Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stronger and Weaker, Part Two: NFL teams that are better they currently look

In Part One of this two part series I reviewed three NFL teams that I believe are weaker than their records, rankings and reputations indicate.
Here in Part Two I'll point out three teams currently rated lower than I think they are capable. Don't be surprised to see a surge from these three teams. As I mentioned in Part One, I'll leave the Seahawks off this list as you loyal readers are well aware of our collective take that the Seahawks are probably better and stronger a team than expected.
These teams are more than meets the eye:
Jeff Fisher would like to challenge the conventional wisdom that his St Louis Rams are not a force to be reckoned with.
St Louis Rams:
Why look, it's the Seahawks friendly division rivals... the ones that play their home games in a giant warehouse and haven't been relevant since The Greatest Show on Turf. Under newly arrived coach Jeff Fisher, this rebuilding also-ran sits at a somewhat surprising 3-4 after back to back losses to the Dolphins and Packers. Still, fans and pundits aren't taking the Rams too seriously, with rankings seating the Rams around 21st or 22nd.
Part of that is prior reputation, sure: The Rams haven't posted a winning season since 2003 and with win #3 in Week 5 they blew past their win total from last year's 2-14 disaster season. It's going to take sustained success for NFL fans to buy into the Rams, especially in a tough NFC West where they need to outlast the mighty 49ers, a tough Seahawks squad and a similarly resurgent Cardinals team.
Yes, the offense still has work to do. Sam Bradford has yet to show consistency at QB. The offense itself is 24th in DVOA per Football Outsiders (F.O.). Star back Steven Jackson is struggling and the rushing game is 16th in yardage. The Rams also showed uncanny ineffeciency in a recent loss to the Dolphins: Despite 462 yards and 22 first downs they only managed 14 points.
But look at their opposition, the 4th toughest NFL schedule to date per Sagarin ratings. None of these teams would be considered easy outs: Detroit on the road, Washington (w/RGIII), the now-mighty Bears (in Chicago!), the brutal Seahawks, the green but similarly brutal Cardinals, upstart Miami (in Miami) and Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay. It's no surprise the offense has struggled to keep up. Few offenses could excel against that slate.
Against this opposition, their 20.1 ppg allowed is 9th fewest in the NFL. F.O. rates their DVOA on defense 7th in the NFL, their pass defense 9th and run defense a respectable 15th, along with some of the least variance in the league (3rd least), illustrating consistency. I didn't even mention their superb rookie kicker Greg Zeuerlein, which extends their field goal range and maximizes scoring opportunities with his big leg.
Going into this season, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Rams finished that stretch 0-7. Instead the only convincing losses they've taken were to the two best teams (23-6 to Chicago and a closer than it looked 30-20 to Green Bay), they nearly beat Detroit and Miami, and they outlasted Washington and Seattle while disposing easily of Arizona. New England, their next opponent, might be the softest defense they've faced all year. Not that I'm sure of an upset, but it's distinctly possible.
It's not going to get much easier for the Rams: They still have to play the 49ers twice, the resurgent Vikings and Bucs await, and they've got to face the Seahawks and Cards again. Five of their remaining games after their Week 9 bye week are on the road.
But a couple of upsets aren't out of the question. In fact, I might even argue that they could be favorites against the Vikes, Cards and Bucs. Favorites! The Rams! I think this team that finished 2-14 last year could conceivably finish .500 this season.
Coach Jeff Fisher is for real, and so are the St Louis Rams.
Creamsicles for everyone! Josh Freeman and the rest of Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Bucs are looking to crash a few victory formations down the stretch of this 2012 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
An identity-lacking young team known for combative rookie coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs are the best of a group of NFC South also-rans at 3-4, far behind the currently undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Still, like the Rams no one is expecting much of the rebuilding Bucs... probably even less in fact: While we at West Coast Bias are a tad higher on the Bucs (20th), the bulk of other power rankings had the Bucs around 26th, perceiving the Bucs as a doormat... or at least they did before the Bucs throttled the more highly regarded Minnesota Vikings 36-17 this past Thursday.
A look at the numbers shows that, big victory aside, this team is no doormat. This is one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL (26.3 ppg, 9th best), one of the better defenses (21.9 ppg, 12th), a team that nearly took out the Giants (34-41), Cowboys (10-16), Redskins (22-24) and Saints (28-35) in their four losses. Per F.O. defensive DVOA they have the #1 run defense in the NFL. Recent wins over the Vikings (36-17) and Chiefs (38-10) were convincing, and they've exceeded 100 team yards rushing in their last three games. They've generated multiple turnovers in five of their seven games while only committing seven total themselves.
The offense is still okay to bleh, they have had somewhat easy defensive competition, and as young teams do the team's been inconsistent on both sides of the ball. But Greg Schiano has built this team to compete, and the Bucs' upcoming schedule has enough soft spots (Oakland, San Diego, Carolina are next) that the Bucs could get to, maybe above .500. Games against Atlanta, New Orleans and Denver make the later end of the schedule tougher, but a couple of upsets down the stretch could put the Bucs at .500 by the end of Schiano's first NFL season.
Unlike most teams you would rank 26th of 32 teams, the Tampa Bay Bucs are not a team opponents want to see on the other side of the field.
Barry Sanders would be like, "Bitch, please"
Matthew Stafford and the Lions may be in prime position to cut back and reverse field on their 2-4 start. Wayne Fontes would be proud.
Detroit Lions:
As Brett Miller alluded to, the Lions being better than thought is not really a secret around here at West Coast Bias. But I don't mind going into a bit of detail as to what makes them better than their 23rd ranking and 2-4 record indicate.
Detroit's offense is 7th best in the NFL by offensive DVOA, despite having faced the 4th toughest defensive opposition. Matthew Stafford, Megatron et al can move the ball no matter how good your defense is. This offsets a suspect defense that has conversely done a so-so job (22nd in DVOA against the 24th toughest offensive opposition).
Detroit does a good job in the field position battle. F.O. drive stats peg their net starting field position on both sides at 8th best overall. The defense allows a TD roughly once every seven drives, 7th best. Lions drives on offense average a 9th-best 34.08 yards per drive.
Yeah, they have trouble consistently executing and finishing drives on offense... though again that's been against tough defenses. It doesn't look like it'll get too much easier the rest of the way: Seahawks, Texans, the Packers twice, Falcons, Bears, oh my. But those defenses are mostly good rather than great... and Detroit's shown for the finishing issues that they can move the ball on tough defenses.
Also, they're an indoor team that's only got four road games left after a road heavy early schedule... and two of those road games are indoors anyway (Minnesota and Arizona). This is more the Lions element. The inconsistency problems, possibly a product of playing outdoors (often a dome team's kryptonite), could magically disappear for the Lions down the stretch.
The economy may be dead meat in Detroit, but look for a revival from the football team in Ford Field. I wouldn't expect a championship run like the fellow hometown Tigers: Again, the Lions tend to shrivel up outdoors and should they somehow make the playoffs they'll have to go outside and win outside to make the Super Bowl. That probably isn't happening. If they make the playoffs, I'd expect Ndamukong Suh and the Lions to extract themselves from that situation quickly.
But watch out for a late season run from the Lions that could bring back memories of Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders.
That concludes this two part series. As always, all of these teams are welcome to prove my guesstimated predictions wrong on the field.

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