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Grading my 2012 NFL Mega Preview on Accuracy and Intent

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Since I started LiveBall Sports in July of 2009, I didn’t take a hiatus of more than a few weeks during the first three years the blog was active.  Over the last five months, I took a bit of a sabattical.  The most recent post I did previewed the 2012 NFL season.  You know, the season that ended two weeks ago.

Football season is really the calling card of this analysis blog, and I essentially was just time-warped to the end.  The cool thing is that I have an opportunity to look back now on my predictions and analysis in a way that I could never do when always reacting to news and current events.  By taking a step back to early September, I can critique the accuracy of my analysis without the benefit of the adjustments I typically make to my predictions as the season rolls along.

NFC East

Preseason Projection:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
  2. Washington Redskins (9-7)
  3. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  4. New York Giants (9-7)

Actual finish:

1. Washington Redskins (10-6)
2. New York Giants (9-7)
3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (4-12)

This was probably my single most accurate division projection, even though I didn’t get the division champ correct.  I missed spectacularly on the Eagles — pretty much everyone had them pegged to best last year’s 8 wins, but I didn’t see a serious challenger to them in the NFC East.  What I didn’t count on is exactly who the Eagles main enemy would be: themselves.  Outside of a complete team effort late in the season against the Bucs, the Eagles essentially were a train wreck from October on.

I did however nail the other three teams, including having the guts audacity to predict that the Redskins would finish above the SB Champion Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.  In a world where the Redskins lose the Thanksgiving Day game to the Cowboys after choking away an insurmountable lead, I would have gotten the records perfectly correct for all three teams.

With the benefit of hindsight, there were plenty of warning signs around the Eagles.  LeSean McCoy was coming off a career year (which are harder to identify when 24 year olds have career years), Michael Vick was aging, Jason Peters was slated to miss the season, the team wasted a first round pick in 2011 on a 26 year old rookie guard, and although I would still predict a rebound season for Nnamdi Asomugha if I had it to do over, the Eagles had one significantly above average performer on defense this year: Brandon Graham.  It could take Chip Kelly a year to get this team competing again.

NFC North

Preseason projection

  1. Chicago Bears (11-5)
  2. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
  3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
  4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
3. Chicago Bears (10-6)
4. Detroit Lions (4-12)

I was a lot stronger on the Vikings and far more hands off on the Lions than most observers were, and in neither case was I aggressive enough to truly take credit on those predictions.  I have no problem with calling the Lions a 7-9 team after the fact — they vastly outproduced their 4-12 finish, and are a nice rebound candidate for next season.  Obviously, the Vikings were much better than a 6-10 team, making the playoffs at 10-6.

I wrote, “the Vikings are not going to be the disaster people expect,” which was true.  I said that they would “lack in explosive offensive plays,” which was partially true.  They didn’t have many big passing plays through the air.  Adrian Peterson DID almost have the greatest season ever by a running back though.  I cited competition as the reason I expected the Vikings to have a losing record, but giving them credit for both wins over the Lions still only puts them at 8-8.  I certainly didn’t expect the Vikings to beat the Bears and Packers each at home.

My biggest “miss” in the division, if you can even call it a miss, was picking the Bears to tie the Packers, necessarily meaning the Bears would beat the Packers at least once during the season to win the tiebreaker.  They did not.  The Bears only missed the playoffs by one game, as the difference between 10-6 and 11-5 proved to be the difference.  But the truth was the team I misprojected wasn’t the Bears, it was the Packers.  I thought they would lose five games throughout the season thanks to season-long team weaknesses in the middle of the defense and the offensive line.  In reality, they lost three games very quickly, including a baffling road loss to Andrew Luck and the Colts, and then won 90% of their games for the next three months.  That’s not the team I wrote about in September, even though I hit the record exactly on.

NFC South

Preseason projection:

  1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
  2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
  3. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Actual finish:

1. Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)
3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
4. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

I’m not sure we really know any more about this division at the end than we did at the beginning.  I wrote many times during the offseason that the Saints wouldn’t miss Sean Peyton, but I think I really underestimated what kind of effect not having ANY stability in coaching would have on those first six weeks.  They performed like the second best team in the division by some measures (#1 scoring offense in the NFC), and like the worst in others (#32 ranked defense by Total DVOA).  In practicality, that could have happened to the Saints in any year, and this team was going to lose Gregg Williams as its defensive coordinator no matter what happened to Payton.

It’s fine if the Saints want to blame their woes on Roger Goodell so that they can move on more easily, but they have one building block  on their entire defense right now (safety Malcolm Jenkins, coming off a terrible year), and Drew Brees, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles are all beyond the age of decline.  Devery Henderson was great for so many years, but he’s limited even as a fourth receiver at this point.  Jimmy Graham will be great for a long time, but he just led the league in dropped passes.  There’s still a ton to like about the Saints, but I’m not sure how much having Sean Payton would have mattered this year.

I said the Falcons defense and special teams would take a huge step forward this year, and they did…they’re now average units.  Offensively, the Falcons are still very efficient, but largely unimpressive away from home.  Matt Ryan mixed three fumble and five INT days in with an otherwise MVP caliber season.  He’s the best player on the Falcons.

I don’t know what to say about the Bucs.  I projected inconsistency for Josh Freeman, which pretty much happened.  Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson made a lot of big plays.  The OL overall was a net positive.  The defense is coming around.  The Bucs need to add veteran leadership in free agency to avoid being part of the endless cycle of .500-type seasons.

The Panthers were probably my biggest miss, which I missed on by all of two games, same as the Bucs and the Saints.  But the Panthers looked like a 9-7 team over the second half of the season, they just got off to a bad start, which can happen to anyone.  The fact that the Falcons won this division by six games is an incredible display of random variance: they were the best team in the division, but not by anything close to a historical amount.

NFC West

Preseason projection:

  1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)
  3. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
  4. St. Louis Rams (3-13)

Actual finish:

1. San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
2. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)
3. St. Louis Rams (7-8-1)
4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

I thought the Rams would be the worst team in football this year, which wasn’t even close to accurate.

Overall, the biggest miss for me here was the projected quality of the division.  The 49ers and Seahawks were very much the best teams in football this season, and I had each of them severely underprojected.  Combine that with the Rams prediction, and I missed bad on 3/4 teams, exception being the Cardinals, who were awful this season.

I did say the 49ers would need some “December wins in the division” to lock it up, which essentially ended up being true.  I just didn’t think the Patriots would be one of the easier matchups they would have in December.

NFC Team “hits”: 10; NFC Team “misses”: 6

AFC East

Preseason projection:

  • New England Patriots (10-6)
  • Miami Dolphins (10-6)
  • Buffalo Bills (8-8)
  • New York Jets (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. New England Patriots (12-4)
2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
3. New York Jets (6-10)
4. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

I was really bullish on the Dolphins playoff chances prior to the season, picking them to win double digit games.  That part didn’t exactly happen, but they were comfortably the second best team in the division.  This is a team that’s very strong in the front seven, and now has a really good roster foundation for the future.  The Bills were horrible this year, again.  I got halfway caught in the hype generated by the Bills last offseason (though I was on record saying that Mario Williams was a huge money drain).  The Bills have some really good players, but they are very weak at cornerstone positions: cornerback, quarterback, edge pass rusher, and interior receiver (TE or slot).  This probably isn’t a one year rebuild, but adding two quality players at premium positions (good luck) probably makes them a playoff team.

The Jets are a salary cap mess and probably the odds on favorite for fourth place in the division next year.

AFC North

Preseason projection:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
  • Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
  • Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
  • Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Actual finish:

1. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Almost a complete carbon copy of my NFC East picks.  I had the Steelers coming out of the AFC North and in fact, winning the whole AFC, a prediction I missed spectacularly on.  Other than that, I pretty much had the AFC North pegged spot on until the playoffs, when the Ravens done gone won the whole thing.

Why did I miss so badly on the Steelers?  Every team has a down year, but the Steelers were just largely not good.  Mike Wallace just had an off-year (in a contract year!).  Rashard Mendenhall didn’t contribute.  David DeCastro missed much of the season after sustaining a preseason injury and never really contributed.  After having perhaps the league’s best receiver depth a year ago, the Steelers actually threw some passes to Plaxico Burress this year, which sums up the season in a nutshell.

The age of the defense is not a huge excuse for the Steelers, because the Ravens had exactly the same situation this year and won the super bowl.  The difference between the teams was this: the Ravens made playoff heros out of Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Jacoby Jones, while Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta, Bryant McKinnie, and Bernard Pierce all contributed positively over the stretch run.  The Steelers got only stagnation from Mendenhall, Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Max Starks.  The Steelers won a ton of games over the last decade because of full roster contribution (and no better example than in 2008), but in 2012, he was more or less a one man show.

AFC South

Preseason projection:

  • Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
  • Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
  • Houston Texans (7-9)
  • Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Actual finish:

1. Houston Texans (12-4)
2. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

Very much hit and miss for me here in my projections.  The Texans and Jags picks missed spectacularly, but I had the Colts making the playoffs thanks to a weak schedule (I clearly underestimated how weak), and pinned the Titans as a trainwreck.  You win some, and you lose some.  In picking the Jags to win seven games, I said that they would “maintain their gains on defense,” which absolutely did not happen.  The Jags were atrocious on defense this year, one year after being fantastic.

The Colts were a bad team most of the season, but had enough veteran talent remaining to get a quality season out of Reggie Wayne, mediocrity out of Anthony Castanzo, and a really good rookie years from third rounder TE Dwayne Allen and third rounder T.Y. Hilton.  Plus: Andrew Luck!  And that was pretty much it.  The Colts were one of the worst teams in football, to be honest.

I pointed out that the Texans hadn’t won more than 10 games in the ten year history of the franchise, which is now no longer accurate.  I think my observation that they lacked depth due to the salary cap was pretty accurate, but 16 games of JJ Watt would have won this division no matter what else was going on.  Andre Johnson had a really good year as well.  Duane Brown as well.  I think the Texans are again a huge decline risk in 2013, but I said that at this time last year and they improved by two games.  So this was a clear miss.

AFC West

Preseason Projection:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
  2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)
  3. Denver Broncos (8-8)
  4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

Actual finish:

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)
2. San Diego Chargers (7-9)
3. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
4. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)

So I had both the Chiefs and Raiders making the playoffs.  Those two teams were by far the biggest misses I had.

But the Broncos were a clear third.  Rather than focus about what I didn’t know about this division (basically: anything), lets focus on what I got right: that the Chargers would not rebound.

“The Chargers have bottomed out in terms of talent, and while Philip Rivers’ inexplicable issues with the interception last year should be mended, he’s very much alone as the one pro-bowl level talent on the Chargers with Vincent Jackson departed and Antonio Gates aging.”

Pretty good.

And for hilarity’s sake, the rest of that passage I wrote in September:

“The Raiders and Chiefs will conspire to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos out of the playoffs.”

That didn’t exactly happen.

AFC Team “Hits”: 9; AFC Team “Misses”: 7

Overall, I went 19-13 this year projecting teams, which makes me a 9.5-6.5 NFL team.  It was a pretty good year for my predictions, minus about three or four complete stinkers.

More importantly, the ones I missed on, there were three common reasons I did:

1) Didn’t forecast a large collapse by a historically successful franchise
2) Forecasted sustained gains for a historically struggling franchise that would collapse
3) Peyton Manning

Using those two rules, I should be wary of supporting older franchises like the Patriots, Ravens, Giants, and Bears in 2013.  However, there’s no clear reason to deviate from my currrent methodology seeing as the same things I missed with the Eagles, I hit on with the Chargers.  Perhaps I just need a clearer definition of “talent”: anyone who saw the Philadelphia Eagles or Pittsburgh Steelers play this year would not have suggested that they were significantly more talented than their opponents.

And in the second case, whatever factors I missed on with the Chiefs, Bills, Jaguars, and Raiders didn’t seem to affect the Bengals, although this might be explained by the fact that the Bengals have simply replenished their young talent though the draft much better than the other four teams have.  I’ll have to keep this in mind when predicting the records of the Colts, Dolphins, Redskins (?), and Seahawks next season.

And in regards to Peyton Manning: just always believe until the results force you to not believe.  That’s the lesson of the 2012 season.

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

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Despite the fact that week one is more or less in the books, I’m still rolling out the projections.  Here are the final two divisions, saved because half of the remaining teams play tonight.  Here is part I and part II of the preview.

AFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Patriots 10.9 wins
Jets 7.8 wins
Dolphins 7.3 wins
Bills 6.9 wins

Like the NFC North and the AFC West alike, the AFC East is a division where there is a “winner”, and then there’s everybody else.  As fans, we do not think of the New York Jets as an afterthought, but a lot of systems do.  Whether or not a system that involves an inconsistent passing game can lead the Jets to a title remains to be seen, but it’s hard to act like it’s likely they’ll be able to win 9 or more games on a year to year basis.  What the Patriots can do with Tom Brady allows them to be much more stable team atop the division year to year.  Rex Ryan’s public call to beat the Patriots is a good example of why the Jets aren’t ever likely to go and win the super bowl despite the fact that they’ve been to two straight AFC Championships: they can hang with anybody, but no game is too easy.

The Dolphins and Bills each have interesting longshots at being the second best team in the division.  The Bills are a much improved team, as yesterday’s massacre of the Chiefs showed.  The Dolphins will play tonight, and they’re better than their record (particularly their home record) showed last year.  I don’t know how much they actually improved in the offseason, most of the time they seemed to be shooting themselves in the foot with their personnel moves.  Either would be a full on even match for the Jets in their four head to head games.

Are the Patriots a true super bowl contender?  Well, they are not as good as the Steelers, but I’d take even odds between the Chargers and Pats as the second best team in the conference, with the Texans a not-so-distant fourth.  And so through that lens, the Patriots look really good as a super bowl pick, which I suppose is why they are so popular.  People have memories long enough to remember 2006 when the Pats used to have success in the playoffs and 2004, when they last won the super bowl.  The Chargers (and really, to be blunt, Steelers) are not getting the benefit of the doubt the way the Patriots are.

AFC West

Chargers 10.0 wins
Raiders 7.5 wins
Broncos 7.1 wins
Chiefs 6.4 wins

Norv Turner seems to take a lot of flak for the way the Chargers are treated by random fluctuations of luck: this is still a really good team after all — one that many are taking to win the super bowl.  But because the Chargers have Turner in tow, its more difficult to view their week one nailbiter with the Vikings at home as something that should have happened in a football season.  Instead it feels like the same old Chargers, a notion bolstered by the images of Philip Rivers screaming at his head coach in the first half trailing by ten points.

Of course, if we ignore the images of failure that seem to stick to Turner better than other coaches, we can see that Donovan McNabb, who was on pace to break the Redskins single season passing yardage record before being benched last season, was held to 39 yards passing in this game on 15 attempts.  Greg Manusky is going to be just fine as Chargers defensive coordinator.  With that said, the special teams, which could not have possibly started off this season worse than they finished last year, managed to allow a kick return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and have their kicker, Nate Kaeding, knocked out for the rest of the game.  So basically, the impossible task of getting worse on special teams…it may have only been one play, but the Chargers were able to do it.

I like the Raiders and Broncos a lot more than the Chiefs this year.  Kansas City looked worse than expected yesterday at home against the Bills, and I didn’t expect very much at all from them.  Sure, the Bills may have something going, but this particular result had far more to do with the Chiefs being a dreadful team.  Even with competition like the Raiders and Broncos, this is a last place team.

We will learn plenty about the Raiders and Broncos tonight.  The Broncos will need to transition from a team that threw it around under Josh McDaniels to a team that is balanced under John Fox, and Kyle Orton looked very comfortable in going back to his roots from his Chicago days.  It’s a nice start, but it’s just that, a start.  And the longer the Broncos keep Tim Tebow on their roster, the hotter Orton’s seat will get when the team doesn’t win.  And Orton’s defense still isn’t very good.

Jason Campbell might not have much of a defense either in Oakland, I guess we’ll know more after tonight.  The Raiders will need to exploit Broncos rookie RT Orlando Franklin with DE Lamarr Houston, really the only strong match-up they have on defense.  The Raiders could have a great defensive year with the talent on their front seven, but it relies almost exclusively on the ability of second year players Houston and LB Rolando McClain.  The offense could shine this year, if only they can keep Campbell upright against speed rushers.  But with that running game, head coach Hue Jackson should be able to scheme around his offensive weakpoints on the line.  There’s a lot of ifs in Oakland to project a great season, but a return to last year’s mark of 8-8 should not be entirely unexpected.

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

September 11, 2011 1 comment

Part 1 of the NFL preview can be seen here.

NFC East

LiveBall Sports QDS Projections:

Eagles 10.0 wins
Giants 9.5 wins
Cowboys 8.1 wins
Redskins 7.1 wins

As stated in part one, the win projections on this entire division feel inflated because I’m using an equation instead of a simulation based projection.  And so, yes, saying the Giants are going to challenge for 10 wins seems foolish given the premises.  But they’re one of the favorites for this division.  The half win projection difference between the Giants and Eagles is almost entirely a strength of schedule thing.  I’d bet a one-win under on each of these teams for the year: 6 for the Redskins, 7 for the Cowboys, 9 for the Giants, and 9 for the Eagles, which would put the NFC East a game under .500 this year.

The preseason struggles of the Eagles and Giants might not mean a lot, but its a nice development for the Redskins and Cowboys, two teams who wouldn’t have much of a chance to win a strong division in a standard year, but with the NFC East a bit down this year, the Redskins and the Cowboys have hope this year that they might not otherwise have.  In particular, the Redskins projection is up a bit over the pre-free agency projection thanks to improvements made on the defensive line.

NFC West

Cardinals 7.8 wins
49ers 6.8 wins
Rams 6.2 wins
Seahawks 5.5 wins

The Cardinals expectation for 8-8 is not based off of an offseason acquisition, but off of recent history: above .500 in both 2008 and 2009, making them by far the class of this division.  The Rams should be better on defense this year, but 6.2 wins may be pushing the limits of an offense where Sam Bradford is working with C+ players.

I like the Seahawks a lot more than 5.5 wins suggests, and I think they’ll be back atop this division before long.  For the Cardinals, it’s nice that they made an aggressive trade to strike while the division is there for the taking.  I don’t think the 49ers will be quite as good as 7 wins this year, but if you throw last season out of the results (6 wins, mind you), they’ve been the most consistent team in the division over the last few years.  Predicting 4-12 or worse for the 49ers just wouldn’t follow from the premises.

The only team that figures to decline from last season is St. Louis, the team which most observers expect to improve.  The Seahawks are the easy money pick for last because they have very little upside at the QB position or on defense.  And as usual, this division will struggle yet again.

AFC South

Texans 10.1 wins
Titans 8.2 wins
Colts 8.0 wins
Jaguars 5.3 wins

Observers are far too down on the Colts this season.  This is not going to be “their year,” quite clearly, but this is an offensive unit that could make Kerry Collins look similar to Brett Favre at the end of his career.  And with Mathis and Freeney healthy and rushing the passer, the Colts are going to be in every game they play this year.  The Texans won’t be able to cakewalk them in Week 1.

Now, I don’t think anyone is particularly shocked by that Jags projection, which is even not penalizing the Jags for dumping David Garrard (there is no mechanism by which they would be preemptively punished for Luke McCown being a below replacement QB, something we just don’t know he is), but doesn’t see a bounceback year for the defense, and mostly sees the Jags much as the same team they were last season, but without the luck, and with a tough second place schedule.

The Titans on the other hand are really highly projected, not independent of the fact that this was a 13-3 team just three years ago, and could rebound to just below that level.  With that said, this roster does not project to rebound.  Chris Johnson is maybe the best in the league at what he does, and a last place schedule will fit the Titans well, but I don’t see 8 wins (or even a competitive year).  Of course, the reason for running the numbers in the first place is to get a couple results that make you go, “huh?” and rethink my position on a team.  Even after reflection, I’m not a buyer on the Titans.

AFC North

Steelers 13.1 wins
Ravens 9.7 wins
Browns 6.6 wins
Bengals 5.0 wins

My impression from the preseason was that the Ravens just aren’t going to be in it at all this year.  Their offensive line is a sieve.  I expect regression from their quarterback position this year.  The receiving corps may be new, but it’s just not very good.  Ray Rice has one good season in three as a pro.   Todd Heap is out at TE, and who knows how Ed Dickson will fit into that offense?  With the offense looking like that and the defense in full on age decline, this has the potential to be a disaster season for the Ravens.

A horrible year for Baltimore would open a door for Cleveland.  These projections are not high on Cleveland, particularly looking at their defense as a major work in progress and not seeing the impact from the rookie class typically expected in a surprise team.  But Cleveland can throw it around on offense, and they have the balance to run the ball and close out the clock in close games, something they struggled with at the beginning of last season.  With strong special teams, this offense will be the best friend of that defense.

And I don’t think I would write off Dick Jauron’s defense either.  It’s clearly understaffed at two of the three levels (the secondary is the lone exception), but Jauron’s simple execution schemes can lead to quick turnarounds, and DT Phil Taylor has looked better than I expected on the interior.  The Browns have a really good shot to be a winning team this year for only the third time since coming in as an expansion team in 1999.

But the Steelers will run away with the AFC North, if not the entire conference.  13 wins isn’t a misprint, it’s a baseline expectation for how much winning the Steelers should do against one of the weakest schedules in memory.  The Steelers have won more against harder schedules, and with a full year of Ben Roethlisberger and enough time to sort through considerable OL issues, the Steelers should be right back in the mix to win the AFC this season.

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

September 8, 2011 2 comments

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.

Bears and Packers has Extra Meaning Tonight

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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The Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers NFL rivalry is steeped in great tradition, dating back to the inaugural season of the Packers in 1921.  The history is the foundation of the rivalry, one of the more significant hatreds in all of sports.  This hatred is remarkable, because if you look at the history of either team, you realize that: since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Bears and Packers have been one of the six best teams (thus, making the playoffs) in the NFC…in just two of 40 seasons.

Think about that for a second.  If we assume perfect competitive balance in the NFC, the probability of both teams making the playoffs in any given season since the wild card was added is around 20%.  That’s just in one season.  In more than thirty years, it’s happened just twice.  This is more remarkable once you realize that the Bears and Packers have each enjoyed decade-long stretches of dominance.  It’s almost worked out perfectly that when one team is up, the other is down.

In no decade has that tendency been more pronounced than this past decade.  The Packers had a post-super bowl era swoon in 1999-2000 as they evolved as a team, but in 2001, they rebounded and went back to the top of the NFC Central, sweeping the Bears.  Of course, the Bears beat their final 14 non-Green Bay opponents that year and remain champions of the Central to this day.  That 2001 season was the last time the Bears and Packers were in the same playoff field.  The Bears dropped down to league-worst levels for the next three years, as Brett Favre and the Packers pressured the Eagles for the title of the most dominant team in the NFC then.

After four consecutive playoff appearances, the Packers suffered through an injury riddled 2005 season, and ultimately a short rebuild.  This managed to overlap with the dominance of the Bears defense, the new Monsters of the Midway, as a league-best unit that took the Bears’ hapless offense to the playoffs in consecutive years.  Then the Bears were knocked from their throne by an upstart Packers team led by the then 38 year old Brett Favre.  The Packers have been to the playoffs two of the last three years, while the Bears have come up empty, even though the year the Packers went 5-11 (2008), the Bears were a Week 17 win away from playing in the postseason.

All of these factors make this game between the 2-0 Packers and the 2-0 Bears significant.  Both teams are among the favorites to make the postseason in the NFC this year, and the winner of this game in Chicago takes a stranglehold on the NFC North division this year.  For two rivals who have never met in the NFC postseason, this could be the year where the NFC North’s wild card team is strong enough to knock off one of the weaker divisional winners and meet their rival in the divisional round in the first elimination between the teams in the modern era.

If the Bears want to avoid a potential trip to Lambeau Field in January, the first step is to defeat the Packers on their home turf tonight.  Many analysts aren’t giving the Bears much of a chance in this game, but I think they would be perceived differently as a team if they hadn’t lost defensive superstar Brian Urlacher for the whole season last year.  The Bears weren’t going to the playoffs with that offense a year ago, but they ended up at 6-10 because the defense had it’s worst season in almost a decade.  This year, that defense is back to a fierce level, and it’s a unit that is bound to give QB Aaron Rodgers some fits.

Of course, the Packers defense has been remarkably strong as well over the last year and a month, and with LT Chris Williams’ scratched for the Bears, QB Jay Cutler needs to be both decisive and accurate with his reads to knock of the Packers.  Cutler is reliably one or the other of those characteristics, but rarely is he both.  Matt Forte and Chester Taylor are ‘X’ factor backs for the Bears: they do more in the receiving game for the Bears than any other backs do for their teams.

The new-look Bears are the most exciting team Chicago has had in the last 25 years, because they throw the ball all over the yard and play stingy defense.  Those taking them lightly based on last year’s results would be wise to get over results from last year: they weren’t a good team last year and that’s not relevant.  The Packers were a great team last year, and that’s not really relevant here either.  The Bears are not the Bills.  They will outlast the Packers tonight in a showdown on the Chicago lake shore.

LiveBall Sports Week Two NFL Picks

September 19, 2010 Leave a comment

More picks and discussion from those who write a lot without being right a lot.

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Ravens at Bengals Starting a season playing the Ravens and the Patriots would be a difficult draw for any team with high expectations, but for the Bengals, it’s more likely than not that those expectations were misplaced.  Experts like Chris Mortensen and Pat Kirwan picked the Bengals to go to the Super Bowl.  I don’t know what qualifies as a good super bowl pick (I mean, hardly anyone had the Colts and the Saints last year), but I’m thinking that if results in week one can make the pick look looney, it wasn’t a strong pick to begin with.  Ravens win this one.

Bears at Cowboys The Bears struggled to block Kyle VandenBosch and Cliff Avril last week, so this week’s match-up of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware is going to cause the Bears a lot of problems.  The Cowboys offense hasn’t looked good this year, and this this week won’t be an exception to that rule, but unlike last week, the Cowboys can do just enough on offense to come out on top, narrowly.

Eagles at Lions In the past, this is the kind of game the Eagles always put away early.  But last year, they went to Oakland and lost to the Raiders.  That gives me pause: for the second week in a row, the Lions defense is going to get into the kitchen and harass the opponents’ quarterback without allowing a big day to the running back.  Still, with Shaun Hill starting for the Lions, this Eagles defense is the dominant unit on the field in this game, and should provide enough pressures and hits to win the game, however ugly the process may be.

Cardinals at Falcons This is a fairly fascinating Week 2 match-up.  The Cardinals defense looked great in Week 1 against Sam Bradford and the Rams, and the Falcons offense looked out of sync against a very competitive Steelers team.  If history repeats itself from a week ago, the Cards will win a defensive battle.  But there’s reason to believe that the Falcons can use the week in between to fix holes in their offensive gameplan, restore balance, and score a couple of touchdowns against the Cards.  That should be enough for the Falcons to comfortably defeat Derek Anderson’s Cardinals.

Chiefs at Browns Seneca Wallace is getting the nod for the Browns, and I liked what I saw from this team last week, independent of Jake Delhomme’s mistakes.  The Browns play good defense, and they run the ball really well.  I don’t know if their offensive coaching is good enough to get them over the hump in the AFC this year, but Matt Cassel is bound to struggle with the Browns’ coverages, and while Wallace’s play is one of many ‘X’ factors in this game, I’ve seen enough to take the Browns to win.

Bills at Packers Not the Bills.  Not this week, at least.  Packers.

Steelers at Titans Dennis Dixon got his first quarterback win last Sunday, but the OL for the Steelers did not perform very well.  That wasn’t a big issue against the Falcons front, but in come the Titans who just embarrassed the Raiders’ passing offense last week.  Rashard Mendenhall is going to have his chances to really stick it to the Titans in this one, but that defense is too fast to mount anything against.  Vince Young and Chris Johnson will be on display this week, putting the Steelers defense in a bind.  It’s Young who will carry the day for the Titans.

Buccaneers at Panthers The Panthers’ passing attack is a work in progress, but it’s unclear if the team is actually making any progress.  They don’t have a line that can block for longer-developing plays, and they don’t have receivers (plural) who can do anything with shorter developing plays.  That puts Matt Moore in a bind at quarterback, and Moore was dreadful last week against the Giants.  Obviously, the focus of the gameplan every week is going to be the running game: they can still do that.  But here come the upstart Buccaneers, who will be one of two NFC South teams to reach 2-0 this week.

Dolphins at Vikings This has to be one of the more fascinating games on the slate, as these two teams almost never play.  The Vikings need to find away to avoid dropping to 0-2 against a defense that shut down the Bills rushing attack last year, and can do the same to Adrian Peterson.  The Vikings need to find a way to force young Chad Henne into a mistake or two on the road, and in doing that, they can come out on top.  The Dolphins could deal a devastating blow to the Vikings by playing a great game, and can announce that they belong in the discussion for best team in the AFC East.

Rams at Raiders The Raiders couldn’t throw the ball at all on Tennessee last week.  This week, they’ll have to get Chris Long blocked, who is really blossoming into a top pass rusher in his third NFL season.  But unlike last week, they won’t have to worry about six pass rushing defensive lineman as good as Long.  That should give Jason Campbell more time to throw down the field, and give the Oakland Raiders their first win of the season.

Seahawks at Broncos It’s an old AFC West rivalry!  Well, there will be four of those this season for the Seahawks.  That’s just the way the schedule falls.  They looked great as a team last week, but they are eight years removed from playing in Denver every year, and that altitude climate is tough on all visitors.  Seattle benefited from a weak effort by the 49ers last week, and with their backs against the wall, they will get the Broncos very best.

Texans at Redskins It’s zone stretch-bootleg fun this week, and everyone’s running naked!  Arian Foster is going to go from the penthouse last week to an afterthought this week.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Matt Schaub threw 17 times last game, and just five times in the second half.  This is his team, and this is his game to win.  Foster was nice in week one, and he’s not going away for the season, but the Redskins don’t even have to make stopping him a priority this week.  If Schaub goes off, the Texans will win, but the Redskins know that and they’ll be ready.

Patriots at Jets It would be devastating for the Jets to play at home for the first two weeks of the season and come up winless, but if they can’t beat the Patriots, that’s the reality of the situation.  The fact that both teams, the Patriots and the Jets, have spent all offseason gameplanning to beat the other makes this matchup all the more intriguing.  The Jets have a small advantage because the Patriots have also spent time studying the Dolphins to protect their title, where as the Jets have been all about catching the Patriots.  But the Patriots have the biggest, most important advantage of all: being the better team.

Jaguars at Chargers Last week, I picked the Chiefs over the Chargers saying that the Chargers would fall in their first three games.  That’s all the reasoning you need to understand the selection here: the Jaguars scoring more points than their opponent, getting to 2-0.

Giants at Colts I agree with the angry masses: it’s time to be concerned about the Colts.  Forget the dreaded “Super Bowl Hangover”.  Here’s the issue: the Colts don’t have an offensive line to protect Peyton Manning or give him a running game, and under no circumstances can the Colts stop an opponent’s rushing attack.  The Colts can continue to be a winning machine if they make teams throw to catch them, but the last time their defense couldn’t stop the run (2006), they had a great offensive line and an unstoppable offensive juggernaut.  Something is going to have to give.  In this game, that “something” will be the Giants passing defense.  The Colts get to a very unimpressive 1-1.

Saints at 49ers This Niners team could be in trouble, considering just how poorly they played in a divisional road game against the Seattle Seahawks.  Here come the World Champs to San Francisco, a team that can really pressure a defense that is weak versus the pass by tossing it around on them.  Unless the Niners draw up the best gameplan of their season, their options for holding off the Saints in a close game are limited to baseless hope and unexpected development in Alex Smith as a passer.  They best hope a deity is listening.

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LiveBall Sports Week One NFL Picks

September 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Picks and discussion from those who write a lot without being right a lot.

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Vikings at Saints Pick for this Thursday nighter was the Saints, made via Twitter.

Browns at Bucs Both of these teams figure to be improved over last year, and not by a small amount either.  Josh Freeman versus the young, loaded secondary of the Browns in a can’t miss match-up in a game that is otherwise forgettable.  The player I’d love to have on my fantasy team more than any other in this game is Jerome Harrison: he’s the guy who I like to go for multiple TD’s in this one.  Jake Delhomme will play equal parts efficient and boring.  Freeman will throw a TD and an Interception.  The Browns will start 1-0.

Dolphins at Bills Should be a good one.  I don’t say that sarcastically, and no, I don’t plan on watching.  It should be a legitimately good game between two teams who can’t afford to fall to 0-1 in the AFC East division.  The Bills need this game worse, and have a good track record at home in September.  You could make the argument that Trent Edwards can be trusted more than Chad Henne at this point in their respective careers.  Both teams are loaded with running backs.  I like the Bills, but I also know that the Dolphins are going to make more downfield plays.  Their receivers against the Bills secondary will dictate who comes out on top.  That team, I believe, is the Dolphins.

Bengals at Patriots This is going to be an air show.  The Bengals have a great cornerback tandem, but they don’t have a great pass defense unit.  Neither team can really get after the other team’s passer.  The Pats still do the passing thing better than any other team.  For about two and a half quarters, the Bengals passing game is going to be able to keep up with the Pats’, and the game will be within a touchdown one way or the other.  The final margin is going to be between 13-17 points, in favor of the Patriots.

Colts at Texans The Texans may want this game worse, and I don’t doubt they do, but there’s little evidence to suggest that desperation makes teams perform better.  The Colts want to really punch the Texans in the mouth, and they’ve had their number since, well, since the Texans have existed.  Peyton Manning is still the leagues best quarterback.  If the Texans rush for 5.5 YPC or better in this game, they will have a chance, but if they don’t, the most inevitable outcome of the day is that the Colts will start 1-0.  Again.

Broncos at Jaguars Tim Tebow is a nice headline in this game.  He’s going home to play in the NFL before he plays anywhere else.  He’ll make some impact, but against the swiss cheese Jags defense, Eddie Royal and Kyle Orton are going to have themselves quite the day.  The Broncos win by a comfortable two TD margin.

Atlanta at Pittsburgh Probably the hardest game to pick today.  To pick the Steelers would mean that you have to expect their defense to bounce back to roughly 2008 levels, because they are facing one of the premier NFC teams and are without their starting quarterback, and last year’s starting Right Tackle and Center.  Still, that’s the prediction here, the Steelers start off 1-0 in a game that comes down to the wire.

Oakland at Tennessee Take the under on points scored in this game, and take the Raiders to cover because this game is going to be field goals everywhere.  Interesting dynamic here: Jason Campbell is a better quarterback in the second half of games than the first half.  Vince Young is better in the last three minutes than the first 57.  Still, it’s likely the TD or two that will be scored in the first half of this game that will determine who wins this game: you want to be the team that gets that TD.  Raiders to cover, Titans to win.

Panthers at Giants Sometimes a team beats down another team so badly on the road when they played last year, Week 16, that even though I think the Giants will be much better as a team this year, I see no way they can possibly close the match-up gap with the Panthers.  This team is still going to miss Antonio Pierce (retired) in the middle.  Not forever, but at least in this one.

Lions at Bears Sure, it’s tempting to pick an improved Lions team over a Bears team that went 0-4 in the preseason and looked dismal.  But it’s also likely the wrong pick.  The Bears are more talented nearly everywhere on the field, and the Lions haven’t beaten them (or anyone, really) since 2007.

Cardinals at Rams I don’t want to simplify this game to the Rams having the better quarterback (they do), because the Cardinals defense being a lot better matters just as much if not more, but for this one game, at home in the Edward Jones Dome, I like the Rams to handle that Cardinals pass rush, and beat Derek Anderson and the Cardinals.

Packers at Eagles How fantastic is this match-up?  So many variables in this game.  Can Kevin Kolb play up to Donovan McNabb’s level?  Can the Packers protect Aaron Rodgers to free him up to make pinpoint passes downfield?  Two great west coast offense gurus as well in Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy.  For a pick, give me the Eagles at home, but even the act of picking this game, I think, takes away from the intrigue.

49ers at Seahawks Seattle could surprise if they can block the 49ers pass rush, but their offensive line is already hurt, which limits Justin Forsett’s impact on the game.  I honesty don’t know if Alex Smith can outplay Matt Hasselbeck, but I’m thinking they’re won’t be much successful passing in this game.  Call it a hunch.  Give me the 49ers to win late against the Hawks.

Cowboys at Redskins Picked this one earlier in the week.  A Clinton Portis rushing TD is the only time either team finds paydirt.  An intentional safety taken by Mike Shanahan brings the final score to 13-8, in the Redskins favor.  Neither quarterback gets much going.

Ravens at Jets It’s hard not to like the Jets at home, but Mark Sanchez is going to help every player on Baltimore’s defense play with the anticipation of Ed Reed, who is out for the first six games.  He will be intercepted just once, but complete 50 percent of his passes in a close Jets loss.  The Ravens will begin one and oh.

Chargers at Chiefs I have the Chargers beginning not just with a single loss, but with three of them before they get a win.  The Chargers will be okay without Vincent Jackson, but in this game, with two shut down corners for the Chiefs, the Chargers could really miss the elite receiver.  And their LT, Marcus McNeill, who could get paid because of what Tamba Hali does in this game for the Chiefs.

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