Once upon a time, a much-hyped rookie quarterback’s (seemingly) immense talent was surpassed only by his immense immaturity. Many believed that, eventually, the former would overtake the latter, and this gifted QB could one day become an all-timer—maybe even better than the guy drafted one spot ahead of him.
That time was 1998. That quarterback was Ryan Leaf.
Why would I, a Chargers fan, rip open that scab? Two words: Johnny Manziel. No, I’m not saying the Browns’ rookie is headed for a Leaf-ian career—it’s impossible for him to be that big of a bust. What I am saying is, as with Leaf, serious red flags are flying around Manziel. Besides, after Leaf … and Tim Couch … and Joey Harrington … and Vince Young … and Matt Leinart … and JaMarcus Russell … and Brady Quinn … and Tim Tebow (to name a few), shouldn’t we consider pumping the brakes on the Johnny Football hype machine?
While we’re at it, let’s also consider why 19 other NFL teams passed on Manziel in the draft—and remember that the team that finally took him has been the league’s laughingstock for 15 years: The Browns have won more than five games just three times since the franchise was resurrected in 1999.
Sorry to kill your buzz, Cleveland. But look on the bright side: LeBron’s back!
With that, let’s resume my season win-total recommendations, breaking down the rest of the AFC while using the best available numbers/odds from MGM Resorts, William Hill, Station Casinos and Westgate Las Vegas (formerly LVH) …
Bengals (9 wins): Did Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton (0-3 career playoff record) deserve a six-year contract extension worth (theoretically) more than $100 million? I dunno. Name the other Bengals QB to lead the team to the postseason three straight years. You can’t; he doesn’t exist. In fact, behind Dalton, the Bengals have won at least nine games in three successive years (9-7, 10-6, 11-5) for the first time ever. Cincy is loaded on both sides of the ball, and only seven teams have an easier schedule. Over (-105, Station)
Steelers (9): I had Pittsburgh exceeding nine victories in 2013 in part because it was coming off an 8-8 season and hadn’t had back-to-back non-winning campaigns since 1998-99. Well, the Steelers started out 0-4 and needed to rally just to get back to 8-8. The last time this franchise had three straight non-winning seasons? You have go back to 1969-71. I like my odds (not to mention Pittsburgh’s defense). Over (-155, William Hill)
Ravens (8½): Last year, Baltimore (8-8) finished with fewer than nine victories for the first time in coach John Harbaugh’s six seasons at the helm. Super Bowl hangover? Or a sign of things to come? Me thinks the latter, as the Ravens’ defense, running game and offensive line are all in decline. Under (+105, MGM)
Browns (6½): Love the offensive line. Ditto the defense. Don’t love the QB situation (be it Manziel or Brian Hoyer), especially since the best weapon (receiver Josh Gordon) will likely be suspended all season. Hate the history (see above). To quote Geddy Lee: Show me, don’t tell me. Under (+125, MGM)
Colts (9½): Think quarterbacks are overrated? With Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck under center, the Colts have won at least 10 games in 12 of the last 13 years. The only hiccup: 2012, when they went 2-14 with Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins running the offense. While a case could be made that Luck is a bit overhyped (check his stats), he does get stud WR Reggie Wayne back from injury. Add in the NFL’s easiest schedule, and it’s hard to see Indy not posting at least 10 wins again. Over (-115, Station)
Texans (7½): Without question, Houston endured the ultimate Murphy’s Law season in 2013. (You know it’s bad when they fire the head coach and replace him with Wade Phillips!) This club is much more talented than last year’s 2-14 record, and while I’m not buying Ryan Fitzpatrick as the quarterback savior, I’m all in with what will be one of the three best defenses in the league. Over (-145, MGM)
Titans (7): Over the past five years, Tennessee (8-8, 6-10, 9-7, 6-10, 7-9) has been the poster child for NFL mediocrity. That will change (for the better) under terrific new coach Ken Whisenhunt … just not this season. Under 7 (+110, MGM)
Jaguars (5): Last three years for Jacksonville: 5-11, 2-14, 4-12. Since I’m in the mood to quote old rockers, allow me to pilfer from Sammy Hagar: “What is understood doesn’t need to be discussed.” This team stinks and isn’t getting any better. Under (+105, Westgate)
Broncos (11½): Is this number insanely inflated because Denver is coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons? For sure. But I said it last year, and I’ll repeat it again: You do not bet against Peyton Manning (at least 12 victories in nine of his last 10 seasons) in the regular season. You wait until after New Year’s Day. Over (+130, Westgate)
Chiefs (8½): In this space a year ago, I told you the Chiefs weren’t as bad as their 2-14 record in 2012. Now I’m telling you they’re not as good as last year’s 11-5 mark. We saw that when K.C. lost six of its final eight down the stretch, including the shocking playoff debacle at Indy. Good luck recovering from that. Under (-150, William Hill)
Chargers (8): Gotta be impressed with how San Diego finished 2013 under first-year coach Mike McCoy, winning its final four regular-season games to get the last AFC playoff berth, then upsetting the Bengals in Cincinnati. Far be it for me to be optimistic about the Chargers, but if they can navigate a brutal closing schedule (at Ravens, vs. Patriots, vs. Broncos, at 49ers, at Chiefs), they should be in position to tease their fans once again come January. Over (-125, Station)
Raiders (5): In addition to playing six games against its AFC West rivals, Oakland has to face the entire NFC West, plus travel to the Patriots and Jets. Hmm, perhaps the NFL really does hate this franchise. And yet … I’m bullish on the 2014 Raiders, who have upgraded their roster across the board. No, seriously, it’s true. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my medical marijuana card is ready … Over (-115, Westgate)
Next week: NFC East, NFC North.
Matt Jacob appears at 10 a.m. Fridays on “First Preview” on ESPN Radio 1100-AM and 98.9-FM.