To a certain degree, projecting records is a little futile– so many factors go into a team’s performance level, let alone its record, and many of these are difficult to discern. Anyone who could predict things like injury and fumble luck reliably would stand to make a great deal of money doing so– there’s a reason that winning 60% of your NFL picks against the spread is basically considered the Holy Grail of sports betting. But it’s worth it to try, at least, as an intellectual exercise, something that tests your understanding of certain factors of the game, something you can analyze and look back at after the season, and determine why you were right or wrong in certain cases, and if those factors were predictable/predictive or not.
Projected AFC standings with brief writeups for each team:
New England Patriots: 11-5. It’s hard to imagine a Belichick/Brady team losing this division until a similarly well-constructed franchise rises up to challenge them. Probably the Dolphins (and maybe the Bills, and probably not the Jets) have found their franchise QB, but the organization and the rest of the talent isn’t quite there yet. I liked what I saw of Kenbrell Thompkins in the preseason, with his unreal moves off the line of scrimmage.
Miami Dolphins: 9-7. I like Ryan Tannehill and I think he takes a solid step forward this year. I’m not sure if Mike Wallace is enough of an upgrade at wide receiver, or if the offensive line or middle of the defense is quite solid enough to compete with the Patriots. But the team is trending upward and has some hope going forward. I think this win total may be a trendy pick, but Miami does have some really good parts, if they can all come together.
New York Jets: 5-11. I really hope Rex Ryan really starts mailing it in, going Jimmy Buffett-style and wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking alcoholic beverages out of a coconut during press conferences. It’s not his fault, but the team’s set up to fail– there’s just an astounding lack of offensive talent here.
Buffalo Bills: 5-11. I think Doug Marrone is capable of turning this team around. Don’t be fooled by Syracuse’s pedestrian record: He took them to two bowl games in four years directly after the abysmal Greg Robinson era (10-37! No wonder he hasn’t worked since 2010), and before that, he was the Saints offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008– you know, the inception of the Payton/Brees era. His track record is actually quite strong.
I think Buffalo’s biggest problems are going to from a relatively tough schedule and the injuries, particularly to E.J. Manuel. It’s hard to see Jeff Tuel leading this team to many wins. (ed. note: Especially now that it looks like Manuel will start week 1 after all.) There are still serious holes in the secondary (especially with Stephon Gilmore injured) and questions on the offensive line with the departure of Andy Levitre. I think the Bills will be well-coached and play hard every week; they are just too lacking in talent (or that talent is young and undeveloped) in too many eras to be very good just yet.
Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6. They’ve got one of the best young defenses in the league (Geno Atkins might be a top-three defender right now, and he’s definitely second or third on the list of defensive players I’d want to have under contract long-term), Giovani Bernard is going to be a huge weapon on offense (and Tyler Eifert might be, too), and, of course, they still have A.J. Green. Pencil them in with this record for the third consecutive year, although this time, it’s good enough to win the division.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-8. I think the loss of Mike Wallace will hurt them, although Markus Wheaton has the talent to be groomed for the deep-threat position long-term. There are just too many questions– whether the young talent is actually any good, whether Roethlisberger can stay upright, whether they’ve reloaded in the front seven, whether they can run the ball– to be very optimistic for this team. Of course, they would stand to make the playoffs if they are all answered in the affirmative.
Baltimore Ravens: 8-8. Too much talent lost and not adequately replaced. Jacoby Jones is a better fit for Joe Flacco’s cannon arm than Matt Schaub’s game-management arm, but he doesn’t have the hands to be a reliable #2 receiver. Dennis Pitta is out for the year. The defense is hoping Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Lardarius Webb return to form, as well as hoping that Elvis Dumervil can replace Paul Kruger’s production. Like with Pittsburgh, there are just too many question marks here, especially in the passing game.
Cleveland Browns: 7-9. I actually have faith this team will be improved this year. There are some signs of the “same old Browns”, most notably that their owner appears to be a crook. However, the new front office/coaching braintrust actually seems competent, a refreshing change from Mike Holmgren’s inability to evaluate talent (note: Don’t hire a GM who used to be a combination coach/GM and had to have the GM part removed from his title for the team to become competitive again) and Pat Shurmur’s inability to develop it or make game-day decisions. If nothing else, Rob Chudzinski hired two of the best coordinators in the NFL at what they do to run his offense and defense, and that alone should promise improved performance over last season.
Of course, there are still problems. The schedule is tough. The passing game has questionable talent, Norv or no Norv. Brandon Weeden will probably be remembered in history as “the guy who was taken more than 50 picks before Russell Wilson.” I think the team will be better than last year, but they still need some more quality players, and an easier schedule, before they can compete. The front office seems to know that; their draft-day trades this season netted them an extra 3rd and 4th round pick in 2014.
Houston Texans: 12-4. The same team you’ve always known. DeAndre Hopkins will improve the passing game. Brian Cushing is back. Unfortunately, if we could measure this team in “clutch”– i.e. the ability of the coach and quarterback to make great decisions in high-pressure, high-leverage situations– it would come in last of all the Super Bowl contenders.
J.J. Watt may be good enough that it won’t matter. It’s absurd how good he was last season– by one measure, he was literally twice as valuable as the second-best defender in the league (sort by EPA).
Indianapolis Colts: 8-8. Andrew Luck will take a step forward, but the team ran hot to even be in position for his fourth-quarter comebacks, and there’s a chance they won’t do that again. Ryan Grigson went out and spent a lot on free agents, but like we already covered, that money wasn’t necessarily spent on good players.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-10. I want to say that the Jaguars will surprise people, to the extent that a team expected to be one of the worst in the league winning 6 games is a surprise. I’ve previously written about Shahid Khan, and I love his approach to building a winning franchise. The new front office and coaching staff, I think, will be a marked improvement over last year. There’s just still not quite enough talent on the roster for this team to compete yet.
Tennessee Titans: 5-11. If I could get decent odds on a bet that Jacksonville would finish better than Tennessee this season, I would take it. The Titans have more talent than the Jaguars, particularly on offense, but they have no defense and I don’t have confidence in their coaching or their GM. Ruston Webster spent money and draft resources this offseason to inject more talent into this offense, so if they don’t score points, expect a lot of people to lose their jobs.
I think Chris Johnson will have a bounce-back year with an improved offensive line, but I think Jake Locker is too inaccurate to ever cut it as an NFL QB. Tennessee’s point differential last year was bottom-five in the league– no other team that was outscored by more than 140 points won more than four games– and I don’t think they’ve improved enough to be a serious contender.
Denver Broncos: 12-4. What’s to say? Peyton Manning is great, the receivers are great, and the team added talent pretty much everywhere this offseason, the Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco (or, faxasco) notwithstanding. Losing Von Miller for six games will really hurt early in the season, but they should be back in prime shape for the stretch run.
Kansas City Chiefs: 9-7. A team with some talent is now run by Andy Reid instead of a coach who is barely awake on game day. I don’t think they’re really this good, and I think they overpaid for Alex Smith, but I think a soft schedule and improved coaching can take the team into a wild-card berth. (They might go from a 5-win team to a 7-win team on paper, but in reality it’s a jump from two wins to nine.)
San Diego Chargers: 6-10. I have basically no opinion on Mike McCoy or Tom Telesco at this point, but A.J. Smith’s firing was overdue. The team had been in steady decline ever since he pushed Marty Schottenheimer out the door. The Robert Meachem contract perfectly exemplifies why Smith needed to go: The New Orleans Saints drafted Meachem in the first round for his potential as a #1 receiver, and ended up getting a guy who looks physically impressive but can’t do much other than run straight downfield. With Sean Payton coaching him and Drew Brees throwing to him, Meachem still couldn’t play his way beyond fourth in the WR rotation. So, of course, A.J. Smith signs him to a four-year, $25.9 million contract with $14 million guaranteed, in an attempt to replace phenomenal deep threat Vincent Jackson, whom Smith notoriously lowballed (leading to a 10-game holdout in 2010) before letting him walk in free agency. Meachem caught 14 passes last year and was just cut. That’s $1 million per reception. (If you’re curious, last season Jackson caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards.)
Because of Smith’s roster mismanagement, the Chargers just don’t have enough talent to compete this year.
Oakland Raiders: 4-12. Even with the soft schedule the AFC West teams drew, it’s hard to see Oakland doing much. They’re still in the Giant Cap Purge from the end of the Al Davis era, they still can’t afford to make significant free agent moves, and they’re still trying to rebuild the roster from the ground up. Next year is a great year to have a very high pick.
Coming before Sunday: NFC predictions.