Criterion for this list includes:
· Personnel, including coaching changes made in the offseason.
· The results from last season compared to previous years.
· The season-ending momentum of the team, good or bad, and how it may impact this year’s team.
With the above as a background, I present a thumbnail sketch of 5 teams, who I believe will outperform expectations in 2015.
Atlanta Falcons – HC Dan Quinn (1st year)
Following a 14-4 SU, 11-7 ATS 2012 season, the Falcons nosedived under former HC Smith. The last 2 seasons Atlanta was a combined 10-22 SU, 14-18 ATS. When they lost the embarrassing finale to rival Carolina (34-3), it was the final straw for the Atlanta coaching career of HC Smith. Main culprit could be considered a defense that in the last 2 seasons allowed 27 PPG and 389 YPG. Enter former Seattle DC Dan Quinn to reverse the carnage. It helps that the Falcons will face one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this season and that the hire of new OC Kyle Shanahan will blend with returning QB Ryan to maintain the offensive excellence. Never easy to back a 1st year HC for improvement, but the work done by Quinn in Seattle speaks for itself. Fade the Falcon at your own risk!
Buffalo Bills – HC Rex Ryan (1st year)
Gone is the Buffalo experiment that was hiring former Syracuse HC, Doug Marrone, to pilot an NFL team. Despite a 9-7 SU ATS record, the Bills failed to reach the playoffs, following 3 consecutive seasons of 6-10 SU. That’s now 16 years since suffering Buffalo fans have had a playoff party. New ownership in the form of Terry Pegula vows to return the Bills to the promised playoff land. With that comes the hire of former NY Jets HC, Rex Ryan. After 6 seasons with the Fly Boys (the 1st 2 of which resulted in conference championship appearances), Ryan’s Jets failed to crack the .500 mark in his final 4 seasons, culminating with a 4-12 SU, 6-10 ATS log last season. But, we all know that Ryan has a strong defensive pedigree (Jets never allowed more than 335 YPG L4Y) and that he brings intensity, passion and experience to the fray. That leaves the offensive side of the ball, where the Bills had stagnated with 21 PPG and no more than 343 YPG each of the last 3 years. Expect that to change with the addition in the offseason of skilled position players, such as QB Cassel, WR Harvin and RB McCoy. With the rest of the team buoyed by a December finish that included 2-1 SU, 3-0 ATS against the likes of Denver, Green Bay and New England, there is plenty to like about the Buffalo Bills this season, including the opportunity for a September home victory over perennial leader New England (without QB Brady).
Carolina Panthers – HC Ron Rivera (5th year)
It is not often that a sub .500 team makes it to the NFL playoffs. But, the NFC South was so weak last year that the Panthers got their invitation to the post-season party by default. Not that they weren’t’ worthy, at least based on their strong finish. After a late November loss to Minnesota, the Panthers stood 3-8-1 SU with no victory since early October against Chicago. But, the Panthers roared down the stretch, winning 4 consecutive December games to claim the division crown. They then whipped Arizona in a home playoff game prior to losing at Seattle the following week. That is certainly positive momentum on which they can build for this 2015 NFL season. Fifth year HC Rivera has fielded solid defenses in the last 3 seasons with his Panthers never allowing more than 333 YPG. But what I really like about this group is their dominance at the point of attack, which has seen them outrush their opposition 124-89 (2 years ago) and 131-107 (LY). With QB Newton maturing as an NFL signal caller, I see continued upside for the Panthers, who face a very manageable schedule.
New Orleans Saints – HC Sean Payton (9th year)
The peripatetic New Orleans Saints have records of 14-4 SU, 7-9 SU, 12-6 SU, and 7-9 SU in each of the last 4 seasons. Time for the bounce in 2015! Issues from last season revolved around a defense that went from allowing 19/301 in 2013 to one allowing 26/384 last season. Other issues were the sudden demise of the once strong New Orleans’ Super Dome home. When the Saints trounced Green Bay (44-23) on October 26th, it ended a run of 19-0 SU, 17-2 ATS since the beginning of 2011 with current HC Payton at the helm (excluding 2012 with interim HC Vitt). When the Saints finished their home season on a 0-5 SU ATS slide, it certainly had to be the biggest turnaround in NFL history. Priority number 1 will be returning that home field dominance, when New Orleans plays a very manageable home schedule beginning with Tampa Bay, September 20th. A big reason for last year’s decline was multiple injuries on the defensive side of the ball. With many of those players returning and a draft day that focused on that side of the ball, look for DC Ryan to return this group to its dominance of 2013. The offensive pieces have changed a bit with the loss of receivers, Graham and Stills. But, there is still the offensive mastermind that is HC Payton and the excellence and experience that QB Brees brings to the table. Look for the bounce back by New Orleans this season, fueled by a far healthier defense and a return of their home field dominance.
NY Jets – HC Todd Bowles (1st year)
This is a risky call, considering the Jets went 4-12 SU, 6-10 ATS last season and let go of respected HC Ryan at its conclusion. Enter 1st year HC Todd Bowles and an entirely new coaching staff. That includes OC Chan Gailey, who must work with QBs, Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick, to improve an offense that has averaged 18 PPG 3 consecutive seasons. But, any offense who outrushes their opponents 142/4.5 to 93/3.8 deserves far better than 4-12 SU. Along with defensive improvement that is anticipated with big name off-season acquisitions and a solid defensive draft, these NY Jets will not surprise if they are one of the biggest turnaround teams in the NFL this season.
Written by Joe Gavazzi for 10StarPicks.com