"You play to win the game." Herm Edwards' genius press conference gets played over and over from training camp through the playoffs. The quote couldn't be more pedantic: Of course you play to win. You don't play to lose, right? Winning is the focus of every play, every practice, every call.
Yet when this time of year rolls around, and pre-season prognostications rain down like flags at a Raiders game, you hear plenty of broad-stroke analysis of offense and defense, a "can't-lose" quarterback and an extrapolation of next-season success based on last season, but rarely do people take the time to go through the entire schedule game-by-game.
The NFL season isn't about points scored, it isn't about TDs or takeaways - it's about wins. That's it. Who wins each one of those games, and who loses.
That's why every season I sit down with the schedule and go through all 256 games. I do it twice. I've got a system that incorporates probability on a couple of levels. Every year I find little nuggets inside the schedule that can help unlock what the season holds. A couple years ago, it pointed to the Kansas City Chiefs winning a shocking AFC West crown; Last year, it showed a path for the Rams to the playoffs. Sometimes (like the Chiefs) it's spot-on; Other times (like the Rams) it falls short.
When looking at the season ahead, the biggest thing to remember is this: While last season and previous history can help give indications about the upcoming season, the two are completely separate. The Patriots beating the Bills 15 straight games had absolutely nothing to do with the game on Sept. 25, 2011 when the Bills came back from a 21-0 deficit to win the game.
So what nuggets does this season's schedule hold? As I went through all the games, three things jumped out at me:
1) The Tennessee Titans will go to the Playoffs
Last season, there were five pass defenses that were particularly bad, allowing 7.4 yards/attempt & 4k+ yards; The Titans were damn close, allowing 7.5 and 3,964. While it won't be the same list this season, these six teams were leaps and bounds worse than everyone else, and it's a decent bet that they won't be transformatively better this season.
Of those poor pass-defense teams, this season the Buccaneers have their work cut out for them: Six of their games are against top-6 pass offenses from last year, each of which gained over 4,500 passing yards. The number of games the other five piss-poor pass defenses have against top-flight passing offenses: Redskins 5, Giants 4, Saints 4, Patriots 3, and... Titans 1.
That number for Tennessee is music to the ears of the Music-City faithful. Last year they had two games against the top passing offenses, going 1-1 (beating the Lions, 44-41, in week three). This year, that one game is at the Denver Broncos, which is a game they're supposed to lose anyway. It's a bonus game for them: An upset win puts them in the wild card driver's seat. A loss does no harm.
In addition to the favorable pass-defense schedule, the Titans made a really nice move by bringing in Bernard Pollard. There is nothing as effective for a football defense as hard hits. There is, actually a substitute for speed, as the Patriots and Ravens have found over the years: Those hard hits, and the attitude they bring, can transform a defense's effectiveness overnight.
Five minutes into his first preseason game with the Titans, Pollard drew a personal foul. It was a stupid, needless hit on a defenseless receiver. It was also one of the most important plays of the preseason, as it sent a message not to the rest of the league, but to the other young Titans: We're laying lumber this year; They don't get shit without paying for it.
Another little gem on the other side of the ball is what kind of rushing defenses the Titans face. Last season, 10 teams had particularly bad rushing defenses in the NFL. This year, the Titans have six games against those opponents; Last year, they had just four.
On top of that, the Titans added left guard Andy Levitre from the Bills.
Remember when Shaun Alexander had those great seasons for the Seattle Seahawks? That was behind left guard Steve Hutchinson. Last year, the Titans brought in Hutchinson, but he had passed his prime and wasn't particularly effective creating holes for Chris Johnson.
On March 12 of this year, the Titans signed Levitre; Hutchinson retired from the Titans and the NFL three days later.
How good will Levitre be? CJ Spiller racked up 1,200 yards in nine starts last season, and the Bills had the sixth overall rush offense despite a weak team. In this preseason, Johnson averaged almost 8 yards per carry, most among any RBs with 20+ touches. Even if you take away his long 58-yard TD run, he still averaged over 5 yards/carry. Shonn Greene also averaged over 5 yards/carry.
This is the offense Mike Munchak wants to run. And run he will.
The wild card in the Titans' schedule is their six fixed AFC South games. They went 1-5 in these games last year, beating only the lowly Jaguars. Their three losses to the Jags, Colts and second loss to the Colts was by a combined 15 points; They were beating the Colts late in the fourth quarter in both of their games.
"That's all fine and dandy...but what about Jake Locker?"
Jake Locker. You just had to bring up Jake Locker. Look, you don't need a superstar quarterback to make the playoffs. And in the preseason, he looked better. His numbers did, too, completing 67% of his passes - a seismic improvement over his abysmal 52% preseason completion rate just last year. Yes, it's just preseason, but for a quarterback with accuracy issues, that 67% is a site for sore eyes.
Prognosis: The Titans nab the No. 5 seed in the AFC with a 10-6 record.
2) Schedule imbalance in the West hurts four teams, helps the Broncos and Niners
The San Diego Chargers face a brutal string of East Coast games. Teams west of the Rockies headed east for 1pmET games traditionally fare worse (though only by a few percentage points) in those games than they do in any other time slot. It's not a guarantee, it simply puts added pressure on the team. This season, each one of the Chargers' six games east of the Rockies...is at 1pmET. The Raiders' fortunes don't get much better, with five of their six games at 1pmET.
The Broncos have just two.
It's a big advantage for Denver; Though I don't think anyone is under the impression that the Chargers or Raiders will challenge for the AFC West crown.
In the hotly contested NFC West, it's a different story. Both the Cardinals and the Seahawks play five of their six "East Coast" road games at 1pmET.
The 49ers? Just two: At the lowly Jaguars and at Tampa Bay; And the Jaguars game is at a neutral site in London.
That's a big advantage for the Niners, particularly when you look at Seattle's five 1pmET road games: at Carolina, Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and the New York Giants. That's rough.
Of course, each of those divisions has a team in Central Time: The Chiefs and the Rams, who are unaffected by these East Coast games.
Prognosis: The brutal East Coast schedule costs the Cardinals and Seahawks one game each over the course of the season. I've got the NFC West so close to a four-way tie that this may be the difference in the season.
3) Schedule-makers screwed the Dolphins and Vikings
If a team is going to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East, it's going to be the Miami Dolphins. But the warm-weather team from South Beach has a tough road to hoe in December, with three cold-weather games in New York, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
They also get only one break at home: Other than the San Diego Chargers, every other team they face is from the East Coast. They do get to host their Thursday night game, but it's against the Cincinnati Bengals with only a two-hour flight to Miami.
The Minnesota Vikings also get screwed a bit by the schedule. Not only do they have to play one of their home games in London against the Steelers, but they don't get back-to-back home games the entire season. They also get four cold-weather games from mid-November: At the Seattle, Green Bay, Baltimore and Cincinnati. That's no fun for a dome team.
Prognosis: The schedule does no favors to the Dolphins and Vikings; It will cost each of them one to two more losses than they otherwise would have had. In the Vikings' case, the entire season may feel completely disjointed.
It's not interesting to me to predict the Super Bowl five months before it happens. It's an exercise in rolling the dice; Picking the Broncos over the Seahawks, or the Texans over the Niners, or the Falcons over the Patriots...who cares? It's just noise.
What matters is who's going to get to the Playoffs -- once they start, as we've seen in recent years, all 12 of those teams have a shot.
So what playoff teams did this process single out? While only seven of the teams were in the playoffs last year, you have to remember that this doesn't take last season's records into account. Saying, "well, they finished 9-7 last year and they got better, so they'll win 10 games" doesn't fly.
While I've used this system with great success in the past, there are always a couple teams I find head-scratchers. This year, the process showed the Chicago Bears with likely six or seven wins. That's the hardest one for me to wrap my mind around, as I think they'll be 9-7 or better; But I gotta go with the system.
Regardless, here's what it came up with for the playoffs:
Over/Under Win Totals
The one piece that going through the schedule game-by-game gives you great insight into is the over/under win totals for NFL teams. Frankly, most of them are just a crap shoot. The Raiders at 5.5 wins? If you're betting that line, you have a gambling addiction; That number is spot-on.
My interest is never picking all of the over/under win totals, but singling out the few that look like the best bets, the ones that are the furthest from the win totals you get going through the entire season.
Certainly anything can happen during the season. One wrong injury throws out any bet. Barring unforeseen disaster, I'm loving these lines:
Carolina Panthers OVER 7 wins - The schedule breaks nicely for them. Plus, to lose the bet they would have to go 6-10 or worse; If that happens, the team should be blown up and started from scratch.
Detroit Lions OVER 8 wins - Great line for the over. Like with the Panthers, to lose the bet, the Lions would have to go 7-9 or worse, and I like too many of their match-ups to think they'll have a losing season.
Minnesota Vikings UNDER 7.5 wins - As mentioned above, the schedule is a lot to contend with.
San Diego Chargers UNDER 7.5 wins - The Chargers are a rebuilding project, they have a rough schedule, and the other teams in the AFC West are better than you think.
Tennessee Titans OVER 6.5 wins - If I'm picking them at 10-6, I'd better put them in my best bets
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