It’s back to work for the NFL’s players and coaches as training camps for all 32 teams begin, and I go back to work breaking down NFL over/under season win totals, wrapping up the AFC by focusing on the South and West divisions.
It’s no surprise which teams are favored to win these two divisions; the Colts and Chargers have the two highest over/under win totals in the league this year. However, who falls in line behind those two powerhouses is far less predictable.
Once again, note that my recommendations are rated from a 1 (just flip a coin) to 5 (hello, college fund for the kids!). Also, with no plays last week, my bankroll remains at $5,605.
COLTS (over/under 11): Winning 12 games in an NFL season is no easy task … unless you’re the Colts. Indianapolis has finished with at least a dozen victories in seven consecutive seasons, going 14-2 twice (including last year). And since a 3-13 rookie season, Peyton Manning has led the Colts to double-digit wins 10 times in 11 years. Indy is a cinch to come flying out of the gate again this year as it kicks things off with six winnable games (Texans, Giants, Broncos, Jaguars, Chiefs and Redskins). The middle of the schedule is tough with consecutive games against the Eagles, Bengals, Patriots, Chargers and Cowboys; but three of those are at home. Bottom line: As long as Manning remains upright (and he’s never missed a start), the Colts will get at least 11 wins. As for betting on Manning to win the Super Bowl, only a fool would do that! Recommendation: OVER (2).
JAGUARS (over/under 7): After losing six of its final seven games to close out the 2008 season, Jacksonville nearly duplicated the collapse last year by stumbling to a 1-5 finish. Somehow, coach Jack Del Rio has been spared the unemployment line, but his margin for error in 2010 is slimmer than an Olsen twin. Del Rio spent the offseason shoring up a defense that surrendered nearly 24 points per game. He used his first four draft picks on defensive linemen and acquired two solid veterans in ex-Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison and ex-Packers pass rusher Aaron Kampman. If the overhaul works, the Jags have a decent shot to get to .500 with 11 of their opponents projected to finish with eight wins or fewer. Recommendation: OVER (2).
TEXANS (over/under 8): I fell victim to the Texans’ hype for three straight years, betting them over their season win total from 2006-08, only to be left holding three worthless pieces of paper. Refusing to be fooled a fourth time, I shied away last season, and of course Houston finally broke through, winning its final four games to post the franchise’s first winning season. The Texans’ reward for that accomplishment? Along with Tennessee, they have most difficult schedule in 2010. That’s partly the result of facing the Colts twice, but also on Houston’s slate are the Cowboys, Giants, Chargers, Jets, Eagles and Ravens. Also, the Texans are 5-27 all time against division rivals Indy and Tennessee. Recommendation: UNDER (3).
TITANS (over/under 8): I can count on one hand the number of NFL coaches whom I believe actually make a difference in the win-loss column. One of them is Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher. Over the past four seasons, his Titans have gone 8-8, 10-6, 13-3 and 8-8, and his starting quarterbacks were Vince Young and Kerry Collins. Last year was Fisher’s masterpiece, as the Titans started 0-6 but rallied to finish 8-8. Young is back under center this year, and you can be sure he’ll be doing a lot of handing off to speedy RB Chris Johnson (2,006 rushing yards in 2009). Still, as noted above, the Titans face a daunting schedule, and they also lost their best player (Kyle Vanden Bosch) from a defense that ranked 28th in the league last year. But with Fisher on the sideline, a .500 season is rarely out of reach. Recommendation: UNDER (1).
BRONCOS (over/under 7½): After a 6-0 start last year, the Broncos imploded like Mel Gibson’s career, losing six of their last eight games under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels, who brought a cocky attitude from New England, where he learned all there is to know about arrogance from Bill Belichick. Denver shocked the football world this year by using a first-round draft pick on Tim Tebow, this after trading prolific WR Brandon Marshall. Tough games against the Chargers (twice), Colts, Ravens, Jets and 49ers are offset by winnable contests against the Seahawks, Raiders (twice), Chiefs (twice) and Cardinals. Recommendation: UNDER (2).
CHARGERS (over/under 11): San Diego has won 11 or more games in four of the last six seasons, including twice with Norv Turner as head coach. Of course, that success is mostly the product of getting to face the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos six times a year (over the past three seasons, the Chargers are 15-3 against division opponents). This year, San Diego has the added benefit of drawing the weak NFC West, and only three of the Chargers’ opponents—Colts, Patriots and 49ers—have projected season win totals higher than eight (and San Francisco’s is 8½). And two of those three tough games are in San Diego. The Chargers have two key players (WR Vincent Jackson and offensive tackle Marcus McNeill) threatening to hold out for much of this season, but Turner is really the only person who can keep the Bolts from challenging Indy for the best record in the league. Recommendation: OVER (3).
CHIEFS (over/under 6½): Here’s how bad things have been in Kansas City: The Colts won more games last year by the end of November (11) than the Chiefs have won in the last three seasons combined (10). On the bright side, K.C. competed to the end last year, losing three December games by six, seven and seven points before going on the road and hammering the Broncos 44-24 in the season finale (ending Denver’s playoff hopes). QB Matt Cassel had his moments under first-year head coach Todd Haley, and figures to progress even more with Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator. Kansas City has picked up a lot of talent in the draft the last two years, and if the defense takes a couple of steps in the right direction, a 7-9 or 8-8 record is realistic. The Chiefs benefit from a soft schedule with seven winnable home games (49ers, Jags, Bills, Cardinals, Broncos, Titans, Raiders) and road contests at Cleveland, Oakland, Denver, Seattle and St. Louis. Recommendation: OVER (3).
RAIDERS (over/under 6): The Raiders continuing to cling to their “Commitment to Excellence” motto is a lot like me clinging to size-32 jeans. Oakland hasn’t won more than five games in a season since reaching the 2002 Super Bowl. To put that into perspective, the last time the Raiders finished with fewer than 11 losses in a season, an incoming senior in high school was in fourth grade! And yet why do I have a feeling this is the year Oakland actually flirts with .500? One reason is that it finally cut bait with QB JaMarcus Russell, replacing him with ex-Redskin Jason Campbell. This team has talent on defense and depth at running back, and 10 of the Raiders’ 16 opponents finished at or below .500 last year, including four teams that had 11 or more losses. Recommendation: OVER (2).