NFL Preseason warms up with the classic Week 3 starters dress rehearsal

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Two down and two to go. The NFL practice games, otherwise known as the exhibition, er, preseason, are halfway complete.

This week’s games traditionally feature starters playing into the third quarter in what have been labeled dress rehearsals for most teams. As such, if you are inclined to wager on preseason games you might consider concentrating on making first half wagers this week as you are likely to get efforts from the front line players who will begin the season as starters.

In evaluating preseason games the most important thing to take away is the obvious – injuries that will significantly affect a team’s game plan for coming season. The loss of a starting quarterback, receiver or other skill position player has obvious ramifications and will be highlighted throughout the media as opinions are offered as to what the likely impacts might be.

Not receiving as much attention – although receiving more recently than in the past – are injuries to the non-skill positions, especially along the offensive and defensive lines where teamwork, chemistry and familiarity with your teammates’ tendencies are crucial to success.

In addition to injuries is the development at depth. That’s where third and fourth quarter action in preseason games is important. By looking at home teams perform in the second half of preseason games we can gauge the level of depth with which a team will enter the season.

The fourth week of preseason football is almost exclusively devoted to making personnel decisions to decide on the 53 man roster that will start the regular season. Some fine tuning will be done where necessary but personnel decisions will predominate coaches’ thinking.

NFC East

With Kirk Cousins firmly entrenched at QB and head coach Jay Gruden having a solid offensive background, Washington may not regress as many experts believe. Dallas was 4-12 last season, largely due to the loss of QB Tony Romo missing all but the first two games and two more in midseason when he came back from his first injury.

As Romo goes so goes the Cowboys although rookie Dak Prescott has greatly impressed observers with his play in the first two preseason games. Of course, there is a long list of preseason All Pros so let’s take a wait and see approach on the ex-Mississippi State signal caller.

The Giants are the most intriguing team in the division. Eight of their 10 losses were by less than 7 points, many occurring in the final two minutes. Had they won even half of those 8 games the G-Men would have made the playoffs at 10-6. They spent heavily in the offseason to improve a historically poor defense.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is in his second tour of duty with the Giants. His first stint also started slowly but culminated with that impressive defensive effort in helping the Giants defeat 18-0 New England in Super Bowl 42.

Philadelphia is in a rebuilding mode as the franchise transitions from the unorthodox style of former coach Chip Kelly to a more traditional offense under new coach Doug Pederson. Pederson coached under Andy Reid both with the Eagles and in Kansas City so he understands the demands of coaching in the city of Brotherly Love and has familiarity with some of the carryover personnel and front office.

The Eagles should show improvement as the season progresses but likely finishes last and will be hard pressed to improve upon or even equal last season’s 7-9 record. I am looking for the Giants and Redskins to contend for Division honors with some questions about the dynamics in Dallas with questions about the defense and whether the key offensive performers can avoid the injuries that have plagued that unit for the past few seasons.

NFC North

This is a division of haves and have nots with the top two teams, Green Bay and Minnesota, both winning double digit games last season whereas Chicago and Detroit each finished below .500. The Lions and Bears each suffered significant losses in the offseason. Potential Hall of Fame WR Calvin Johnson retired from the Lions while Chicago not only lost versatile RB Matt Forte but may have suffered an even bigger loss when offensive coordinator Adam Gase left to become head coach in Miami.

Gase had a major positive impact on enigmatic QB Jay Cutler. The reasons for optimism in Chicago is the track record of coach john Fox who led Carolina from 7-9 in his first season as coach to 11-5 in his second and showed dramatic improvement in Denver, going from 8-8 to 13-3.

The elevation in midseason of Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator did have a positive impact on the Lions’ offense but with defenses having had an entire offseason to break down the changes there will be additional challenges this season for a roster with lesser personnel and still in need of a running game to complement the passing attack.

Minnesota and Green Bay should again challenge for the Division title. The Packers start the season healthier this season with the return of WR Jordy Nelson and giving QB Aaron Rodgers a wide variety of options. Minnesota has one of the NFL’s top defenses and an offense that projects to improve with QB Teddy Bridgewater having another year of experience, augmented by the confidence gained by leading the Vikings to the Division title last season.

NFC South

Carolina is again the team to beat although a repeat of last season’s 15-1 record is unlikely. Figure though at least 11 and likely 12 wins. Tampa Bay is poised to show improvement with QB Jameis Winston off of an impressive rookie season. Considered to have an extremely high football IQ, Winston should show more improvement this season and if the defense can show the improvement expected of it following off season moves, the Bucs could contend for a Wild Card.

New Orleans is an aging team with a poor defense and has gone 7-9 in 3 of the past 4 seasons with 2013’s 11-5 the exception. After 5 straight winning seasons from 2008 through 2012, including four with double digit wins, the Falcons crashed in 2013 with a 4-12 record. After subsequent seasons of 6-10 and 8-8 that included a coaching change, the Falcons have started the rebuilding process.

Atlanta and Tampa Bay still have holes to fill before they can challenge Carolina for the division title but the NFC South has been marked by severe season to season swings since Division realignment in 2002 with multiple occurrences of “worst to first” from one season to the next with all four franchises experiencing that phenomena at least once.

NFC West

The division has been dominated by Seattle and Arizona the past two seasons and that is expected to continue this season. The 49ers have a new coach for the second straight season with Chip Kelly taking over for Jim Tomsula. It will be a continuation of the rebuilding process for the Niners this season and any limited progress that may have been shown last season is all but gone. However, the 49ers do have decent defensive talent around which to build and compete while the offense all but starts over.

With the return of the Rams to Los Angeles from St Louis the entire Division will benefit from a less demanding travel regimen. Whether the Rams can show progress on the field is questionable. The Rams have not won as many as 8 games since going 8-8 in 2006 and their last winning season was 2003 when the final vestiges of the “greatest show on turf” went 12-4. In his four seasons as Rams’ coach Jeff Fisher’s team has fallen short of their season wins total in each of the last three seasons, albeit by less than 1.5 games each season.

Arizona and Seattle should both contend for the division title with each making the playoffs with double digit wins. Arizona may not be able to reprise its 13-3 record of last season although if QB Carson Palmer stays healthy a repeat is possible with a very strong defense. St Louis has enough talent to finish ahead of the 49ers but a realistic goal for the Rams might be achieving a .500 record.

Next week: Season win totals.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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