After two days of doom and gloom, it's time to say some nice things about the other half of the NFL. Yesterday's look at declining franchises and Monday's article on the league's worst teams are over. Today, I'll talk about the eight teams that are moving up in the world and should improve in 2013, even if they're not necessarily among the eight favorites to compete for a Super Bowl.
And again, just as I detailed with yesterday's piece, keep in mind that the teams on this list aren't necessarily better than the ones who were listed as declining yesterday; for example, I suspect that the Falcons will be a better team than the Eagles, even though the Falcons are likely to decline and the Eagles are likely to improve. Some of these teams will make the playoffs, while others are more likely to merely improve toward .500 and come up short. Or I could be totally wrong. That's also always an option.
Tomorrow, I'll finish up with the eight teams who I think are most likely to be competing for a Super Bowl in 2013. If your team hasn't come up in these first three articles … good news! Or jinxy news! And then, on Friday, I'll finish up this whole preview thing one day into the season with an old reader favorite.
2012 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.8 (underperformed by 0.8 wins, ninth-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 1-7 (0.125, worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.532 (fifth-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-1
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Giants, at Vikings
Look through those numbers and find the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. Why, yes, it's the 1-7 record in games decided by seven points or fewer! Keep in mind that those games included the following contests:
• The infamous game against the Falcons in which Ron Rivera punted on fourth-and-inches with a $90 million backfield and turned the game over to his defense, producing a 30-28 loss.
• A 16-12 loss to the Seahawks in which the Panthers threw the ball on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 3:47 left and failed.
• A one-point loss to the Bears in a game the Panthers led 19-7 with seven minutes to go and 22-20 with 2:32 to go.
• An overtime loss to the Buccaneers in a game the Panthers led 21-10 with 6:06 to go, which required an 80-yard drive for a touchdown and a two-point conversion from the Buccaneers in 1:02 with no timeouts.
That's three games in which Carolina had a win expectancy above 75 percent (per advancednflstats.com) during the fourth quarter and one in which it was a yard away from taking the lead and decided not to run the ball. Now, I don't know that Carolina should have won all those games; comebacks happen, and Seattle might very well have driven down the field and won even after that fourth-and-1 conversion, had it happened. But the Panthers were 7-9 without winning any of those games. If they held on in two of them, they're 9-7 and on the verge of contending for a playoff berth. And if they get a little lucky and win all four of them, they're 11-5 and we're looking at Ron Rivera as a Coach of the Year candidate as opposed to a guy who might have been lucky to keep his job.
Counterpoint? The Panthers were 1-5 in games decided by one possession in 2011, meaning they're now a whopping 2-12 in one-possession games since Cam Newton came to town. Does that mean they're unlikely to regress toward the mean and be better in those games in 2013, and that there's something wrong with Newton in the clutch? I don't think so. For one, you can see from the examples above that the endgame scenarios often weren't Newton's fault. In addition, two seasons' worth of close games just isn't a large sample or very meaningful. The Panthers now have a .143 winning percentage in those close games over the past two years. Since 1989, 14 other teams have had a two-year stretch where they won fewer than 20 percent of their one-possession games, a run during which they went a combined 33-182 (.153) in close contests. The following year, those same teams went 55-52 — above .500! — in those same one-touchdown contests. The Panthers aren't going to be this bad in close games again, and that alone might be enough to make them a contender.
I have my concerns. Carolina is in an extremely tough division, and playing the NFC West does them no favors. It recovered 62.5 percent of the fumbles in its games last year, which was fourth-best in the league and probably unlikely to recur. The massive contracts handed out by former general manager Marty Hurney prevented them from adding to the team this offseason; in fact, a secondary that was famously toasted last season released its best player, Chris Gamble, who then retired. Carolina might have the worst set of starting defensive backs in football, and in the NFC South, that simply doesn't fly. It's still desperate for another wideout to step up across from Steve Smith, and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula seems to somehow have it in his head that Newton is better off without this read-option stuff in the playbook. That might be enough to prevent the Panthers from making the playoffs, but .500 shouldn't be a problem.
Best-Case Scenario: A great pass rush and a dominant running game overcomes the weaknesses at wideout and defensive back, and a step forward from Newton pushes the Panthers to 10-6 and the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Panthers fail to stop anybody from throwing on them, helping them blow fourth-quarter leads for a second consecutive season, and the move to a more conventional offense plays against Newton's strengths. The tension mounts until Smith beats up the entire team in a practice outburst.
2012 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.9 (overperformed by 0.1 wins)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 5-3 (0.625, sixth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.454 (third-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-4 (tied for 11th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Colts, at Chargers
Of the eight teams in this group, the Bengals are the ones I feel the ickiest about. It's tough to envision them going 11-5, right? Would Andy Dalton be the worst quarterback in history to win 11 games in a season? He would certainly be up there.
At the same time, there's a pretty staggering core of young talent here: You could win a lot of games if you started your team with Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Leon Hall, A.J. Green, and Andre Smith. And unlike the Cowboys, whose core I brought up yesterday while highlighting the absence of useful players behind them, there's a lot of talented players in reserve on this roster. The Bengals' top three picks this year — tight end Tyler Eifert, halfback Gio Bernard, and defensive end Margus Hunt — don't need to start. They've got Robert Geathers and supremely underrated pass-rusher Wallace Gilberry on the sideline at defensive end. They're four-deep at cornerback with Hall, Terence Newman,1 Adam Jones, and 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick, who should play a bigger role in his second season. The Bengals had the league's best overall defense and best pass defense in the second half of the 2012 season, per Football Outsiders. The elite talent they have on the top of the roster and the depth they have in reserve should allow them to stay among the league's best units in 2013.
OK. A great defense and Green? I don't feel so bad anymore. The other exciting possibility is that they actually have an above-average running game in 2013, thanks to the arrival of Bernard, who will split time with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and bring the Bengals into the modern NFL with the running back time-share. Dalton's had to make do with the likes of Jerome Simpson and Armon Binns across from Green at times, but Cincinnati has more playmakers in its lineup now than ever before, with Green, a returning Mohamed Sanu, Bernard, Jermaine Gresham, and the arriving Eifert, who could end up becoming Dalton's second-favorite target from day one. The Bengals could genuinely be an above-average football team in every facet of the game (special teams included, since they were seventh in DVOA there last season) this year. It's awful hard for a team to be good at everything and not win 10 games. They're obviously susceptible to an injury to Green or Atkins because players of that caliber are irreplaceable, but they should absolutely be a competitive team in the AFC.
Best-Case Scenario: Dalton actually takes a step forward with the additional weapons, while the defense stays great and the Bengals earn themselves a first-round bye.
Worst-Case Scenario: Green gets hurt and misses most of the season, and the Bengals suffer through a lot of 13-9 losses as a result.
2012 Record: 5-11
Pythagorean Wins: 6.2 (underperformed by 1.2 wins, fourth-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-5 (0.375, ninth-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.489 (14th-easiest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-3 (tied for 12th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC North, vs. Jaguars, at Chiefs
Brandon Weeden is not a good quarterback. Let's get past that right now. Consider what the rest of this team is probably going to be able to do. The Browns are going to play very good pass defense, since they've got a great cornerback (Joe Haden) and a trio of promising pass-rushers in Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, and rookie Barkevious Mingo. They should be tough up the middle against the run, with Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant keeping blockers off D'Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward. I won't pretend the Browns are anywhere near as deep as the Bengals on defense, but there's the core of a very good unit there.
And while the Browns aren't likely to be very good throwing the football, they should be very good when they hand the ball off to Trent Richardson. Richardson struggled through a series of injuries as a rookie and was never healthy; there's no guarantee he'll be healthy in 2013, but it would be fair to expect him to be healthier. He averaged only 3.6 yards per carry last season, but as Chase Stuart pointed out over the summer, Richardson shares a low rookie YPC with the likes of Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. Stuart also notes that Richardson produced more than four yards on 47.3 percent of his first-down carries, which was better than the league average of 46 percent.
What was missing for Richardson were the big plays. His longest run of the year was only for 32 yards, and just two of his 267 carries went for 20 yards or more. That's not a lot: 0.7 percent is the fifth-lowest rate for any back with 200 carries or more over the past five years. The only guy who is consistently that low year-after-year is Cedric Benson, and my suspicion is that Richardson is faster than late-period Benson. Even improving to a league-average rate would give Richardson six more 20-plus-yard carries over a full season; he should be a more explosive, impressive player this year. If he can stay healthy, the Browns should have a very effective running game.
Then, there's addition by subtraction. The Browns fired head coach Pat Shurmur after the season, the coach who won our award for "Worst Coach of 2012." Rob Chudzinski is an unknown quantity as a head coach, but it's hard to imagine he'll be worse than Shurmur was on game days. That should help Cleveland's decision-making late in games, which was notably lacking a year ago.
I doubt the Browns will be a playoff team in 2013; it's difficult for a team with this little of a passing game to compete in the modern NFL. The Vikings are the exception that proves the rule: They needed arguably the greatest season from a running back in NFL history to get there. Cleveland should take a step forward in 2013, though, and might even make it to .500.
Best-Case Scenario: The Browns do their best Vikings impersonation, with Richardson winning the rushing title and the defense preventing teams from throwing to catch up. In a wide-open AFC North, everybody beats each other down and nine wins is enough to claim the division crown with a tiebreaker.
Worst-Case Scenario: Richardson limps through another season, the Browns cycle through three starting quarterbacks, and the good pass rush goes entirely for naught in a 4-12 campaign.
2012 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 6.5 (underperformed by 2.5 wins, unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-8 (0.273, third-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.522 (11th-toughest in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-16 (tied for 30th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC North, NFC East, vs. Buccaneers, at Cardinals
The numbers favor a Lions revival, as I wrote about in August. You can see some of the key ones up there, including the point differential, the record in close games, and the awful turnover margin. They also had the league's second-lowest fumble recovery rate, at 32.6 percent, and had the league's second-most injured defense, per Football Outsiders. All that should be better in 2013.
The best arguments against the Lions playing well? Well, there are a few fair ones. They're a top-heavy team that's incredibly dependent upon Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh staying healthy; they'd be toast without either of those guys around for the vast majority of the season, and they might need 16 healthy games out of both Johnson and Suh to make it into the playoffs. They're still thin in the secondary, which is a problem when one of your starters is Louis Delmas. They used their first-round pick on raw pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah, who is unlikely to have an impact this year. They turned over both tackle positions, and the starting left tackle is second-year pro Riley Reiff, whose arms are apparently permanently impersonating a raptor.
That stuff all matters. It's certainly no guarantee that the Lions will win nine or 10 games and save Jim Schwartz's bacon. They might not even make it back to .500. But 4-12? They can do better than 4-12. And they will.
Best-Case Scenario: Everyone stays healthy on defense, Reggie Bush looks like the guy he was supposed to be coming out of school, and the Lions win 11 games and the NFC North.
Worst-Case Scenario: The team gets off to a slow start and quits on Schwartz. Megatron gets hurt. (This might not be physically possible.) Matthew Stafford gets hurt. (That's way more possible.)
Kansas City Chiefs
2012 Record: 2-14
Pythagorean Wins: 2.6 (underperformed by 0.6 wins, 12th-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 2-3 (0.400, 11th-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.482 (21st in league)
Turnover Margin: Minus-24 (tied for worst in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC South, NFC East, vs. Browns, at Bills
I don't mean to keep linking stuff you might already have read, but I wrote a long piece about the Chiefs in August, too.
Even if you don't believe in the numbers and think Andy Reid and Alex Smith are colossal busts waiting to reveal themselves, it's hard to figure that any 2-14 team will repeat the feat. Of the 28 teams in league history that finished 2-14, just two were worse the subsequent season, and two more maintained their 2-14 record the following year. 24-for-28 represents pretty good odds for the Chiefs taking a step forward in 2013.
Best-Case Scenario: Everything goes right, the Broncos struggle with injuries, and the Chiefs claim an unlikely AFC West title at 11-5.
Worst-Case Scenario: Smith is a bust, Jamaal Charles gets hurt, and the Chiefs improve to only 4-12 or so.
New Orleans Saints
2012 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 8.1 (underperformed by 1.1 wins, fifth-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-3 (0.571, ninth-best in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.526 (seventh-hardest in league)
Turnover Margin: Plus-2 (tied for 14th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Cowboys, at Bears
The easy explanation for the 2012 Saints is that they missed Sean Payton. To some extent, it's true, although it's hard to figure that Payton would have dramatically improved his team's 32nd-ranked defense. The truth is that a lot of the off year for the Saints draws to factors that would have been there even if Payton had been around. The bad defense. The tough schedule. The fluke of underperforming point differential, something that happened to the Saints with Payton in 2007 and 2008. As much as they missed Payton, the Saints were afflicted by bad luck and the swap of Gregg Williams for Steve Spagnuolo, too.
With that being said, the Saints weren't really all that bad of a football team in what's been written off as a lost year. People remember the 0-4 start, but that included an eight-point loss to the Redskins and a three-point loss to the Chiefs. After that, the Saints lost to the Broncos, 49ers, Falcons, and Giants before finishing up with a loss versus the Panthers in Week 17. That's a run of four pretty good football teams. The Saints outscored their opposition by seven points over the course of the season, so they had the point differential of an 8-8 team. Very good teams who play well over the course of several seasons, just as the Saints have, occasionally will have seasons like this where they drop off and have the breaks go against them. Young players fail to develop. Their stars play at less than 100 percent. This stuff happens. I don't doubt that Payton's absence exacerbated their issues and that his return will help, but I think the other changes they've made to the defense will help just as much. There's every reason to believe these Saints can still be the "old" Saints, the team that won the Super Bowl in 2009 and took the 49ers to the brink in 2011.
So why are they here and not among the elite eight teams in the Thursday article? Injuries. The only team that's had worse luck with injuries during the preseason would be the Bills, and the Saints might actually be worse off. You remember that 32nd-ranked defense from a year ago? The Saints have actually already lost four players who would have been major contributors to the 2013 defense, including two of the players who were brought in to smooth over the transition to Rob Ryan's 3-4, former Cowboys Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman, both on injured reserve and gone for the year. Will Smith, the team's best pass-rusher, will also miss the entire season with a torn ACL, while Jonathan Vilma is on short-term injured reserve and will miss the first half of the season. The Saints actually had a good amount of depth heading into the season, but they're now stretching players into larger roles that don't necessarily fit their skill sets. Junior Galette is a useful situational pass-rusher; can he be an every-down linebacker? He might have to be if the Saints are going to play well on defense.
In the end, I think the Saints will end up producing a winning record in 2013. But the defensive injuries — and whatever might follow during the regular season — could be the difference between the NFC South title, a wild-card berth, or another year outside of the playoffs.
Best-Case Scenario: Ryan revitalizes the defense and Payton brings the offense back from the bottom of the top 10 to the top five, leading the Saints to comfortably claim the NFC South and host a playoff game.
Worst-Case Scenario: Saints fans find out the harsh truth: Even Payton can't save that defense. The 2013 Saints look more like the 2007-08 Saints than the ones from 2009 to 2011.
2012 Record: 4-12
Pythagorean Wins: 4.0
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 4-4 (0.500)
Strength of Schedule: 0.497
Turnover Margin: Minus-24 (tied for worst in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC West, NFC North, vs. Cardinals, at Buccaneers
The Eagles fool me every year. Every single season, I think they're going to take a big step forward and be a competitive playoff team. Every year, they come up short. I mean, somehow I delude myself into thinking it might be different … but maybe this team will work.
Of course, some of the baggage (perceived or otherwise) holding the Eagles back is now gone. Andy Reid is in Kansas City. Juan Castillo is in Baltimore. Just about everybody from that infamous Dream Team class — free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, and Jason Babin, and the acquired-via-trade Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie — has left town. The Eagles even cut their first-round pick from that year, guard Danny Watkins, over the weekend.
And in their place is … hope. Chip Kelly was the highest-variance coach a team could have hired this offseason, a coach capable of either giving whoever hired him a significant strategic advantage or, perhaps, an even more notable disadvantage. Eagles fans only need to look as far as Washington to see how effective a dramatic change in offensive scheme can be, but it's still unclear whether Kelly has the personnel to make his offense work.
The one place where he should have everything going according to plan is on the offensive line, where the Eagles could look very good very quickly. After suffering through a number of injuries and disappointments last year, the Eagles have everybody set in specific positions and could field one of the league's best offensive lines if everybody stays healthy. With Jason Peters returning to left tackle after missing the entire 2012 season with a twice-torn Achilles and fourth overall pick Lane Johnson stepping in at right tackle, the Eagles should upgrade massively at the most important positions on the line. The occasionally blistering tempo and quick throws of the Kelly scheme require athletic offensive linemen who can block downfield. The Eagles should be able to pull that off, even if Michael Vick (or Nick Foles) isn't exactly the long-term answer at quarterback. It seems likely that there are plenty of quirks to come with the Kelly scheme; chances are that we've seen only bits and pieces during the preseason, just as the Redskins waited to show their hand until Week 1 a year ago.
As fun as it will be to see the offense do its thing, the defense might be the more important matter in determining just how much the Eagles can improve upon their 2012 doldrums. Remember: The Washington defense actually improved more during that second-half winning streak than the offense did. Considering the wonders Kelly has worked in school, it also seems like the bigger question mark. Like New Orleans, the Eagles are moving to a 3-4 after years in the 4-3, and it's hard to see how their old personnel fits into the new scheme. The good news for the Eagles is that the players they brought in to augment the shift, like Connor Barwin and Isaac Sopoaga, haven't gotten injured. The bad news is that the latest additions to the secondary don't look to be very useful. The Eagles signed Cary Williams, Patrick Chung, and Bradley Fletcher to start in that new-look secondary, and they've yet to impress so far. (Vinny Curry, on the other hand, has shown flashes of being a contributor up front.)
About all I know for sure is that the Eagles' turnover margin will get better. Beyond that, just about anything could happen. The Eagles could run the Music City Miracle like it's the zone stretch. LeSean McCoy could run for 2,000 yards. Donovan McNabb could finally turn heel on Eagles fans when they boo him for 10 straight minutes during his retirement ceremony in Week 3. In all likelihood, the Eagles will probably be able to run the ball pretty well, revitalize Vick a bit, and have some positive signs for 2014 without having the answers. But what fun is in all likelihood?
Best-Case Scenario: The Eagles are Redskins North. Vick is a borderline MVP candidate, the Eagles average six yards per carry on the ground, and the defense is passable enough for Philly to win 11 games.
Worst-Case Scenario: The parade of quarterbacks stumbles through a year of turnovers and late decisions, while the league's referees threaten to strike if Kelly's offense doesn't give them 13 seconds in between plays. The Eagles go 6-10 while Reid goes 14-2 in Kansas City.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2012 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 7.9 (underperformed by 0.9 wins, eighth-unluckiest in league)
Record in Games Decided by Seven Points or Fewer: 3-6 (0.333, seventh-worst in league)
Strength of Schedule: 0.495
Turnover Margin: Plus-3 (tied for 12th in league)
2013 Out-of-Division Schedule: AFC East, NFC West, vs. Eagles, at Lions
I wanted to put the Buccaneers in the elite eight. Really badly. I absolutely think they have that sort of potential; Mays and I said as much on the Buccaneers preview podcast, when we both picked them to go 11-5. If everything goes right, they still have the potential to be that good of a football team. There's one sticky problem in their way, though: MRSA.
The news that kicker Lawrence Tynes and guard Carl Nicks were dealing with antibiotic-resistant infections2 was troubling for a number of reasons. Obviously, on a simple level of human health, it's awful to see players afflicted by something that's almost entirely out of their control. It's also entirely likely to pop up again: Remember that the Browns had a series of staph infections afflict players on their roster over a number of years in the past decade, notably contributing to the end of the careers of LeCharles Bentley and Joe Jurevicius. While no other players have yet been diagnosed with a staph infection, others might arise over the next number of years. That has to be scary for Bucs players.
In terms of the immediate impact upon these players and how it affects the Buccaneers on the field in 2013, there's going to be a noticeable problem. Tynes is already out for the year. Nicks hasn't yet been ruled out for Week 1, but he's unlikely to play, and there's no clear timetable for his return. Part of the predicted improvement for the Buccaneers in 2013 revolved around the return of three key linemen: Nicks and Davin Joseph on the offensive side of the ball, and Adrian Clayborn on the defensive side. Even if Nicks does make it back onto the field relatively quickly, it's impossible to imagine that battling a staph infection won't have sapped his strength. Nicks is more likely to be a nonfactor this season than he is to be his former self. That's not important in the context of the broader health concern in play, but it does affect how you might view the Buccaneers heading into 2013.
Of course, there are other questions. Josh Freeman is a question mark unto himself. Darrelle Revis's health coming off of a torn ACL is in question. Dashon Goldson will need to prove his ability outside of San Francisco. Da'Quan Bowers is still apparently driving his coaches crazy. And hey, those coaches might not be very good. But on a pure talent level, the Buccaneers might have the league's most impressive set of starters outside of the NFC West. They're that strikingly good. So while I'm not comfortable putting them in the elite eight, they're awfully close to making that leap. Staying healthy, though, is a must.
Best-Case Scenario: Freeman has such a good year that he climbs ahead of Martin and Freddie on the Freeman power rankings and begins to approach the lofty heights of, yes, Gordon. The defense stays healthy and the Buccaneers compete with the NFC West juggernauts for a first-round bye.
Worst-Case Scenario: Josh drops down the Freeman power rankings, past Antonio, all the way to the bottom of the list. They fail to find a pass rush, Revis isn't 100 percent, and Gerald McCoy gets hurt again. They limp to a 5-11 season and spend the offseason searching for two new leaders: a quarterback and a guy to coach him.