2015 NFC South Betting Preview: Falcons to Fly High

Cam NewtonIt was a dumpster fire at the top (and bottom) of the NFC South, with the Carolina Panthers eventually winning the division with only seven wins. This year may or may no be any better, but predicting the 2015 NFC South winner will be just as difficult. New Orleans, normally a powerhouse, lost plenty of players from an underachieving team last year. Carolina lost their top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for the year with a torn ACL; Atlanta is starting a new regime with defensive-mastermind Dan Quinn; and Tampa Bay will be busy grooming franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. Let’s discuss which of these teams in transition has what it takes to win the division.

4th in Division: Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 5-11 W/L Projection

jameis-winston-tampa-bayStrengths: What was a definite weakness for Tampa Bay last year should be a benefit this year – the passing game. Top overall pick Jameis Winston may have a learning curve ahead of him, but he’s easily more talented than last season’s QB duo of Mike Glennon/Josh McCown. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, who figure to be one of the league’s best receiving duos, will help his transition to the pros go much smoother.

Weaknesses: When you have to play Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton all twice a year, it definitely hurts when your safeties are bad. Former Bears Chris Conte and Major Wright are likely to man the safety spots for the Bucs, which will no doubt mean plenty of big plays for opposing teams. And it’s not like D.J. Swearinger or Bradley McDougald bring a lot of talent off the bench.

3rd in Division: New Orleans Saints; 7-9 W/L Projection

drew-breesStrengths: You’re never out of contention when you have Drew Brees under center. And Brees has some very good weapons to work with, most notably new addition C.J. Spiller, who will play the “Darren Sproles” role. Assuming Spiller stays healthy, he and 1,000-year-rusher Mark Ingram will be a fearsome RB pairing. Brees also has Brandin Cooks to work with, who, after breaking his finger last season, will likely notch 100 catches.

Weaknesses: Just having a big-name defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan isn’t enough when your D lacks talent. Letting Junior Galette go after his bizarre behavior hurts because he was the squad’s most talented pass rusher. What’s left is largely a group of underperforming players and aging veterans: Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins, Dannell Ellerbe, Anthony Spencer and Parys Haralson.

2nd in Division: Carolina Panthers; 7-9 W/L Projection

cam-newtonStrengths: While Benjamin’s loss is a crushing blow to the Panthers, the cupboard on offense isn’t bare. Cam Newton once again leads a unit that will include some talented playmakers like TE Greg Olson, RB Jonathan Stewart and second-round pick Devin Funchess. The latter is very intriguing because, at 6’5″, 240 pounds, Funchess should get plenty of red-zone looks. Add in linebacker and tackle monster Luke Kuechly on the other side of the ball, and this is a well-rounded team.

Weaknesses: The Panthers ranked 30th in pass protection last season, with Newton under duress on 36% of passing plays. Considering that Newton has excellent running ability, this is a very alarming stat. Things won’t get much better in 2015 since Carolina addressed their line needs by adding Michael Oher, who’s given up 26 sacks and 102 QB hurries in the past three years.

1st in Division: Atlanta Falcons; 8-8 W/L Projection

julio-jones-falconsStrengths: It just doesn’t get much better at receiver than Julio Jones, who’s coming off a 2014 campaign that saw him reel in 104 catches for 1,593 yards. The guy delivering him the ball, Matt Ryan, is also pretty good after putting up 4,694 passing yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Roddy White will be another solid weapon for Ryan in the passing game while fourth-round pick Kevin Hardy should see some targets too. Atlanta also addressed its defensive weakness in the offseason by adding DE Adrian Clayborne, LB Justin Durant, CB Jalen Collins and drafting LB Vic Beasley in the first round.

Weaknesses: Left tackle Jake Matthews had a disappointing rookie campaign, and must do better in 2015 if the Falcons are to win the division. But at least Matthews is a guaranteed starter; the two guard spots have yet to be decided, and it’s unclear if the available candidates can be quality NFL starters.

NFL Power Rankings for Week 2 (Sept. 11, 2014)

percy-harvin-seahawksWe started the season by ranking Seattle number one, and there’s little reason to back off that prediction one week into the season. The Seahawks dominated the Green Bay Packers last Thursday to the tune of a 36-16 blowout. They’ll have no shortage of weapons either as Marshawn Lynch rushed for 110 yards and two TD’s, Russell Wilson threw for 191 yards and a pair of TD’s and Percy Harvin gained 100 combined yards, almost dividing them equally between the air and ground.

Okay, now that we’ve ruined any element of surprise about who’s number one, there were definitely some changes in other spots of our rankings. That said, let’s take a look at the Week 2 NFL power rankings.

1. Seattle Seahawks (1-0); beat Green Bay 36-16, retains same ranking – Seattle picked up right where they left off last season by blowing out another high-profile opponent. We didn’t get to see much from Richard Sherman – only because Aaron Rodgers avoided throwing his direction the entire game. Sherman’s presence is one reason why the Seahawks had little trouble shutting down Green Bay’s uptempo offense as they looked unbeatable at home.

2. Denver Broncos (1-0); beat Indianapolis 31-24, retains same ranking – Denver’s first-half defense looked scary in holding the Colts to just a touchdown. However, they also let Indianapolis back into the game. Peyton Manning continues finding the open man, wherever they may be. This time, it was tight end Julius Thomas as he scored three touchdowns.

3. San Francisco 49ers (1-0); beat Dallas Cowboys 28-17, retains same ranking – Even without Aldon Smith, San Francisco made the Dallas offense look bad by getting in Tony Romo’s face and contributing to his three interceptions. Running back Carlos Hyde looks like a new player to watch this season as he rushed for 50 yards and a TD on just seven carries.

4. New Orleans Saints (0-1); lost to Atlanta Falcons 37-34 (OT), moves up one spot  – Despite a loss – a road loss to a division rival mind you – the Saints move up as everybody else around them also lost. The offense has gotten even better with the addition of rookies Brandin Cooks and Khiry Robinson. The main concern here, though, is the cornerback situation. Playing against elite Falcons receivers didn’t help mask this concern either.

5. New England Patriots (0-1); lost to Miami Dolphins 33-20, drops one spot – Another road loss to a tough division rival here. But it’s concerning how the Patriots were completely dominated in the second half after going into the locker room with a 20-10 lead. The offense is loaded with talent, however, they’ll have a tough time winning if the defense continues allowing players like Knowshon Moreno to rush for 134 yards.

nick-foles-eagles6. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0); beat Jacksonville Jaguars 34-17, moves up one spot – It seems like the Eagles should be moving up a little higher based on their blowout victory. But the worrisome aspect is how they were down 17-0 going into halftime against a Jacksonville team that isn’t markedly improved. Nick Foles was especially off, although he rallied to throw for 322 yards and one touchdown.

7. Cincinnati Bengals (1-0); beat Baltimore Ravens 23-16, moves up one spot – Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green on a 77-yard touchdown pass with five minutes left to help earn Cincinnati a very nice road win. The only complaint here is that the Bengals left a lot of points on the board in the first half, settling for five field goals. If they’d just converted on some key third downs, they could have ended this game early, rather than allowing Baltimore to hang in there.

8. Green Bay Packers (0-1); lost to Seattle Seahawks 36-16, drops one spot – It felt right to give Green Bay a chance when discussing this game in our last power rankings. However, even with their scoring ability, they were no match for a Super Bowl champion opening up at home. The Packers are definitely a team that has a chance to stay in the hunt, but they’ve got some improving to do if they’re going to win a road playoff game.

9. Indianapolis Colts (0-1); lost to Denver Broncos 31-24, retains same ranking – We won’t fault Indianapolis too badly for losing by a touchdown at Mile High. But this one got ugly in the beginning, with the Broncos going up 24-0. Andrew Luck definitely looked every bit a top-5 quarterback, though, in leading his team back. Luck finished the day going 35-for-53 with 370 yards, 3 total touchdowns and 2 INT’s. He can do better, but this was an impressive day for a guy with few weapons around him.

10. Carolina Panthers (1-0); beat Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-14, moves up two spots – Despite Cam Newton sitting out with a rib injury, Carolina bolted out to a lead in this one and never looked back. The front seven looks amazing again while Kelvin Benjamin had a fantastic rookie debut with 93 receiving yards and a touchdown. It’ll be interesting to see if the Panthers can repeat last year’s success in a loaded NFC South division.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0); beat Cleveland Browns 30-27, retains same ranking – Despite a win, this was a somewhat disappointing home debut for the Steelers. They jumped out to a 27-0 lead, only to be outscored 27-3 afterward. Pittsburgh’s run defense was especially bad against a Browns team that racked up 183 yards on just 30 rushing plays. If the Steelers are to challenge Cincinnati for the AFC North crown, they’ll have to defend much better.

jay-cutler-buffalo12. Chicago Bears (0-1); lost to Buffalo Bills 23-20 (OT), drops two spots – Few would’ve predicted this upset with the Bears playing at home. Chicago opened well after going up 17-7 by halftime. However, they got little pressure from their expensive defensive line, which now includes Jared Allen. And Jay Cutler made some crucial throwing errors as Buffalo clawed back into this one. Fred Jackson’s 38-yard run, which ended at the Bears’ 1-yard line, set up Dan Carpenter’s game-winning field goal.

13. Arizona Cardinals (1-0); beat San Diego 1-0, moves up two spots – The Cardinals came alive in the fourth quarter to score 12 points and take this one away from San Diego. Carson Palmer picked apart a weak Chargers secondary for 304 yards and two TD passes. There was initially some fear that Andre Ellington would miss time for Arizona, however, the running back contributed 53 yards on 13 carries and looks fine.

14. Miami Dolphins (1-0); beat New England 33-20, moves up two spots – In a discussion on NFL prop bets, we liked the Miami Dolphins as darkhorses to win the AFC East. Well, it’s too early to call good on this prediction, but they’re definitely on the right path with a victory over the Patriots. The Miami D-line really came alive in the second half to put pressure on Tom Brady and halt New England’s attack.

15. San Diego Chargers (0-1); lost to Arizona Cardinals 18-17, drops two spots – San Diego went from an anemic first-half performance, to quickly scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter, to letting Arizona score a couple touchdowns in the fourth. Losing this game on the road isn’t such a terrible thing, but the Chargers are definitely hating how they lost.

NFL: AUG 16 Pre-Season Colts v Falcons16. Atlanta Falcons (1-0); beat New Orleans 37-34 (OT), moves up three spots – We want to move the Falcons up more following the win against New Orleans, but we’ll have to see how all aspects of their team develop. One thing’s for sure, though – the passing game is back! Matt Ryan threw for a franchise-record 448 yards and three touchdowns, and Julio Jones and Devin Hester combined for 215 receiving yards.

17. Baltimore Ravens (0-1); lost to Cincinnati Bengals 23-16, drops three spots – The run game is a mess in Baltimore after they booted Ray Rice from the team. Now, 29-year-old journeyman Justin Forsett will be starting while Bernard Pierce was surprisingly benched. As long as this keeps up, Joe Flacco will have to keep chucking the ball 60+ times a game.

18. Detroit Lions (1-0); beat New York Giants 35-14, retains same ranking – It’s hard to tell if the Lions defense is any better, seeing as how New York’s offense is so bad. But the offense definitely looks upgraded with Golden Tate there to take some pressure off of Calvin Johnson in the receiving corp.

19. Kansas City Chiefs (0-1); lost to Tennessee 26-10, drops two spots – The Chiefs are a candidate for this year’s most de-improved team – if only because their schedule will be far tougher. Of course, a home game against the Titans shouldn’t be that tough, although Kansas City made it that way. With Dwayne Bowe and RT Donald Stephenson suspended, and LB Derrick Johnson and DT Mike DeVito lost to Achilles injuries, things only look to get worse. Their one saving point is that they still have Jamaal Charles.

20. New York Jets (1-0); beat Oakland Raiders 19-14, moves up one spot – A win over the Raiders has to be worth something, right? The defense played well, as expected. But the offense also looked pretty efficient, with Geno Smith going 23-for-28 on passing attempts with a touchdown. Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson also combined for 170 yards on just 23 carries.

21. Tennessee Titans (1-0); beat Kansas City 26-10, moves up three spots – Credit the Titans with going into a playoff team’s den and taking away a solid victory. It’s still early to tell just how good Tennessee is, especially with questions surrounding their running game. However, Jake Locker looked strong while racking up 266 passing yards and a couple of TD’s.

josh-mccown-bucs22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1); lost to Carolina Panthers 20-14, drops one spot – This is definitely one case where the score makes things look closer than they were. Tampa Bay’s new-look offense was stifled early on, and Doug Martin did not look good at all (9 rushing yards on 9 attempts) before getting hurt. Josh McCown’s results were pretty mixed as he threw for 183 yards, 2 TD’s and 2 INT’s.

23. Minnesota Vikings (1-0); beat St. Louis 34-6, moves up three spots – We don’t want to get too excited about this team until after they play New England. However, you can’t deny that they had a very good start at St. Louis. WR Cordarelle Patterson looks like a big-time weapon for this offense as he rushed for 102 yards on three carries and added 26 receiving yards.

24. St. Louis (0-1); lost to Minnesota Vikings 34-6, drops four spots – The year couldn’t have started any worse for the Rams. Just two weeks after losing Sam Bradford for the season, Shaun Hill exited this game with a thigh injury. That leaves inexperienced Austin Davis in the driver’s seat. Can Zac Stacy and the running game get anything going?

25. Houston Texans (1-0); beat Washington 17-6, moves up two spots – Last year, Houston won their first two games before going 0-14 the rest of the way. So let’s not get too excited about this victory. Nevertheless, their defense was pretty outstanding – especially the $100-million-man J.J. Watt. He had a sack, blocked an extra point and recovered a fumble in this contest.

26. Buffalo Bills (1-0); beat Chicago Bears 23-20 (OT), moves up two spots – Hard to see the Bills being much better than last year. However, seeing is believing, and they looked good against Chicago. The key to this season will be E.J. Manuel’s confidence and if the second-year QB can develop into a leader.

27. New York Giants (0-1); lost to Detroit 35-14, drops four spots – People wondered if the offense would truly be as bad as it looked in the preseason. And these questions were put to rest as the Giants unleashed a truly awful offensive performance. Eli Manning highlighted this performance by throwing for 163 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

28. Dallas Cowboys (0-1); lost to San Francisco 28-17, drops three spots – The score doesn’t put into account how bad the Cowboys were outclassed in the first quarter. They eventually did some good things after the game was out of hand, but this team looks poor on both sides of the ball right now.

29. Cleveland Browns (0-1); lost to Pittsburgh Steelers 30-27, moves up one spot – Hats off to the Browns for putting up a fight after going down by four scores in the early going. Brian Hoyer moved the offense and generated 230 passing yards and one touchdown. Rookie Terrance West also looked strong while piling up 100 rushing yards on 16 carries.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1); lost to Philadelphia Eagles 34-17, moves up one spot – Based on whether you go with the first or second half, the Jaguars are either a top-10 team or the league’s worst team. Allen Hurns had the best debut out of any rookie after collecting four catches, 110 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Jacksonville won’t win much if Toby Gerhart continues averaging less than 2.5 yards per carry.

31. Washington Redskins (0-1); lost to Houston Texas 17-6, drops two spots – Tough call here on if the Redskins or Raiders are worse. We’ll give Washington the benefit this week because they do have some players who’ve been great in the past – RG III and Alfred Morris. Plus, they should pick up a couple of wins in the weak NFC East.

32. Oakland Raiders (0-1); lost to New York Jets 19-14, retains same ranking – Derek Carr played fairly well in his rookie debut, going 20-for-32 en route to 151 passing yards and two touchdowns. But the run game was just awful as it managed only 25 yards on 15 carries. Headed by veterans Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, this unit has got to do better.