That's an interesting question. New England is the strong favorite to win their division and many pundits are predicting a return trip to the Super Bowl. Tennessee is regarded by many (not all) to be the favorite to win the AFC South, and quite a few people are predicting they'll make a deep playoff run. I have my doubts about both teams.
With New England, let's start with the obvious: Quarterback Tom Brady is 41-years-old, there is friction within the team, and New England lost a ton of talent in the offseason. Brady is a young man, but 41 is considered ancient in the Not For Long League. Perhaps he'll do what few others have done before him and put together another stellar season. League history says he won't.
We know from the recent experiences of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, that when age hits a player, it comes on fast and furious, with little warning. Both Favre and Manning finished their careers with horrible statistical seasons, although Manning was paired with a great Denver defense that enabled his team to win the Super Bowl.
It's not just the physical impairments that hinder an aging player, it's also the mental component and you have to wonder just how much Brady has left in his emotional tank after last year's Super Bowl loss. He's clearly unhappy in New England. If you've ever worked for a boss that you felt was unappreciative of your efforts, then you probably showed up, did your job, but didn't quite go the extra mile. If that sentiment of being unappreciated was compounded with friction between you and a boss, or between you and a co-worker, then that lack of going the extra mile was probably even greater. That's where Brady appears to stand.
The same thing if you were ever a boss who felt unappreciated by the people you were supervising. You probably showed up, did your best to be fair, but didn't quite add the final, finishing touches to your projects. That's where Bill Belichick appears to stand.
And they're not the only ones who aren't happy campers. Tight end Rob Gronkowski considered retiring in the offseason, because he wasn't having fun either. There are probably other players and coaches in the same boat who just haven't made their feelings public. All in all, there doesn't seem to be an abundance of espirit de corps going on in New England right now.
The team also lost a lot of talent in the offseason, and I mean a lot: wide receiver Brandin Cooks, left tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Danny Amendola, running back Dion Lewis, cornerback Malcom Butler, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are all gone. Those guys are all starters or head coaches now on other teams. Plus wide receiver Julian Edelman looks to be suspended to open the season.
The greatest benefit New England has this year is the general weakness of their division opponents. For that reason alone, they might win the AFC East yet again, but if they do, I don't expect them to go very far in the playoffs. That's assuming they do win their division. New England's non-division opponents this year are no pushovers. They play the AFC South, the NFC North, and two games against Pittsburgh and Kansas City. I wouldn't be surprised if Miami won the AFC East. That's not a prediction, I'm just saying I wouldn't be surprised if they won the division.
As far as betting goes, New England will be favored in plenty of games to start the season. I am considering going against them in Weeks One, Two and Three, as well as later in the year when they travel to Miami and Pittsburgh.
Has Tennessee Peaked?
The general consensus among the NFL mainstream media is that fired head coach Mike Mularkey wasn't performing up to expectations, and that the team was underperforming under his watch. But is that assessment accurate?
Mularkey took over a team that won only 3 games in 2015 and improved their win total by 6 games the following year. That's not an easy thing to do. Mularkey then improved on that accomplishment by winning 10 games last year, including a playoff win on the road at Kansas City. Heck, Mularkey led this team to the playoffs for the first time in nine years and actually won a playoff game. And he did that with a gimpy quarterback who wasn't fully recovered from a broken leg he suffered the previous season.
Mularkey's experience with Tennessee wasn't the first time that he helped engineer an impressive turnaround. In 2007, the Atlanta Falcons won 4 games. The following year, Mularkey was named the team's offensive coordinator and they improved that win total by 7 games, going 11-5 in the regular season. The Falcons made the playoffs in three out of four years with Mularkey as their offensive coordinator. They made the playoffs only once in the four years after he left.
As the offensive coordinator for Pittsburgh back in 2001-03, Mularkey helped the team leap from 6 wins to 10 wins. Turnarounds like that are not easy. If they were, everyone would be doing them. Mularkey has done it three times.
I like examining investments through the prism of life. There have been numerous instances where I was tasked with turning around an underperforming unit. It happened in the military, it's happened in civilian life in various sales departments, and it's happened in the movie business where I would get late night calls from desperate producers to help fix a broken script.
I know many of you reading this have been in the exact same spot in your own lives. As you know, it's not easy turning around an underperforming unit. And the more people involved, the harder it gets. Some people under your supervision need to be coddled and treated with kid gloves, others need a swift kick in the rear. It's an art knowing how to motivate disparate individuals.
What Mularkey did with Tennessee, and with the other teams he's coached, is actually quite remarkable. That's why I look at results. Mularkey had two winning seasons in a row, with a team that went 18-46 over the four years before he took over. The notion that he held the team back with his run-first, "exotic smash-mouth" offense is a popular one, but I don't agree with it.
What happened to Mularkey also happened with me and probably with many of you: He succeeded with a difficult task and those above him immediately assumed that what he did was easy and that anyone could replicate it. Not so. I've turned around companies and departments in the past and when I left, they fell back to their old ways. I can't tell you how many companies I've worked for that thrived when I was there and then went under after I left.
Mularkey's replacement in Tennessee, Mike Vrabel, has accomplished ... Absolutely nothing as a coach. He was the defensive coordinator for Houston last year. Under his watch, the Texans allowed 27 points per game, worst in the league. It was the kind of coaching performance that usually gets a person fired, much less promoted. That was Vrabel's one and only year as a coordinator. Prior to that, he was the team's linebacker coach. This is only his fifth year as an NFL coach.
Tennessee's new offensive coordinator is Matt LeFleur. He has one year of coordinating experience under his belt with the Rams last year. With Sean McVay calling the offensive shots over there, it's tough to say just how much input LeFleur had. Here, he's going to be top dog for the first time. It means a new system for quarterback Marcus Mariota who will be working under his fourth play-caller in four years.
Dean Pees is a nice pickup as defensive coordinator. He did a great job at Baltimore. But I'm not overly impressed by free agent pickups Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler. We've all seen big free agent signings that fail to pan out. It's so easy today for players to take that big paycheck and then rest on their laurels. It seems to happen around 50% of the time.
Unlike New England, the Titans don't reside in an easy division. In fact, the AFC South may turn out to be the toughest division in football this year. Houston gets back Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell. Jacksonville has the league's top defense. Indy gets back Andrew Luck (supposedly). Tennessee will have a hard time winning their division, much less making the playoffs.
I may back Tennessee in their Week Six home game vs. Baltimore (Dean Pees vs. his old team), and their Week Ten home game vs. New England. Other than that, I will probably look for select spots to go against them. I'm not convinced that Marcus Mariota is anything better than a 9-7 quarterback.
Football is coming. Have some fun, make some money, and thank God for all the blessings in your life!
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