complied by David Gardner
Here's your standard warning: Predictions are probably wrong. It is the intrinsic nature of the NFL: there are so many variables and so much luck involved in a 16-game season that teams will make the playoffs or bomb for totally unexpected and sometimes baffling reasons.
Let's say we think the Baltimore Ravens have the best chance of any team in the AFC to make it to the Super Bowl -- 20 percent, perhaps. For the sake of argument, we'll also say that Indianapolis, New England, and Pittsburgh each have a 10 percent chance to make the Super Bowl, ten other teams have a five percent chance, and Cleveland and Buffalo are there to make sure everybody has a full schedule.
OK, so we pick Baltimore to win the AFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is four in five chance the pick will be incorrect. So preseason predictions are all going to be mostly wrong. It is unavoidable.
As we note every year, we're going to make picks anyway, because that's part of running a football site: you make picks.
For the third year, instead of each picking 12 playoff teams, we're showing our individuality by each arguing our point in categories such as "team likely to beat its projection" and "who will go first in the 2010 draft." Our college writers make similar comments about the FEI projections that ran in Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. However, the official FO predictions are based on the statistical projection system, even when the output looks a little strange. You can find those projections here, and as a reminder, the playoff forecast is:
AFC divisions: Kansas City, Indianapolis, Baltimore, New England
AFC wild cards: Pittsburgh, Miami (narrowly over the Jets)
NFC divisions: Arizona, Atlanta, Green Bay, Washington
NFC wild cards: Philadelphia, Chicago (narrowly over the Saints)
Super Bowl: Baltimore over Atlanta
First Pick in the Draft: Detroit
The updated version of the college projections referred to below can be found here.
We often say -- even though some people don't seem to ever hear it -- that we do not believe that our statistical methods are perfect. Our subjective views are informed by our objective numbers, but not dictated by them. However, we want to make this clear: EACH OF THE OPINIONS LISTED BELOW IS THE OPINION OF THAT WRITER AND THAT WRITER ONLY. These are not "Football Outsiders predicts."
All right, let's rock.
Team Most Likely to Beat FOA Prediction
Bill Barnwell: Buffalo. Injury regression goes a long way, even without a quarterback of note. And yes, the division's tough, but the AFC North looked tough before last year, and Cincinnati still managed to ride the injury wave to the division title. Honorable mention to Houston.
Will Carroll: Detroit. They're just better than three wins. I see where everything could break wrong and they end up at the bottom of the heap again, but I think a shift toward .500 is much more likely, especially with Schwartz's attacking defense.
Doug Farrar: San Francisco. There's still legitimate concern about Alex Smith, but I think the team's other issues are manageable. More offensive line turnover will be offset by backs (Frank Gore and the excellent Anthony Dixon) who can transcend bad ALY front fives. There may have been some "over-performance" on defense last year, but I think there’s enough talent to avoid a huge nosedive.
David Gardner: Oakland. The Raiders have a lot of talent, and coaches around the AFC West respect it. They'll be tougher this year. Jason Campbell can lead them to a .500 season.
Tom Gower: San Francisco. They're the best team in a lousy division. I'm more of an Alex Smith believer, and think the 49ers won't coach themselves out of an effective offense.
Mike Kurtz: Tennessee. Johnson's going to fall off a bit, but he'll be good enough for Young to continue being productive. I'm not in love with the defense, but I still think it will be well above average. I'm not a huge fan of the other teams in the division.
Sean McCormick: Houston. One of the FO tenets is that passing the ball and defending the pass are far more important than running the ball or stopping the run. Houston has one of the premier passing tandems in Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, and I can't remember the last time a top quarterback/wide receiver combo turned in a 5-11 season. The pass rush has looked much improved in the preseason, and if it continues into the regular season, that could help cover up deficiencies in the secondary.
Ben Muth: Oakland. It's a quarterback-driven league and going from JaMarcus Russell to Jason Campbell is like trading in your Hot Wheels for a Dodge Neon. It may not be a Porsche but at least it's a real car. That alone should push the Raiders to at least six wins.
Aaron Schatz: Houston. I was originally going to say Dallas until I put together that table with the new projections this morning. Our "Dallas sucks" prediction really doesn't look like Dallas sucking; it looks more like "Dallas declines a bit in a very hard division." On the other hand, our "Houston sucks" prediction really seems to think Houston sucks. I don't quite buy the various variables that have the offense declining, and I think the defensive projection suffers from too much Plexiglass Principle effect (i.e. teams that improve significantly in one year tend to revert a little the next year).
Mike Tanier: Detroit. The Lions don't look like a 3-13 team in the preseason or on paper.
Vince Verhei: San Francisco. With a full year of Michael Crabtree and a rebuilt offensive line, I was leaning towards picking them anyway. Then St. Louis lost its best receiver for the year, Seattle started trading away starting defenders for late-round draft picks, and Arizona climbed aboard the Derek Anderson Express. The 49ers may be the only team in the division that is actually better now than they were when camp opened. Really, I’m just hoping that whoever wins the division becomes the NFL's first playoff team with a losing record.
Robert Weintraub: Detroit. Especially if Ndamukong Suh decapitates an opposing quarterback each week, as he appears poised to do.
Team Most Likely to Fall Short of FOA Prediction
(Please note that most of these comments were written prior to the new forecast which has Arizona still winning the division but with only 8.0 mean projected wins.)
Bill Barnwell: Denver. Top two players lost to injury. No pass rush. Very questionable run defense. Top receiver is Jabar Gaffney.
Will Carroll: New England. All things equal, they're not likely to drop much, but something about this team just seems off.
Doug Farrar: Arizona. My bet is that this is the most popular pick by a mile, and it's pretty easy to tell why. Larry Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett are total studs, and Calais Campbell and Steve Breaston are two among a number of interesting prospects, but the Cards are one more bad Derek Anderson performance away from starting Max Hall, an undrafted rookie from BYU. I like Hall as a long-term solution, but this may be the biggest retirement-related quarterback talent drop in NFL history.
David Gardner: Green Bay. This is going really against the grain, considering more than half of our staff selected the Packers to go to the Super Bowl. I just don't see how this team has really improved. I love Aaron Rodgers and the offense, but the corners the defensive line concern me.
Tom Gower: Arizona. I never believed the projection in the book. Kurt Warner did an awful lot to mask a lousy offensive line, and the receivers aren't nearly as valuable with Derek Anderson/Other getting them the ball. They're also starting their second-best running back.
Mike Kurtz: Tampa Bay. Despite my half-defense of the team's most recent draft, I can't find one unit on the team that I actually like. I went with the under at 5.5. I can't even imagine a .500 or winning season.
Sean McCormick: Arizona. Our prediction was predicated on the notion that Matt Leinart was better than most people thought he was and that the dropoff from Kurt Warner wouldn't be that drastic. Going from Kurt Warner to a guy who completes 50 percent of his passes is pretty drastic, however, and the offensive line is going to look a lot worse without Warner's quick release. Also, each of the other three teams in the division has looked a bit better than expected in preseason, so there might not be so many easy wins inside the NFC West.
Ben Muth: Chicago. I think Jay Cutler throws 30 picks in the Mike Martz system. I think Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher are past their prime. I think they go 2-4 in the division (split with the Lions and win one against either of the other two). I think nine wins is out of reach.
Aaron Schatz: Tampa Bay. No, I don't get it either, although the Bucs are more likely to hit their new, lower projection than they were to hit the book projection of 8.0 mean wins. The Bucs thing is based on a ton of small variables that all add up with no one element standing out that would explain so much improvement.
Mike Tanier: Washington. I was all-in with the 10-win projection when we started writing the book. Since then, Donovan McNabb has gotten hurt, the running backs have looked awful, there hasn't been much resolution at wide receiver, and Albert Haynesworth has been about as bad a distraction as possible. This looks like a sub-.500 team, once you pencil in Rex Grossman for a game or two and the gimpy version of McNabb for a few others.
Vince Verhei: Arizona. I was already wondering how they would get by without Karlos Dansby. Then came word that Derek Anderson, a known commodity as a horrible quarterback, may still be better than Matt Leinart. The floor for this team just dropped several levels.
Robert Weintraub: Minnesota. Ripken, Gehrig, Everett Scott (the consecutive game record holder before Lou) -- they finally missed a game, and it seems likely this is the year Brett Favre does too. It will be endemic of a disappointing season in many areas, including, most importantly, the offensive line.
Player Most Likely to Beat KUBIAK Projection
Bill Barnwell: Tom Brady. I think he has one more MVP-level season in him.
Will Carroll: Anthony Gonzalez. He's healthy and Manning likes throwing to him. It's that simple.
Doug Farrar: LaDainian Tomlinson. He's Derrick Ward in reverse -- he leaves the team with the sub-par run-blocking line, and heads to the New York team with the best run-blocking line in the NFL. Between rushing and receiving totals, he could outperform those projections by a mile.
David Gardner: Cadillac Williams. This isn't just because he's on my fantasy team. With Derrick Ward out of the picture and no patellar tendons left to tear, Williams could regain his rookie form.
Tom Gower: Ryan Mathews. I've already stated my affection for Mathews and believe he'll end up among the four highest-scoring backs (though I'd still take the consensus top four and probably Rashard Mendenhall before him). San Diego's running offense was really hamstrung last year by a worn-down Tomlinson, but I think Matthews and a healthy Nick Hardwick will revive it.
Sean McCormick: LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson looked absolutely shot last year, but he's looked absolutely great in both training camp and preseason in New York -- to the point where he is a serious threat to split carries pretty evenly with Shonn Greene. The quality of the offensive line has a heavy impact on running backs, and going from the worst run-blocking unit in football to one of the best looks like it might extend Tomlinson's career by several years. (It's also why I would caution the Ryan Mathews bandwagon just a bit.)
Aaron Schatz: Michael Turner. I think he'll bounce back from the Curse of 370 and average more than 4.3 yards per carry.
Mike Tanier: Brandon Marshall. I am not a big believer in the Dolphins offense, but they will make a serious effort to get him the ball. I think there will be some early-game screens and hitches to him just to make sure he feels involved early, and that the Screen to Marshall will be the play the Dolphins use when they need to get their offense started. I don't know if he will get 180 targets like he once did in Denver, but I think he'll get his share of empty calorie catches and yards, and I love them in fantasy. Like I said when I drafted Wes Welker and Marshall in our league: I like receivers who look busy.
Vince Verhei: Justin Forsett. I think he settles in as the team's top runner some time in October. There will still be plenty of Leon Washington and Julius Jones, but by the end of the year, Forsett could be a bottom-end starting running back, and he'll probably be freely available in most leagues.
Robert Weintraub: Carson Palmer. A bit of bias, perhaps, but if Palmer can't make things happen with a far more explosive set of targets in the passing game, he never will. Development of line in pass blocking is crucial.
Player Most Likely to Fall Short of KUBIAK Projection
Will Carroll: Steven Jackson. Back surgery seems bad for a power back. For him to come close to these numbers again means that Bradford will have to establish some kind of passing game. I don't like the line. I don't like the chances.
Doug Farrar: Rashard Mendenhall. I'm not feeling the love for any back behind that offensive line, especially since the offense will face a lot of defenders in the box in the first four weeks. I think Jonathan Dwyer is going to take some carries away from him.
David Gardner: Beanie Wells. Tim Hightower is going to the be the starter for a sinking Arizona team before the midway point.
Tom Gower: Hines Ward is going to hit the mid-30s-receiver wall one of these seasons, and when he does, I want to be able to say I predicted it.
Mike Kurtz: Jamaal Charles. Charles will be a good fantasy mid-round play, but we like Kansas City way, way too much. Even in a bad division.
Sean McCormick: Rashard Mendenhall. Again, running back performance is heavily dictated by the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, by the quarterback play. Maurkice Pouncey looks like a quality pick, but it's not a good sign when a rookie steps in and is the best player on the line. Mendenhall is also going to be seeing a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts until Ben Roethlisberger gets back, and that could nudge his numbers down a bit.
Aaron Schatz: David Garrard. Basically what Ben said.
Mike Tanier: Jerome Harrison. The more he plays, the worse he looks. Doug and I were talking about Peyton Hillis last week, and after chuckling over his "fan favorite" credentials, I checked the tape and realized he's probably going to have a 10-touch roll, at least. Those touches will come at Harrison's expense.
Vince Verhei: Beanie Wells. I usually put close to zero faith in preseason numbers, but Wells is averaging just 2.76 yards per carry this August, a full two yards lower than Tim Hightower. I don't think it's clear Wells will be the top guy here, and when you consider the depressing state of the Cardinals, it's ridiculous to consider Wells as a top 20 guy.
Robert Weintraub: Tony Romo. I'm not expecting a pratfall, but rumor has a "website out there" has concerns about Dallas' offensive line, so that could detract from his numbers.
College Team Most Likely to Beat F/+ Projection
Bill Connelly: The easy answer would be Boise State, since they just cleared a hurdle the projections didn't think they would clear. Instead, we'll go with Utah; 7.8 wins is very conservative with their remaining schedule.
Brian Fremeau: Boise State and Washington. I'm cheating a bit by submitting this after they took care of the Hokies, but Boise is definitely going to beat its F/+ projection in the polls. But they had the second-highest mean win projection, so that's not saying much. I'll go with Washington, too, a team our system projects to 4.6 mean wins, but certainly seems good enough to get to a bowl game. There are plenty of pitfalls in the Pac-10, and Oregon looks like a monster out of the gate, but the Huskies are pointed in the right direction under Steve Sarkisian. I just can't count them out of enough games.
Tom Gower: Washington. One of college football's either annoying or great characteristics, depending on your point of view, is the ability of a particularly good quarterback to carry a team. The opening weekend loss to BYU gives me slight pause, but I still think the Lockerettes have a good chance to exceed the projected four wins by several games.
David Gardner: Michigan. With a new Big House in place and Denard Robinson showing an uncanny ability in RichRod's offense, the Wolverines could be the surprise of the season.
Ben Muth: Stanford. They have the conference's best coach, best offensive line and best player. They're a lock to win at least eight games, and with a little bit of defense, I like them to win the Pac-10. It's a great day to be alive and be a tree.
Robert Weintraub: Miami. Jacory!
College Team Most Likely to Fall Short of F/+ Projection
Bill Connelly: Penn State. Going 9-3 with a true freshman at quarterback isn't impossible, but it will be difficult. (And it probably goes without saying that Kansas will now severely struggle to go 7-5.)
Brian Fremeau: Penn State. The Nittany Lions are a bit too high, especially considering the schedule. Road trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend, plus trips to Iowa City and Columbus later on are going to be extremely challenging. They might be better than everyone else on their schedule, but there's so little room for error to get to our 9.2 mean wins projection.
David Gardner: Tennessee. I can't think of a single reason why they'll be better than last year or how they would win seven games.
Tom Gower: Tennessee. The projection doesn't take into account the talent exodus and the coaching upheaval.
Ben Muth: Arizona. Did you see that Holiday Bowl? They looked they didn't want to be there and embarrassed the entire conference. I know it's only one game, but I can't pick a team that no showed their biggest game in over 10 years to finish better than fifth in the Pac-10.
Robert Weintraub: Alabama. I thought this before Ingram got hurt and Dareus suspended. They will be strong, obviously, but they have come back to the pack and their opposition has improved.
Super Bowl XLV Winner and Loser
Bill Barnwell: Atlanta over Pittsburgh
Will Carroll: Indianapolis over Green Bay
Doug Farrar: Green Bay over Baltimore
David Gardner: Baltimore over New Orleans
Tom Gower: Indianapolis over Green Bay. Not that I expect either team actually to make it to the Super Bowl, but they're the teams I think have the best shot of ending up with the number-one seeds.
Mike Kurtz: Baltimore over New York Giants
Sean McCormick: Indianapolis over Green Bay
Ben Muth: Indianapolis over Green Bay
Aaron Schatz: Baltimore over Green Bay. That's what I told ESPN Magazine to run, that's what I picked for an ESPN piece with various "expert picks" running later today or tomorrow, and that's what I'm sticking with despite Atlanta's move in the updated projections. I like Green Bay to be a more balanced team, and thus have a slightly better chance to go all the way.
Mike Tanier: Indianapolis over Green Bay. Unless this game plays out like the preseason game in which the Packers scored 56 points and Peyton Manning spent the whole game looking like he wanted to smack someone, in which case reverse the results.
Vince Verhei: Indianapolis over Green Bay
Robert Weintraub: Baltimore over New Orleans
2011 BCS Championship Winner and Loser
Bill Connelly: The odds-on favorite has to be Boise State-Alabama, right? Texas sure does have an easy road, though.
Will Carroll: Alabama over Boise State
Doug Farrar: Boise State runs the table, sends the BCS supercomputer into a smoking, wheezing fit, and blows the next great bid for the little guy by losing to Ohio State.
Brian Fremeau: TCU over Ohio State. I don't think these are the two best teams in college football, but I think they each have a great chance of going undefeated. And I'm expecting the SEC teams (plus Big 12, ACC, and Pac-10 for that matter) to beat up on one another this year. If Ohio State, Boise State, and TCU are all undefeated at the end of the season, I wouldn't be surprised if TCU edges out the Broncos in the end. Boise will then win the Sugar Bowl over the SEC champ, and we'll all be terribly upset about the whole situation.
David Gardner: Boise State over Ohio State
Tom Gower: One-loss Alabama over previously undefeated Boise State. One-loss Ohio State, one-loss Florida, and undefeated TCU are left to stew on the sidelines.
Sean McCormick: Ohio State over Oregon
Ben Muth: Texas over Boise State
Mike Tanier: Texas over Ohio State
Vince Verhei: Alabama over Ohio State
Robert Weintraub: Texas over Ohio State
With the First Pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, What Team Selects Whom?
Bill Barnwell: Cleveland Browns select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Will Carroll: Buffalo Bills select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford, blowing the pick. Julio Jones goes third to St. Louis and sets up a resurgence stymied by the strike.
Doug Farrar: Buffalo Bills select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington
David Gardner: Jacksonville Jaguars select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington
Tom Gower: Buffalo Bills select Christian Ponder, quarterback, Florida State.
Mike Kurtz: Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Ben Muth: Arizona Cardinals (pick acquired in trade with St. Louis) select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford.
Sean McCormick: Jacksonville Jaguars select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington.
Aaron Schatz: Cleveland Browns select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford. (For fun, I'll even predict the second pick: Detroit Lions select Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Iowa.)
Mike Tanier: Buffalo Bills select Jake Locker, quarterback, Washington
Vince Verhei: Buffalo Bills select Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford. The Jake Locker hysteria will cool down to a degree, though I expect he'll still be a first-round pick.
Robert Weintraub: Tampa Bay selects Robert Quinn, defensive end, North Carolina