From the FanPosts. Great stuff. -Joel
In a couple months there will be fanpost after fanpost analyzing the schedule and predicting each game, eventually getting to the point that you actually start to miss mock drafts. In fact, two years ago I wrote one of my earliest fanposts about the futility of these preseason predictions, and it was the first front-page post I ever had. So, naturally, nstead of doing an uninteresting version that everyone else does, this one will be a far more in depth look at the 13 teams we will be facing this season.
However, I won't be predicting the wins and losses. Instead, I will say who should probably win, since, in reality, any team can win any game, it's just a matter of who has the advantage. So, without further ado, what do the teams on our schedule look like?
Last offseason I did a post called Buy or Sell, in which I tried to predict which teams would do better than expected and which would do worse. The Falcons were my most confident pick as a sell. Basically, I argued that in 2010 they had a below average offense and defense, and only won 13 games because they got lucky with turnovers and opponent penalties.
As it turns out, that was the prediction I was furthest off on. While they were a bit worse than most people thought, they were also a bit better than I thought they would be. The reason they were able to be pretty good in 2011 was because they managed to have a pretty good turnover ratio again (+8 in 2011, as opposed to +14 in 2012), and Matt Ryan had a much better season (went from a 6.0 NY/A in 2010 to 6.8 in 2011).
In that post I presented a graph showing that teams tended to see a higher dropoff in wins the larger their turnover differential was. I did it quick and dirty, so a couple months ago I did a more rigorous study using 6 seasons, and I found that there is basically no correlation in turnover differential between years. In other words, how good your turnover differential was last year doesn't mean anything about how good it will be next year.
This means that when a team is reliant on turnovers to have a good record one year, they are likely to regress to the mean the next year and thus have a worse record. This happened to the Falcons last year, and will probably happen again next year.
However, since Ryan has improved, they will be a decent team, and while the Chiefs should be a better team and will have home field advantage, we are not so much better that they need a miracle to win.
Prediction: We should probably win, but it probably won't be easy.
Now we get to the team I really want to talk about. To understand what will happen in 2012, we should look at why we lost so badly to them in 2011 and see if those factors are likely to happen again. I looked at the stats from that game in great detail, and there seems to be 3 main reasons it was a blowout as opposed to a close game or a Chiefs win.
Like I said above, turnovers are far more random than people like to think (although, to be fair, I don't think they're quite as random as the chart suggests, but that's a discussion for the comments if anyone wants to talk about the finer details of statistical analysis). When you see a game with an odd result, either a big upset or a blowout between close teams, turnovers should be the first thing you look at. Often that is all the information you need to explain the anomalous result.
For example, when the Ravens beat the Steelers 35-7 last year, I was amazed that the Ravens were so dominant. Then I later saw that the Ravens won the turnover battle 7-0, and I understood what had happened. The Ravens were the better team, but not by that much.
In this case, turnovers are not the whole story, but certainly played a role. We lost the turnover battle 3-1, which is hard to overcome, and certainly contributed to the blowout.
2. Eric Berry
It is my firm belief that had Eric Berry played the entire game, we would have been at least 10 points closer. It's not just because Berry was a good player, but because our defensive game plan relied heavily on him being in the game. When you lose somebody like Berry early in the game, it is impossible to draw up another gameplan. You just have to plug McGraw into the spot you had Berry before and hope for the best. As the season went on, we were able to shift our gameplan to one more suited for McGraw, so our defense improved, but it was simply too late for this game.
3. Cassel's Weird Day
Let's be clear, Cassel had a bad day that game. However, it's not so much how bad he was that drew my eye. Instead, it was the way that he was bad. He was 22-36 for 119 yards. That's 3.3 yards per attempt, which is really, really bad. However, since he had a 61% completion percentage, his yards per completion was only 5.4! That means that, even when Cassel got a completion, we still didn't gain very many yards. I challenge anybody to find another game where a running back had at least 10 rushes, the QB had at least 35 pass attempts, yet the running back had more yards per carry than the QB had per completion.
This tells me that something went seriously wrong in the game plan. Either Haley or Muir designed a gameplan that was far too conservative, or Cassel for some reason was really scared of taking any risk at all.
As a whole, these three factors are not likely to repeat themselves again. So I don't think the fact that they blew us out last time should worry us. However, they were not too bad last year, and they should be better next year. We will also be playing in Buffalo, which makes it a lot tougher. However, I think we are going to be the better team, so we should win, but it won't be easy.
Prediction: We should probably win, but don't be surprised if we lose.
This will be an interesting season for the Saints. How much will they be effected by the loss of their coach? And, luckily for us, we will be facing them with the replacement coach for the replacement coach, so we should have an extra advantage.
Since I have no idea how much Bountygate will effect them, I will just analyze them as though nothing happened, and the news isn't good for us. In my study of turnovers, I found that the 2011 Saints are the team in the last 6 years to win 13 games with a negative turnover ratio. Remember how turnovers tend to regress to the mean? Well, in this case that means that the Saints are likely better than their 13-3 record indicated, which is a scary thought. And to make matters worse, we will be facing them on the road.
As I looked at the schedule, I found that there are 3 games that are going to be real tough for us. This is the first one, and is likely to be the toughest game of the year. If we're 3-0 at this point, it will be cause for extreme optimism.
Prediction: The Saints at home are nearly unbeatable, so we should probably lose.
I already did an extensive post on them, where I concluded that they would probably be about an 8-8 team, so I won't talk too much about them here. They are starting to fall apart, and are the third wheel in the division behind the Broncos and Chiefs. While they do have a realistic chance of winning the division, they certainly shouldn't be considered favorites. The Chiefs are superior and at home, so the prediction is clear.
Prediction: We should probably win.
The second really tough game on our schedule. There's not a whole lot to say, since every statistic I found said what everybody already knows. They are one of the best teams in the NFL, and their turnover ratio of +2 last year means they likely won't regress very far in that department. While they lost Terrel Suggs, the importance of one non-QB player is overrated in the NFL, and they are probably not going to be hurt as much by his absence as some might think.
Prediction:Even though it's at home, we should probably lose.
Finally, a team that's actually interesting. They are one of the winners of the 2012 offseason, so it's very likely that they're going to be overrated this year by the media. While they should be improved, it won't be nearly enough to make them a good team.
As you might imagine, I'm a fan of advanced stats in sports. In terms of rankings, I trust computers far more than I do humans, especially when several independent formulas come to the same conclusion. And what these computers conclude is that the Buccs were real bad last year. Pro-Football-Reference's SRS ranking put the Buccs at #31 in the NFL, only ahead of the Colts. Advanced NFL Stats put them dead last at #32. Jeff Sagarin put them at #30, ahead of the Colts and Rams. Clearly the Buccs were extremely bad, and adding a couple players won't get them to the Chiefs' level.
However, there is one stat in their favor. Their -16 turnover differential was last in the NFL, and if the "regress" to the mean in that department, they will likely see more improvement from that than they will from their offseason additions. Josh Freeman is also going into his 4th year, which is about when many QB's start to come into their own, so they have hope that Freeman could be better than last year.
Prediction: The Chiefs should probably win.
At this point, I think 3-3 or better would be a good record. Our early schedule is much tougher than the post-bye schedule, so a .500 record here will mean we should be competing for the division. Here's how I will view our progress depending on the record.
0-1 wins: We should probably start to panic. You might want to get your Stanzi jersey ready.
2 wins: A little behind schedule, but we can come back.
3 wins: Good, but not great.
4 wins: We're doing very well. We should probably be favorites to win the division.
5-6 wins: You can go ahead and plan your trip to New Orleans, because the Chiefs are going to be tough to beat in the playoffs.
The Raiders are in big trouble for the near future. Al Davis ran the franchise for the now and always mortgaged the future. That's a fine strategy if you're in the MLB, but the salary cap poses significant problems for this approach in the NFL. Every year the Raiders started the offseason with little or no cap room, which is fine if you don't want to sign draft picks, free agents, or keep your good players.
When a team is in cap trouble, there are generally two strategies they can use to get back in the black. One approach is to modify some contracts so that they pay less now but more in the future. So if a player was making $5 million this year and $5 million next year, you could renegotiate the contract so the it pays $3 million this year and $10 million next year. You generally have to increase how much the total contract is to get the players to agree to it, so not only are you pushing money back, but you're adding more money on. This is partly how Davis mortgaged the future. He also signed good players to contracts that were simply way too expensive.
The second method for controlling the cap is to cut the player and hope they resign to a lesser contract. This has the exact opposite result of the other strategy. You risk that player signing somewhere else, and thus hurting your team near term, but it keeps your budget balanced. Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders' new GM, has mostly taken this approach. This is how we got Routt. He had signed a huge contract the Raiders couldn't afford, so he was cut to make space.
Because of McKenzie, the Raiders will likely take a step back next year, which is saying quite a bit since they were only 8-8 last year. But he is ultimately doing the right thing, since his methods of running the team are more likely to result in a contender. He had no choice but to take a step back before he could move forward. Davis left the team in such terrible shape that McKenzie spent his first offseason not rebuilding, but getting to the point where he can start to rebuild. It also didn't help that he had almost no draft picks this year.
I occasionally visit Silver and Black Pride, the Raider's SBNation site, and I can't believe how overly optimistic they are. They don't seem to realize that losing several good players without adding any will cripple them and that they have very little hope of seriously competing against the Broncos and Chiefs.
Prediction: The Chiefs are vastly superior, and should probably win.
@ San Diego Chargers
Since I've already ta. lked about the Chargers, I want to talk about something completely unrelated; the finer details of winning the division. I think the Chiefs are the best team in the division, but not by so much that we're guaranteed to win it. It is very likely that we are tied for first place and will need tie breakers to determine the division. That means that all games are not created equal, some are more important than others. So, in order from most to least important, here are the games ranked by importance:
1. Games against the team we're tied with: The first tie breaker is head-to-head, which means that these games are triply important. They give us another win or lose, they give our rival another win or loss, and they are the first criteria for breaking ties. If we sweep the Broncos, we are almost certain to finish above them in the division. This is why the 2010 Raiders were so remarkable. It is nearly impossible to sweep the division and not win it.
2. Other games in the division: The second tie breaker is record within the division. This tie breaker almost lost us the division in 2010. Had the Chargers beaten the Bengals in Week 16, they would have been in the playoffs while we watched at home.
3. AFC North and NFC South: The third tie breaker is common games, and other than division games, these are the games we have in common with our division-mates.
4. Browns and Bills: The are the least important games in terms of winning the division. While they might come into play in a tie breaker, it is very unlikely. That's not to say these games aren't important, but if Charles is injured and we have the choice to play him against the Browns before the Raiders game and risk causing him to get re-injured, it may be smart to rest him so he'll be healthy for the more important Raiders game.
Winning the division is obviously not the only way to make the playoffs, but it makes reaching the Super Bowl so much easier compared to the Wild Card that it is certainly worth taking these things into consideration.
This our final really tough game. Remember how I said the 2011 Saints were the only team in the last 6 years to have 13 or more wins with a negative turnover ratio? Well, there are two teams to win 12 or more games with a negative turnover ratio, and I'll give you three guesses who they were.
That's right, the 2011 Steelers. So, for similar reasons as the Saints, we can expect them to be even better this year than they were in 2011. Add on the fact that this game is on the road, and you might be tempted to write this one off as a loss.
All is not lost, however. For one, we will have a long week because of the Thursday night game the week before, which should help. Also, 8 of 22 starters last year were 30 or older, which may lead to some regression this year. And, in the Pioli era in KC, we haven't done too bad against them. We're 1-1, with both games being in overtime. Those two games were played against the worst teams of the Pioli era; the 2009 team, and the Palko-led 2011 team. If Palko can lead us to overtime and near victory, and Cassel beat them in 2009, shouldn't we win in 2012 with a team that is much more talented than they were in 2009?
Prediction: While those two games give me hope, two games is not very many, so I'll say we should probably lose.
The Bengals are an interesting team. They have not had back-to-back winning seasons since 81-82, and that was only the fourth time that's happened in their franchise history. For comparison, the Chiefs had back-to-back winning seasons in 05-06, and had 9 straight winning seasons in the 90's. I don't know how relevant that is to this season, since the team in 1985 has no impact on the team in 2012, but I suppose it is possible that it is something about the ownership or city that has somehow caused this. I'm more likely to believe this trend since it is especially clear recently. Their 10-6 team in 2009 was sandwiched by two 4-12 teams, while their 11-5 win team in 2005 was sandwiched by two 8-8 teams.
However, they seem to have gone through a huge shift in team identity. Instead of Palmer and Ochocinco being their main stars, they now have Dalton and Green. And they had exactly 0 turnover differential, so they didn't ride that to a winning season.
I don't know how good they'll be next season. Sure, Dalton and Green should develop a bit, but other than that I don't see any reason for them to be significantly better than they were last year, and last year they were a little above average, which shouldn't be enough to make them better than the significantly improved Chiefs.
Prediction: We should probably win, but don't write them off.
I already wrote a long post on them, so I won't go into much detail. The Sparks Notes version is that they weren't a very good team last year, which is why the struggled with a normal, average QB. But Tebow's style of play increases the chances of upsets without actually making the team better (i.e. he makes them more likely to win, but also more likely to get blown out), which is fine for the terrible Broncos. He was able to keep many games close, and the Broncos happened to get the lucky bounces in most of those games.
With Manning, the Broncos are playing an entirely different game. You can't say that Manning is better than Tebow, and Tebow went 8-8, so the Broncos should be at least 9-7 next year. With a normal QB, the Broncos are a 4-12 or 5-11 team, and Manning is a normal QB, he just happens to be really good. So the Broncos aren't going to be as good as some people think.
With that out of the way, I'd like to note that our first game against them is pretty late. At this point it's likely that we're within one game of each other, so this game could determine who is in first place in the AFC West. Since the Broncos are the best team other than the Chiefs in the division, this game is extremely important. It could mean the difference between a home playoff game or missing the playoffs altogether.
Cam Newton is one of my favorite players outside the Chiefs, so this preview is going to be very painful for me. Basically, from all the research I've done, they likely won't take the next step this season.
First of all, the Panthers only made it to 6 wins because of Newton's amazing rookie season. Outside of him, the team was terrible. If Newton's play slips next year, they will be in real trouble. And the evidence suggests that he will slip.
In looking at great rookie years by QB's, very few followed it up the next season with improvement. More often than not they actually took a step back. Bradford was one of, if not the worst, QB's in the NFL last year after having a solid rookie season. Matt Ryan had an excellent rookie season, one he didn't come close to matching until 2011. This pattern, which exists outside of those two QB's, suggests that a good rookie season is more often than not due to fluke and luck and not really an indicator of how good the QB is. This would especially be true of a QB like Newton, who relies heavily on his running ability. As defensive coordinators figure out how to defend him, he'll start to struggle.
I hope Newton does eventually develop and the Panther become good, but I just don't see it in the near term. I've found that QB's typically take about 3-4 years before they reach their peak, and that's likely to be true of Newton.
Prediction: The Chiefs should probably win.
Oh boy, they haven't been very good in a long time. Since being reborn in 1999, they have only had 3 seasons with fewer than 10 losses, with the last one being in 2007 with Crennel at head coach. That trend looks to continue in 2012.
They were 4-12 last year and had a +1 turnover differential, which means that that record wasn't a fluke. They didn't really do a whole lot to improve, basically wasting their two first round picks on a running back and a QB who is already older than the one they currently have on their roster. Spending a top 5 pick on a running back is about the worst thing a GM can do. The position is one of the least valuable in the game, and no running back outside of Charles is worth anything near a first round pick (Charles is worth it because, with his consistent 6+ yards per carry, he literally changes how the game should be played). Even if Richardson does turn out to be as good as people are saying, he still isn't worth that pick. They might as well have traded up for RG3 since they were going to waste those picks anyway. I'm really glad I'm not a Browns fan. They make the Royals organization look competent.
Prediction: One of the easiest games of the year, even on the road, means that the Chiefs should probably win.
Since I've already talked about them, I'm going to use this space to talk about the wildcard.
The in my 2011 preview, I said that winning the division was the only thing that mattered, that we shouldn't even worry about the wildcard. That was because I viewed, correctly, the division being so weak that a team that failed to win it had virtually no shot at a wildcard. If you were good enough to get a wildcard, you would win the division. That was a pretty easy prediction last year, but this year may be different. Both the Broncos and Chiefs have a very good shot at having double-digit wins, which is usually good enough for a wildcard.
In looking t the wildcard landscape, it's surprisingly clear outside the AFC West. The Patriots will win the East, the Texans the South, and either the Ravens or Steelers the North. The loser of the AFC North will almost certainly take the first wild card spot, so that leaves one for everybody else. And when you look at the other AFC teams, you have to think the loser of the AFC West should be the favorites for that final spot.
The Bills could be good, and the Bengals should be decent, so they both are probably the West's loser's main competitors. The Jets have some shot at being good, as do the Titans, so have a realistic shot at the spot. Everybody else looks to have almost no shot. So those games against the North and the Bills take on additional meaning, since they could help propel us to the wild card if we lose the division.
We get Andrew Luck near the end of the season, which could be good or bad. We'll have plenty of tape on him, but he will also be more comfortable in the NFL. Either way, they shouldn't be much trouble. Even if he has a Cam Newton-like rookie season, the Colts still won't be very good. Like I mentioned earlier, it generally takes a QB several years to reach their peak, so even if Luck turns out to be the next Manning, we won't have to worry about it this year most likely.
Outside of Luck, the Colts are a mess. It's obvious how much they relied on Manning to bring them to mediocrity, and they simply don't have the talent to be very good. Their best players, Freeney and Mathis, are both over 30, so are probably on the decline. The Colts will require a lot of work to get back into contention. Although they did have a -12 turnover differential in 2011, so there's hope there, but that's not nearly enough to bring them up to respectability.
Prediction: The Chiefs should probably win.
The possible AFC West Championship Game. I think that if we win the division, we'll probably have it clinched by this game, and if the Broncos end up winning the division, they win it by winning this game. That doesn't mean that I think they'll win the game, but I find it hard to imagine that the Broncos are good enough to win the division without winning their home game against us, while I find it very probable that the Chiefs are up one or two games, with the tie breaker, so could end up losing this game and making the division look closer than it really was.
This may be the closest game of the year. We are better than the Broncos, but by about the amount of home field advantage, meaning that being at Denver mostly cancels out our being the better team. Thankfully this game happens during winter break, so if it does determine the Division winner it won't distract me from finals.
Prediction: The Chiefs should probably win, but just barely.
Overall, I said the Chiefs should probably win 13 games, and should probably lose 3, so I'm going to predict a 10-6 season. Since the better team doesn't always win, it is very unlikely that all these games go as expected. And since we should be favored in more games than we're not, it is more likely for us to suffer upsets than to upset other teams. If 1/3 games are upsets, we'll lose about 4 games we should have won and win 1 game we should have lost, bringing the total to 10 wins. We may end up winning 13 games, or we may end up winning only 7, but the most likely result is that we win 10, and in my opinion that makes us the best team in the division.