Early NFL Preparations


Maybe the media was overplaying the potential ending of the NFL Lockout the past few days. As we write this there are still some I’s to be dotted, and some T’s to be crossed. In fact, we may be further from X’s and O’s than we all hoped! But, for now, let’s take the good news as a sign that there WILL be NFL football very soon...which means you have to get your handicapping up to speed.

We’ll help you with that periodically throughout the summer. We’ll provide a quick review of some key data today to get everyone on the same page. When the NFL Preseason starts in a few weeks we’ll have our annual stat previews for all eight divisions. Like always, we’ll key those to TV games on the Exhibition slate. Don’t forget that our college football conference previews are running on weekends throughout July and August. Be sure you check the archives if you missed out on the Big 10, Pac 12, and SEC outlines that have already run.

We start today with a couple of simple but informative stats from the 2010 NFL season.

*POINT DIFFERENTIAL: because it’s the simplest “they are what they are” stat in this sport. It has a great correlation to success, and tells you a lot of what you need to know about team quality in a quick and easy number.

*STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: because it helps clean up whatever pollution might be in point differential. You can see in an instant if a team was padding its stats/results against an easy schedule, or if they were really accomplishing something meaningful. Note that the rankings we’re using today are from Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings in the USA Today.

We’ll run through all 32 teams today, so let’s jump right in…

New England +205 (6th ranked schedule)
Green Bay +148 (7th ranked schedule)
Pittsburgh +143 ((10th ranked schedule)
Atlanta +126 (18th ranked schedule)
San Diego +119 (30th ranked schedule)
Baltimore +87 (12th ranked schedule)

Green Bay and Pittsburgh played in the Super Bowl, so two of the best three marks from last year’s regular season (these are regular season numbers only) ended up playing for the championship. New England seemed like world beaters for much of the season. But, some of that was from running up the score when the going was good. They couldn’t do much against the vaunted New York Jets defense when it mattered most. So, another fantastic regular season for Tom Brady and company failed to lead to a Lombardi Trophy.

It’s odd that Green Bay could only earn a Wildcard with that great point differential. They lost some heartbreakers during the regular season while battling injuries. Once they got healthy, they were clearly the best team in the NFC. Making a run at +150 in point differential while playing a tough schedule shows that these guys were actually very good even when injured!

Atlanta and Baltimore are certainly championship threats again this year based on those numbers. They weren’t quite elite…but they’re in the class of the NFL with young quarterbacks who have a chance to improve for a few more years still before hitting a plateau. The Falcons earned their bye last year based on these numbers. They just had the misfortune of running into a superior Green Bay team in their first playoff game.

San Diego is an enigma, like usual. They didn’t even reach the playoffs last year in spite of their great numbers. You’ll recall they had turnover troubles all season, and inexplicably allowed numerous special teams touchdowns that trumped much of what Philip Rivers was doing. This is also a team that runs up the stats when things are going well. We don’t have them rated this well in our in-house ratings because of their other issues. But, we recognize that the Chargers could easily become Super Bowl material if they just clean up a few messes.  

New Orleans +77 (25th ranked schedule)
NY Jets +63 (3rd ranked schedule)
Philadelphia +62 (13th ranked schedule)
Chicago +48 (11th ranked schedule)
NY Giants +47 (20th ranked schedule)
Indianapolis +47 (21st ranked schedule)

You can’t say these teams were in the elite last year. None could break +80 points in differential against a representative schedule. New Orleans had an easy schedule, then limped out of the playoffs surprisingly early. The Jets have a Super Bowl caliber defense but an offense that needs to add some weaponry and experience before truly being an elite team. Maybe this is the year it happens. Yes, the Jets have reached the AFC Finals the last two seasons. Great defense, not a great team.

Funny that the Manning Brothers were so close last year. Their teams had identical point differentials vs. virtually identical schedules. The Colts always have a tight margin for error because they lack depth and consistent weaponry outside of their quarterback. Have we already seen the best of Peyton’s career? The Giants still deserve respect ranking in the top dozen teams (six squads in both groups listed so far). They have some work to do before rejoining the elite.

Kansas City +40 (29th ranked schedule)
Oakland +39 (28th ranked schedule)
Tampa Bay +23 (23rd ranked schedule)
Tennessee +17 (19th ranked schedule)

Kansas City and Tampa Bay in particular were teams who made prominent strides forward last year thanks partly to facing weak schedules. Kansas City won its division, but had one of the four easiest schedules in the whole NFL. They’d probably be 8-8 caliber or worse vs. a real schedule. And, they were badly outclassed at home by Baltimore in the playoffs…and it’s not like Baltimore was a superpower. Tampa Bay was a great story making a run to 10-6 even if they didn’t play in the playoffs. Just remember that the two teams from their division who did make the playoffs both lost the first time they took the field.

Oakland has a new head coach this year, and improved enough last year to get some darkhorse nods from the media. Be sure you’re keeping that easy schedule in mind.

Tennessee also has a new coach, and stats that will get them some respect. We don’t think the volatility with that team has fully subsided yet.

Detroit -7 (8th ranked schedule)
Houston -37 (17th ranked schedule)

Detroit is a team we like a lot because they showed real improvement last year vs. a tough schedule, and then they drafted another defensive impact player. It’s going to HURT to play Detroit this year. Maybe they’re not ready to make a playoff run. We’ll need to see consistency on offense for that. For now, we agree with any darkhorse coverage the Lions are getting from the media.

Houston blew way too many leads last year. Incremental improvements on the defensive side of the ball would put them in the playoff mix immediately. Maybe a change at head coach has to occur before that happens. Maybe not. Our point here is that you shouldn’t be thinking of teams like Kansas City or Oakland as being meaningfully superior to somebody like Houston entering the 2011 campaign.

St. Louis -39 (32nd ranked schedule)
San Francisco -41 (28th ranked schedule)
Dallas -42 (16th ranked schedule)
Miami -60 (2nd ranked schedule)
Cleveland -61 (9th ranked schedule)
Jacksonville -66 (22nd ranked schedule)
Minnesota -67 (5th ranked schedule)
Cincinnati -73 (4th ranked schedule)
Washington -75 (15th ranked schedule)

When fans or the media talk about parity, they’re often talking about how teams in a big hunk like this are capable of rising up to knock off a power, or sinking down to lose to a patsy. There are too many teams list here to talk about individually. Let’s break them into hunks based on their schedule strengths:

*Miami -60 (2nd ranked schedule)
*Minnesota -67 (5th ranked schedule)
*Cincinnati -73 (4th ranked schedule)
*Cleveland -61 (9th ranked schedule)

Think about these guys as extensions of Detroit in terms of improvement potential. They weren’t as bad last year as you may have thought. Playing very tough schedules killed their chances to post great numbers. Definitely at least one or two real darkhorses within that foursome

*Dallas -42 (16th ranked schedule)
*Washington -75 (15th ranked schedule)

Dallas didn’t have Tony Romo for the full season. They obviously jump up to a better group if he can play all 16 games.

*St. Louis -39 (32nd ranked schedule)
*San Francisco -41 (28th ranked schedule)
*Jacksonville -66 (22nd ranked schedule)

Negative differentials vs. easy schedules make this a bad group to be in. Sam Bradford got a lot of great press last year while posting unimpressive stats vs. the easiest schedule in the NFL. Don’t believe the hype! These teams are further from relevancy than many realize…even if St. Louis or SF is able to sneak into the playoffs in a horrible division.

Finishing off this report with the worst point differentials from 2010…

Seattle -97 (26th ranked schedule)
Denver -127 (24th ranked schedule)
Buffalo -142 (1st ranked schedule)
Arizona -145 (31st ranked schedule)
Carolina -212 (14th ranked schedule)

Amazing that Seattle could make the playoffs. But, SOMEBODY had to make the playoffs from the awful NFC West. Whoever survived would grade out badly in this measurement. We just talked about St. Louis and San Francisco. Seattle and Arizona are here in the bottom five. Maybe Buffalo has a chance to jump up since their schedule won’t be as ridiculous this year (they’re still in a tough division though). Carolina shouldn’t be as bad because it’s very difficult to register at -200 in consecutive seasons unless you’re just hopeless. Still a long way to go for these cellar dwellers.

We’re very excited that football is just around the corner. You can enjoy early-bird rates in JIM HURLEY’S TOUCHDOWN CLUB right here at the website. The earlier you sign up, the more you save. If you have any questions about our full season offerings, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

And, be sure you’re building your bankroll every day in the bases. We have something special for you tonight…possibly with a bonus play in the Yankees/Rays game nationally televised by ESPN. Check out the home page and have your credit card handy.

Back to baseball Tuesday as we continue to cover the pennant races. Be sure you’re with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what’s really happening in the world of sports!


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