According to our Football Outsiders projections, the big surprise of 2006 will be the lack of surprises. The teams that were good in 2005 should again be good in 2006, and last year's losers have few indicators pointing toward a possible turnaround. Once again, the AFC is the stronger conference, and teams that would easily win a postseason berth in the NFC will have to instead fight and scratch their way toward one of January's six golden tickets.
YOU KNOW The Bills ended 2004 on a lateseason run powered by the best defense in football, but that defense imploded in 2005. The offense is an even bigger mess, with no clear answer at quarterback. Third-year signalcaller J.P. Losman was the pet project of a coaching administration that got shipped out of town after last year's debacle, Kelly Holcomb defines "placeholder," and Craig Nall Brett Favre's backup the last few years in Green Bay is a total unknown.
YOU DON'T KNOW The Bills do have one outstanding unit, special teams. Led by kick returner Terrence McGee and punter Brian Moorman, the Bills have ranked first in our special teams ratings two straight seasons.
X-FACTOR Ralph Wilson Stadium. Last year, the Buffalo defense had an absurd home-field advantage. At home, the Bills allowed 5.5 yards a play with 21 takeaways; on the road, they allowed 5.8 yards a play with just seven takeaways. The Bills were 44 at home but 17 on the road.
PROJECTED FINISH: 511, Third
YOU KNOW The Dolphins picked up quarterback Daunte Culpepper from the Vikings, who has made a dramatic comeback from major knee surgery. His mechanics in the preseason look no different than they did before the injury, and he will solidify a position that has been in flux since Dan Marino retired. Sharing the backfield with Culpepper is second-year running back Ronnie Brown, a workhorse who also excels as a receiver. Historically, the most comparable rookie season to Brown's 2005 campaign belongs to Buffalo legend Thurman Thomas.
YOU DON'T KNOW There are a few reasons for concern on defense. Nearly all the defensive linemen are in their mid-30s, as is middle linebacker Zach Thomas. The Miami secondary is unimpressive, although ex-Giants cornerback Will Allen is a good replacement for the departed Sam Madison: equal quality, but four years younger.
X-FACTOR Culpepper's knee, but it is a much smaller X-factor than we all thought a few weeks ago.
PROJECTED FINISH: 106, Second (wild card)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
YOU KNOW Kicker Adam Vinatieri is in Indianapolis. Defensive end Willie McGinest is in Cleveland. Wide receiver Deion Branch is at home, holding out for a larger contract. But these losses don't change the fact that New England is still home to the game's top head coach and two of the top five players in the league: quarterback Tom Brady and defensive end Richard Seymour. The offense has been playing on all cylinders in the preseason, adjusting to Branch's absence by spreading the ball with more passes to tight end Ben Watson and the running backs, including firstround pick Laurence Maroney.
YOU DON'T KNOW Forget the individual players, the biggest reason to expect the Patriots and Dolphins to both make the postseason is the schedule. Both teams will play four games against the hopeless Bills and Jets, and the rotating divisional schedule pits the AFC East against the mediocre NFC North and the top-heavy AFC South.
X-FACTOR The Patriots have poor depth at inside linebacker, an important position in their 34 defensive scheme. With Tedy Bruschi recovering from a broken wrist, and Monty Beisel and Barry Gardner looking atrocious in early preseason action, the Patriots made the desperate move of talking Junior Seau out of retirement to start alongside Mike Vrabel.
PROJECTED FINISH: 115, First
NEW YORK JETS
YOU KNOW The Jets crashed and burned in 2005, so they'll start over by trying to emulate their rivals to the north. Former New England defensive coordinator Eric Mangini takes over with fellow Belichick acolyte Mike Tannenbaum in the front office. Mangini wants to build from the inside out, which is why he took two offensive linemen in the first round of the draft. He also needs to figure out how to fit his defensive talent into his preferred 34 scheme, and how long Chad Pennington can play quarterback before he inevitably gets injured again.
YOU DON'T KNOW Which of the many running backs will anchor the running game now that Curtis Martin's career is likely over, and frankly, neither does Mangini. Kevan Barlow lost his job in San Francisco to Frank Gore and has averaged less than 3.4 yards a carry over the past two seasons. Cedric Houston was nothing special last year as a sixth-round rookie. Derrick Blaylock looked great in Kansas City, but struggled last year due to injuries and a cold shoulder from former coach Herman Edwards.
X-FACTOR Pretty much everyone not named Jonathan Vilma or Laveranues Coles.
PROJECTED FINISH: 412, Fourth
YOU KNOW With the arrival of veteran Steve McNair, the Ravens finally have a big-time quarterback. Everything is set up for McNair to feel comfortable: Todd Heap gives him a tight end target in the Frank Wycheck mold, and McNair's favorite wide receiver from Tennessee, Derrick Mason, already signed in Baltimore as a free agent a year ago. The defense still features numerous stars, like cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister, strong safety Ed Reed (2004 Defensive Player of the Year), and linebacker Ray Lewis.
YOU DON'T KNOW: It took the Ravens so long to get a big-time quarterback that other parts of the team have atrophied. Running back Jamal Lewis broke down due to overuse in 2003, and has gained just 3.8 yards a carry over the last two seasons. The offensive line struggles in pass protection, and even left tackle Jonathan Ogden is no longer the superstar he once was.
X-FACTOR Can free safety Dawan Landry, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, hold his own alongside the three former Pro Bowlers in the Ravens secondary?
PROJECTED FINISH: 79, Third
YOU KNOW After years of ineptitude, the Bengals finally won the AFC North last year. Cincinnati had a ballhawking secondary that led the league in interceptions, and a powerful, balanced offense. Carson Palmer joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the NFL's star quarterback trinity that is, until he tore his ACL early in a playoff loss to archrival Pittsburgh. Things only got worse in the off-season when Bengals players repeatedly had run-ins with police, and middle linebacker Odell Thurman was suspended for the first four games of the year due to a drug violation.
YOU DON'T KNOW The skill players get all the glory, but the Bengals might have the best offensive line in the league. Cincinnati finished second in Adjusted Line Yards and fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate (stats explained in accompanying box).
X-FACTORS Carson Palmer's knee, which looked fine in his first preseason action against Green Bay on Monday, and Odell Thurman's suspension. There are rumors that Thurman's drug use could cost him the entire season.
PROJECTED FINISH: 97, Second
YOU KNOW Last season was the first year of the Romeo Crennel rebuilding era in Cleveland. Rookie quarterback Charlie Frye showed promise; so did rookie receiver Braylon Edwards before a knee injury. The Browns signed two of the top three available offensive linemen in free agency, center LeCharles Bentley and left tackle Kevin Shaffer, and also brought in defensive end Willie McGinest to tutor first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley, often called "the next Willie McGinest." But the Browns have had a nightmare preseason, particularly at center: Bentley was lost for the year with a knee injury on the first snap of the first training camp practice, his backup retired, and the third-stringer received a drug suspension. The big leap forward now seems another year away.
YOU DON'T KNOW Leigh Bodden, once an undrafted free agent out of Duquesne, is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Bodden allowed just 5.3 yards a pass when he was in coverage on the intended receiver, fifth best out of 83 cornerbacks who covered at least 40 passes. He's also strong against the run, with the third-highest ratio of run tackles to pass tackles.
X-FACTOR Tight end Kellen Winslow was the sixth overall pick in 2004, but has only played two games in the past two years due to injuries.
PROJECTED FINISH: 610, Fourth
YOU KNOW With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and left tackle Marvel Smith sidelined by injuries, the Steelers struggled during midseason last year nearly missing the playoffs. But they snuck in as the sixth seed and then went on one of the greatest postseason runs in NFL history, winning three straight road games and then the Super Bowl over Seattle. Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle in the off-season, but while he required plastic surgery on his face, his body was remarkably unharmed, and he's ready to go for the 2006 season.
YOU DON'T KNOW One of the strongest trends in football is that teams who play well on first and second down, but struggle on third down, will tend to improve the following season. Pittsburgh was eighth in offensive DVOA, but 21st on third downs, which means that the offense most likely to improve this year belongs to the Super Bowl champions.
X-FACTOR Can the oft-injured and currently huge Duce Staley fill the "Jerome Bettis" role in the running back tandem with shifty Willie Parker, or has he eaten himself out of the league?
PROJECTED FINISH: 124, First
YOU KNOW Offensive implosion and defensive ineptitude have put the Texans back at square one, five years after their debut as an expansion team. The Texans overhauled the coaching staff, hiring longtime Denver assistant Gary Kubiak to right the ship. It was the perfect match: The Broncos are renowned for having the best offensive line in the league, and the Texans are criticized for having the worst. Houston then shocked the NFL by taking defensive end Mario Williams at the top of the draft instead of superstar running back Reggie Bush.
YOU DON'T KNOW Williams comes in to strengthen a unit that is already one of Houston's few strengths. Although it wasn't obvious from the standard numbers, Houston was excellent at rushing the passer in 2005, finishing seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Texans had a league-average 37 sacks, but losing teams face fewer passes, and Houston's AFC South rivals all featured above-average pass blocking.
X-FACTOR Off-season knee surgery led to major complications, and running back Domanick Davis may never get on the field this season. Will Kubiak's offense do for sixth-round pick Wali Lundy what it did for lower-draft picks in Denver like Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson?
PROJECTED FINISH: 610, Fourth
YOU KNOW Most observers felt the Colts would finally win a Super Bowl once they improved their defense and got homefield advantage to avoid in cold weather during the playoffs. In 2005, the Colts defense was a top 10 unit, the Colts had home-field advantage throughout after flirting with a perfect season, and they lost anyway. In the off-season, they stole clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri from the archrival Patriots, but lost a major part of their offensive machine when Edgerrin James took off for the Arizona desert.
YOU DON'T KNOW Vinatieri's dramatic postseason field goals will probably land him in the Hall of Fame, but he actually doesn't hit clutch kicks at a higher rate than other kickers. Over the past decade, Vinatieri has hit just 79% of kicks that would give his team a tie or the lead in the final minute or overtime. But he has attempted 24 such kicks, and no other kicker has attempted more than 16. (Compare this to Miami's Olindo Mare, who has hit 11 of 12 clutch field goals, or unsigned veteran Paul Edinger, who has hit all nine of his clutch attempts.)
X-FACTOR Can long-time backup Dominic Rhodes and/or first-round pick Joseph Addai come close to replacing James?
PROJECTED FINISH: 115, First
YOU KNOW The Jaguars enjoyed an easy schedule last year they went 9-1 against teams with at least 10 losses and ended up as one of the most underwhelming 124 teams in NFL history. Quarterback Byron Leftwich keeps getting better but keeps getting banged up, and although he returned from a knee injury for the playoffs, Jacksonville's weaknesses were exposed in an embarrassing 283 loss to New England.
YOU DON'T KNOW The stars of the Jacksonville defense are tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is considered a major talent as well. And yet, the Jaguars gave up a lot of rushing yards up the gut last year. The Jags ranked 22nd in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle, but eighth and 15th on runs around left and right end, respectively. Part of the reason: a season-ending knee injury to run-stuffing strong safety Donovin Darius, who returns this year.
X-FACTOR With wide receiver Jimmy Smith retired, who is the number one receiver converted quarterback Matt Jones, unheralded Ernest Wilford, or disappointing former first-round pick Reggie Williams?
PROJECTED FINISH: 97, Second
YOU KNOW The Titans cut the last ties to their championship years by releasing quarterback Steve McNair for salary cap purposes. Dead money from past years came off the Titans cap this year, so the team finally jumped into the free agent pool, bringing in wide receiver David Givens from New England, linebacker David Thornton from Indianapolis, and safety Chris Hope from Pittsburgh. Just this week, they also added veteran quarterback Kerry Collins to compete with holdover Billy Volek for the starting job while third overall pick Vince Young sits and learns to adapt his sidearm-and-running style to the NFL.
YOU DON'T KNOW Tennessee has spent the last two years amassing defensive talent and could take a leap forward in 2006. Outside linebacker Keith Bulluck is one of the top defenders in football and is finally getting some help from his teammates. They have a deep defensive line rotation, highlighted by their one veteran freeagent signing of 2005, pass-rushing end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Although cornerback Pac-Man Jones is still shockingly immature he recently had trouble with the police yet again he's also a talented cornerback with a strong instinct for sniffing out plays and improved significantly in the second half of last season.
X-FACTOR Vince Young will be an X-factor for the next decade or so.
PROJECTED FINISH: 79, Third
YOU KNOW The Broncos were a strong and balanced team last year; at midseason, they actually ranked higher in our DVOA ratings than the undefeated Colts. Quarterback Jake Plummer had the best season of his career, wide receiver Rod Smith continued to defy age, and Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson each rushed for over 900 yards. Anderson is gone, but undrafted rookie Mike Bell takes his place in Denver's "anyone can gain 1,000 yards" offensive system. On defense, the Broncos have great starting linebackers and a deep secondary, and those players all return for 2006.
YOU DON'T KNOW If you read that Denver was ranked 29th in the league against the pass last year, ignore it. Of course the Broncos gave up a ton of passing yards losing opponents gave up on the run at the end of games, and the Broncos play in an offense-heavy division, so they faced more pass attempts than any other team in the league. They ranked sixth, however, in pass yards per attempt, a much more accurate barometer of the secondary's performance.
X-FACTOR Injuries. The Broncos had very few of them in 2005, except among the cornerbacks. (Champ Bailey had a nagging hamstring problem, while Darrent Williams missed three games with an injured groin.) There are long odds against the Broncos making it through another year with so few injuries.
PROJECTED FINISH: 106, Second (wild card)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
YOU KNOW Once again, the Chiefs were one of the league's top offenses despite the decline of tight end Tony Gonzalez and the injuryplagued year for running back Priest Holmes. Backup Larry Johnson ran for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns even though he didn't start until the eighth game of the season. The Chiefs were one of the NFL's best teams by the end of 2005, but a poor record against the NFC East (13) cost them a playoff spot.
YOU DON'T KNOW Kansas City had an above-average defensive DVOA in 2005. Improvement on this side of the ball is obscured by the games the Chiefs play against the strong offenses in their division. Jared Allen, in particular, has become one of the league's top defenders, an 11-sack speed rusher who also plays the run better than other top defensive ends. The secondary gets a boost with free agent cornerback Ty Law.
X-FACTOR The offensive line has been one of the league's best for a long time, but left tackle Willie Roaf and right tackle John Welbourn both retired. To replace Roaf, the Chiefs are depending on Kyle Turley, who has missed the past two years with back problems.
PROJECTED FINISH: 97, Third
YOU KNOW After a disappointing 412 season, the Raiders had to find a new direction, and the direction they chose was "backwards." The Raiders brought back head coach Art Shell, who was excellent when he helmed the Raiders in the early 90s but has not been a head coach since. Shell brought in his offensive coordinator from those days, Tom Walsh, who hasn't even worked in football since 1999. At quarterback, the Raiders added free agent Aaron Brooks, who was no longer good enough to start for 313 New Orleans after his talent stagnated two years ago. This past week, they even exhumed Jeff George, who hasn't played in five years, to be the third-string quarterback.
YOU DON'T KNOW It's too bad the Raiders can't figure out what they're doing on offense, because coordinator Rob Ryan is building a reasonable defense. Last year he was forced to play a 425 scheme because the Raiders couldn't even find three starting linebackers, but the Raiders spent their top two picks on well-regarded defenders: safety Michael Huff and linebacker Thomas Howard. They join other talented young defenders like linebacker Kirk Morrison, whose strong rookie campaign went largely unnoticed.
X-FACTOR Can Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, have a major impact on the Raiders poor line and the team's most disappointing player, left tackle (and 2004 second overall pick) Robert Gallery?
PROJECTED FINISH: 610, Fourth
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
YOU KNOW After their dramatic turnaround of 2004, the Chargers disappointed in 2005. It was mostly not their fault: The Chargers had the league's hardest schedule and terrible luck, and lost five games by four points or less. The offense features two of the NFL's elite players, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates, but the Chargers allowed quarterback Drew Brees to leave as a free agent and handed his job to 2004 first-round pick Philip Rivers.
YOU DON'T KNOW The defensive front seven is quite strong, but the secondary is incredibly weak. Starting cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence ranked 53rd and 66th in yards allowed per pass in coverage (out of 83 cornerbacks) while Terrence Kiel, the highestrated safety, was 57th out of 75 safeties.
X-FACTORS If Rivers and the secondary can play at a league-average level, the Chargers are the number one contenders for the Super Bowl title. The former is more likely than the latter.
PROJECTED FINISH: 115, First
The NFC is still the weak sister compared to the AFC, although the NFC East is the most balanced division in the NFL. Any of the four teams can finish first, any of the four teams can finish last, and it is possible all four will just end up tied at 97. Things are a bit up in the air in the NFC South, but Seattle and Chicago should easily cruise to repeat division titles.
WHAT YOU KNOW Terrell Owens and Te rry Glenn give Drew Bledsoe the best receiving tandem in the NFL, but Owens's shenanigans overshadow other changes in Big D. Tackle Jason Fabini offers a modest upgrade to an offensive line that finished 28th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, Mike Vanderjagt replaces a trio of ineffective kickers, and two coaches (Tony Sparano and Todd Haley) take over for departed offensive coordinator Sean Payton.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Cowboys' receiving corps was the team's biggest strength in 2005, before Owens arrived. Cowboys receivers (including tight end Jason Witten) were 73.7 points better than replacement level last year, the highest total among all 32 teams. The improvement Owens brings to this offense is smaller than you think, but the warehouse required to hold all his emotional baggage is not.
X-FACTOR The Cowboys' run defense ranked 22nd in the NFL in DVOA, and the team lost two top run defenders in tackle La'Roi Glover and linebacker Dat Nguyen. Second-year defenders Marcus Spears, Demarcus Ware, and Chris Canty must step forward this season.
PROJECTED RECORD: 88, Third
NEW YORK GIANTS
WHAT YOU KNOW The surprise champions of the NFC East return all 11 offensive starters, while new arrivals LaVar Arrington, Sam Madison, and Will Demps add firepower to coordinator Tim Lewis's zone-blitz defense.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW Offensive coordinator John Hufnagel loves to call for the deep ball. Just 39% of Eli Manning's passes were short throws (five yards or less though the air), the third-lowest total of any starting quarterback. As a result, the Giants finished third in the NFL in yards per completion (12.8) but 29th in completion percentage (52.7%).
X-FACTOR Age at the skill positions. Tiki Barber is 31. Amani Toomer will be 32 when the season starts. They represent 18 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards of offense. Their backups (Brandon Jacobs and Tim Carter) won't come close to matching their production if called upon.
PROJECTED RECORD: 79, Fourth
WHAT YOU KNOW With Terrell Owens out of the picture, the Eagles plan to return to their 200103 template for success: stout defense, outstanding special teams, and a spread-the-ball philosophy on offense. Donovan McNabb is healthy and looked sharp in the preseason, and Andy Reid is eager to return to distraction-free football.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Eagles rushed six or more defenders more than any other team in the NFC but finished 26th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate. New acquisitions Darren Howard and first-round pick Broderick Bunkley will allow coordinator Jimmy Johnson to apply more pressure while blitzing less this season.
X-FACTOR Injuries are once again a problem for a team that was starting third-stringers last December. Running back Brian Westbrook and wide receiver Todd Pinkston missed most of the preseason, leaving McNabb with a nearly empty arsenal, although the addition of Donte' Stallworth supplies more depth at wide receiver. The Eagles are in deep trouble if Westbrook (foot sprain) misses significant playing time.
PROJECTED RECORD: 106, First
WHAT YOU KNOW When the going gets tough, the Redskins go shopping. This year's free agent splurge brought in big names on both sides of the ball: receivers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd, safety Adam Archuleta, and defensive end Andre Carter. Clinton Portis's preseason shoulder injury gave the team a scare, but the Redskins quickly traded for T.J. Duckett to improve their depth at running back.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Duckett deal, which sent a mid-round draft choice to Denver, illustrates the folly of the team's free-spending ways. The Redskins rarely enter the draft with a full allotment of picks, so they are dangerously thin behind their big-salary starters. Last year, the Redskins bench was so short that 42-year old Ray Brown was starting at guard in the playoffs.
X-FACTOR Washington starts as a Super Bowl contender, but a couple of injuries on the offensive or defensive lines will send this team into a tailspin.
PROJECTED RECORD: 97, Second
WHAT YOU KNOW The 2005 Bears had a crushing defense and an impotent offense. They hope to fix the latter with a healthy Rex Grossman or free agent Brian Griese at quarterback. Either will be better than last year's starter, Kyle Orton, who had one of the 10 worst quarterback seasons of the past decade.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW In general, great defenses rarely play at the level of the 2005 Bears for more than a single season. But the team returns all 11 starters, and the average age of those starters is actually lower than any other defense in the league. The regression to the mean may be less than it has been for great defenses of the past and the league's easiest projected schedule certainly doesn't hurt.
X-FACTOR If the Bears give popular veteran running back Thomas Jones a reduced rule so they can play last year's top pick, Cedric Benson, will there be a locker room revolt?
PROJECTED RECORD: 115, First
WHAT YOU KNOW The Lions want tough guy Rod Marinelli to bring discipline to their team, but he may be the only head coach to be overshadowed by his offensive coordinator: Mike Martz, the mind behind the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis. Martz hopes to turn ex-Cincinnati backup Jon Kitna into Kurt Warner and wide receiver Roy Williams into Torry Holt. Of course, Williams is one of three wideouts taken in the first round by Detroit over the past four years, and the other two, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, have dropped all the way to third-string on the depth chart.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW Our game charters showed that, contrary to popular belief, most teams do not specifically match their top cornerback against the opponent's top receiver. But Detroit is a major exception: Dre' Bly covered 64% of passes to opposing no. 1 wideouts, the highest figure in the league.
X-FACTORS Boss Bailey, Teddy Lahman, and first-round pick Ernie Sims make for a talented but absurdly injury-prone set of linebackers.
PROJECTED RECORD: 610, Third
GREEN BAY PACKERS
WHAT YOU KNOW Last season was cover-your-eyes awful. The offensive line was dismal, the running backs were torn apart by injury, and Brett Favre threw an interception roughly every three minutes. This year, the offensive line looks even worse, there's no clear second receiver, and the Packers confused observers by hiring Mike McCarthy, the offensive coordinator of the worst offense of the past decade (the 2005 49ers) to be their new head coach.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW Cornerback Al Harris was a one-man show last year he held star receivers Hines Ward and Steve Smith to just 12 yards apiece but he clearly was tired and less effective at the end of the season. To get him some help, the Packers signed three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson and strong safety Marquand Manuel. Unfortunately, while Manuel looks fine, Woodson has been regularly toasted by opposing receivers in the preseason.
X-FACTOR Can Favre lift this team on his back and make a run at the playoffs in his final season? (No, no, we're just kidding.)
PROJECTED RECORD: 511, Fourth
YOU KNOW The 2005 Vikings imploded in a sea of scandal and injury, and a surprising late-season surge did not stop ownership from cleaning house. Head coach Mike Tice is gone, along with franchise quarterback Daunte Culpepper and three defensive starters. Former Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress takes over, and his biggest move was to rebuild the blocking. The Vikings signed the best guard in football, ex-Seahawks restricted free agent Steve Hutchinson, as well as longtime Kansas City fullback Tony Richardson, and Pro Bowl center Matt Birk returns from injury.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW Minnesota's midseason turnaround came when veteran quarterback Brad Johnson replaced the injured Culpepper, but that's just a coincidence. The real change came when cornerback Brian Williams replaced the disappointing Fred Smoot the next week. In the first half of the year, the Vikings ranked 28th in pass defense DVOA; in the second half, they ranked sixth. By the way, Williams is now gone, signed by Jacksonville as a restricted free agent.
X-FACTOR Johnson is 37 years old, and only three times has he played 16 games in a season. Even if he plays as well as he did last year, can he stay on the field? His backups are the atrocious Mike McMahon and the callow Tavaris Jackson.
PROJECTED RECORD: 79, Second
WHAT YOU KNOW Keyshawn Johnson gives quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panthers' what they lacked last season: a possession receiver to pair with Pro Bowler Steve Smith. The Panthers defensive line is still among the best in the league, and the Panthers' coaching staff (including John Fox and offensive coordinator Dan Henning) know how to beat opponents using a nothing-fancy approach to the game.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW RB DeShaun Foster ranked 32nd in the league in DVOA and 28th in Success Rate. He's a boom-orbust runner who doesn't always get tough yardage when the team needs it. He improved late in the season before getting hurt in the playoffs; Henning needs more consistency from the running game so he can set up play-action bombs to Smith. Rookie DeAngelo Williams may play a large role this year.
X-FACTOR The team lost Will Witherspoon, its most athletic linebacker. Second-year defender Thomas Davis will slide down from safety to replace Witherspoon and needs to make a smooth transition.
PROJECTED RECORD: 115, First
WHAT YOU KNOW The education of Michael Vick continues. As usual, Vick will deserve credit for his athleticism, deserve blame for his spotty accuracy and poor decision making, and receive too much credit/blame for the Falcons' fortunes either way. With trade acquisition Ashley Lelie joining Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, Vick gets to throw to three disappointing firstround pick receivers instead of just two. At least the Falcons will be more exciting on defense, thanks to the addition of former Jets pass-rushing specialist John Abraham.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The 2005 Falcons finished last in the league in run defense according to DVOA. To address the issue, they added free agent safety Lawyer Milloy, who has lost a few steps but is still effective in run support. They also planned on the healthy return of middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, which in turn would allow Keith Brooking to move to his natural weakside position, making the Falcons stouter against the run. Hartwell will miss the first month with more knee surgery, but the Falcons will leave Brooking on the outside and put their faith in second-year linebacker Jordan Beck, a product of that infamous football factory Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo.
X-FACTOR Aging running back Warrick Dunn is due for a sharp production decline, and former backup T.J. Duckett is now in Washington. The Falcons will feel the loss of Duckett in goal-to-go situations: Dunn had seven carries inside the five-yard line last year, and scored just once.
PROJECTED RECORD: 97, Second
TAMPA BAY BUCS
WHAT YOU KNOW Jon Gruden runs the West Coast Offense, coordinator Monte Kiffin is a guru of the Cover-2 defense, and the Buccaneers try to beat opponents with short passes, stout defense, and a steady dose of RB Cadillac Williams. Last season, that formula led the team to 11 wins and a playoff berth. The team drafted Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood to improve Chris Simms's pass protection, so Gruden hopes to take the training wheels off his offense this year.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Bucs enjoyed the third easiest schedule in the league last year, benefiting from an easy slate that included the Bills, Packers, Lions, Jets, and Niners (though they lost to the last two teams). Their schedule is far tougher this season, as they face the NFC East and AFC North teams, plus a December date with the Bears in Chicago and the Seahawks in the season finale.
X-FACTOR Gruden will be able to open up the playbook if WR Michael Clayton can bounce back from an awful sophomore slump. With Clayton battling nagging injuries and the offensive line surrendering easy sacks last year, Gruden tried to bludgeon opponents with a two-tight end, twoback attack that didn't fit his coaching style.
PROJECTED RECORD: 79, Third
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
WHAT YOU KNOW The NFL will stay in the Big Easy for the foreseeable future, and the city of New Orleans is scrambling to get the Superdome ready for the September 25th opener. Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees give Sean Payton some offensive firepower in his head coaching debut.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Saints defense finished 25th in the NFL in DVOA last year and should be worse this season as Payton cleans house. Free agent journeymen like LB Scott Fujita and DT Hollis Thomas will be asked to keep the defense respectable until Payton can rebuild.
X-FACTOR Nobody is quite sure how the Saints will use Bush, or how good he'll be in the NFL. Bush may be the most talented player on the field, but it's hard to make magic with one of the league's worst offensive lines.
PROJECTED RECORD: 412, Fourth
WHAT YOU KNOW The Cardinals are building an offensive powerhouse, adding free agent running back Edgerrin James to go with young superstar wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Kurt Warner will run things, but not for long, because the Cardinals were the happy beneficiaries when USC quarterback Matt Leinart fell to the 10th spot in the draft.
WHAT THE CARDINALS DON'T KNOW
Did the Arizona front office somehow miss the last four years of the Houston Texans? It's hard to have an offensive powerhouse when your offensive line has only one player who is even league average, and he doesn't even show up until the middle of the August (right tackle Brandon Gorin, recently acquired from New England). In the first three preseason games, James had seven carries for the grand total of one yard.
X-FACTOR The Cardinals have a lot of individual talents on the defense: underrated safety Adrian Wilson, young cornerback Antrel Rolle, defensive ends Chike Okeafor, and Bert Berry. Offense, schmoffense: the Cardinals will only make the postseason if defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can make his talent gel.
PROJECTED RECORD: 79, Second
ST. LOUIS RAMS
WHAT YOU KNOW Controversial head coach Mike Martz is gone, quarterback Marc Bulger can't stay healthy, and longtime star receiver Isaac Bruce is on his last legs. Last year's Rams were 29th in defense, and despite a couple of good free agent additions (linebacker Will Witherspoon, defensive tackle Le'Roi Glover) there's no reason to believe things will dramatically improve in 2006.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Rams committed 47 false start penalties last year, 12 more than any other offense in the league. New offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has to make sure firstand-10 doesn't constantly turn into firstand-15.
X-FACTOR Running back Steven Jackson should be on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's elite backs, but he was maddeningly inconsistent last year. Six yards on 12 carries against Arizona in Week 11 last year doesn't cut it in the NFL.
PROJECTED RECORD: 412, Fourth
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
WHAT YOU KNOW San Francisco fans thought it couldn't get any worse after a dismal 2004, but it did. Despite pulling out a couple of close wins to end the season, the 2005 49ers were the worst team of the past decade according to our DVOA stats. First overall pick Alex Smith looked like a complete bust, but give him time: Drew Bledsoe was the only other 21-year-old quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 125 passes.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The 49ers have a very good running back, Frank Gore, and San Francisco's poor offensive line won't keep him from surprising many fantasy football aficionados. Like Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, and Willis McGahee, Gore is a product of the University of Miami, and he averaged 4.7 yards per carry over the final four games of 2005 despite playing with two injured shoulders (since repaired).
X-FACTOR The 49ers will use a twotight end set, but what can they expect from Vernon Davis and Eric Johnson? The hulking Davis has spectacular potential, but first-round tight ends rarely make a difference as rookies, and the veteran Johnson alternates impressive seasons with years lost entirely to injury.
PROJECTED RECORD: 610, Third
WHAT YOU KNOW After three decades of mediocrity, the Seahawks dominated the NFC and marched all the way to the Super Bowl thanks to one of the league's best offensive lines, underrated quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and NFL MVP Shaun Alexander. The loss of guard Steve Hutchinson hurts the offense, but Seattle will be even better on defense. The defensive line rotation is deep, and second-year linebackers Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill will be even better with a year of experience, and two-time Pro Bowler Julian Peterson will play alongside them after signing in free agency.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW The Super Bowl Loser's Curse and the Madden Curse may be mythological, but the 370+ Carry Breakdown Curse is definitely not. Alexander had 370 regularseason carries last year, and another 60 in the postseason. The Seahawks can live with a little decline because Alexander was that good last year, but the bigger fear is that the high workload will lead to injuries.
X-FACTOR Darrell Jackson's right knee. Hasselbeck's top wide receiver missed 10 games last year due to the injured knee, and it's causing problems again this preseason.
PROJECTED RECORD: 124, First
DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which takes every play in the NFL and compares it to a league average based on situation and opponent. A positive DVOA represents more scoring, so a good defense will be negative.
ADJUSTED LINE YARDS: A measurement that separates the value of an offensive line from the performance of running backs by measuring the first few yards of a run more than those yards gained after a back has shed all his blockers.
ADJUSTED SACK RATE: Measures sacks (or sacks allowed) per pass play, adjusted for situation (sacks are more common on thirdand-long) and opponent.