The 2010 NFL season starts tonight and while I don't recommend a bet on the game I thought I'd present my analysis of each team and my prediction on this big rematch of last season's NFC championship game. Make sure to check out my weekly free analysis and money management articles at drbobsports.com.
Each Thursday afternoon (after 3 pm Pacific this week) I post analysis of 40 to 50 College and NFL games in the Free Analysis section of my website.
NEW ORLEANS (-5) 26 Minnesota 21
The Vikings have quarterback Brett Favre back out of retirement (again), but don't expect him to repeat his career best 2009 season in which he averaged a very good 7.0 yards per pass play (against teams that would allow 6.3 yppp to an average QB) with just 9 interceptions in 18 games. Favre's career interception percentage of 3.2% suggests that last year's low interception total will be tough to duplicate and the loss of top WR Sidney Rice to injury should be especially troubling to Favre. Rice accumulated 1391 receiving yards on 126 balls thrown to him in the regular season (he caught 83 of them), which is a very good 11.0 yards per pass attempted. Number 2 receiver (now the #1 WR) Percy Harvin averaged a decent 8.6 ypa and Bernard Berrian (now #2) averaged just 7.1 ypa, which is poor for a wide receiver. Picking up Greg Camarillo from Miami is good for depth, but Camarillo averaged a modest 7.5 ypa the last two seasons with the Dolphins. Replacing Rice's pass attempts with Harvin's numbers and Harvin's passes with Berrian and Camarillo results in a loss of 0.7 yards per pass play for Favre and the decline could be even more given that he's unlikely to complete 68.4% of his passes as he did last season. I think Favre's numbers will still be better than average, but they won't be nearly as good as last season's without Rice.
Minnesota's rushing attack was only average last season at 4.3 ypr (against teams that would allow 4.3 ypr to an average team) and star RB Adrian Peterson's numbers have been declining from 5.6 ypr his rookie season in 2007, to 4.8 ypr in '08 and 4.4 ypr last season. The offensive line is aging a bit and it's certainly questionable whether Peterson will return to averaging closer to 5.0 ypr. Minnesota will have a better than average rushing attack and a better than average offense - but it will fall short of last year's high standards.
The Vikings' defense has been on the decline in recent years, but they still rate as an above average unit with a very good defensive line that can stop the run and rush the passer. The Vikings allowed 3.9 ypr last season (against teams that would average 4.5 ypr against an average defense), which was the highest in many years. The steady decline of the run defense can be explained by the aging of run stuffing tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, but the Vikings will still be good against the run. In fact, I actually expect Minnesota to improve slightly against the run this season by giving up fewer big gains (last year they gave up more big runs that normal, which added to their ypr numbers). The Vikes were only 0.1 yards per pass play better than average last season, allowing 5.9 yppp to quarterbacks that would combine to average 6.0 yppp against an average team. The pass defense should be better with the return to health of CB Antoine Winfield and the injury to CB Cedric Griffin, who allowed a horrible 9.4 yards per pass attempted against him last year (the rest of the Vikings' corners allowed an average of 7.6 ypa). The Vikings brought in veteran CB Lito Sheppard, who had a very good season last year with the Jets (when he wasn't injured) where he allowed just 6.9 ypa. Overall the Vikings should be improved defensively and I rate that unit at 0.4 yards per play better than average (they were only 0.2 yppl better than average last season).
Aside from much improved quarterback play, it was the special teams that made the next biggest impact last season. Minnesota had the league's worst special teams rating in 2008 and last year they ranked 4th in special teams with the addition of Percy Harvin returning kickoffs making the biggest impact. Having kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd, who was kicking off for Carolina the last few years, will be an upgrade over the aging leg of Ryan Longwell, who is still accurate with his field goal kicking but lost yardage on his kickoffs in recent years.
New Orleans surprised many by beating the Colts in the Super Bowl, but my math model actually favored the Saints to win that game and I cashed in with a Best Bet winner on the 5 point underdog. What made the Saints so underrated heading into last season's playoffs was the big discrepancy between their season long defensive stats and the stats when both starting cornerbacks, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, were playing. Porter and Greer both missed time in the second half of last season and the Saints' pass defense was horrible when one or both were out due to poor depth at the position. However, in the games when both Porter and Greer started the Saints were actually 0.3 yards per pass play better than average (on 438 pass plays), which was much better than the Saints' season rating of 0.2 yppp worse than average. Porter and Greer are both back and the Saints addressed their cornerback depth issue with the drafting of speedster Patrick Robinson in the 1st round. New Orleans should have a good pass defense this season and their run defense should be a bit better than last year's poor numbers (4.7 ypr allowed to teams that would combine to average 4.4 ypr against an average team). The Saints are certainly not going to a brick wall defensively, but an average defense is all that's needed to have them back in the running for a Super Bowl given how good the offense is.
Drew Brees is coming off consecutive outstanding seasons in which he averaged 7.7 yards per pass play in 2008 and 7.8 yppp last season (against teams that would allow 6.2 yppp to an average quarterback). The rushing attack was also very good in 2009, averaging 4.7 ypr against teams that would allow 4.4 ypr to an average team. I don't expect Pierre Thomas to be as good as last season (5.4 ypr in 2009, 5.0 ypr career), especially given his role as an every down back with the departure of Mike Bell, who led the team in rushing attempts (although at just 3.8 ypr). Reggie Bush also had a good season (5.7 ypr on 70 rushes), but that was more than his lifetime average too and it will be tough for the Saints to average the 4.7 ypr that they did last season. New Orleans was 1.0 yards per play better than average offensively last season and I rate their attack at 0.8 yppl better than average heading into this season, which is what it was in 2008.
The Saints had a horrible special teams rating last season, but Reggie Bush had a down year returning punts (until he broke an 83 yarder for a TD in the playoffs) and the place kicking was horrible. The place kicks should be better this season with Garrett Hartley taking over after performing well in 8 games last season. Hartley was 14 for 16 last season (5 for 5 in the playoffs) and he's 27 for 29 career in field goals, so the Saints seem to have solved the problem in that area. Overall I expect New Orleans to be about average in special teams in 2010.
My ratings favor the Saints by 4.6 points with a total of 46 points in this game, so I'm going to pass on betting on this game, as there are better opportunities this weekend.
Follow Bob Stoll on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drbobsports