Home > 2011 Lockout, Game Picks, NFL, Roster Roundouts, Schedule > The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part I

The LiveBall Sports 2011 NFL Season Mega-Preview: Part I

We’re going to start with the NFC South and NFC North predictions, to ensure that those picks are out by the time the Saints and Packers play this evening.  By Friday, the rest of the season preview will be written.

NFC South

Liveball Sports QDS Projections:

Saints 10.0 wins
Falcons 8.7 wins
Panthers 7.2 wins
Bucs 7.2 wins

The NFC South is one of the better divisions out there, but tonight’s game is going to mean a lot.  Consider: I have the Saints finishing far enough ahead of the Falcons where head to head and divisional tiebreakers should not be a major issue in the outcome of the division.  Should the Saints lose tonight, that would drop their season projection by about half a win, and now they’re close enough to the Falcons where a tiebreaker could mean the difference between division champs and the wild card.  Of course, if the Bears beat the Falcons on Sunday, their projection drops by over a third of a game, and then the Falcons might just be an 8-8 team.

Of course a loss for the Falcons has perhaps even larger ramifications.  They are the sixth playoff team in right now in the NFC according to the QDS probabilities (which are equation based, not simulation based, in terms of how the factor in strength of schedule).  The difference is going to be mostly reflected in the NFC East win probabilities, because the division expectation for the NFC West is so low this year.  The equation gives a solid win boost to all four NFC East teams, which is really a .500 division in terms of talent, I have them going a combined 34-30, which has a large affect on the NFC playoff projections versus a simulation which would likely pick just one playoff team from the NFC East and not project the NFC West to have four teams finish below .500 again.

If the Falcons lose to the Bears on opening day, the Bears hold the tiebreaker over the Falcons for the rest of the year, giving them a legitimate shot to make the playoffs at 8-8 by merely knocking off the Cowboys and the Falcons.  It also opens up a spot for the Bucs or even Panthers to make a run.

This is maybe a bit optimistic on the chances of the Panthers to be a factor in the NFC South this year, projecting them within 3 wins of the division title, that is, but the drivers behind this prediction is that the Panthers have strong recent history, averaging 7.33 wins per year while being quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, and Jimmy Clausen.  The expectation that the Panthers can win an average of as many games as they have averaged over the past three years with a fourth place schedule even with Cam Newton at quarterback is not all that optimistic.  It would be a surprise if Carolina won 8+ games, just like it would be a surprise if Atlanta won 11 games.  The Panthers have a pretty good team, outside of the quarterback.

Tampa Bay’s projection is really just the play of quarterback Josh Freeman staving off a lot of regression factors from a team that won 4 games two years ago.  This is a young team that could classically go from 10 wins to 5 wins in the blink of ones eye, but because of Freeman as a stabilizing presence, the Bucs are likely to fall out of playoff contention early, but will be able to rally and win games late.  I have them at seven wins, but a margin of at least two on either side would be nice because the team is so young.

How can the Falcons and Bucs make the playoffs?  The Bucs have the most room to improve from last year on the defensive side of the ball while the Panthers are not expected to have an above average offense.  It would be a surprise if those units led the NFC in a bunch of categories, and would probably drive a playoff run for either team.

NFC North

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Packers 11.3 wins
Vikings 7.8 wins
Bears 7.5 wins
Lions 6.2 wins

I would bet a lot of money on the Lions exceeding my win projection for them of 6.2 wins, because the primary factor dragging them down is their recent performance: 2.67 wins per year, lowest among any team of the last three years.  While the predictive value of this is useful for determining that this is probably not the year the Lions will Restore the Roar (3 years removed from an 0-16 season), it’s not fair to the Lions to assume that just because they’ve been the NFL’s worst team over the last three seasons, that the gains they made last season cannot be real.  I think they’ll get closer to 8 wins this year than 5.  And if Matt Stafford really is as good as he appears when healthy, they have no limits on offense (which, of course, makes 8-8 the target given the weaknesses in their secondary.

The Vikings in second place is a big surprise, but there’s no real difference in the projection between the Vikings and the Bears.  Recent history is pretty much identical, and even though the Bears have a first place schedule and the Vikings have a fourth place schedule, the Bears will draw the Seahawks because of it while the Vikings get the Cardinals.  The Bears and Vikings will be able to play it out on the field as relative equals this year.  And the Lions will be more in the mix than my projections suggest.

If all three teams are in a bitter fight for second place and a potential wild card, it is only because the Packers figure to be so far ahead of the rest of the, er, division.  The Pack is poised for a repeat run at the title, and should get better positioning via a division championship.  The expectation is because of a tough schedule early for the Bears and Vikings, the Lions and Packers will run stride by stride for eight or ten weeks, but then the roster weaknesses of the Lions will slowly get exposed while the Packers should finish strong, drawing the Lions twice at the end of the season, beginning with Thanksgiving day.

The race to keep an eye on in the division, barring an early season Aaron Rodgers injury (or late season, given the ease of the Lions early schedule) is the one for second place.  The Lions will have the upper hand early, but the gap will close late.  A playoff spot rests in the balance.  And my money, all else equal, is on the Chicago Bears for second place in the NFC North.

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