Matthews: AFC Preview - Liking Jaguars and Ravens

BOB’S AFC PREVIEW: LIKING THE JAGUARS AND LONG SHOT RAVEN...

WEEK 1 “BEST BET” IS THE RAVENS (-7) OVER THE BILLS

The Jacksonville Jaguars probably have as much overall talent as any team in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Jags and their fans, quarterback is the big question mark. Blake Bortles needs to step up to help the team win Super Bowl 33. His critics don’t think he can. My hunch is that he will.

VP of football operations Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone have the same philosophy: Combine a fast, aggressive, big-play defense, a strong ground offense featuring a durable running back, and top-flight special teams.

The defense scored the NFL’s most points off turnovers last season and ranked second in the league in scoring defense, sacks and takeaways. The stars include pass rushers Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, run stuffer Marcell Dareus, LBs Telvin Samith and Myles Jack, and cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

Running back Leonard Fournette helped the Jaguars lead the NFL with 141.4 yards rushing per game. The offensive line was very good before adding All-Pro left tackle Andrew Norwell from Carolina. The passing game will miss injured Marqise Lee.

Bortles is tough and a good runner.  If he becomes a more consistent passer and protects the football, the Jags wll by very tough to beat.

AFC SOUTH

1—Jacksonville, predicted record 13-3.

2—Houston 9-7. The Texans were deflated last year when rookie QB sensation Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice after seven mostly excellent games. If Watson and defensive mainstays J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus can all bounce back from injuries, Houston will be significantly better than last season’s 4-12 record. Other assets include WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, OLB Jadeveon Clowney and safety Tyrann Mathieu. The offensive line could be a problem.

3—Tennessee 7-9. Last season’s Titans were 10-8 in the regular season, ended a nine-year playoff drought and won their first post-season game in 14 years.  But Mike Mularkey was replaced as head coach by Mike Vrabel, who will try to open up the offense behind versatile QB Marcus Mariota. Derrick Henry is the new No. 1 RB and Delanie Walker is a very good TE. WR always seems to be a problem. CB Malcolm Butler is expected to boost a solid secondary. 

4—Indianapolis 5-11. The Colts had an awful passing game last year. The big hope for new head coach Frank Reich is a return to form by QB Andrew Luck but his right shoulder remains a huge question mark. T.Y. Hilton is a proven deep threat WR. Marlon Mack replaces Frank Gore as the top RB. The OL has been upgraded. That wasn’t difficult. The LBs are way below average. 45-year-old PK Adam Vinatieri probably won’t be overworked.

AFC EAST

New England – predicted record 12-4. One of the main reasons the Patriots are pretty much a lock to make the playoffs every season and a popular pick for most regular-season victories in the NFL is the weakness of the rest of the AFC East.  The Pats have feasted on the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills...The tide will turn one of these seasons. Coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady can’t last forever and the internal strife is real, but no division rival appears likely to top the Patriots again this season. Brady to Rob Gronkowski is arguably the best QB-TE combination in NFL history and the ever-changing group of wide receivers continues to thrive in the quick-strike option scheme that New England does best...The defense almost always ranks higher in fewest points allowed than fewest yards allowed...Belichick is a master at schemes to beat specific opponents.

New York Jets – 7-9. The Jets wasted no time handing the starting QB job to rookie Sam Darnold. He figures to do more handing off than passing. Isaiah Crowell, Thomas Rawls and Bilal Powell are durable backs. The receiving crew isn’t as good. The strength of the defense is cornerback with Trumaine Johnson and Morris Claiborne. The front seven needs to improve, particularly the pass rush. The Jets last made the playoffs in 2010. Darnold is the main hope to end that drought – but not this year.

Miami – 5-11. The Dolphins were a disappointing 6-10 last season and three of their top players – WR Jarvis Landry, center Mike Pouncey and DT Ndamukong Suh are gone.  If QB Ryan Tannehill’s damaged left knee holds up, Miami has a remote chance to be decent. Will 35-year-old RB Frank Gore be a workhorse or a plowhorse? Top returning players include RB Kenyan Drake, WRs DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills, DE Cameron Wake and SS T.J. McDonald.

Buffalo – 5-11. The Bills ended their 17-year playoff drought last year but they probably overachieved in resourceful coach Sean McDermott’s first season. They might begin this year with the worst overall talent in the NFL but most of the best players are young and th Bills will have 10 draft picks and lots of money under the salary cap to add a few impact free agents next offseason.  A few of the questions: Can RB LeSean McCoy stay healthy? He’ll be a marked man as by far the team’s best offensive weapon. Can the anemic pass rush and rush defense improve?

AFC NORTH

1--Pittsburgh 11-5. When will unhappy RB Le’Veon Bell decide to report? For now at least, James Conner is the big hope at RB. The Steelers are eager to prove they can win without Bell until he decides to play. The offense still will be potent with QB Ben Roethlisberger and WRs Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The veteran OL is top notch. Thy Steelers led the NFL with 56 sacks last year but the defense wasn’t the same minus injured LB Ryan Shazier and depth could be a problem.

2--Baltimore 9-7. Am I overrating the Ravens? I respect them because they have no glaring weakness, they give coach coach John Harbaugh an honest effort every game and should be eager to end a three-year playoff drought for GM Ozzie Newsome in his final season. I’m not a big fan of QB Joe Flacco but new WRs Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV figure to help. RB Alex Collins was a surprise last season. If healthy, the OL is very good. I expect rookie Lamar Jackson to supply some big plays. The defense led the NFL with 22 INTs last season. Justin Tucker is a top PK.

3---Cincinnati  8-8. Head coach Marvin Lewis returns for his 16th year and his veteran team is in a “win now” mode after two consecutive losing seasons. There is no shortage of good players, including star WR A.J. Green. The OL was lousy last season but figures to improve with LT Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price.  Veteran Andy Dalton had an impressive preseason and might yet prove to be a cut above ordinary. Joe Mixon is a promising RB. The DL is a strength with Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap. William Jackson III is a solid young CB. On their beat, the Bengals could post their first playoff win since 1991.

4--Cleveland 4-12. The Browns are better than last season’s record.  How could they not be? They were 0-16. Some people believe Cleveland can make the playoffs this year. I have no idea why. There is some young talent on the roster to be sure but the losing culture runs deep. The big questions include when will No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield replace Tyrod Taylor at quarterback and can coach Hue Jackson make it through the season coming off 1-15 and 0-16 records. Assets include WRs Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon (maybe and for how long)?), RBs Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and rookie Nick Chubb, pass rusher Myles Garrett and rookie CB Denzel Ward.

AFC WEST

Los Angeles Chargers 11-5. The Chargers started 0-4 last season before rebounding to go 9-3 in their last 12 games. Offensive standouts include QB Philip Rivers, RB Melvin Gordon and WR Keenan Allen. The OL allowed an NFL-fewest 18 sack and adds center Mike Pouncey. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are strong pass rushers and Casey Hayward is a solid CB. It would be a disappointment if the Chargers don’t make the playoffs after missing in seven of the past eight seasons.

Kansas City 9-7. If strong-armed second-year QB Patrick Mahomes is ready, the Chiefs will be an exciting high-scoring team. The explosive playmakers include RB Kareem Hunt, WRs Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, and TE Travis Kelce. OLB Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry are solid defenders. Expect lots of high-scoring games and the Chiefs should win more than they lose.

Denver 8-8. Veteran Case Keenen figures to clean up the mess at QB. His targets include veteran WRs Damaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Defense is the team’s strength, including edge rushers Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray, CBs Bradley Roby and Chris Harris Jr., and safety Darian Stewart. Special teams were awful last season and have to be better. A potential sleeper team.

Oakland 5-11. New coach Jon Gruden is determined to bring out the best in QB Derek Carr. Targets include WRs Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson, and TE Jared Cook. RB Marshawn Lynch can still play. The trade of superstar pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago was a huge blow to the defense and team morale. The LBs and DBs are mostly ordinary.

Bob’s Super Bowl 33 pick: Minnesota Vikings 27, Jacksonville Jaguars 14.

BOB’S “BET BETS”: BILLS ARE NO MATCH FOR THE HOST RAVENS

The Baltimore Ravens are among the NFL’s most underrated teams. Buffalo likely is one of the league’s worst teams.

If the host Ravens needed any extra incentive for Sunday’s opening game, Buffalo got the playoff berth they lost in dramatic fashion last season.

The Ravens are 7-point favorites over the rebuilding Bills and this week’s “Best Bet: BALTIMORE 24, Buffalo 10.

Sunday’s other games

(home team in CAPS)

Pittsburgh 24, CLEVELAND (+4) 17 – Some people honestly believe the Browns can go from 0-16 to the playoffs in one year. I think they’re wrong. The Steelers want to show they can win minus holdout RB Le’Veon Bell.

MINNESOTA (-6 ½) 28, San Francisco 13 – The Vikings are my pick to win Super Bowl 33. The offense should improve with new QB Kirk Cousins and the defense could the NFL’s best. The 49ers are on the upgrade but overmatched here.

Cincinnati 23, INDIANAPOLIS (-3) 15 – The Bengals are my AFC sleeper team. I’m not sold yet on Colts QB Andrew Luck’s comeback.

Jacksonville 27, NEW YORK GIANTS (+3) 20 – The Jaguars are my AFC team to beat and I believe the Giants are slightly overrated.

NEW ORLEANS (-9 ½) 33, Tampa Bay 13 – Drew Brees vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick – no contest.

NEW ENGLAND (-6 ½) 20, Houston 17 – The Patriots could be slipping – we’ve heard that plenty of times before – and the Texans with QB Deshaun Watson are good enough to hang tough in this spot.

Tennessee 24, MIAMI (-1 ½) 17 – The Dolphins might have needed an off-season attitude adjustment but they probably lost more talent than they added.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-3) 33, Kansas City 27 – Lots of firepower in this matchup and this should be a fun game to watch. The Chargers will try to avoid last season’s disastrous 0-4 start.

DENVER (-3) 27, Seattle 17 – The Broncos could be underrated. Seattle: “Legion of Doom” to “Legion of Gloom”?

CAROLINA (2 ½) 24, Dallas 14 – The Panthers aren’t great but I think they’ll beat the overrated (again) visiting Cowboys.

Washington 21, ARIZONA (-1) 15  – One of these teams almost has to win.

GREEN BAY (7 ½) 28 Chicago 17 --  I like Chicago’s defense. But I more like the Packers at home with a healthy QB Aaron Rodgers.

Monday’s games

DETROIT (-6 ½) 30, New York Jets 15 – I believe Detroit’s Matthew Stafford will take Jets rookie Sam Darnold to QB school

Los Angeles Ram 35, OAKLAND (+ 4 ½) 13 – Raiders coach Jon Gruden might be wishing he were in the TV booth rather than on the sidelines this season.

THE BILLS GET SOME COMPUTER LOVE

The trusty 538 ELO sports computer, after 100,000 simulations of the 2018 NFL season, has a more optimistic forecast for the Buffalo Bills than many humans do

Here are ELO’s projections for the AFC East:

Wins – Patriots NFL-most 11.2..Bills 8.0...Dolphins 7.0...Jets 6.9

Point differential – Patriots +114.7...Bills +0.5...Dolphins -34.8...Jets -40.1...

Probability to make the playoffs – Patriots 82 percent...Bills 36 percent...Dolphins 23 percent...Jets 21 percent

Probability to win the AFC East – Patriots 66 percent...Bills 16 percent...Dolphins 9 per4cent...Jets 8 percent

Probability to win Super Bowl 33 – Patriots NFL-best 14 percent...Bills 2 percent...Dolphins and Jets lerss than 1 percent.

Just for fun, ELO’s numbers for Cleveland include an NFL-fewest 3.8 wins, -149,9 point differential, 3 percent to make the playoffs and 1 percent to win the AFC North..

BASEBALL HITS AND MISSES

The New York Yankees are on pace for 263.8 home runs this season. The MLB record is 264 HRs by Seattle 1997 and the Yankees record is 245 NRs in 2012.

I thought former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen would be a big help to the Yankees, but his bat looks very slow and he’s off to a 1-for-16 (.063) start.

2018 Red Wings MVP and Most Popular Player Willians Astudillo hit the second career HR of his brief MLB career for Minnesota in Wednesday night’s 9-1 loss to Houston.

Houston 3B Alex Bregman, perhaps the most-underrated MLB player, is also the hottest: in his last 17 games; .446 batting average; 9 doubles; 67 HRs; 21 RBI; 10 walks; 3 strikeouts; 1.382 OPS.

I make Cubs infielder Javier Baez the slight favorite over St. Louis slugger Matt Carpenter for National League MVP, with Colorado’s much-improved Trevor Story closing fast.

The Boston Red Sox are 25-4 in their last 29 games versus National League opponents. They’re 14-3 vs. the NL this season. The NL leads the rest of the American League 141-116 this season and the AL’s 14-year winning streak in inter-league play is about to end.

Baltimore’s Chris Davis has raised his batting average to .180 (78-for-433) in his bid to avoid posting the worst batting average by a qualifying player post-1900: .179 by Rob Deer and Dan Uggla. Since August 24, Davis is hitting.319 (15-for-47).

EARLY-BIRD RYDER CUP PRIMER

The Ryder Cup, USA versus Europe, will be September 28-29-30 at Le Golf National outside Paris.

USA won the 2016 Ryder Cup 17-11 at Hazeltine GC in Chaska, Minn.

Odds from Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook: USA -210 (bet $210 to win $100)...Europe +175 (bet $100 to win $175).

The 11-man USA roster (one more player to be named Sunday) includes 9 players with Ryder Cup experience plus 2 first-timers (Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau)...The 12-man European roster includes 7 players with Ryder Cup experience and 5 first-timers (Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hutton, Alex Noren, Joe Rahm and Thorbjorn Olesen).

The Ryder Cup USA veterans have a combined 34 appearances and a record of 57 wins, 62 losses and 20 halves...The Ryder European veterans have a combined 30 appearances and a record of 67W, 48L, 23H.

The USA team has combined to win 41 majors. The European team has combined to win 8 majors.

Winning records of USA veterans: Patrick Reed 6-1-2...Brooks Koepka 3-1-0...Jordan Spieth 4-3-2...Dustin Johnson 6-5-0...Phil Mickelson 18-20-1...Tiger Woods 13-17-3...Webb Simpson 2-3-1...Rickie Fowler 2-4-5...Bubba Watson 3-8-0.

Winning records of European veterans: Ian Poulter 12-4-2...Paul Casey 9-3-4...Sergio Garcia 19-11-7...Rory McIlroy 9-6-4..Paul Casey 3-2-4....Henrik Stenson 6-7-2...Francisco Molinari 0-3-2.

SHORT SHOTS

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook projects over/under point totals for the 31 NHL teams in the final standings for the 2018-19 season. The Buffalo Sabres are 79.5. That’s a healthy jump from last season’s NHL-low 62 points but probably wouldn’t be enough to make the playoffs.

The Rochester Knighthawks will launch their historic 25th season in the National Lacrosse League with home games December 8 against New England and December 29 against Philadelphia at Blue Cross Arena. The first road game on the 18-game schedule will be at Buffalo January 5...Interesting press conference scheduled for next week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, supposedly to announce a National Lacrosse League development.

Here’s the parade of starting quarterbacks for the Cleveland Brown since 1999 (this is not pretty): Tim Crouch, Ty Detmer, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gratkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan...with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield soon to join the list.

A final reminder: There will be a ribbon-cutting for Monroe High Scchool’s new football stadium Saturday afternoon and a 2:30 p.m. kickoff against the East High Eagles, including sophomore sensation Seven McGee (three TDs and 144 yards on his three touches in a season-opening romp over Penfield).

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO...

Friday, September 7

Donovan Mitchell (22)...Kevin Love (30)...Pops Mensah-Bonsu (35)...Mark Prior (38)...Antonio McDyress (44)...Jason Isringhausen (46)...Bruce Armstrong (53)...Uta Pippig (53)...Tony Tanti (55)...Scott Virkus (59)...Bert Jones (67)...Joe Rudi (72)...Jacques Lemaire (73)...Bill Giles (84). Gloria Gaynor (69) is invited to the birthday party.. Former Phillies owner Bill Giles was born in Rochester on this date 84 years ago (1934) and died in 0000 at age 00. Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown was born on this date 110 years ago (1908) and died in1991 at age 82.

Saturday, September 8

Gerrit Cole (28)...Matthew Dellavedova (28)..Nick Hundley (35)....Malcolm Floyd (37)...Armani Toomer (44)...Clarence Weatherspoon (48)....Al Pardo (56)...Maurice Cheeks (62)...Nark McCumber (67)....Roggie Vachon (73)...Lem Barney (73). Chumlee (36), Pink (39) and Bernie Sanders (77) are invited to the birthday party.

Sunday, September 9

Billy Hamilton (28)...J.R. Smith (33)...Edwin Jackson (35)...Kyle Davies (35)...John Kuhn (36)...Shane Battier (40)...Mike Hampton (46)...Sean Rooks (49)...B.J. Armstrong (51)...Kevin Hatcher (52)...Todd Zeile (53)...Dan Majerle (53)...Bob Stoops (58)...Joe Theismann (69).  Adam Sandler (52) and Hugh Grant (58) are invited to the birthday party.

ON THIS DATE IN SPORTS HISTORY...

Friday

138 years ago (1880), George Ligowsky patented his device to throw clay pigeons for trap shooters. Real pigeons were grateful...126 years ago (1892), James Corbett won the heavyweight boxing title over John Sullivan in the 21st round...53 years ago (1965), the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in Canton, Ohio...50 years ago (1968), England’s Virginia Wade defeated Billie Jean King for the first U.S. Open women’s title...32 years ago (1986), Dan Marino became the quickest NFL quarterback to reach 100 career TD passes...27 years ago (1991), Ty Detmer of BYU passed for an-NCAA record 11,606 yards...Monica Seles won her first U.S. Open title, defeating Martina Navratilova 7-6, 6-1.

Saturday

113 years ago (1905), the Pittsburgh Pirates stranded 18 men in an 8-3 loss to Cincinnati...79 years ago (1939), Bob Feller at age 20 became the youngest 20-game winning pitcher in a season...64 years ago (1954), Richie Ashburn of the Phillies walked after fouling off 14 pitches on a 3-and-2 count...50 years ago (1968), Arthur Ashe won the first Open era U.S. tennis  over Tom Okker in five sets...33 years ago (1985), Pete Rose tied Ty Cobb with his 4,191st career hit...17 years ago (2001), Venus Wiiliams beat younger sister Serena for the U.S. Open women’s title.

Sunday

60 years ago (1958), Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente hit three triples in one game...53 years ago (1965), Sandy Koufax’s fourth no-hitter was a perfect game in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs...47 years ago (1971), hockey great Gordie Howe retired...40 years ago (1978), Chris Evert beat Pam Shriver for her fourth consecutive U.S. Open women’s title...16 years ago (2002), Randy Johnson reached 300 strikeouts for the fifth straight season.

Bob Matthews' Column

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