The Pi-Rate Ratings

September 3, 2008

NFC West Preview

NFC WEST PREVIEW

 

With this preview, I will reveal the PiRate Ratings for each of the four teams in the NFC West Division.  Following those ratings are the Mean Ratings and my own biased opinion (last year’s final PiRate Rating combined with how much stronger or weaker I personally think each team is compared to last season).  That will give you three different ratings for the teams.

 

When all three ratings predict the same side to win a game against the spread, then that is a playable line.  If all three ratings agree on the winner of the game, and the Las Vegas Line is single digits, then that becomes a playable game on the Moneyline.  The reason for not playing any double digit spreads is that the Moneyline odds would be too prohibitive for a double digit favorite, where just one loss could result in a losing season.  During the season, I will also supply a list of games to be played with an imaginary bank account.

 

The predicted records are not tied to the PiRate or Mean Ratings; they are strictly from my biased ratings.

 

The NFC West has three classes of teams.  Seattle lives in the high rent district.  Arizona represents the regentrified neighborhood, while San Francisco and St. Louis try to flee from the slums.  The team from the Bay is my pick to move on up to the north side—the north side of the standings that is.  I’m picking the 49ers to be the surprise team in the NFC and strongly contend for the final playoff spot if not win the division outright.

 

The NFC West plays the AFC East in interdivisional play this season, and it should be a tough series of games.  In the end, the two divisions could split the games 8-8.

 

Arizona Cardinals

 

PiRate

96.7

Mean

95.0

Biased

99.6

Run Offense

C+

Pass Offense

A

Run Defense

B-

Pass Defense

C

Special Teams

D

Predicted Record

7-9

Since the Cardinals fled mid-America for the desert, they have achieved a winning record and playoff berth just one time (1998).  This year, Arizona is the sexy choice to finish above .500 and make the playoffs.  I believe they have a playoff caliber offense, but the defense may be a little too weak to achieve that lofty goal.

 

The pass and catch tandem of Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald is sure to put points on the board.  Throw in Edgerrin James in the backfield and a decent offensive line, and Arizona could easily score 425-450 points this year.  Warner beat out Matt Leinart in a semi-surprise, and that tells me that Coach Ken Whisenhunt is going to stick with a wide open passing game with the run acting as a supplement.

 

Fitzgerald led the NFC with 100 receptions and 1,409 yards last year, and there’s no reason why he cannot repeat or even better that performance this year.  Anquan Boldin could be the lead receiver for a dozen other teams, but he is number two with the Cards.

 

The Cardinal offensive line has been a major problem in the recent past, but it has made major strides forward in the last two years.  Last year, the line yielded just 24 sacks.  Run blocking could be better, but the Cardinals will open holes for the running game by stretching defenses.

 

The news is not so rosy on the other side of the ball.  Arizona’s defense does not operate at a playoff level.  Last year, the Cardinals gave up 24 or more points in half of their games, and that’s what cost them a winning season.  As the season wore on, the defense weakened, giving up 28.7 points per game in the final seven games.

 

Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett is the big hoss on the front line, but his swoon in November and December really cost the Cardinals down the stretch.  Until he shows the stamina to play consistently well for 16 games, the Cardinals are going nowhere.

 

The second line of defense will take a step back this year with the loss of Calvin Pace to the Jets.  Karlos Dansby is the best of the returnees.

 

The secondary could be really good if the pass rush can show consistency.  If there is a repeat of last November and December though, it could spell trouble.  I believe the Cardinals will give up too many passing yards in half of their games, and it will be the reason why they fail to advance to the next level.

 

The Cardinals were hurt by poor special teams play last year, and there won’t be much improvement this year.  Kicker Neil Rackers and punter Dirk Johnson are in the bottom half in talent, and as a team Arizona does not have great kick and punt coverage.  Return specialist Steve Breaston has breakaway potential every time he touches the ball, but he cannot match the average return by the opponents.  Too bad he cannot return against his own team’s coverage units.

 

St. Louis Rams

 

PiRate

87.7

Mean

91.5

Biased

95.8

Run Offense

B+

Pass Offense

B

Run Defense

D

Pass Defense

C

Special Teams

B

Predicted Record

2-14

The Rams crashed and burned last year, finishing with a 3-13 record.  The once potent “greatest show on turf” offense scored just 16.4 points per game, while the defense surrendered 27.4 points per game.  Top offensive threat Steven Jackson held out for four weeks.  A running back can miss the preseason and still have a great year, but I don’t think Jackson is poised to have a great year.  Jackson is coming off a year in which he suffered multiple injuries, and I’m not confident he will make it through 16 games this season.  Without him, the passing game will suffer.

 

Speaking of injuries, quarterback Marc Bulger went down with broken ribs last year, missing a quarter of the season.  The offensive line cannot protect him, and he isn’t mobile enough to avoid bone-crushing pass rushers.  I expect to see backup Trent Green seeing some playing time and starting some games before the season is finished.

 

Once the best in the NFC, the receiving corps is just average now.  Torry Holt is still around, but he is not the same receiver he once was.  Drew Bennett didn’t live up to his billing last year, and he cannot replace Isaac Bruce, who is now a 49er.

 

There were more injury problems on the 2007 offensive line, and it’s questionable whether former star Orlando Pace can make a successful return after missing 23 games the last two years.  The rest of the line consists of average and below average talent.

 

The biggest concern on the defensive side is an inability to stop the run.  Even though most teams win today with their passing games, if a defense cannot stop the run, opponents will keep it on the ground and either rush for 200 or more yards or force an extra defender to creep up toward the line, creating a highly advantageous passing situation.  The pass rush is a little better with Leonard Little, Adam Carriker, La’Roi Glover and rookie Chris Long starting up front.

 

Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon is the defense’s best player, but if he finishes with 110 tackles again this year, it will be because nobody else stepped up or returned to form after suffering through an injured 2007.

 

The secondary has four decent starters, but like the rest of the stop side, it suffered through multiple injuries last year.  Safety O.J. Atogwe picked off eight enemy passes last year and forced a pair of fumbles.  Corey Chavous showed signs of age last year, and it may not be too long before he is working behind a microphone.

 

Special teams may be the strength of this team, but don’t expect the Rams to win many if any games because of them.  Kicker Josh Brown can boot field goals with accuracy up to 55 yards, and punter Donnie Jones boots the ball like Ray Guy.  Dante Hall is a threat to take back a punt to the house, but he doesn’t get many opportunities to do so.  He only had 19 chances to return a punt last year, and with a still weak defense, he’s liable to get limited touches again this year.

 

I don’t believe Coach Scott Linehan will make it through the season, as the Rams start with a brutal schedule.  The opening three games are at Philadelphia, at home against the Giants, and at Seattle.  If the Rams lose at home to Buffalo in week four, look for a coaching change to occur entering the bye week.  The next three games after the bye come at Washington, at home versus Dallas, and at New England.  The Rams could easily be 0-7 for the second year in a row.

 

San Francisco 49ers

PiRate

88.8

Mean

94.9

Biased

100.8

Run Offense

B

Pass Offense

A-

Run Defense

B-

Pass Defense

B-

Special Teams

A-

Predicted Record

9-7

I am high on the 49ers chances in 2008.  Coach Mike Nolan may be on the verge of matching his dad’s feats with this club in the early 1970’s.  He brought in Mike Martz to run the offense, and former Martz student J.T. O’Sullivan takes over at starting quarterback.  Having seen O’Sullivan play, I think he can be the second coming of John Brodie in the Bay, especially with the four key receivers he has to catch his passes.

 

Isaac Bruce is no longer the elite receiver he once was, but in this offense, he could catch 50-60 passes for 750 yards.  Bryant Johnson and Arnaz Battle should also finish with those pass reception stats.   Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker should combine for another 70 receptions.

 

Running back Frank Gore may not get as many opportunities to run the ball as in past seasons, but in this new offense, his per carry average is going to increase.  He could approach 4.7 yards per rush if the offensive line and fullback Moran Norris can give him a little daylight.

 

The offensive line is the one question mark in this year’s offense, as it surrendered a league-leading 55 sacks (tied with Kansas City) last year.  There has been a shuffling of positions here, and only center Eric Heitman returns to the same position as 2007.  Joe Staley was a star left tackle in college at Central Michigan, but he played his rookie season on the right side.  He moves to left tackle here, and he should be much improved.

 

Defensively, the 49ers were not that bad last year.  They gave up 22.7 points per game, but they were on the field for 33 minutes per game.  With an improved offense that will possibly control the ball for more than 30 minutes a game, the defense will give up fewer points if it just plays at last year’s competency. 

 

The 49ers use a 3-4 as their base defense, but they also use some 4-2 nickel defense.  The new nose tackle is Aubrayo Franklin.  Franklin comes over from the Ravens, and it should be hard to run up the middle on him with his 335 pounds of mass.  New end Justin Smith should be a pass rushing force.  I expect rookie Kentwan Balmer to contribute at both tackle and end.

 

The linebacker position is one of strength.  Inside linebacker Patrick Willis won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl, and he should only be better in year number two.  Outside linebacker Manny Lawson should bounce back after suffering through an injury-filled 2007 season.  If he is 100% healthy, then he will team with Willis to form something special.

 

The secondary is not the best in the league, but it is one of the deepest.  Cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris team with safeties Michael Lewis and Mark Roman.  Since I expect the pass rush to be improved, look for this quartet to add a few more interceptions this year.

 

Joe Nedney is one of the better place-kickers in the NFL, and when you combine him with punter Andy Lee, you just may have the best tandem in football.  The loss of Maurice Hicks in free agency will hurt some, as there isn’t a quality return specialist on the roster.

 

I am going out on a limb here, but I like the makeup of this team.  The offense should be exciting and score 100-150 more points than they did last year.  The defense should give up less than they did last year, and it adds up to a surprise winning season and serious run at the final wildcard spot.  If the ball bounces their way, and Seattle runs into some trouble, they could even take the division crown.  Of course, if O’Sullivan does not live up to my expectations, they could finish 6-10.

 

Seattle Seahawks

 

PiRate

102.0

Mean

101.6

Biased

103.1

Run Offense

C

Pass Offense

A

Run Defense

B

Pass Defense

B+

Special Teams

B

Predicted Record

10-6

This is the final season for Coach Mike Holmgren.  He won a Super Bowl Title with Green Bay a dozen years ago and guided the Seahawks to an appearance three seasons ago.   He has the horses to get back to the big game in his swan song season.  The Seahawks have to find a running game, and if they can do so, they should challenge Dallas for conference supremacy.

 

Matt Hasselbeck is without a doubt the best quarterback in the division, and he is second only to Tony Romo in the NFC.  He has a nice complement of receivers to play catch with him.  Nate Burleson and Courtney Taylor will have to hold down the fort until Bobby Engram can return from his preseason injury.  Ben Obomanu will have to take up some of the slack in relief.  Tight end has been more of a blocking position in Holmgren’s offense, and it should continue to do so this year.

 

The running game is a major question mark.  If it does not develop, Seattle could become one dimensional and lose as many as seven or eight games.  Maurice Morris, Julius Jones, and T.J. Duckett will all see action.  I don’t think any of the trio is capable of running for 1,000 yards this year, but as a group, they could run for 1,500 yards.

 

The offensive line allowed more sacks last year than it should have, but that had a lot to do with Hasselbeck was forced to throw the ball a lot more.  Even so, the Seahawks moved the ball and scored 349 points.

 

The Seahawk defense is solid if not spectacular.  Whenever they hold an opponent under 21 points, it should result in a win. 

 

One of the multiple strengths of this defense is its pass rush.  The ‘Hawks tackled enemy quarterbacks 45 times last year.  Ends Patrick Kerney and Darryl Tapp make a nice set of bookends on the front line.  They are outstanding pass rushers and reliable run stoppers.

 

The top assets of the defense are Pro Bowl linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson.  Peterson is a monster blitzer, while Tatupu is like having an extra defensive back in the short zones.

 

Cornerback Marcus Trufant is the star of the secondary.  He intercepted seven passes last year, and that total may drop this year only because opposing quarterbacks throw somewhere else.  The rest of the secondary is capable and won’t give up many big plays.

 

Seattle’s special teams will be good but not as good as last year.  Losing kicker Josh Brown to St. Louis will be hard to overcome.  Punter Ryan Plackemeier gets the job done, but he is no star. 

 

The schedule is more difficult this year, but the Seahawks should come away with their fifth consecutive division title.

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