The NFL has more year-to-year upheaval than any other major professional sports league in the world. Each year, mediocre teams morph into Super Bowl contenders while strong teams collapse. Injuries are difficult to forecast yet have a huge impact. Lower-round draft picks break out as surprising contributors, while star veterans become aged and useless. The whole thing comes in a 16-game sample size that leads to heavy variation from year to year even if the team's underlying performance stays consistent.
Despite these challenges, it's our job as NFL analysts to try to forecast the season. At Football Outsiders, we do it with a statistical projection system. The system accounts for numerous variables, including experience, continuity, draft value added in recent years and two years of various stats and splits from our main DVOA metric. We produce a range of possible team performances based on these variables and use those ratings to play the season out a million times. That gives us an idea of what's possible for each team, and the number in the middle of each range -- each team's mean win projection -- is the most likely result.
AFC East projected champ:New England Patriots (12.0 wins)
The rest: Buffalo Bills (9.7), New York Jets (9.2), Miami Dolphins (6.9) By our projections, this is the strongest division in the AFC. The teams are further helped by an easy schedule featuring the NFC West and AFC South.
The Patriots are our pick for AFC favorite. It's hard to argue when the team has gone 14-2 and 13-3 the past two seasons and won eight of the last nine division titles.
The bigger surprise is our projection for the Buffalo Bills, which we forecast as the most likely surprise playoff contender for 2012. The Bills average 9.7 wins in our simulations and make the playoffs 57 percent of the time, better odds than all but six teams. Our projections really like the Bills defense, because a Pro Bowl-level pass-rusher is probably the best offseason addition you can make other than at quarterback. The defense has a good mix of young and in-prime talent and should be healthier this year. Mario Williams aside, the defense's best player, Kyle Williams, is coming back from missing most of last season with an injury, and the second-best player, Marcell Dareus, should improve like most high draft picks do in their second season. The Bills also had a top-10 offense before a number of injuries in the second half of last season, including to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The New York Jets are also projected to be wild-card contenders. In general, offense is more consistent than defense, but the Jets have been unusually consistent on defense -- in the top five of the Football Outsiders rankings for three straight seasons -- and there's no reason to expect 2012 to be different. Our old compatriot Bill Barnwell did a good job in this Grantland piece of discussing why last season's Jets defense was much better than points allowed would indicate.
Even the Miami Dolphins have a better chance to make the playoffs than most fans believe. Last season, the Dolphins outscored opponents 329-313, and it's better to have an average quarterback such as veterans Matt Moore andDavid Garrard than it is to have a bad quarterback. If the Dolphins go with rookie Ryan Tannehill, it will likely be a rebuilding season.
AFC North projected champ:Pittsburgh Steelers (10.1 wins)
The rest: Baltimore Ravens (9.2), Cincinnati Bengals (8.8), Cleveland Browns (5.1)
The Steelers' rebuilt offensive line could result in a small step backward on offense, due to the importance of offensive line continuity, but the changes should pay off in the long run -- and the long run may start in January. The Steelers' defense is finally changing out some of its older players, but at this point that's a positive, giving the team a better mix of young and in-prime defenders. Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens, like the Jets, are teams that have bucked the trend of inconsistent defenses from season to season. That may not be true this season because of the Terrell Suggs injury, and we're open to the idea that our stat projection system can't fully account for the importance of Suggs to the Ravens defense. However, it's likely that Joe Flacco will counterbalance things by rebounding a bit from last season's decline.
The Cleveland Browns are back at the bottom of the development curve, the only reason the AFC North is not as strong as the AFC East.
The Cincinnati Bengals project to be about as good as they were a year ago. Any expected rebound from last season's big gain is offset by the fact that their best players are young and improving. (The biggest improvement from a young quarterback usually comes in Years 2 and 4.) We project the Bengals and Ravens to fight the Jets for the second AFC wild-card spot.
AFC South projected champ: Houston Texans (8.8 wins) The rest: Tennessee Titans (7.5), Jacksonville Jaguars (6.1), Indianapolis Colts (6.0) Given how well the Texans played last season when they were stuck with a third-string quarterback, you would expect us to project them as leading Super Bowl contenders. However, there are two reasons for our relatively blasť Texans forecast. First, the offense has to deal with upheaval along the offensive line, losing right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston. That is a downgrade in talent and continuity. Second, the defense is likely to hit the Plexiglas principle: Units that improve dramatically from one season to the next tend to decline a bit in the third season. However, historically, the negative impact of losing a Pro Bowl-level pass-rusher such as Mario Williams is lower than the positive impact of adding one.
The good news for Houston is that we don't project strong competition for the division title. The Tennessee Titans are Houston's most likely antagonist, especially if they favor short-term success (Matt Hasselbeck) over long-term development (Jake Locker). Hasselbeck was the Titans' quarterback in half of our projections and Locker the other half. Overall, the Titans' forecast ended up almost perfectly league average on offense, defense and special teams. They have 7.5 mean wins because of a tough schedule.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts are both rebuilding with mean projections around six wins.
AFC West projected champ: Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs (tie, 8.3 wins) The rest: Oakland Raiders (6.9), San Diego Chargers (6.8)
Denver and Kansas City are the kind of teams that Football Outsiders rarely likes before a season. Both teams had significantly more wins last season than we would expect from looking at their points scored and allowed, but both have some elements in their favor, which put them ahead in a weak division.
For Denver, it's the huge upgrade at the quarterback position. For Kansas City, it's all about health. The Chiefs are usually one of the healthiest teams in the league, but last year they were one of the least healthy, losing their star running back, star tight end and best defensive back for the season plus their starting quarterback for half the season. Kansas City's record didn't match its underlying performance in 2011, normally a sign of likely disappointment, but that underlying performance is probably going to be a lot closer to what it was in 2010.
The Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers aren't too far behind and have a shot at this division. Both teams project to be good on offense but poor on defense. Philip Rivers is likely to see some rebound from last season's pick-filled performance, and Carson Palmer's numbers last season were surprisingly good if you ignore his first game, when the Raiders tossed him in with about 15 minutes of practice. One additional negative indicator for Oakland is that it is unlikely Sebastian Janikowski can be as valuable as he was last season. His strong leg doesn't waver, but like nearly every kicker, his accuracy does. One positive for Oakland is that our fantasy projections like Denarius Moore to be the breakout receiving star of 2012, with 67 catches for 1,063 yards and seven touchdowns.
NFC East projected champ: Philadelphia Eagles (8.6 wins) The rest: New York Giants (8.3), Dallas Cowboys (7.5), Washington Redskins (6.8)
There's always an argument about whether the NFC East is really one of the strongest divisions in the league. Its teams generally don't end up with great records, in part because they are beating one another up. The Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys all project to be good but not great teams with tough schedules, and the Washington Redskins are the best last-place team in the league if Robert Griffin III is half as good as what we think he can be.
The Eagles went 8-8 last season even though they outscored opponents by 68 points, and they finished ninth in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. Going back to 1991, teams that finish in the top 10 of our ratings at 8-8 or worse win an average of 9.9 games the next season. The Eagles also improved significantly on defense over the course of last season, ranking 22nd in DVOA in the first half and sixth in the second half. But late-season defensive improvement doesn't seem to carry over to the following season, so we don't project the Eagles to have a great defense. We do project that it will be good, not the disaster it was in the first few weeks of 2011. The Eagles benefit from a third-place finish that gives them easier intraconference matchups than the Cowboys or Giants, so their mean projection of under 9.0 wins seems a bit low.
The projections for Dallas and New York also seem low, though, and it would be hard for three teams in the same division to all beat their forecasts. The Cowboys have big names at the positions that draw the most attention, but their offense will suffer due to an inexperienced and questionable offensive line. On defense, we don't see huge improvement despite the upgrade at cornerback. Morris Claiborne is superbly talented, but even the best, most-talented rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle in their first season.
The Giants' mean projection basically equals what they did in the 2011 regular season, which seems oddly low because we know how good they were in the postseason. A lot of teams that went on historic postseason runs after mediocre regular seasons didn't carry that improvement over to the next season. The 2008 Giants were one of the exceptions. It's also highly unlikely that the Giants will suffer as many injuries in the secondary as they did a year ago -- although they're not exactly off to a great start on that front.
NFC North projected champ: Green Bay Packers (11.1 wins) The rest: Chicago Bears (10.2), Detroit Lions (7.5), Minnesota Vikings (6.4) The Packers were the best team in our ratings last year, fourth the year before and second in 2009. The offense will probably decline, because it's hard to imagine how it could possibly be that good two straight seasons. The defense will balance that out with improvement because of the Plexiglas principle; after the defense went from one of the league's best in 2010 to one of the league's worst in 2011, a rebound is almost assured.
The Chicago Bears are a clear wild-card favorite, with the NFC's second-highest win projection. If Chicago's offense after Jay Cutler's injury was its offense all season, it would have set a new record for the worst offense ever tracked by Football Outsiders (since 1991). While defense and special teams are usually harder to forecast than offense, it's hard to see where the Bears see a big decline from those units. Just improving to an average offense makes them Super Bowl contenders.
Our projections are down on the Detroit Lions, expecting them to give back a lot of last season's gains. A big part of the reason is that Matthew Stafford's third season is completely out of line with his first two, both in terms of quality and health, so our projection system expects regression from the offense. If the Lions come out on the upside of their mean projection (7.5 wins), they'll be wild-card contenders.
The Minnesota Vikings should be better than last season, and our fantasy projections like Kyle Rudolph to surge into the ranks of starting fantasy tight ends, with 804 yards and six touchdowns.
NFC South projected champ: Atlanta Falcons (9.9 wins) The rest: New Orleans Saints (9.1), Carolina Panthers (8.4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7.1)
The Falcons seem to be flying under the radar. This is still a team with four straight winning seasons and two straight playoff appearances, right? Our projection systems like Matt Ryan to improve a little more, and the defense addedAsante Samuel, who has led all cornerbacks in our charting stats the past two season. "Leading in stats" is different from "best cornerback in the league," but it's nothing to sneeze at if you don't happen to have Darrelle Revis around.
The New Orleans Saints come out with a mean projection of 9.4 wins, making them a favorite for a wild card, but we have no idea what the impact of the bounty scandal and associated suspensions will be on the team. Although they don't end up in the playoffs in the majority of our simulations, the Carolina Panthers should be in the mix. Their defense and special teams were the worst in the NFL last season and are almost guaranteed to improve. If they do, the Panthers will be playoff contenders even if Cam Newton doesn't develop one bit more.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a surprisingly strong projection, with Josh Freeman expected to rebound from last season's decline, but they are unlikely to be in the wild-card mix.
NFC West projected champ: San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks (tied, 7.2 wins) The rest: Arizona Cardinals (5.9), St. Louis Rams (4.9)
Here's our shocking projection: first, that San Francisco will decline dramatically from last season's 13-3 record, and second, that no team in the NFC West has a mean projection over 8-8. That doesn't mean we expect a team with a losing record to win the division. Every team will see its performance vary from our mean projection, so somebody will end up at 9-7 or 10-6. Subjectively, I think that team is more likely to be San Francisco than Seattle, but the numbers like them both. The big issue for the 49ers is that teams that go from average to 13-3 mostly return to average the following season. That issue is exacerbated by the fact that the 49ers' improvement came mostly on defense and special teams rather than offense, which tends to swing less from season to season.
Seattle has good, young talent on defense, and its season mostly depends on who wins the quarterback job and how good that guy can be. (ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I went more in depth on the NFC West forecasts inthis post.)
The Arizona Cardinals are the Seahawks with a slightly older defensive core and a less promising offensive line. The St. Louis Rams are in complete rebuilding mode.