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Bold Projections for 2012

Members of the sports media love to make bold claims for upcoming seasons based on gut feelings and hunches. They generate publicity, and if they pan out they can gloat about it afterwards. If they don't, no one will remember that far in the future anyway. That's not quite the type of article that this is. The goal here is to point out where public perception differs greatly from reality. The points made are bold only in the sense that they go against popular belief, not that they are overly risky or unreasonable. They are based on analysis from our 2012 NFL Season Preview, which can give a more complete look at the league heading into the season. With that said...

Don't act too surprised if...
The reigning champs don't make the playoffs.

This isn't some sort of Super Bowl winner or loser curse trend. It speaks more to the fact that just because the playoffs are more important for glory, they are not more important when analyzing quality. The Giants' regular season record of 9-7 was much more indicative of their true level of play. Simulating the 2011 season retroactively, we find that the Giants would win about 9 games on average. But their playoff success was anything but expected. In fact, they deserved only a 41% chance of even making the playoffs, with just a 25% chance of winning the NFC East. The Giants are a good team, but these numbers show the type of competition the Giants are up against. The Eagles and Cowboys are about equally good, so the chances of any single one of the 3 winning the division should be below 50% again in 2012. And the NFC is extraordinarily deep currently. The Giants should be in the thick of the playoff race, and may even win the division. But it is probably more likely than not that they miss out altogether.

Don't act too surprised if...
The New Orleans Saints look a lot like the 2011 Saints.

Following bounty punishments, many "experts" seem to be writing the Saints off completely. Countless projections show the Saints not winning the division and even missing the playoffs. However, New Orleans just edged out the Packers to finish 2011 as our top rated team. Even a big step back would leave them as one of the best teams in the league. And a big step back is probably an overreaction. The player suspensions are not very debilitating. The Saints likely upgraded from LB Jonathan Vilma anyway when they acquired Curtis Lofton in the offseason. And they will be without DE Will Smith for just 4 games. The coaching suspensions seem to be overblown by the media as well. The offense will be largely running the same plays with the same play caller as the latter part of 2011. They will lose a small amount of game planning from Sean Payton, but that shouldn't make a dramatic difference. The importance of good coaches in general seems to be overrated. Coaches of the Year are often fired within a couple seasons. The only criteria for even deciding who the good coaches are seems to be "whatever team is good right now has a good coach, but if they are bad next year, then he is no longer good". New Orleans was so good last year, our simulations had them having a 98% chance of making the playoffs, an 89% chance of winning the NFC South, and an amazing 29% chance of winning the Super Bowl. They have a long way to drop before they become unlikely to make the playoffs.

Don't act too surprised if...
The San Francisco 49ers have a single digit win total.

Our ratings show that the 49ers were the luckiest team in the league last season. They deserved just 9.2 wins last season rather than the 13 they achieved, and with a tougher schedule that number drops to 8.5 when projected toward 2012. The 49ers excelled at defense and special teams, which are the most inconsistant areas for NFL teams. Despite the weak division, San Francisco had just a 53% chance of winning the NFC West and a 61% chance of making the playoffs in 2011. It's hard to expect much more than that from them this year without simply expecting every team to win as many games as it did last season.

Don't act too surprised if...
The Ravens haven't leapfrogged the Steelers for good.

There seems to be a growing sentiment that Baltimore has finally gained the edge on Pittsburgh in their rivalry. The Ravens won the division and had more success head to head in 2011. It is easy to forget that the two teams finished with the same record. Our ratings reveal that the Steelers are still slightly the better team, having a 51% chance of winning the division compared to 38% for the Ravens. Despite the hype Joe Flacco gets for supposedly being underrated, the Ravens pass offense has been the epitomy of average the past couple seasons. Ravens fans shouldn't get too overconfident because the division title is equivalent to a coin flip at best for Baltimore.

Don't act too surprised if...
The San Diego Chargers finally live up to their potential.

The Chargers have failed to make the playoffs for 2 straight years, but each year our ratings have had them among the best teams in the league. San Diego is a good team, they have just underperformed recently. They have been perhaps the most unlucky team in that span. Last season the Chargers deserved 10 wins but only managed 8, and missed the playoffs despite our calculated 79% chance of making them. A 10-6 record is a reasonable expectation for San Diego again in 2012. The addition of Peyton Manning to the division may prevent the Chargers from winning the division, but they certainly should be expected to at least get back to the playoffs this season.

Don't act too surprised if...
The Cincinnati Bengals were a fluke.

The Bengals rightly received a lot of acclaim last season for making the playoffs with a rookie QB and top WR. But they have become rather overrated as a team now. Cincinnati wasn't terrible in 2011, but was below average. They deserved about 7.7 wins compared to the 9 they managed, but were assisted by an easy out of division schedule. Tougher opponents in 2012 bring their expected wins to 7.1. The Bengals only had a 28% chance of making the playoffs last season, so it's likely they won't get back this year.

Don't act too surprised if...
Trendy teams like the Chiefs and Bills disappoint.

The Chiefs are the bigger stretch of the two. They managed 7 wins last year but only deserved 5.5. That number would be higher with a healthy QB Matt Cassel and RB Jamaal Charles, but based on past seasons the Chiefs are still slightly below average when fully equipped. They were very lucky to win 10 games and the division in 2010 with an average team. People seem to think that they can get back to that success with a healthy squad, but in doing so are quick to ignore their failures in 2009 and the first half of 2011 with healthy and mostly healthy teams.

The Bills are a bit more likely than the Chiefs to actually make the playoffs this season, but expecting a drastic change from just a couple of defensive acquisitions is a bit of a reach. Last year our ratings showed the Bills did deserve 7.3 wins compared to the 6 they got, but that still only gave them a 23% chance of making the playoffs. The Bills will benefit from an easier schedule in 2012 though, raising their expected wins to 8.2. That combined with the additions of DE's Mario Williams and Mark Anderson should help, but are not likely to totally change their fortunes. The Bills may sneak into the playoffs this season, but it's much more likely that they don't.

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