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Three factors determine risers, sliders in 2012 standings

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By Eric Edholm

The draft is over. Free agency has dwindled to a near crawl. Roger Goodell has punished everyone he possibly can.

Now it’s time to start thinking about the 2012 season. And who is going to win and who isn’t.

I’m going into my 10th season at PFW, and I have had wild variations in my season-predicting skills. I was incredibly proud of picking the Saints and Chargers to play in the Super Bowl in June 2009, when both teams were coming off 8-8 seasons. The Saints won it all, and the Chargers were 13-3 in the regular season.

Of course, I got a little cute the next year. My pick in June was Packers over Ravens. At some point between then and two months later, I arrived at Colts over Cowboys. The Colts lost in the first round of the playoffs, and the Cowboys finished 6-10. Meanwhile, the Packers won it all, and the Ravens lost by a touchdown in the AFC title game.

Basically, I went off factors that were more irrelevant than you might think, such as overall talent. Who would have argued before last season that the Texans and 49ers were among the most talented rosters heading into 2011? It’s better to look at how teams performed on the field, and a few key factors can help do that.

All things being equal, one of the chief ways I arrived at the somewhat out-of-left-field picks of the Saints, Chargers and Packers (whom I had winning the NFC North) in 2009 was through one simple metric: point differential. The Saints and Chargers were both 8-8 the year before, but they had differentials of plus-70 and plus-92, respectively, meaning they lost many close games and tended to beat teams by good margins. The Packers were 6-10 in Aaron Rodgers’ first starting season of 2008 but still managed to outscore their opponents by 39 points. Considering that they were a 13-win team the season before that in 2007, I felt pretty good about the Packers’ chances to make a run after the hiccup that was ’08.

It’s not an exact science, of course. The Raiders (plus-39) were 8-8 in 2010 but finished with the same record last season (with a minus-74 mark, no less). The Chargers were an amazing plus-119 (fifth-best in the NFL) in 2010 at 9-7 but actually fell to 8-8 and plus-29 last season. You obviously have to factor in for player losses, such as Darren Sproles bolting San Diego, as well as teams’ additions.

But the point-differential system is pretty good at plucking out teams destined for improvement without the benefit of major free-agent, draft or trade additions. I wrote about this a bit in a feature for PFW’s season preview magazine that will hit shelves in June, looking at teams that had the best chance to improve from within. Something I noticed was that the point differential from the season prior can’t be ignored.

Teams that finished below .500 the year before with a positive point differential, assuming their personnel has not gotten noticeably worse, have a good chance for improvement the following season historically. Conversely, above-.500 teams that were outscored by a fair differential one year tend to fall off the next, again, not accounting for major personnel adjustments.

I call it the “good fortune” factor. It tends to even out over time.

Take, for instance, the Chiefs. Reason tells me they should be better considering all the starters they lost to injury a year ago, but I am frightened by the fact that they were outscored by a whopping 126 points despite finishing a semi-respectable 7-9, even with a coaching change. Head coach Romeo Crennel might have gotten them back on track with a strong finish that included the Packers’ only regular-season defeat, but I have my worries based on that 126 number.

On the other side, look at the Dolphins. They have been relatively quiet this offseason — too quiet if you ask their fans — and stand to trot out the same core of the 2011 team, minus a few notable pieces (Brandon Marshall) and plus a few others (Ryan Tannehill). The numbers say that actually could be a good thing. The Dolphins outscored their opponents by 16 points last season — not a big number, but it stands out in a 6-10 campaign. That’s enough of a variation from the norm in that nine teams with worse point differentials had better records, including the minus-6 Giants (who won the Super Bowl), that it makes you think the Dolphins might actually surprise in 2012 when almost everyone is picking them to tank.

The Dolphins also represent a valuable recent history lesson that is forcing me to revise my approach to predicting records. How you start the season is crucial. Of last season’s 12 playoff teams, their combined records in the first four games was 33-15, with only one team (the Broncos) not starting out at least 2-2.

I believe looking at teams’ schedules is worthwhile, and I always have taken it into consideration. But what do we really know after the first quarter of the season? After that, all hell tends to break loose. Your best chance at knowing who is good and who stinks comes in the first quarter of the season. And it just so happens that playing well in those games gives you an excellent chance to win many games. To further illustrate the previous point, only three teams (Bills, Buccaneers and Redskins) finished the season below .500 after starting 3-1 or 4-0.

So take a look at the first four or five games on teams’ schedules this season, and it should give you an idea of who might struggle or surprise. The Raiders, for instance, look like a classic crash waiting to happen. In Week One they have a Monday-night home game against the Chargers, then turn around to a road game against the Dolphins in a short week. The next three after that are against the Steelers, Broncos and Falcons, all playoff teams a year ago, and the last two are on the road. Throw in the fact that the Raiders were outscored by those 79 points at 8-8, and it looks like a fall back to the basement in Oakland.

The Broncos fall into the same category. They certainly should be better with Peyton Manning (if healthy, of course) and without Tim Tebow, but three other factors worry me: one, they have an absolute gauntlet of an early schedule (vs. Steelers, at Falcons, vs. Texans, vs. Raiders, at Patriots, at Chargers before the bye); two, they were 8-8 a year ago, sneaking into the playoffs in a weak division, despite being outscored by 81 points overall; and three, they limped into the postseason with three straight losses. The dramatic playoff win over the Steelers aside, they were shellacked the following week by the Patriots. There is some strong evidence that Manning’s first season in Denver might be a rocky one and that improving on 8-8 could be difficult.

The Chiefs’ early-season slate features three playoff teams from a year ago in the first five games (Falcons, Saints and Ravens), plus a home game against the Chargers and a road game against the improved Bills. Another reason not to like them. The Dolphins, our point-differential gems from above, have a tough opener at the Texans, face the Jets in Week Three and get the Bengals in Cincy in Week Five. But the other three games in the first six are manageable with the Raiders, Cardinals and Rams. Nothing crushing about that schedule before their Week Seven bye.

Carrying on with the point about momentum, there are teams that finished strong in 2010 that were among the more improved teams in ’11. Witness the 6-10 Lions carrying over a four-game win streak to close out the 2010 season into 2011 — they finished 10-6 and earned the team’s first postseason appearance since 1999. The 6-10 49ers went 2-2 down the stretch in ’10, but perhaps we should have weighted their two blowout wins as a sign of impending improvement.

The statistic is faulty, though, too, as four teams that improved by at least three games last season — the Texans, Panthers, Broncos and Titans — all went 1-3 to close out 2010. This is where we must filter some teams out based on the movement they made heading into the next season. The Texans completely revamped their defense, the Panthers drafted franchise QB Cam Newton, and the Broncos and Titans both made QB and head-coaching changes. Likewise, the Colts finished 4-0 in ’10 but crashed from 10 wins to two; something tells me the Manning injury had a little something to do with it.

Still, there is a value for this statistic — when we’re talking about teams that have not undergone major facelifts. Non-playoff teams that finished strong last season included the 8-8 Eagles (finished 4-0), 8-8 Cardinals (finished 5-1), 8-8 Chargers (4-1), 7-9 Seahawks (5-3, with all three losses close) and the 6-10 Panthers (4-2). Given that the Eagles (plus-68), Chargers (plus-29), Seahawks (plus-6) and Panthers (minus-23) all had point differentials that were out of whack, I like their chances of improving. None of these teams suffered what I would consider to be major personnel losses, either, and their early schedules are not unduly daunting, which only hardens my belief they’ll be better in 2012.

One more team worth examining: the Falcons. Their personnel is almost entirely back this season, but a few concerning factors make me wonder if we are seeing a team on the brink of breaking out or rather one that could disappoint. Their point differential (plus-52) last season was the worst for any team with at least 10 victories. They fell off a bit down the stretch, losing two of the final three, including the stunning breakdown against the Giants. And the Falcons’ early-season schedule looks a little thorny with three of the first five games on the road and the two at home coming against Manning and the Broncos and then Newton and the rising Panthers. From 10-6 to 8-8 or worse? It could be the Falcons’ fate based on these factors.

The best place to start for picking next season’s records is with last season’s records. Ten teams finished within one game, plus or minus, of where they did in 2010. Twenty-two finished within three victories from ’10 to ’11. Only three had a win-total differential of five games or more. Recent past seasons also offer similar ratios. Most teams finish close to where they were the season before, and a few outliers each year either tank or thrive, unexpectedly or otherwise.

But as we know, there is change from year to year. Like choosing your NCAA basketball bracket, don’t litter your predictions with massive upsets. Chances are, there will be 2-4 teams that are significantly better than last season and 2-4 that fall off precipitously. The three factors I am considering the closest — point differential, how they finished last season and the first part of this year’s schedule — will be key determinants when I weigh my predictions for 2012.

I am still deliberating — even though the ghosts of Packers-Ravens becoming Cowboys-Colts still haunts me — but based on my early findings, it appears that the Falcons, Raiders and Chiefs might be due for a slide and the Eagles, Seahawks and Dolphins could be teams that make a jump in the standings.

It’s all very scientific until the first major injury wipes everything out for a team or two. But until then, these factors can’t go overlooked.

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