So, how do we think the run up to the bye week will look for the Fins? Below my own thoughts, which would put us at 3-2. Interested to hear other people's analysis of the first five games.
Week 1: Browns (at Cleveland)
If we are the team we think we are, we beat the Browns. Easy to say, isn't it? Just like that, we've won. Hmmm.
Actually, I think that's a fair observation. Last season the Browns went 5-11, losing 5 straight at the start and 3 straight at the end. In mitigation, they're in a very tough division and they had a punishing schedule last year. When you look at it - bar a loss to the Bills and a win over the Bengals - they beat every team they were better than and lost to every team that was better than them.
I don't see a lot from the offseason, that would change them dramatically. They still have an erratic, learning QB. They are going to lean on Josh Gordon heavily and one wonders if he has the maturity to take on that responsibility. Bess will help a little, but we know only too well he's not a gamechanger. Defensively, they're OK and the additions of Mingo, Kruger and McFadden will help. It's not a defense to quake at though.
I don't believe the Browns have a team to hit us with many explosive plays, so in a game of inches I see those inches all belonging to Miami. You also figure Weeden is good for a turnover or two in our favour.
Week 2: Colts (at Indy)
If Indy was running it's 2012 offense again this year, I think this game would be cause for concern. But they've switched to a more dink-and-dunk - which goes away from Luck's strengths imo, and are likely to have some teething trouble with it. Given it's a timing offense now, the O-line becomes a lot more important and the WR relationships are key. The Colts o-line was not good last season. They drafted 2 guys to help out and traded for Cherilus. This new line is a work in progress. Similarly, they lost Avery and Collie, signing Heyward-Bey. We saw how much our (albeit subpar) WR corps struggled early with the WCO switch.
Their run game is spotty at best. We can use our ability at run stuffing and their weakness there to empty the box and force Luck to be perfect or get picked.
Defensively, they are not very frightening at all in the front 7. Walden, Mathis and rookie Werner are powerful guys but there's not much explosiveness there. Their secondary features Landry, Toler, Bethea and some guy called Vontae Davis. It's solid but not the stuff of nightmares.
All in all, I think it's a good matchup for us. Later in the season when their offense clicks, that might not be so true. This is a game where we need to test whether our quest for turnovers and more pass pressure worked. If we can get at Luck early and make him question the new system and the playcalls, I think we could win this quite comfortably. If not, I still see us as better than 50:50 to win.
Week 3: Falcons (at home)
Atlanta were awesome in the regular season last year. I can't predict one single reason why they wouldn't be awesome in the regular season this year. They bolstered their run game with Jackson, added Osi to the d-line, drafted a couple of great CBs, another nice DE/LB in Goodman and a monster blocking TE in Toilolo. Gonzalez is sticking around for one more year.
If we win this one, all bets are off.
Week 4: Saints (at New Orleans)
This is a team with glaring weaknesses. They had a crappy defense last season. They've hired the league's most overrated DC in Rob Ryan and they've not added huge quality to the D in the offseason, bar maybe Keenan Lewis at CB and - assuming you rate him, which I don't a lot - Kenny Vaccaro. Draftee John Jenkins at NT will help their awful front 7, esp as they transition to the 3-4, but you can't help but feel there will be growing pains.
Problem is, if you score 4 TDs the Saints will score 5. Their offensive system is a joy to watch, with Brees making chicken salad out of an offensive group with few stars but a lot of yards. This is an awful matchup for Miami. Even if our defense can limit their awesome TD-scoring ability, can we really depend on our awful TD record having transformed by game 4 into something to out-gun the Saints?
I say no. Later in the season, when we may be really clicking, who knows? The teams who beat the Saints last year scored an average of 35 points. We just won't be there by Game 4, imo.
New Orleans WIN
Game 5: Ravens (at home)
This is the hardest game to call of the five for me. No question, the Ravens will not be the same team - in terms of leadership, talismanic presence and experience - as they were last year. There's likely to be a post-SB hangover of sorts. They'll have started with a pretty tough schedule themselves - Denver and Houston in the first two games. Unlike the Saints, I have to say I like the matchup, but that's not to say I think it'll be easy.
Their O-line was rejigged in the postseason - with McKinnie coming back in - and it was stellar for those 4 games. But McKinnie is no spring chicken and we're adding a lot of speed to our already powerful defense. The o-line might find us hard to handle and - when Flacco didn't have the armchair ride he enjoyed in the postseason, his numbers drop off a cliff.
Why I also like our matchup is that the Ravens will lean on their RB and TEs without Boldin. We know we can deal with the run game, esp if Leach leaves. But, having stolen Ellerbee from Balt and added the other pieces, I think we can handle Pitta and Dickson better than we've done in years.
They let a lot of defensive players go and replaced them with very "Ravens" players - tough as nails, canny competitors. You wouldn't call the defense explosive though - tough yes, but quick - not really. Our newly modelled offense could match up well here. Wallace, in particular, needs a big day here. It's also a day to recall Philbin's recent comment that "sometimes you like a big body in the slot, to go across the field and compete for the ball" In Gibson, BInns and even Matthews (not to mention our TEs) we have some physical receivers to take on the Raven traditional area of domination. On the other hand, Baltimore just find a way of getting it done defensively, so we will have to be on it to win.
I worry about our O-line against the Ravens. They're real trench warfare guys, who could expose our more "finesse" linemen like Martin, Clabo or Jerry. Our run game might stutter also. This could be a game where we find out if the winner of the Carp/Sturgis battle was a worthy one.
Miami WIN (by a point or two)
So, 3:2 and a job well done, heading into a much-needed bye.