Division Swing Factors: NFC

Sam Bradford, Bruce Arians and a pair of once-bad defenses could shake up NFC division races.

by Rivers McCown
Sep 15 2015, 7:03pm

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It's important, when discussing NFL predictions, to couch things in terms of probability. Maybe this is the year Jay Cutler stops being a blockhead, executes the playbook, and throws for 5,000 yards. But, that's not likely to be the case. This is part two of a two-part series looking at the greatest opportunities for fluctuation in the established probabilities. Close it out, NFC!

NFC East: The Stories of Sam Bradford

There are two ways to approach what we know about Sam Bradford.

One way is to examine his NFL career empirically. By that measure, he's a total bust. If you believe in the concept of "injury-prone," well, he's the poster child. In four total seasons, he's been an above-average quarterback exactly once in the eyes of Football Outsiders' DVOA.

The second is to look at how the Eagles are treating Bradford. They praise his release, talk up his college career. They point to studies that show the likelihood of him re-injuring an ACL is quite low. There's also a lot of context in St. Louis—lack of great targets, unimaginative offensive coordinators, run-focused game plan—that could explain his failures.

Read More: AFC Division Swing Factors

In other words, he is a calculated risk. Rather than pour resources into a franchise quarterback, Philadelphia is trying to replicate the Drew Brees success story by bringing a player with pedigree and hoping to rejuvenate him.

How that gamble turns out is going to make or break this division. I've had a hard time believing that Bradford is going to turn his career around. I also think the price Philly paid to get him —Nick Foles plus a second-round pick—was exorbitant, though I don't want that to color my actual judgment of his chances. His first test, on Monday Night Football, provided ammunition for both sides. The Eagles looked out of sync with tons of pressure on Bradford in the first half. Then, they looked unstoppable in the second half, prior to settling for a long field goal that Cody Parkey pushed right.

No NFL offense is friendlier to a quarterback than Philadelphia's under head coach Chip Kelly. There's a lot of Kool-Aid to drink here, but I'm starting to think I may find myself a believer once Week 3 hits.

NFC North: Teddy Bridgewater—Pro Day or Pro Bowl?

The Vikings are the trendy sleeper pick this season. What's baked into that projection? The assumption that second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will continue to play as he did in the second half of last season.

I am a huge fan of Bridgewater. I thought he was worth the first selection in the 2014 draft. And I do believe that he will build on last season. At the same time, a great finish does not always lead to success next season, especially when one's good sample boils down to eight games—or a little less than 500 snaps. Accuracy will be paramount, because Bridgewater doesn't have the sort of athletic toolset to overcome a lack of precision.

The Vikings do seem to have the makings of a great defense. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is talented, if under the same burden of proof as Bridgewater. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd made a huge leap. It wouldn't be surprising if Eric Kendricks is the next great linebacker to be branded "too small" by traditional scouting methods. General manager Rick Spielman has done a great job of stocking this team with talent of late.

But if Bridgewater can't build on last season, or if he regresses to the player who compiled a 71.3 quarterback rating in the first half of his rookie season, the Vikings go from Super Bowl dark horse to 8-8 in a hurry.

Vic Beasley could be the catalyst for a defensive turnaround in Atlanta. Photo via Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

NFC South: Which Rebuilding Defense Can Suck Less?

Atlanta and New Orleans have been similar teams for a while now. Franchise quarterback. Star receivers. Hit-or-miss running games. And, over the past few years, a degradation of defensive talent.

They've reacted to this in different ways. The Saints went all-in via an aggressive 2014 offseason that netted them big-money safety Jairus Byrd. Then, everything fell apart. Byrd was felled after four games by a meniscus injury he's still trying to recover from, while fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro played hurt and had a miserable year. The Saints cut ties with Junior Gallette, who led the team in sacks and Instagram drama. They also will be without their best corner, Keenan Lewis, for the first month of the season after hip surgery.

The Falcons, meanwhile, hit last offseason determined to stop the run. Former head coach Mike Smith brought in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to shore up the front three; despite this, Atlanta fell from 26th in rushing defense DVOA in 2013 to 30th in 2014. The Falcons weren't as cap-strapped as the Saints, but limited themselves to small risks in this year's free-agent period. One of those risks, linebacker Brooks Reed, will also miss the first six weeks after undergoing groin surgery.

These were the two worst defenses in the NFL by DVOA in 2014. But with the Panthers desperate for offense and Tampa Bay suffering growing pains, it's not a stretch to suggest that the one that improves the most could win the division. My money is on the Falcons. The Saints have more known depth. The two best defenders between the two rosters, first-rounder Vic Beasley and corner Desmond Trufant, play for Atlanta. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn also has a background in coaching good defenses. That's more than we can say for Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at the moment.

NFC West: Arians Versus Numbers

One bone I have with Football Outsiders' projections is that they don't account for the effect a coach has on his team. This was a big factor in projecting the 49ers for less than eight wins in 2012—the year they went to the Super Bowl. It's also a big factor in their projection for Arizona to tumble down the mountain this year.

The concept of multi-level modeling is a better way to handle variance. The problem, in theory, is that we don't have much of a sample size. Then again, we don't have much of a sample size on players, either. That doesn't mean we should completely ignore data that doesn't fit in a grand regression trend.

My belief is that the Cardinals are going to be a legitimate playoff contender again this season. Carson Palmer is back, and will be an upgrade if only because he isn't Ryan Lindley or Drew Stanton. Wide receiver John Brown looks poised for a breakout season. Most importantly, Bruce Arians has been an incredible head coach so far. And, in a division dramatically weakened by the 49ers' downswing, I can see the Cards racking up close wins just like they did last season.

Arizona took the first step on making good on that with another stellar performance against the Saints Sunday afternoon. It would have been another one-score win for Arians, up until the Saints allowed a long touchdown on a series meant to run out the clock. Don't be surprised when the Cardinals finish the job moving forward.