Over the next few weeks I will preview and predict each NFL team's season by offseason moves, 2009 schedules and predicted season win totals. My first edition will discuss the NFC West. Win totals courtesy of Sportsbook.com and may have changed slighly since time of writing.
Arizona Cardinals: 8.5
The defending NFC champs will look to avoid the fate that befalls most Super Bowl losers their following season. History suggests many teams that come up short in the big game have a hard time getting back the next season, and often miss the playoffs entirely. The Cards were a great story in the 08/09 season, finally rising from years of troubling play to give Cards fan everywhere a reason to believe their team has turned a corner. However how much of their success hinged on the play of their division rivals? The combined win total of their three divisional rivals only totalled 13, a number the Titans managed to reach all on their own last year. Arizona went 6-0 against their division which amounted to more than half of their total of 9 wins.
Things have changed this offseason in the desert though, and not necessarily for the better. While Edgerrin James was a rarely used commodity through most of the regular season, he proved quite effective when called upon throughout the playoffs. He is gone, and the team will look to replace him with rookie Chris “Beanie” Wells. While Anquan Boldin is still in town, there continues to be the never-ending conversations of his trade demands which will keep whoever takes over the Offensive Coordinator position up at night trying to plan for the worst case scenario. Which leads to Arizona’s coaching issues going into 2009. Both coordinators moved on this offseason as Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast now look to rebuild the Kansas City Chiefs. On defence, Bill Davis was promoted from linebackers coach to become the Defensive Coordinator, but as of now the Offensive job still remains open. This kind of change and uncertainty can’t bode well for a team going into 2009 with high expectations.
Everything lined up well in Arizona last year as their opponents combined record at the end of the year ranked 21st in terms of winning percentage. This year they are set to face the sixth easiest schedule as the teams they will play combined for a 113-143 record in 2008. However teams around them are improving. Surely they can’t expect their own division to perform as poorly this year, as Mike Singletary has the 49ers pointed in the right direction and both Seattle and St. Louis can’t possibly have as many injuries as they did in 2008 which contributed to derailing both of their seasons.
For the Cardinals, Kurt Warner will be another year older and who knows if his body will be able to hold up for another full season. Other personnel notes include losing DE Antonio Smith which could effect their d-line play, however they brought in ex-Steelers CB Bryant McFadden to upgrade the secondary.
Looking at their 2009 schedule, as mentioned earlier the Cardinals will avoid many of the stronger teams from 2008. However they do make three trips out east to Jacksonville, the Giants, and Detroit, with their game against Detroit coming off a short week after a Monday night tilt the week before in San Fran. The Cardinals will also not be awarded the chance to string together any homes games as apart from weeks three and five which have an early Bye week between them, they will mostly alternate home and away dates all year. Starting Week 14 though, they will play three straight road games and then finish off at home hosting the Packers. In total, five of their last seven games will be played away from home. These last three road games are against warm weather teams or teams in a dome which should benefit the Cardinals who don’t generally play well in the cold. In fact the only games I see which could present inclement weather are week 9 in Chicago and Week 12 in Tennessee. If Arizona’s season is going well, these final four games vs San Fran, Detroit, St. Louis and Green Bay could be just what they need to tune up for the post season. However if they are struggling, and these teams are improved from 2008, which they really can’t be any worse, these three road games could be the undoing of their season. Remember the Cards were still an unimpressive 3-5 outside of the desert last year.
Sportsbook.com has installed the Cards season win total at 8.5. While I’d like to think the team is on the upswing, I feel they caught a lot of breaks last year and faced an incredibly easy schedule. With the changes that have occurred in the offseason and my belief that many of their 2009 opponents will be much improved from last year, I see the Cardinals as an 8-8 team in 2009 and will look to bet them under the 8.5.
The Hawks have almost perennially been the top team in this division over the past few years however they slumped badly in 2008. As QB Matt Hasselbeck goes, so does the rest of the team, and he wasn’t able to contribute much as he missed nine games with back and knee injuries and struggled through several other games which he did manage to play in. Hasselbeck wasn’t alone on the injury front as almost every receiver on the team spent time injured or on the IR. The offensive line wasn’t any healthier as Wahle, Spencer and Sims all finished the year on the IR as well. The line will need to stay healthier in 2009 if Seattle has any plans on improving upon their 24th ranking against allowing sacks.
Players like Hasselbeck and LT Walter Jones, who are turning 33 and 35 respectively, are surely on the downward side of their careers and the window of opportunity to win with this group may be closing for new head coach Jim Mora Jr. and his two new coordinators. The addition of FA T.J. Houshmandzadeh will give Hasselbeck another dynamic receiving option, while on defense first round pick Aaron Curry should have an immediate impact. The team also hopes the new additions of DTs Cory Redding, Colin Cole and CB Ken Lucas will improve a defense that ranked 20th vs the run and 32nd vs the pass.
Seattle’s opponents ranked middle of the pack with a combined 127-128 won-loss record in 2008, yet they stumbled through the year on their way to a 4-12 record. In 2009 the Hawks have been blessed with a rather easier schedule as their opponents combined record from 2008 was only 117-139. Similar to Arizona though, many of those losses can be attributed to the teams within their own division. Also similar to Arizona, is that when Seattle was able to win in 08’ it usually came against teams within the NFC West. Of their four wins, two were against the Rams, and one vs the 49ers, leaving their lone other victory to only come at home to the Jets in Week 16 when New York was in the midst of coming unraveled.
Seattle will face Dallas, Tampa and Green Bay again this year, all teams which they lost to last year, and the Dallas game in Week 8 is the start of a stretch where the Seahawks will play four of five on the road. However on the positive side, Seattle won’t be making any long trips to the east coast and they don’t play any Monday nighters, or any games not on a Sunday for that matter.
The Hawks have a new coach in Jim Mora Jr. however he has already been with the team and has been waiting in the wings under Mike Holmgren. I see the NFC West as being a fairly balanced division this year and assuming they avoid too many major injuries, and that is a big if, the Hawks should have a chance to contend for the division title. If you assume they can at least match last years record of 3-3 in their own division, that means they need to pull out five more wins during the year to match their expected win total. I’m calling the Hawks to go over 7.5 wins in 2009.
San Francisco: 7
The 49ers are looking to build off how they ended their 2008 season and make a serious run at the NFC West title and a trip to the playoffs for 2009. The team struggled to start the season, however got things going once the fiery Mike Singletary was brought in as coach. San Fran won seven games last year and five of them came during their last seven games of the season, ending the year on a high note with wins over St. Louis and Washington.
While there’s no reason to think San Fran isn’t building towards something good, they, like their other NFC West rivals often beat up on the dregs of the league in 2008. San Fran faced the easiest schedule last year when all was said and done, as their opponents had a .447 win percent and 114-141 combined record. They face a similar schedule this year as their 2009 opponents had only a .443 winning percent in 2008, which ranks them near the bottom as far as difficulty of schedules. The 49ers wins last year came against Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo, the Jets, Washington and two vs St. Louis. Of this group only the Jets had a winning record, and when San Fran faced them in week 14 the Jets were beginning their nose dive out of the playoffs. In fact if you look at the combined records of Seattle, Detroit and St. Louis, teams that accounted for 4 of their wins, those teams managed a pathetic 6 wins in total amongst the three of them.
San Fran’s roster has some talented players and the management made the effort to draft a potential star for years to come in WR Michael Crabtree, to give QB Shaun Hill and new Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Ray another target. Hill should be the starter come Week 1 but ex-starter Alex Smith and newly acquired ex-Chiefs starter Damon Huard will be waiting in the wings. Frank Gore will need to stay healthy and be more effective to improve upon the team’s 26th ranking in rushing yards and the defence will need to step it up all-around. The 49ers were 24th defending the pass, 32nd in sacks allowed and had the leagues worst ranking in turnover differential at -17.
San Francisco avoids any lengthy road trips or too many trips to the east coast in 2009 however their schedule does pose some serious areas of concern. After hosting the resurgent Falcons in Week 5, they will get a week off with a bye. However following that they face three quarters of the AFC South in consecutive weeks. Games in Houston, in Indy and then back home to Tennessee make up a rather difficult stretch through Weeks 7-9 and following that they will host Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears in week 10. This stretch of games against quality opponents from weeks 5-10 could go a long way in determining what kind of season San Fran will have in 2009. One other spot to watch out for will be in Week 15, where they make their lone travel to the east coast to visit the Eagles off a short week playing at home to the Cardinals on Monday night the week before.
The win total of seven for the 49ers seems fair, however I think the 49ers are still a year or two, and maybe a QB away from being true contenders. Right now I can’t trust this current edition of the 49ers to make a serious improvement over 2008 and therefore I will lean towards betting them under the 7 for 2009.
St. Louis: 5.5
When all was said in done in 2008, the Rams suffered terribly from playing the league’s sixth toughest schedule when considering their opponent’s overall records. The lone bright spot during their season was a game in Washington in Week 6 where they were completely outplayed, yet three Redskin’s turnovers helped lift the Rams to their first win of the year. The following week they shocked everyone by upsetting and blowing out the Cowboys 34-14. Outside of those moments Ram’s fans had very little to cheer about. St. Louis tied Kansas City for the second worst record in the league at 2-14, only performing better than the 0-16 Lions. Not surprisingly, the Rams need to improve in pretty much every statistical category in 2009. In nearly every key offensive and defensive category the Rams fell near the bottom third of the league and were also one of the worst in turnovers at -8. Their only positive was in putting pressure on opposing QBs as they ranked 10th in sacks.
It was no surprise that the 2008 offseason consisted of wholesale changes. The coaching staff is completely new, with Steve Spagnuolo taking over as Coach, and Pat Shurmur and Ken Flajole moving into the Offensive and Defensive Coordinators jobs respectively. They cut ties with a host of players on the both sides of the ball including long-time Rams Tory Holt, Orlando Pace and Pisa Tinoisamoa. Clearly in rebuilding mode, St. Louis has added several pieces through free agency, the draft and even picked up a few undrafted rookies to add some competition during the offseason.
Some key additions are FB Mike Karney, C Jason Brown, FS James Butler and QB Kyle Boller to backup Marc Bulger. Rookie LT Jason Smith and LB James Laurinaitis will also be expected to make some immediate contributions. These additions should help but the Rams still seem to lack much offensive punch. There isn’t much at running back behind Steven Jackson and at receiver outside of Donnie Avery Bulger should have a hard time finding quality targets. The team added WR Laurent Robinson, however he fell out of favour in Atlanta for a perceived lack of toughness.
Finishing at the bottom of the standings in 2008 has rewarded the Rams with the league’s 10th easiest schedule this year. If the Rams want to see any improvement this year they will need to play better against their NFC West rivals as they were swept in losing all six games last year. Their schedule is actually quite favourable considering they only play five teams which posted an above .500 record last year. Those being Arizona, Minnesota, Chicago, Tennessee and Indy. One section of the schedule for the Rams to look out for will be Weeks 7 and 8. In Week 7 they will host Indy who will be coming off their bye week and they will face a similar situation in Week 8 when they travel to Detoit who will be coming off their bye week. However after this, St. Louis will have their turn at the bye and then stay at home for their next three games.
The schedule sets ups quite nicely for the Rams to improve in 2009 and they have added several pieces which should help. However with other teams in their division improving or at least playing to their 2008 level, are there enough wins to go around in the NFC West to get St. Louis back on track? In my opinion the Rams can only improve but I’m not sure if it will be by enough. They will need to avoid any major injuries to star players and Bulger and Jackson will have to have fantastic seasons just to get this team over 5.5 wins. The team is facing a lot of changes in 2009 and will need a bit more time to pull it altogether so I’m betting the Rams fall under 5.5 wins in 2009.