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Three better or three worse: The NFL teams that will exceed expectations and disappoint

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NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL season, that parity-pockmarked paragon of perfect predictability, offers in advance many known knowns. The Patriots will win the AFC East, the Vikings will be contenders, the Seattle Seahawks will run the football.

This post is not about those boring friends and fiends.

Instead, it’s an examination of three teams you’re overrating, then three more you’re underrating. The greater you. In general.

The Los Angeles Rams

When we talk about the rival Rams, there’s always a chance some natural bias will slip in. “Surely they’re not built for the long term!” “Surely 42-7 was an aberration!” “Surely they are stupidheads designed to bow down forevermore to the Seahawks!”

Tempting as those thoughts might be, there are better reasons to dislike Los Angeles’ chances in 2018. Chiefly, I don’t believe 2018 is the year the Rams make regression work for them. To clarify: A) Regression doesn’t work for anyone, it’s an independent contractor; and B) Their offensive pieces have some steps back to take.

Jared Goff might not be a 63.6 passer, like was as a rookie. But there’s also a very good chance he’s not a 100.5 rating guy moving forward. The odds point to someone in between.

Goff’s not mobile, to say the very least, and as his offensive line ages or goes through the season’s natural attrition, he’ll need to use his legs at some point. His 36 career rushes for 67 yards sound like Peyton Manning rushing numbers, and, hey, how about ten seconds of research, oh, looky here, they sure are Manning numbers. Peyton’s second year: 35 dashes for 73 very valuable yards.

Regression would point toward more interceptions for the third-year Goff, and turnovers turn into losses. He went from 5TD/7INT to 28/7 in year two. The games he managed to not lose for LA in 2017 can turn into losses in 2018, just because things even out over time on a football field.

Regression would also like to steal some yardage from Todd Gurley. Fewer yards means fewer points. Not in every game! But over the course of an entire season, there’s a strong correlation. Gurley’s unlikely to duplicate his performance from 2017, in which he amassed 2,093 yards from scrimmage and scored 19 teeders. Even if he posts a Pro Bowl season with 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns, the drop in production will have to come from somewhere else, and there’s no guarantee anyone steps up.

As far as the defense is concerned, there is every reason to believe that the personalities LA acquired in the offseason (Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters) won’t buy fully in or won’t mesh completely together. Their money isn’t guaranteed past 2018, they’re not invested in the existing culture, and despite their massive talent, they’re not known as team players. Besides, Talib is 32 and Suh’s 31. In case age matters.

Maybe Wade Phillips can lead such a defense. Maybe he is exactly the right guy at the right time. But I bet the margin between LA’s resounding success and blow-up-in-your-face failure is very small.

The Rams are a good team. I just don’t think they deserve to be called contenders yet. Maybe they could start by winning a single playoff game first?

The Los Angeles Chargers

Darlings of preseason prognosticators everywhere, the Chargers find themselves on a roll at the right time. Or do they?

Consider that the AFC West is far tougher than its conference cousins. Denver’s defense continues to dominate, and the Broncos added a quarterback who came into his own in 2017. The Raiders, despite their inability to hold on to Khalil Mack and their curious coaching choices, are but 16 games removed from a 12-4 season. The Chiefs have won 53 games the last five years, making the playoffs four times. They shouldn’t be worse. There are no obvious teams here looking to play the role of Browns, Jets, or Colts.

There are legitimate scenarios in which the Chargers finish last in their division. Philip Rivers can’t last forever — he turns 37 in-season — while Antonio Gates returns at age 38. Head coach Anthony Lynn has one year as an offensive coordinator and one as the top dog. He’s maybe the right guy, but still a very unknown quantity. What if he’s a .500 coach instead of the next big thing? He wouldn’t be the first to flame out in such a manner.

On the statistical side, NFL teams ran for 4.9 yards per carry against LA last season. If the Chargers don’t fix their run defense, all the Joey Bosas of the world won’t make up for being gashed on the ground.

Football Outsiders liked the 2017 Chargers enough to rank them 11th in DVOA. Their key pieces return, and their luck has to be better, after eight losses in the past two seasons by three points or less. But there’s an excessive buzz around this LA team. Oddsshark has the Chargers listed as +180 to win the AFC West, which means you’d have to wager $100 to win $180. In a four-team race those odds mean that bettors nationwide are unloading so much money on the Chargers that oodsmakers are trying to recruit gamblers to other division teams. The Chargers might be good; they’re likely not as prohibitively good as the betting public believes.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

Another favorite of Seahawks fans worldwide, for decades now, the Steelers are facing some issues before they even play their first game.

Pittsburgh drafted Ben Roethlisberger’s presumptive successor, Mason Rudolph only to hear Rudolph say, “It’s not Ben’s job to teach me anything.” Big Ben was a small enough person to welcome Rudolph with the open verbal arms of “I was surprised when they took a quarterback, because I thought that maybe in the third round, you can get some really good football players that can help this team now.”

Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell is holding out. (Don’t call him with advice, Earl. He’ll be fine. It’s going great. No. Wait. It’s not going great.)

Back on the field, the Jaguars apparently present something of a matchup problem for the Steelers, with 75 points scored in their last two meetings, both Jacksonville wins — at Heinz Field. The two teams figure to clash again with a lot on the line.

The Steelers are 1-4 against the Patriots in the postseason, too. They’re going to run into each other, and Pittsburgh doesn’t do well in that situation.

To return to the present: five Steelers tight ends are injured or on injured reserve, Antonio Brown is already dealing with a quad issue, and Martavis Bryant was shipped out over the offseason. Like a lot of other teams, Pittsburgh is one serious injury away from a neutered offense. But not every other team is in the running for a first-round bye.


Proceeding to the three underrated teams, where we can talk about what happens if things don’t break bad.

The Los Angeles Rams

When we talk about the rival Rams,

/Wait. WAIT. Didn’t we already — hey wait a second.

/you scan down the rest of the page

/you implore me to wait yet another second

/Hey!

Congratulations, Detective F. Gull, you figured it out. The same three teams are also easy to underrate. They’re all contenders, and serious ones. If you flip perspective on its (always flippable) head.

The Los Angeles Rams

When we talk about the rival Rams, it’s important to remember that pro football games are often won and lost at two positions: defensive line and quarterback. The QB-less St. Louis Rams, while a royal pain in the Seahawk ass, were non-factors come playoff time. Despite all their talent across the d-line, and their “game-changing” talent at running back such as Stephen Jackson and Young Gurley, they didn’t win consistently until, well, 2017. When a halfway decent quarterback showed up on their doorstep.

All the Rams’ pieces return for 2018. Aaron Donald signed a quarterback contract, Suh and some highly heralded defensive backs should frustrate opposing offenses, while Sean McVay’s offense will still run through Gurley and Goff, who’ve produced under his guidance.

They added more talent, and now compete in a division full of wounded foes. The Seahawks are retooling, even if for only a year, so who knows how long that process will take; the 49ers are a draft or two away from contendership, and the Cardinals might be the worst team in the NFC after losing their highly successful head coach and quarterback. If the stars were ever aligned for the Rams to seize a first-round bye, it would be now.

Across the league, the elite quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson) are getting older or losing weapons. Since 2015, Rodgers’ Y/A of 6.99 ranks him 24th among quarterbacks with 20 or more starts. Right between Jay Cutler and Derek Carr. And you gotta figure Brees’ rushing attack will regress to the mean in 2018. Wilson can do it all, but last year when he did it all, Seattle missed the playoffs. Plus, 42-7. Cam Newton is up and down, Carson Wentz isn’t back yet and Matt Ryan’s practically flawless 2016 was a statistical fluke.

The Rams don’t have everything going for them. But in a year where many NFC teams appear poised to take a step back, they’re poised to take a step or two forward. It’s not crazy to imagine them going 5-1 in the division, beating up on the AFC West, winning 13 games and riding their stars to the Super Bowl, where the automatically qualified Patriots already await, twiddling their precious little thumbs.

The Los Angeles Chargers

Everybody loves the Chargers this offseason. And why the hell not? Despite a history that suggests they’re the Seattle Mariners of football, they’re loaded. You need an elite quarterback, an innovative coach, a tough defense balanced from front seven to the defensive backs, and a No. 1 receiver to cause problems for the opponent.

Pass rush? Check. Franchise quarterback? Check. (Warm take: Philip Rivers might be the most underrated player of this millennium.) Secondary? Check. Offensive playmakers? Yeah.

They ran a plus-83 point differential last season, which should’ve resulted in 10 or 11 wins.

They were the 3rd-best scoring defense and the 13th-best scoring offense. It’s difficult to miss the playoffs with that combination. But I guess the Chargers are taking their Mariners impression seriously.

After October 1, the Chargers lost a total of three games, all on the road, all to playoff teams (at Patriots, at Jaguars, at Chiefs). Close games start going the oter way after a while. You lose a bunch, then win a bunch. Theoretically. It’s called regression. Scroll up a couple dozen paragraphs for how regression will help the Seahawks out. It’s the best part of this post.

Special teams in LA were horrible last year, ranking 31st in DVOA. Nowhere to go but up, and if the Chargers can avoid doing this once or twice —

— then they’re set up for something special.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

Before we get going on all the niceties, a fun fact for you. The Seattle Seahawks have turned over practically their entire roster twice since Super Bowl XL, minus three guys who straddled the Pete Carroll purge: LeRoy Hill, Marcus Trufant and Earl Thomas.

51 of the 53 Seahawks who broke camp with Seattle in 2005 were gone by March 2011. Only Hill and Trufant survived. Now counting forward from March 2011, 52 of the 53 current Seahawks were added after that date. Yes, all but one of them. And even he took his time showing up this year.

Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger has outlasted all of them. Why? Because he keeps leading the Steelers to victories. 2006 is the only season in which he has finished under .500 as a starter. Pittsburgh has finised first in the AFC North as many times as they’ve not finished first (seven, if you’re counting).

They’ve won double-digit games the last four years. The Roethlisberger-Le’Veon Bell-Antonio Brown combination is good for 10-13 wins every year. Every year. And Bell will be back, like Thomas was.

If the rise of the Browns, the steadiness of the Ravens and the general decency of the Cincinnati Bengals (on the field) have people worried that the division will be tougher this year, that’s not necessarily true of the conference at large.

All right let’s try. Eagles, Falcons, Vikings, Saints, Rams leap to mind immediately. The Patriots are in that class, but who else? I’m exceptionally high on the Seahawks but others, strangely, are not.

If New England falters in the AFC, the Steelers have to be the scion-in-waiting.


Epilogue

It’s extremely easy to pull off the same exercise for the Seattle Seahawks, a team of some note. An abbreviated version follows.

Why Seattle’s overrated

The depth, the injuries, the pass rush, and the fact that in all the years of Russell Wilson, they Seahawks have fielded a decent offensive line for about eight games. Why would they start now?

There are no touchdown-makers if Doug Baldwin goes down. By his own admission, Baldwin’s already hurt and expects to be at “80-85 percent.” Are Jaron Brown, Brandon Marshall, Tyler Lockett and Nick Vannett a legitimate pass-catching group?

RB1 and RB2 are hyped but unproven, with four games of experience between them. Is it reasonable to expect them to improve on the Eddie Lacy-Mike Davis-Thomas Rawls trio that underwhelmed last year? Sure. But is it certain that they’ll make much of a difference? Not one bit.

Dion Jordan was penciled to start at defensive end, opposite Frank Clark. Jordan just missed the entire preseason, an ominous sign for a pass rush already described as thin.

Earl Thomas is back in the fold after a holdout, but where’s his head at, in the final year of his contract, after losing the rest of the Legion of Boom to retirement and a division rival? So many questions, and Seattle needs a ton to go right for a return trip to the playoffs.

Why Seattle’s underrated

I give you six names; two from each phase. It’s no secret that the Seahawks have recently, how shall we put it, sucked ass at pass protection. So Mike Solari, the man who is not Tom Cable, is name one on offense.

The aforementioned Marshall is name two. Yes, the Brandon Marshall who celebrated his age 33 season by looking very 33, with a line of 18-154-0, He also led the NFL is receiving TD’s three years ago, catching passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Perhaps no Seahawks WR has simultaneously a higher ceiling and lower floor, than Marshall.

On defense, the old blood of Bobby Wagner is rejuvenated by the very new blood of Rasheem Green and Shaquem Griffin, fresh playmakerson a defense that is searching for a post-Legion of Boom identity. (Parenthetically, Thomas and Bradley McDougald form an impressive safety tandem, Carroll Cornerbacks (TM) always ball out, and Clark’s unblockable for quarters at a time. But you knew all that already.)

On special teams, the phase overlooked by everyone besides Carroll, a punting revolution is underway, led by Michael Dickson, while Sebastian Janikowski looked ageless in the preseason. Both men are upgrades over last year’s booters.

Six names for hope. If you’re so inclined.