Sadly, the most fun and exciting weekend sports fans have had in several weeks is behind us. Former No. 1 overall picks Cam Newton and Jadeveon Clowney are still available, but otherwise NFL rosters are mostly set and the release of the schedule is near. The following season win total picks were not necessarily swayed by the draft, but we now have more clarity as to how teams will perform relative to expectations.
Titans Under 8.5: Last season the Titans provided NFL fans something they rarely see — a Cinderella. Tennessee felt like a mid-major team sneaking into the Sweet 16 and busting everyone’s bracket. Going into New England and ending the home team’s quest for a fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance, the Titans eliminated the defending champs and etched themselves into history as being the last team Tom Brady faced as a Patriot. They then pulled off the biggest playoff upset in a decade, stunning the 14-2 Ravens as 10-point underdogs in Baltimore. But I think this question is fair: How good were they? Up by just a point in the final minutes against the Patriots, Julian Edelman dropped a seemingly sure catch that would have picked up a first down near midfield. If he had caught it, perhaps the Titans would have lost and finished as nothing more than a 9-7 afterthought. Andrew Luck retired, and Jacoby Brissett and Ben Roethlisberger were injured. Had just one of those things not happened, the No. 6 seed Titans might not have even made the playoffs, considering the Colts were 5-2 and the Steelers 8-5 at one point, despite their QB setbacks. The Titans’ biggest concern is the number 449. That is the number of touches Derrick Henry had last season. Just 31 running backs in history have touched the ball 400 or more times in a season at 25 or older, and 29 saw their production decrease significantly the next season. Le’Veon Bell was the last player to do so, touching the ball 406 times in 2017. He sat out 2018 to let his body recover and spent 2019 on the side of a milk carton after signing with the Jets. With Henry a near lock to regress, the Titans will have to rely more on Ryan Tannehill, who threw for a combined 160 yards in the two playoff wins. In a competitive AFC South, the formula they relied on will not be sustainable.
Patriots Over 9: Coaching and culture. Two of the most important aspects of an NFL franchise remain top-notch in New England. Amid all the attention Brady’s departure garnered, very little time was spent discussing his playing level. Many cited a lack of weapons for Brady’s struggles in ’19. But in a salary-cap league, it’s impossible to be elite at every position group, and a great quarterback is expected to mask deficiencies to some extent by compensating for a lack of skill-position players. Those who watched New England closely realize last year’s 12-win season was achieved despite pedestrian quarterback play, which is encouraging for the upcoming season. No one knows a lot about Jarrett Stidham, but the notion that he’s replacing an all-time great quarterback is not entirely accurate. He is stepping in for a quarterback who was an all-time great. Big difference. The pressure is still enormous, but any drop-off should be less than anticipated given Brady’s recent play. I would also imagine the Patriots organization is filled with players and coaches highly motivated to prove the team’s long run of success goes beyond one player. The Pats were 3-1 in the four games Brady was suspended in 2016 and 11-5 in ’08, when Brady missed the whole year. And the AFC East does not instill fear. The Jets haven’t made the playoffs in a decade, while the Dolphins and Bills have gone two decades since their last playoff victories. Many younger fans aren’t old enough to remember the Pats as underdogs in 2001, when all this success started. I expect them to embrace being the hunters once again and scrap their way to at least 10 wins.
Packers Under 9.5: When a 13-3 team returns its core yet is projected to win only 9.5 games, it tells you something is up. And that something is that the Packers’ record was totally incongruent with how good last year’s team actually was. The Packers had a point differential of just plus-63 and gained only 12 more total yards than they allowed. They also feasted on a schedule flush with lousy opposing quarterbacks — Dwayne Haskins, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Daniel Jones, Kyle Allen, Mitchell Trubisky twice, David Blough and Matt Moore filling in for an injured Patrick Mahomes. The three-win Lions will rewatch their two matchups in amazement and frustration, wondering how they didn’t sweep the Packers instead of getting swept. The Lions were victimized by two phantom personal-foul calls late in a Monday night game, then blew a 17-3 second-half lead at home in the season finale with Blough at the helm, nearly securing his first and only win. The Packers’ third-place schedule will turn into a first-place schedule, and I don’t think Green Bay is up to the task. Aaron Rodgers, with a reputation for having a prickly personality even on a good day, was amazingly the last skill-position player the Packers drafted in the first round before the streak ended Thursday night. But instead of getting Rodgers help, the Packers got him a backup. Perhaps taking Jordan Love will eventually prove a wise pick despite its unpopularity. For now, it’s even more of a reason to take the Under.
Cowboys Over 9.5: The Cowboys were one of the most underachieving teams of not just last season but of all time. A point differential of plus-119 was good enough for every other team this decade to make the playoffs. Not the Cowboys. Poor coaching, atrocious special teams and bad luck contributed to the social distancing between the playoffs and America’s Team. They hope upgrading the first two will help improve the third. While Mike McCarthy isn’t exactly Vince Lombardi, he has won a Super Bowl and has been to three conference titles games, something the Cowboys haven’t done in 25 years. John Fassel comes over from the Rams to coach the special teams and brings with him one of the better kickers in the league in Greg Zuerlein. Not only was Jason Garrett not a good situational coach, it’s hard to dismiss the clip of his players jogging off the field and ignoring his attempts at a high-five. He took over in 2010, and after nine unremarkable seasons, it was clear the players knew as well as anyone they weren’t being coached very well. The new coaching staff inherits a good roster that got even better during the draft. Anyone who thinks the CeeDee Lamb pick was misguided should revisit the two biggest games Dallas played last year. A win at New England in November would have put the Cowboys comfortably ahead in the NFC East. In December they headed to Philadelphia with a chance to clinch the division. Despite the array of talent, they lost both games and didn’t score a touchdown in either one, allowing a patchwork Eagles team to inexplicably steal their playoff bid. Lamb will help take this unit to another level by exploiting mismatches. Four fairly easy division games in addition to all these changes should produce a monster season in Big D.
Saints Under 10.5: Besides Sean Payton, the two things most synonymous with the Saints’ success are quarterback Drew Brees and the loud, raucous dome that makes it so difficult for visitors to win. The last time we saw Drew Brees was Jan. 5, when he walked up to congratulate Kirk Cousins after a third-and-goal fade in overtime caught by Kyle Rudolph gave the Vikings a stunning playoff victory. The Saints got into the end zone just twice that day, and their season ended on the final play of a playoff defeat for the third consecutive year. Taysom Hill gave the Saints a spark, and most of the offense that day was generated with Brees as a decoy or on the sideline. Ten days later, Brees turned 41. Missing more than a month last year with a hand injury gave his aging body a chance to refresh, a chance he might not get this year. NFC South games are typically unpredictable and rarely easy. Last year was a perfect example. The Saints beat a really bad Panthers team in New Orleans by just three, and only because opposing kicker Joey Slye missed a field goal and two extra points. The sub-.500 Falcons beat the Saints convincingly 26-9. I’ve tried to avoid this subject, but even the most wide-eyed optimist would have to admit the possibility that games will be played in empty stadiums in 2020. If home-field advantage is removed from the equation, are the Saints still the same?