Scramble for the Ball: 2020 East Over/Unders
12 Aug 2020, 11:25am
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we are pleased to report that none of your friendly Football Outsiders staff opted out of the season prior to Thursday’s deadline. Neither did the unfriendly ones, for that matter. A full roster means another season of the same high-quality analysis from the rest of the Outsiders, and another season of the same inane warblings in this here column.
Bryan: Just as the professional football world keeps chugging, boldly and/or stubbornly, towards a 2020 season filled with uncertainty, Scramble keeps rolling along. And what better way to celebrate football’s potential return than by looking at the two worst divisions in the sport?
Andrew: That’s a decidedly pessimistic way to introduce the divisions that have given us three of the past four Super Bowl champions, an all-time great run by a previously moribund franchise, a recent quarterback MVP, and some of the league’s most intriguing subplots over the past offseason.
Bryan: Oh, I didn’t say not interesting; I said worst. Sometimes, looking at the least qualified teams, at least on paper, is more interesting than looking at the prohibitive favorites. And if our goal is to try to predict Super Bowl champions from previous seasons, I think my hit rate is going to go way up this year.
Andrew: More interesting than looking at the favorites, you say? Let’s dive right in, then.
Note: “Last Over” and “Last Under” below list the last time each team went over this year’s over/under number.
Andrew: Remember when this was the most unpredictable division in the sport? The 2014 division-champion Cowboys completed a four-season run in which every franchise in the division won it exactly once. Washington won it the following year, but it has been very much haves and have-nots since.
Bryan: For the last three years, the story of the division has been Philadelphia and Dallas swapping first and second place, while New York and Washington flail and try to remain relevant. The oddsmakers predict much the same, as does Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, where both the Cowboys and Eagles are in the top 10 in projected DVOA, while the Giants and the, uh, Football Team are very much not.
I do think there’s more interest here than that, though. I think what you’re looking at in the NFC East is the division with the lowest floor in football. There’s reason to hope in all four cities — some more than others, obviously — but I think this is the division that has the ugliest combination of possible outcomes if the bottom falls out entirely.
Andrew: You know, for somebody who agrees that the NFC is the stronger conference right now, you sure are pessimistic about fully half of its teams, between this week’s introduction and last week’s look at the North.
Bryan: We’re saving the best for last and second-last; I’ve gotta save up all my NFC praisin’ for the last two over/unders we have. The NFC may be the stronger conference, but it certainly isn’t an evenly distributed one!
For what it’s worth, I’m not repeating my NFC North claim that there won’t be a 10-win team here; I think either of the two favorites are capable of producing a solid, championship-contender run, the Giants could see themselves in the wild-card race, and Washington will play some football, too. But I can look into my worst-case crystal ball and find potential cracks everywhere.
Andrew: In that case, starting with (and this may be hotly debated!) the strongest team in the division gives you a chance to get your extreme pessimism in early.
Dallas Cowboys (9.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Head Coach: Jason Garrett; Quarterback: Dak Prescott)
Last Under: 2019 (Jason Garrett, Dak Prescott)
Andrew: The Cowboys have won the division twice in the past four years, should definitely have made that three times last year, and have recorded exactly one losing record since 2011 — 2015, in which Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore started 12 games between them.
Bryan: This is the toughest line in the division for me, as 9-7 vs. 10-6 is the difference between a wild-card team or weak division winner and the point at which you start to get legitimately strong teams entering the postseason. I don’t think the worst-case scenario is too hard to imagine — the Cowboys have a new coach and new offensive philosophy for the first time since, what, 2007? Mike McCarthy has replaced Jason Garrett, and it can take time for a team to adjust to a new coach and his new strange ways, from the far-off land of Wisconsin. Couple that with the continued uncertainty about Dak Prescott’s future, and this might be a bit of a transitional year …; though one that I don’t think ends up with a losing record by any stretch of the imagination; the roster is too talented for that.
Andrew: Ah, the roster is too talented for that. Hasn’t that become pretty much the Cowboys’ tagline in recent seasons? Every single year, we read that the Cowboys are too talented to be as middling as they are. I wonder what a certain former head coach would have made of those statements. You are what your record says you are, and all that.
From what I’ve seen and heard, as about as distant an outsider as there is, it sounds like McCarthy’s looking to adjust as much to what the Cowboys do on offense as he is bringing his own ideas. Regardless of any transition period, and understanding how maligned McCarthy became by the end of his tenure in Green Bay, it’s just difficult for me to see almost any head coach as a downgrade from Jason Garrett. (Former Patriots coordinators need not apply.)
Bryan: I do think Packers fans were too down on McCarthy by the end of his tenure there, though it was time for both team and coach to move on. Sometimes, a change of scenery is what everyone needs for a club to regain its competitive fire and for a coach to rise to new challenges — see Andy Reid and the Eagles, who ended up both bringing home championships after their long successful tenure together.
I think it’s a very positive sign that McCarthy seems to understand what he has in Prescott and isn’t going to try to “fix” or reshape him into a predefined box. The dude led the league in DYAR last season! What he was doing was working just fine before! It’s the defense that has let Dallas down, not the offense, and I do think, in the end, McCarthy’s a good enough coach not to mess up what was working just fine. He’ll probably bring some of the up-tempo stuff he did in Green Bay, which I think will help the Cowboys face simpler coverages, but it’ll be mostly the stuff they were already doing, just with more vim and vigor.
Andrew: Even the defense is hardly catastrophic. Their 2018 and 2019 performances basically cancel each other out to make a pretty much average unit. They might have the best linebacker group in the game, which is I guess noteworthy but not difference-making like it might have been in another era. Their big front-seven additions came in from Carolina, which is a bit like buying emissions testers from Volkswagen, but this isn’t the millstone unit of the late-Romo era. Demarcus Lawrence is still here, and the loss of Jeff Heath is addition by subtraction.
Bryan: Losing Robert Quinn and Byron Jones will hurt, and I think we’ve both had experience being burned by “Mike Nolan will come in and fix the defense!” I think the Cowboys’ defense has to be more aggressive to match up in 2020, and with more aggression comes more potential for coverage breakdowns, and so on and so forth. Again, the potential for the bottom to fall out is there.
Andrew: Fun fact: Mike Nolan has coordinated a top-12 DVOA defense at least one season everywhere he has been a coordinator other than Washington. He was only the linebackers guy in New Orleans, and yes he flopped quite badly as a head coach in San Francisco. If there is potential for the defense to fall apart, there is also potential for it to be considerably better. Between Nolan and McCarthy, I’d say the Cowboys are in quite solid hands, even if they’re hardly likely to be at the forefront of coaching innovation. Even the bottom falling out, for me, only looks like 7-9. There’s not a huge amount of downside on this schedule.
Bryan: It’s keeping Kellen Moore that helps swing my vote. Moore helped bring Jason Garrett’s offense into the 21st century, and he’ll presumably be the regular playcaller in 2020. That has always been McCarthy’s biggest weakness as an offensive coach, and Moore allows him to focus on the bigger picture issues like pace and aggressiveness and trying to convince his owner to sign his franchise quarterback to a long-term deal, what on Earth are you doing, Cowboys. I may be pessimistic about their long-term future, but I’m taking the over for the Cowboys for now.
Andrew: As I think most of this has probably given away, I’m right there with you. This looks like the most likely division champion for me, as the team with the highest floor. If any team comes out of this division with more than 10 wins, I think it’s Dallas, and I could very easily see a path to 12-4 if the head coach is as much of an upgrade as he should be. Under nine wins? The roster is too talented for that. Over.
New York Giants (6.5)
Last Over: 2016 (Ben McAdoo, Eli Manning)
Last Under: 2019 (Pat Shurmur, Daniel Jones)
Bryan: The argument for the Giants’ floor isn’t too hard to make — the Giants have been bad for a very long time, and why should we expect anything else? Daniel Jones fails to take the next step, Dave Gettleman’s lack of a coherent plan fails to build a foundation for a winning football team, Joe Judge is the latest Bill Belichick assistant to flop when asked to fly on his own, the team tumbles to 2-14, and we start everything all over again.
Andrew: The argument for the ceiling is much, much harder. You suggested that they could see themselves as a wild-card contender, which I guess is hedged just enough — most teams will believe in themselves to that extent — but it seems outlandishly optimistic. Jones is at best the third-best quarterback in the division if Alex Smith can’t make it back onto the field, and quite possibly the fourth if Smith can. This might be the worst linebacker corps in football, and linebacker’s much more of a liability as a weakness than it is an asset as a strength.
Instead, the Giants’ strength might be the only thing less impactful than linebacker: running back, where Saquon Barkley is at least a genuine difference-maker. They haven’t done anything to really address their Barkley-and-the-slots passing game, I’m less than convinced by their front seven, their left tackle opted out (see aforementioned note on “addition by subtraction”), and their remaining secondary is a lot of hope and not much expectation. I could see the Giants being sufficiently better than Washington to stay out of the division’s basement, but I don’t see where seven wins come on this schedule.
Bryan: I guess I just don’t get what the franchise is doing. You now have a coach in his first year on a team that’s starved for talent at multiple positions; this should be the first year of a rebuilding process for Judge. And yet you have a general manager entering his third season, who is under a direct, public order from ownership to win more games, and to win them now. Your coaching staff and front office are operating under different expectations, rather than in lockstep, and that’s never good. That’s one of the things that kept the Browns in purgatory for so long; fire the coach and keep the GM, then fire the GM and keep the coach, never getting a clean start. We just talked about how we’re optimistic about the Cowboys’ offense now that Jason Garrett’s gone, but Garrett’s going to be calling plays in New York (for the first time since 2012, I should add, when he had that responsibility stripped away from him). I don’t think Cowboys fans are worried with Garrett on the opposite sideline!
The big question mark is Jones, who was better than I expected when he was allowed to drop quickly and get the ball out of his hands — by which I mean with the forward pass, not his issues with fumbling. The ability to play well in rhythm is an important skill, which led to him being the second-most impressive rookie quarterback last year. The problem is, he collapses when pressured or asked to stay in the pocket for longer than a couple seconds. He has a Favreian trust in his arm, which is good, but not the Favreian ability to make those gunslinging decisions actually work. These are things that can improve in Year 2, but I’m pessimistic.
And then on defense, they lost their one good cover corner in DeAndre Baker to the commissioner’s exempt list, and I’m not sure James Bradberry moves the needle enough for me as a replacement. I don’t think Blake Martinez substantially helps that linebacker problem you’ve mentioned there, and the general churn on defense feels like treading water rather than notable improvements (though I will say I like rookie Xavier McKinney quite a bit).
If Jones can take that step forward, and if the offensive skill position pieces play up to what they did last year, and if the offensive line stays intact, and if the defense takes a moderate step forward, I could see 9-7, which might even win the division if the worst-case scenarios happen in Dallas and Philadelphia. That’s a lot of ifs for one run-on sentence, though. Under.
Andrew: It’s a lot of ifs for a team that hasn’t yet shown any reason to give them the benefit of any doubt, too. Jones may have impressed some in certain facets of the passing game, but he still has a long way to go. He might be the kind of guy you could get enough out of if you put a team around him, but I see very little evidence the Giants have done that. I can see 6-10, with a strong aroma of 5-11. 5-11 is far more likely to me than 8-8, which means the downside is larger than the upside. Under.
Philadelphia Eagles (9.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz)
Last Under: 2019 (Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz)
Bryan: Alright, so I have a theory which, like all my best theories, will crumble under the slightest cross-examination. The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles each believe that they have the other’s quarterback situation. Dallas is reluctant to lock Dak Prescott up for the long term, as if he was a promising player who flashes greatness but has not yet put together a complete season of great play. Philadelphia already has locked Carson Wentz up for the long term, as if he had had multiple top-five seasons in DYAR and DVOA under his belt as a track record.
Andrew: I think you’re being a little unkind to Wentz there, who was an MVP favorite in 2017 until his fluke knee injury, and has spent a little too much time since rehabbing various things. I’ll concede that with Wentz, however, you should probably make sure your backup situation is solid — he has reminded me of Ben Roethlisberger for a variety of reasons, that being one. Fortunately, the Eagles did just that in the draft this year. So I guess my question is, which of those situations would you prefer to be in?
Bryan: For 2020, or for the foreseeable future? Because those are very different answers.
Andrew: Take each in turn.
Bryan: For 2020, I’m nervous if I’m Philadelphia. Wentz’s 2017 MVP-candidate season was sharp, but he hasn’t topped 10.0% DVOA in any of his other three seasons. I’d be more comfortable with him on his fifth-year option, just to make sure that after a (relatively) healthy offseason, he can be the guy he was in Year 2 once again. I’m also concerned that I don’t have the best offensive line protecting him after Brandon Brooks tore his Achilles. I worry that I still don’t have the receivers to get the most out of his talent, even after adding Jalen Reagor in the draft and getting DeSean Jackson back from injury. I don’t think they drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round only to shore up their backup quarterback situation, is what I’m saying.
For the future, I’m much happier as an Eagles fan. Even if Wentz is just a bottom-of-the-top-10 guy instead of the MVP-level player he was as a sophomore, I’ve got him locked up and can build the rest of my team accordingly with my better front office. I don’t think there’s even much of a question: the Eagles definitely have their 2021 quarterback on the roster barring a massive disaster; the Cowboys may not yet.
I have to give Doug Pederson full credit for taking a team that by the end of the year was down to backups, practice-squadders, and couch-sitters at the skill positions and leading them into the postseason. That’s a hell of a coaching job, both by him and by Jim Schwartz in navigating their pretty terrible injury luck to produce a consistently competitive team.
Andrew: One that appears to have improved this offseason too, even before accounting for players they get back (although as you mention, the loss of Brooks looms large). Darius Slay is an excellent addition to a secondary that has had its ups and downs in recent seasons. Javon Hargrave should add a great deal to the defensive front. Jatavis Brown isn’t a world-beater, but he’s good enough to play at the level they need. (Or at least he was — he retired the day after I wrote this. Score another mark against my predictions record.)
Bryan: Who starts across from Slay, though? Because whoever it is is going to be targeted roughly a zillion times, and I don’t trust Sidney Jones or Jalen Mills or Avonte Maddox to hold up under that level of pressure. You say ups and downs, but this feels like a real down this year.
Andrew: It’s considerably better than having those players and no Slay, which is how chunks of last season went.
Bryan: I think I started a game for Philadelphia at corner at some point; that’s how desperate they were for healthy bodies.
Andrew: Yet they still won nine games and the division, though a lot of that had to do with a certain non-Eagles coach we’ve mentioned in every team segment so far. The Eagles still get Washington and the Giants this year, which should mean four wins off the bat. It’s the rest of the schedule that will make or break their season.
Bryan: The post-bye schedule for the Eagles is rough, rough, rough. You have the Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Cardinals, and Cowboys all in a row, plus a two-game road trip to New York and Cleveland looming right before that. I could imagine the Eagles entering the bye at 6-2 and finishing 2-6 without too much effort. I don’t think they have the horses on the outside, offensively or defensively, and I think that’s going to hurt them.
Andrew: I’d take 5-3 and 3-5, but that’s splitting hairs. It sounds like we’re largely on the same page, as ever.
Bryan: I think my “worst-case” is a little worse than yours (6-10 and a top-10 pick!), but our overall conclusions, as always, remain the same. Under.
Andrew: That does sound a smidge too pessimistic. I think I peg worst case at 7-9 with some reason to expect a 2021 rebound, but I don’t see a lot of room for the over here unless Wentz is back on 2017 form. I’m not going to gamble on that, meaning my expected outcome is probably 9-7. It’s not a big under on what is a very fair line, but it is an under.
Washington Football Team (5.5)
Last Over: 2018 (Jay Gruden, Alex Smith)
Last Under: 2019 (Bill Callahan, Case Keenum)
Andrew: The who’s this what-now? WFAT?
Bryan: I don’t get how there wasn’t a folder in a drawer some place marked “in case of emergency, here’s our rebranding strategy.” Washington’s old name had been an issue in Native circles since the 1940s, in the general public’s eye since the 1970s, and in the courtroom since the 2010s. How do you not have an emergency plan for things going south in a hurry? Add in last month’s Washington Post story about the toxic culture in Football Team’s headquarters and the recent Derrius Guice arrest, and I think we’ve found the team with the worst offseason in football.
Damn, but those new uniforms look sharp, though.
Andrew: “Worst offseason in football” isn’t exactly uncharted territory for this franchise, either. Hubris and myopia are a heck of a combination. However, that torrid offseason also gives me the most hope I’ve had for the future of this franchise since Robert Griffin’s rookie year. I have enormous respect for Ron Rivera, which has only grown this summer, and we can always dream that maybe, just maybe, this might signal a change in course for the worst professional football franchise outside Ohio.
That hope is, sadly, unlikely to amount to much on the field in 2020.
Bryan: Last week, I joked that we were looking at seven teams that could, if the chips fell right, win their division, and then also the Cincinnati Bengals. Well, I’m sorry to all long-term Football Teamians out there, but same joke, different franchise.
Not that there’s no hope. Dwayne Haskins was the least-accurate passer of 2019, but he made significant steps forward in his last four starts. Adding Chase Young to the defensive line is a huge boost, and there was already a lot of talent in that front seven, if not always the production to back it up. Terry McLaurin was a pleasant surprise as a rookie and, uh, I assume Washington will have other skill position players, too. I mean, probably. All that potential could see them go all the way … to, like, 7-9, maybe, in one of Rivera’s best coaching jobs to date.
Andrew: Alternatively, the defense is decent enough but the offense is an utter mudheap, headlined by a 35-year-old running back behind a line that just traded away its best player (albeit one who doesn’t quite qualify as a loss from last season), with precisely one pass-catcher who should be starting games at this level and a quarterback who isn’t good enough to compensate. 3-13 is far from unrealistic.
Bryan: I think the long-term impact of Rivera will be fewer players breathing sighs of relief when they get out of the quagmire that is the Football Team’s headquarters, but that will take a year or two to settle in.
There is one, looming, all-encompassing question I have about Washington, however, and hopefully we can figure that out right here: is it funnier to refer to them like a team from an ’80s unlicensed video game, talking about “QB Washington” and “RB Washington?” Or like an English football club; “Washington FT.” If it’s the latter, it ain’t a Premier League team; it’s a Championship squad trying their damndest to stay out of League One. Or is it funnier just to use the Football Team nickname as much as possible, as I’ve been striving to do to this point?
Andrew: Go Team!
Bryan: Hail to the Football Team!
Players on a ballfield!
Fight for genericity!
Andrew: Are we still doing the old copy-paste “most boring division, Patriots always win, blah blah blah” intro here?
Bryan: Oh, no, no, no. It’s a new paradigm now! This is the most exciting the AFC East race has been since … well, since the AFC East looks like it does now, really. Or at least since Mark Sanchez was a thing. We were so naive back then.
If the NFC East was the division with the lowest floor, I think the AFC East is the division with the lowest ceiling. With the possible exception of Miami, I don’t really see any team in the division cratering out this year, in part because they all get to play one another. And yet, I have a hard time stumping for most of ’em to do anything particularly relevant.
Andrew: Oh, I don’t know, I always consider it entirely possible that an Adam Gase team could crater out. Now I recognize that they don’t tend to do so, possibly because as it turns out cratering out is almost as difficult as earning a bye, but the potential is definitely there.
Bryan: A fair point, well argued. OK, maybe three of the four teams could crater out, as there’s no shortage of questionable competence to go around. What there is, however, is a shortage on optimism, with the main difference between 2020 and previous years is that some of that drought is hitting Foxborough as well. Still; should be a fun race to the top!
Buffalo Bills (9)
Last Over: 2019 (Sean McDermott, Josh Allen)
Last Under: 2018 (Sean McDermott, Josh Allen)
Andrew: Are you one of the crazies who thinks the Buffalo Bills are the team with the highest ceiling in the division, or is that still the Darth Hoodie Death Star?
Bryan: I will say that Josh Allen has improved to the point where he can’t hit the broad side of a barn, as opposed to his rookie season where he couldn’t hit the farm itself. Progress is progress! Allen was still the worst in the league in completion percentage over expected on passes more than 15 yards downfield at -6.3%, but that’s an improvement from 2018 when he was at -10.6%. He also actually became a positive passer in the intermediate game because — and stay with me because this is complicated — John Brown and Cole Beasley are professional receivers, while Zay Jones is a professional “watch the ball bounce off of my hands” … guy.
Andrew: The smartest thing the Bills front office has done is invest in one guy who is really really fast and good at tracking wayward deep passes, and one who is really really good at catching off-target underneath passes. Beasley’s drop highlights show that he wasn’t perfect, because nobody possibly could be with Allen’s variety of possible outcomes, but I am very impressed with the job the Bills did building around their quarterback…
… with the rather ginormous caveat that he is a quarterback they shouldn’t have been building around in the first place.
Bryan: In Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (cheap plug!), Derrik Klassen argues that the Bills may have the best, most complete roster in the NFL, a model for all struggling franchises to fight their way out of irrelevance and into contention. Provided, of course, you play in a league with an all-time quarterback. And he’s not wrong.
Brown and Beasley are now joined by Stefon Diggs, so you have a receiving corps that runs three-deep with quality players. I’m a fan of Devin Singletary; the offensive line has plenty of upside. The defense is a powerhouse, and they dodged the bullet of Tre’Davious White considering opting out. They have our best mean defensive projection, and by quite some distance.
Andrew: In short, they’re a fascinating study in what happens when you pair the best roster in the division with quite probably the worst quarterback in the division. They’re the trendy pick for the AFC East title. They have multiple recent playoff appearances under their belts, though they still haven’t won a playoff game since January, 1996. They do, however, have a money line they’ve only gone over once this century, and a bunch of potential regression points.
Bryan: So the big question is, is one weakness enough to sink a team, even at the most important position in football? We’ve seen teams loaded defensively succeed with poor quarterback play — Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in 2017, Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears in 2018. Like last year’s Bills, they rode great defenses into promising postseason runs, and continue to reap the benefits of that to this da–
… hrm, what was that? Oh.
This is a juiced line because the public sees a playoff team last year and thinks the sky is the limit. With an Allen-shaped anchor, I think I could talk myself into a push at 9-7, but not much more than that. To get to double-digit wins, Allen will have to duplicate his improvement from 2018 to 2019. And, again, I do need to be clear here — last year’s Josh Allen was way better than 2018’s Josh Allen. If 2020’s Josh Allen is better still, then yeah, maybe the Bills are the division favorites. But …; I mean, c’mon. Under, and I think the easiest call this week (which means I’m guaranteed to be wrong, but hey.)
Andrew: There’s a huge amount to like in Buffalo, but the most important player on the roster is still the reason to rein in expectations. Adam Gase jokes aside, every team in this division except New England should be better than it was last year. The schedule isn’t exactly a bunch of cupcakes. The Bills will probably win some games I don’t expect them to. They will probably lose some games others don’t expect them to. At 9.5 wins, I’d take the under. At 8.5, I’d take the over. Nine is just high enough that I think the downside outweighs the upside. Under.
Miami Dolphins (6)
Last Over: 2018 (Adam Gase, Ryan Tannehill)
Last Under: 2019 (Brian Flores, Ryan Fitzpatrick)
Bryan: Alright, so I made the joke that the Football Teaminites were the one team we’re covering this week that can’t win their division, so I suppose I’m on the spot to try to explain how the Dolphins could be YOUR 2020 AFC East champions. Curse my joking hubris.
So, the Tank for Tua was successful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Dolphins have to rush him into action. The best-case scenario for the Dolphins is probably Tua getting one more year to recover from his injury and letting the World’s Greatest Journeyman work his Fitzmagic one more time. The trio of Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, and Noah Igbinoghene (Did I spell that right first time? No, of course I did not.) gives the Dolphins what might be the best man-coverage corner group in the division, and I feel that Brian Flores was a more creative defensive mind than some other former Belichick assistants currently shopping their defensive guru credentials to a fanbase growing progressively more dubious. The defense could take a significant step forward. I’m surprisingly high on their running backs in Matt Breida and Jordan Howard. The wide receiver room is adequate. The offensive line has three new draft picks and some free agent acquisitions to bolster it. The coaching staff and front office seem to be on the same page and making good, solid, logically consistent moves forward. Maybe everything gels together a year earlier than expected and the Dolphins can emerge from their tanking year in 2020 rather than 2021.
Oh, and Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and Cam Newton all have terrible years. Did I forget to mention that? Because that’s probably as important, if not moreso, than anything Miami can do this year. I don’t see the Dolphins having a winning record, so they’ll need the rest of the pack to collapse in towards them rather than
Andrew: It helps immensely that they once again have the Patriots in December, as whatever magical hold they have over Belichick’s team in that month has now proven immune to each of location, relative ability, and sanity. The Bengals and Jaguars are winnable last-place schedule benefits, which could be enough to boost them from last season’s 5-11 all the way to … uh, 5-11.
This is still not a very good roster. The pass rush last season was a laughingstock, and the players they’ve added don’t move the needle nearly enough for my liking. The cornerbacks are very good, but I’m not enamored with the safeties. The receivers are good, but I’m not in love with the offensive line. Fitzpatrick is just good enough to not get you obliterated too often. 5-11 was overachieving last season; this season, it’s right in line with my expectations.
Bryan: I’m very optimistic about the future of the Dolphins. Maybe I can get a parlay with that 2021 Vikings division championship I talked about last week. I just think expecting results this season is a year too soon. Under.
Andrew: I can see a path to 7-9 if everything breaks right. Everything very, very rarely breaks right for the Dolphins, and I can see 4-12 much more easily than 8-8. Under.
New England Patriots (9)
Last Over: 2019 (Bill Belichick, Tom Brady)
Last Under: 2000 (Bill Belichick, Drew Bledsoe)
Andrew: There are many, many ways in which the Patriots are the anti-Browns, and this is just one more to add to the list. We mocked the Browns last week for not going over their 2020 line in over a decade. The Patriots haven’t gone under theirs since the first season of the present millennium. Is this another “believe it when I see it” mark, or are we legitimately about to witness something historic?
Bryan: Well, we’re going to witness something historic either way. Either the Patriots have their first non-winning season since the Clinton administration, or they tie the seemingly untouchable Landry Cowboys record with 20 consecutive winning seasons. The Patriots came out as the top dynasty in NFL history when I did my offseason dynasty rankings, and I warned people then — horror movie icons tend to pop back up, even if you think you’ve seen the body.
Andrew: I’ve been burned by placing faith in Cam Newton’s health before, but the thing is, that was a very different franchise, with a very different coaching staff, in a very different division. I’ve seen people point to the Matt Cassel year, with its also very different circumstances, and I’m not sure I like this Patriots team to hit 11-5 unless Cam really is capital-B Back. However, I also remember one of the craziest stats I’ve seen in this sport, that Bill Belichick has a better win-loss record without Tom Brady than Mike McCarthy had with Aaron Rodgers, and I’m just not ready to write the epitaph yet.
Bryan: Another fact that has to come into play here is COVID-19. For most teams in the league, the opt-out period was mostly uneventful — maybe one starter lost, or a few depth players. But the Patriots had a league-high eight opt-outs, including Dont’a Hightower, Marcus Cannon, and Patrick Chung, who are three of the ten best players on the All-Opt-Out Select. That’s a significant blow.
Andrew: However, COVID is also one of the factors in my estimation here, because there is no team I trust more to handle the unique circumstances — the lack of fans, the crazy external situation, the potential for massive upheaval, the probable restrictions on free agents and waiver pickups — and still have their players prepared and focused for every game than New England.
But there is no way the Patriots defense is anywhere near as good as they were a year ago. Zero chance. Not only do you have regular regression, not only do you have the opt-outs, but you’re also missing Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon, Elandon Roberts … without any real obvious off-roster replacements. Next man up to the extreme.
Andrew: The roster turnover hurts a lot. I’m a fan of Marqise Lee, and his opt out is a bigger blow in my estimation than I expect in the eyes of most. That keeps their receiver situation remedial, absent a breakout from N’Keal Harry. The defense has been stocking for this in recent years, and the staff will now get an early look at their situation. Cam Newton, if healthy, can do things very few other players can do, and Belichick is the man to make sure he has those opportunities, but this is a tough ask. Making an actual contender of this roster would be Belichick’s finest coaching job in at least a decade.
Though on that note, the Patriots made a conference championship game with Reche Caldwell, 35-year-old Troy Brown, and Doug Gabriel as their top wide receivers. If any staff can get that done, it’s this one.
Bryan: If Cam Newton is Cam Newton, I think there’s enough talent there on offense to make this work — and you’re right, the defense is stocked; they are prepared for this. I do have to wonder if Healthy Cam Newton is a thing we’ll ever see again — like you said, we’ve been burned before. But the Patriots might have the best offensive and defensive coach in the division. They dragged Matt Cassel to an 11-5 season, and that was without a full offseason of planning for life after Tom Brady.
Andrew: I’m very, very tempted by the push here. It’s the coaching staff that tips it for me. They not a million years ago won a game against a playoff contender with rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett running the option, for pity’s sake. If Newton is healthy, they’ll get everything they can from him, and if he isn’t, they’ll get everything they can from the next man up. Like they always do. The fiends. Over.
Bryan: This year’s Patriots have the lowest floor we’ve seen for a Patriots team in decades, which means 7-9. But c’mon, would anyone be surprised if it’s yet another 12-4 season running around the little sisters of the AFC East? It’s a tough call for me, and I’d love the line if it was 8.5 or something (curse you, whole number lines!), but I just can’t bring myself to say anything but Over until proven otherwise.
New York Jets (6.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Adam Gase, Sam Darnold)
Last Under: 2018 (Todd Bowles, Sam Darnold)
Bryan: When I first was gathering these lines a few weeks ago, I saw the Jets at 6.5 and thought, oh, that one should be an easy over at least; one less thing to worry about. Then they lost their best two defenders, and now I have to think again. Thanks, Jets.
Andrew: I’m not sure how much losing a linebacker who missed almost all of last season and downgrading from Jamal Adams to Bradley McDougald really affects my view of the Jets. It’s not that C.J. Mosley and Adams aren’t good players; they’re excellent. The Jets, however, went 7-9 last season with Sam Darnold missing three of those losses with mononucleosis, they’ve overhauled the disaster of a line (though how much of an upgrade that is, if at all, is uncertain), and they aren’t a team that is entirely reliant on one or two difference-making players. No, not even their (again, excellent) former star safety.
Bryan: I will say, turning a safety who didn’t want to play for you anyway into two first-round picks and a replacement safety is a hell of a haul; Running a Football Team 101 kind of stuff. I assume they cover “don’t alienate your star players to the point where they demand a trade” in Running a Football Team 201.
I do think lopping the top two players off of a defense does make this a significantly tougher call. I was all ready to say the Jets were an 8-8 team with a revamped offensive line and some new weapons for a healthy Sam Darnold, plus a defense poised to jump into the top 10. And now that 1.5-win cushion is in question! Bah.
Andrew: I think you have them just about pegged, with the caveat that I am very strongly Not A Fan of Adam Gase, and I’m of the opinion that he significantly limits their upside. However, absent a disaster from Darnold, their downside doesn’t look that massive either. I’d say their range is roughly 6-10 to 8-8, and I’d be most comfortable predicting a Fisher-esque repeat of 7-9. I don’t see anybody on the Jets who’s going to step up and make them into a playoff team, but I don’t see any reason to expect a collapse either. McDougald was the only competent defensive back in Tampa Bay during their disastrous DVOA heyday, and competence is the hallmark of the Jets roster. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is enough that I’m content to take the over.
Bryan: Now, you’ve put me in a real bind, here. Because I do think, in the end, my (relative) optimism regarding the Jets isn’t damaged enough by the loss of Mosley and Adams to change my overall conclusion. But, if I say that, then we will have agreed on eight out of eight teams this week, and 15 out of 16 over the first two articles. That’s a hive mind and a half, even by our lofty standards.
Eh, disagreeing for disagreement’s sake is what spawns First Take. I’ll take the over as well. Our audition for Fox Sports 1 hasn’t gone well at all, I’m afraid.
We’ll have to go further afield to try to find actual sources of disagreement. Next week, our quest for different opinions will take us into the uncharted regions of the South, which added potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks like they were going out of style. Will Bryan and Andrew finally find a division they can’t agree on? Stay tuned next time, true believers.
by Jetspete // Aug 12, 2020 – 12:14pm
i’ve been able to peg the jets pretty well since the optimism of the Rexy era died. Last year’s record was against a weak schedule. Sam showed signs of improvement but that defense now has zero playmakers. Their ceiling in my mind is 3 division wins, most likely 2. They face the two Wests without a layup game in sight. If the line stays healthy, protects sam maybe 7 wins? But more likely they start 0-3 and are desperate headed to a home Thursday nighter vs Denver. Gase is fired after an 0-4 start, Williams coaches well like he did in the last interim stint and the Jets make fans think one more year of Sam is all we need! this schedule feels like 5-11 and an easy under.
by theslothook // Aug 12, 2020 – 1:13pm
In reply to jets under by Jetspete
I see it the same way, playing out the same way. The jets are bereft of perimeter players on offense and defense; something tailor made to lose in the modern NFL. Per Ben Muth, the line was a soviet winter campaign like disaster in terms of coordination despite being loaded with veterans – a clear indictment of an inept coaching staff that remains coaching this team.
I am also leaning on the side of Darnell is a bust and Gase is not a good head coach, a combination that usually spells doom for any team. In thinking it over, there are only a handful of teams that I can make a compelling case for being worse than the Jets; the Jags and the Panthers are the other two that come to mind.
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