Will the Jay Cutler-Mike Martz experiment in Chicago thrive or spontaneously combust?
Will you-know-who show up in Minnesota and finish the job he started last year?
Will the Lions and Rams continue to, well, be the Lions and Rams? And what to make of Pete Carroll’s return to the NFL sidelines?
Plenty of questions, and I’ve got the answers as I conclude my breakdown of NFL over/under season win totals with the NFC North and West divisions.
Once again, my recommendations are rated from 1 (just flip a coin) to 5 (hello, college fund for the kids!). Also, my bankroll remains at $5,605 with no plays last week.
BEARS (over/under 8): When Chicago acquired Cutler some 24 hours after April Fool’s Day in 2009, the team and its fans figured they finally had their franchise quarterback. Turns out the joke was Cutler, who threw a league-high 26 interceptions last year. Cutler’s generosity contributed greatly to a 7-9 record and a third consecutive nonplayoff season. The Bears were big players in free agency, but the biggest offseason fish they reeled in was offensive guru Martz, whose intricate system places a premium on the one area in which Cutler has always struggled: accuracy. Either way, the Martz/Cutler combo will be must-see TV, but with a schedule that includes the Packers (twice), Vikings (twice), Cowboys (road), Giants (road), Patriots, Jets and Dolphins (road), the losses figure to outnumber the wins in the Windy City for the third time in four years. Recommendation: UNDER (2).
LIONS (over/under 5): In 2007, the Lions roared to a 6-2 start and it looked like this sad-sack franchise had finally turned the corner. Too bad there was a 500-foot cliff waiting around that corner. Since the middle of the 2007 season, the Lions have three wins and 37 losses. You read that correctly: 3-37. That means in order to clear this year’s over/under number, Detroit must double its victory total from the previous 40 games. Thing is, I do believe the Lions are headed in the right direction under second-year coach Jim Schwartz, and they definitely upgraded their roster in the offseason. But barring something extraordinary, they’re still going to be favored in just one game this season (at home against the Rams in Week 5). Also, only twice since 2001 has Detroit finished with more than five victories (6-10 in 2004; 7-9 in 2007). Recommendation: UNDER (2).
PACKERS (over/under 9.5): Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers spent more time on his back last year than Jenna Jameson did in the last decade, as he was sacked 50 times. However, the majority of those sacks occurred in the first half of the season, when Green Bay stumbled to a 4-4 start. From there, Rodgers led the Packers to a 7-1 finish before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Arizona in the playoffs. And while Rodgers and the offense exploded down the stretch, the defense did its part, too, holding six of those nine opponents to 14 points or fewer. Simply put, the Packers are as complete a team as there is in the NFC, and if Rodgers (32 straight starts) stays healthy, they should at least match last year’s 11 victories. Recommendation: OVER (4).
VIKINGS (over/under 9.5): Will he or won’t he? That question as it pertains to Brett Favre remained unanswered at press time. So let’s focus on what we do know: First off, the Vikings will be tested early with road games at the Saints, Jets, Packers and Patriots and home contests against the Dolphins, Lions and Cowboys. With or without Favre—and I’d bet my remaining bankroll that No. 4 will come back—Minnesota will be lucky to be 4-3 after seven games. And while the post-Thanksgiving schedule is weak, the Vikings play just four games (two vs. Detroit) against teams projected to finish with fewer than eight wins. Note this, too: Minnesota went 10-6 in 2008 and 12-4 last year, but only once since 1976 has this franchise had three straight double-digit win seasons (1998-2000). Recommendation: UNDER (1).
49ERS (over/under 8.5): The betting public sure is bullish on the 49ers. How else do you explain an over/under number of 8½ for a squad that last had a winning season in 2002? The upside for San Francisco: It has showed steady improvement the last three seasons, going from 5-11 to 7-9 to 8-8, and it is playing in arguably the weakest division in the NFL. The downside: Alex Smith is still the quarterback. True, Smith went 5-5 as a starter last year, but he’s still just 16-24 in four seasons. The good news for Smith is he’s got a ton of weapons on offense, and for the first time in his pro career he’ll have the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons. Also, in addition to six games against division rivals Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis, the 49ers have winnable games against the Raiders and Bucs at home and Carolina and Kansas City on the road. Recommendation: OVER (3).
CARDINALS (over/under 7.5): How much did QB Kurt Warner mean to this one-time NFL laughingstock? The Cardinals improved their win total each of the last three years—from 8 to 9 to 10, and yet Vegas projects the Cardinals as a sub-.500 squad in 2010. That’s both a tribute to Warner and an indictment on his likely replacement, fifth-year pro Matt Leinart. Granted, Warner isn’t the only key player the Cardinals must replace (safety Antrel Rolle and Pro Bowl WR Anquan Boldin are among the departed), but Arizona’s season really rests on the left arm of Leinart, who is 10-17 as an NFL starter with 14 career TD passes and 20 interceptions. For Arizona to get to .500, a fast start is a must. However, with five of the first eight games on the road and early season contests against the Falcons, Chargers, Saints and Vikings, that seems about as likely as Mel Gibson hosting an anger-management seminar. Recommendation: UNDER (2).
RAMS (over/under 5): While Arizona has improved by one win in each of the last three years, St. Louis has gone the opposite direction from 3-13 to 2-14 to 1-15. This begs the question: Are the Rams primed to become the NFL’s second winless team in the last three seasons? You’d think it would be a strong possibility since the Rams’ options at QB are career backup A.J. Feeley and No. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford. Then again, when you look at the schedule, you see only three games that St. Louis has no shot at winning (Chargers, Saints and Falcons). You’re telling me the Rams can’t steal a couple of divisional games, and also get some wins against the likes of the Redskins, Raiders, Lions, Broncos, Buccaneers and Chiefs? Recommendation: OVER (2).
SEAHAWKS (over/under 7.5): After five straight seasons of nine or more wins, the Seahawks have won just nine games over the past two years. Enter Pete Carroll, who left Southern Cal right before the NCAA hammered the Trojans. Carroll’s first tour of duty as an NFL head coach has been widely portrayed as a failure, but that’s not fair. Yes, he went 6-10 in one season with the Jets (1994), but he followed that with three solid years in New England from 1997-99. Carroll should have a successful run in Seattle, but that success won’t come overnight, especially since the Seahawks will be favored in just one of their first seven road games (at St. Louis) and also face stiff home tests against the Chargers, Giants, Panthers and Falcons. Recommendation: UNDER (3).
Matt Jacob is a former local sports writer who has been in the sports handicapping business for more than four years. For his weekly column, Vegas Seven has granted Matt a “$7,000” bankroll. If he blows it all, we’ll fire him and replace him with a monkey.