looked into that, and that is definitely an NFL requirement, yeah?

Andrew: I dunno, I think you’re doing the division something of a disservice there. None of the teams has a case for being considered elite, certainly, but three of them have a strong case for being pretty good, and two playoff teams from this division wouldn’t be a total shock.

Bryan: I don’t know, either! But if that strange person from the future who keeps coming back and giving me cryptic messages about the 2019 NFL season throughout these over/under articles told me there would be an 8-8 division winner, this is the division I would peg. It sounds like we will finally, at long last, have some disagreement here! Fun times!

Chicago Bears (9)

Last Over: 2018 (Matt Nagy, Mitchell Trubisky)
Last Under: 2017 (John Fox, Mitchell Trubisky)


Andrew: Are you sure this isn’t just the 2017-2018 Jaguars with a new paint job? Like really sure, empirically verified and everything? Star pass-rusher came over from a West division bottom-feeder and immediately made a solid defensive front into the best pass rush in the league? Check. Lead the league in turnovers? Check. Way healthier than average by adjusted games lost? You betcha. Creative, but still run-focused offense intent on limiting the young quarterback’s opportunity to make mistakes? Check. Said highly drafted quarterback being athletically gifted and mobile, but erratic with accuracy and decisions? Yep. Allen Robinson as prospective No. 1 receiver? All checks out so far. That does not typically bode as well as most prognosticators seem to think it does.

Bryan: Living in Chicago this offseason, you would have thought that the ’85 Bears were back in town. You can’t blame Bears fans; last season was arguably their best year since their Super Bowl run in 2006 (though their 2012 playoff-less season actually had a higher DVOA). They seem to have forgotten what happened immediately after said Super Bowl run, but you know, you can’t blame a fanbase for getting pumped after a good year.

You can blame them for saying things like Mitch Trubisky being better than Aaron Rodgers, mind you. That’s totally fair game to blame people for; it’s a Bill Swerski Superfan-level opinion.

Andrew: The question with the Bears this year is the same as the question with the Jaguars last year. It isn’t “will they regress?” so much as “how far, and what will be the knock-on effects?” A little progress from Mitchell Trubisky shunting the offense into the top half of the league would go a long way toward offsetting a defensive regression that usually finds the previous Big Leap Forward No. 1 defense settling just outside the top five. As we saw with Blake Bortles last year, however, that progress cannot be guaranteed — it’s just as possible that the added pressure and less favorable game scripts could expose the quarterback’s flaws, and regression on multiple fronts could snowball into a bad season. There is more reason for optimism for Trubisky than for Bortles, but the situations are not entirely dissimilar.

Bryan: Trubisky better make those strides, because I think the Bears defense will drop even more than traditional regression would indicate. Losing Vic Fangio and his flotilla of assistants hurts; Chuck Pagano walks into a room filled with talent, but when you change defensive philosophies, it takes time for everyone to get on the same page. That might be just six weeks or so, and the Bears will be back up near full strength by season’s end, but it’s a concern. The secondary is also a concern, with Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan leaving. Trubisky and the offense are going to have to take another significant jump — he’s going to have to be more accurate and read defenses better, and a little bit of extra consistency would go a long way, too.

I do not, even in the best-case scenario, see the Bears matching their 12-4 record from a year ago. That’s not to say the under is a foregone conclusion or anything, but I think Chicago fans are going to get a significant reality check. It will take a while — the schedule starts out soft, and a 4-1 record at the bye isn’t out of the question — but the Saints-Chargers-Eagles run immediately after the bye will help sort the contenders from, well … Under.

Andrew: This is a story we’ve seen a few times recently, with the Jaguars as the most high-profile recent example. I don’t expect the Bears to collapse quite that far, but I don’t expect them to make the playoffs either. Nine wins is too high for a team that is primed for regression toward the mean. Under.

Detroit Lions (7)
Last Over: 2017 (Jim Caldwell, Matthew Stafford)
Last Under: 2018 (Matt Patricia, Matthew Stafford)

Bryan: It is Football Outsiders Orthodoxy this year that the Lions are going to be Better Than You Think. We called them the most likely team to go from worst to first, and while some of that is due to less-than-superb predictions for the rest of the division, our numbers really do think Detroit is an actual, factual good team. Do you buy it?

Andrew: Of course I buy it. I buy our projections every year, in paperback.

I … you know what? I could be persuaded. I really, really like the Lions’ personnel on offense. Matthew Stafford has never really been one of the very best quarterbacks, but he’s consistently on the fringe of the top third of starters. Kenny Golladay is a potential impact player, and Golladay’s emergence as a No. 1 would have me feeling really good about their receiver group. Well, the top end of it at least. I like their offense line, and I’m not sure there’s a bigger No. 2 running back upgrade in the league than the Lions going from washed-up LeGarrette Blount to December MVP C.J. Anderson. If there’s an issue here, it’s depth, and you just never know how much depth will be needed and how it will look until you get there. In theory, this should be at worst the second-best offense in the division.

Bryan: There are a lot of Interesting Statistical Reasons for the defense to improve, too — things like this being the second year of a new defensive scheme, helping override some of the regression from a year ago, or low turnover luck presumably improving just by random chance. Those are always the hardest bits of improvement to really buy into — it’s not adding Top Cornerback Jones or Pass-Rusher McGee, but it’s historically accurate, notwithstanding.

Andrew: Though a hypothetical 16 games of Trey Flowers is a considerable improvement over a hobbled-when-here Ezekiel Ansah.

Bryan: I also like Rashaan Melvin perhaps a bit more than is justified thanks to his injury history. So yes, they’ve also added talent.

Andrew: Melvin, Quandre Diggs, and Darius Slay is three-fifths of a very decent secondary, again assuming decent health. This isn’t your talent-starved Lions teams of yore. I like the top of the roster better than I did the Jim Caldwell squads that had three winning seasons in four years.

Bryan: That defense may rise to the level of being semi-competent, which would be a pleasant change over the past four years or so. They may be a year away from being more than that, but they added a bunch of talent in the draft; it looks like they at least have a plan there, which is more than we can say about the Caldwell-era defenses. Stafford has a bunch of new toys to play with — Danny Amendola, Jermaine Kearse, T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James … we’re not talking about superstars, but I think they’ve quietly put together something pretty promising. Maybe not greater than 8-8 promising, but last time I checked, eight was a larger number than seven. Over.

Andrew: For me, the question is, “can I find the wins on the schedule?” They have a very rough opening quarter even allowing for the Cardinals in Phoenix, and I would not be a bit surprised to see them sitting at 1-3 ahead of a very early bye. Any better than that, and they’re in business: giving them 3-3 in the division plus losses in Philadelphia and a tough December trip to Denver, they’d need to upset at least one of the Chargers, Chiefs, and Cowboys in Detroit to get them over the hump. Still, unless they flunk the division entirely, seven wins is the bare minimum from this schedule, so anything better than the hypothetical worst-case takes them over, even if only slightly.

Green Bay Packers (9)
Last Over: 2016 (Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers)
Last Under: 2018 (Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers)

Bryan: One of the more interesting arguments floating around Analytical Twitter this offseason (Join us! We have the best parties!) is whether or not Aaron Rodgers is actually, you know, good anymore. Or at least, if he’s Aaron Rodgers-level good. Fivethirtyeight published a whole piece on his perceived decline, and others have been comparing him to players like Matt Ryan, implying that Rodgers’ reputation has not been backed up by his play on the field since 2014 or so.

Andrew: We love you, Ben! Seahawks Twitter has even better parties than the rest of Football Analytics Twitter. I’m by no means an expert on either Aaron Rodgers or sports psychology, but it’s fair to look at the number of stories doing the rounds from the last few years of Mike McCarthy and wonder what exactly has been going on behind the scenes. Aaron Rodgers has shown in the playoffs that he is still frighteningly good when at his best, whether that’s a question of improved gameplanning, motivation, or simply the one-and-done format that often favors a certain personality type. It’s very fair to question whether a rookie head coach who has all of one year of play-calling experience will be the man who can bend Aaron Rodgers to his will. If he can, I wouldn’t bet against the Packers for anything. Division titles. Conference championships. Trips to Florida. You name it. If he can’t…

Bryan: There has been some offseason friction between Rodgers and new coach Matt LaFleur, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is an Actual Thing and how much is just usual offseason stuff after a disappointing 2018. I tend to think it’s just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing, but it’s something to at least keep an eye on after Rodgers and McCarthy ended up falling out so hard.

You say that when Rodgers is at his best, the Packers can do anything. I don’t disagree, but Rodgers hasn’t been at his best for at least two years now. Yes, he has had injury concerns and whatnot, but even when healthy, he just doesn’t look like the guy who was in the argument for best quarterback in football at the beginning of the decade. A boost in morale for finally getting dragged out of the McCarthy era is great, but I question how far it will actually go.

Andrew: The Packers finished seventh in offensive DVOA last year. It’s not like Rodgers suddenly forgot how to play, even if he isn’t the same soul-crushing juggernaut week in and week out. And while I agree with Ben Baldwin about the comparison between Rodgers and Matt Ryan, that’s partly because I believe Matt Ryan is much, much better than he ever got credit for outside that one MVP campaign.

The problem in Green Bay, however, isn’t the offense, and hasn’t been the offense. They haven’t had a defense rank higher than 20th in DVOA since 2015, and have only one top-ten defense in the past five years. If Rodgers is being brought back to Earth by anything, it’s the Drew Brees effect. I believe in Mike Pettine’s ability to fix that in his second year, but it dropped to an even worse level than usual in his first.

Bryan: It has to be better, right? There’s no way the defense can repeat a year as bad as they had last year; if they do, double-digit losses might be in the cards. Bringing in Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith to bolster the pass rush has to help, and Rashan Gary has potential (if not college production). They did nothing at linebacker, and I’m not sure what their secondary plans are, but a pass rush helps cure a lot of woes.

Still, I don’t know. I don’t like the defense to rebound. I don’t like the offense to get back to that top-five level people expect from Rodgers. This is one place where I’m zigging away from our general projections, which has the Packers as a top-ten team. I’m going with the under, though a push seems more realistic.

Andrew: I like the defense to be considerably better than it was last year, with another season of Pettine getting his pieces arranged and his players up to speed. I love the addition of Adrian Amos to the secondary. Matt LaFleur will be smarter than Mike McCarthy about using his best players in their best roles, and will run an offense more in keeping with the modern NFL. There’s a lot to like about the roster, even if it does have some holes (particularly in the defensive front), so unless the coach is considerably worse than I expect him to be I would expect at least playoff contention. Nine wins is a tough bar to clear, but I don’t see where this schedule gives them fewer than eight. The upside’s more plentiful than the downside, which pushes me a tiny smidge over on a tough line.

Bryan: Disagreement! At last! See, we’re not a hive mind. Kind of.

Minnesota Vikings (9)
Last Over: 2017 (Mike Zimmer, Case Keenum)
Last Under: 2018 (Mike Zimmer, Kirk Cousins)

Andrew: If Washington was the low-budget edition, and Denver was the slightly bigger edition, then Minnesota is the AAA edition of the defense-minded team hoping to get enough from its offense to take advantage. A team paying this much to its starting quarterback really ought not to be in the “hoping for enough” bracket there, but here we are.

Bryan: Kirk Cousins was better than his numbers showed last year, I thought. Yeah, he was middle-of-the-pack in DVOA and DYAR, and that’s not why Minnesota gave him that huge guaranteed contract; a couple mediocre years in a row have Vikings fans understandably miffed. But he was second in the league in passing +/- and third in Next Gen Stats’ completion rate above expectation. It wasn’t Cousins’ fault; it was that offensive line and some questionable coordination. I’d expect Cousins to bounce back some this year.

Andrew: It’s fair to ask what that “bounce back” would look like, though. Cousins has four seasons as a full-time starter, and has ranked sixth, fifth, 18th, and 19th in DVOA. The biggest difference between the former two and the latter two appears to have just moved from Tampa Bay to Philadelphia. Sure, Minnesota’s offensive line was bad last year, but it was even worse the year before and hasn’t approached decent in quite some time. Color me skeptical that Josh Kline is the solution to what ails the Vikings offensive front.

Now if Cousins does ascend toward the top ten in DVOA, then we’re talking about a team with real potential. As currently constructed, the Vikings have an argument to be the most complete defense, man-for-man, in the league. We have three straight years of them being in the top ten in DVOA; only they and the Ravens can lay claim to that.

Bryan: That is a bold claim, and I like it. I’d at least have them at the top of the NFC — sorry, Bears fans — and Mike Zimmer is exceptional at keeping his defenses ticking, despite losing Sheldon Richardson and Andrew Sendejo, etc.

Andrew: The Vikings were also roughly average by adjusted games lost and turnover rate, which are two of our regression indicators. They did have a very high adjusted sack rate in 2018, but were average in 2017 and still posted a superior defensive DVOA. There’s a lot to like here.

However, there was a lot to like last year too, and 8-7-1 didn’t cut it.

Bryan: I really do think it comes down to the offensive line. Sacks might be a quarterback stat, but pressures are on the line, and no team in the league blew more blocks last season than Minnesota’s 141. (Denver was second with 110.) They couldn’t pass-block; they couldn’t run-block; they got dominated in power situations. If they can bounce back towards even belo- average, I think the Vikings can win the division.

I don’t think they’ll bounce back. I’m taking the under.

Andrew: Nine makes this a tough line. As you frequently note, it’s asking whether I think 8-8 or 10-6 is more likely. The answer is “no, I think 9-7 is more likely.”

Bryan: Whole-number lines are terrible and should have been banned in the Treaty of Versailles.

Andrew: My general approach to this division this year is to give each team 3-3 against each other and try to find the rest of the wins elsewhere. Based on that, I have 8-8 as the rough floor for Minnesota — they have a lot of winnable home games. The trouble is that 10-6 is the rough ceiling, as they have a lot of losable road games. Minnesota is the closest to a complete team in this division, and has the talent to claw out a couple of extra wins from the toughest games on their schedule. I have zero conviction about this whatsoever — I expect it’s the most dart-throw pick I’m going to make in this entire series — but I’ll talk myself into the over for the third time in the division.

Bryan: One of us is going to be very wrong with the general direction this division is heading in; I wouldn’t be surprised if the division winner had at least seven losses.

Andrew: Neither would I, but every line but one is drawn at exactly that 9-7 mark. I can easily see three 9-7 teams here, or a couple at 9-7 and an 8-8. I don’t, however, think 8-8 will be enough to take the division; there are too many games against the Raiders and Giants and Washingtonians and, well, each other for that. I’ll be glad to see the back of this division, for sure.

Next week should be much easier to predict, as we head to the (checks notes) South … ah dangit.

Bryan: What, not excited to think about the Jaguars and Buccaneers of the world? Florida football is fantastic, right?

Andrew: We get to talk Andrew Luck mystery injuries, Cam Newton’s shoulder, and whether the Saints can recover from a crazy playoff exit. It’s the land that time forgot!

Bryan: So stay tuned for that as we finish up our over/unders next week!

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