2012 NFL Preview - AFC Predictions and Fantasy Projections From WhatIfSports.com image

AFC Preview and Projected Final Standings

Patriots and Texans headline the AFC
By Ryan Fowler - WhatIfSports.com
August 9th, 2012

Editor's Note: We will be updating our 2012 NFL simulation predictions later this month as training camps play out, depth charts take shape and injuries are known heading into the 2012 regular season.

Over the last couple weeks, I've been awarded the privilege of attending a couple NFL training camps and the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Once I heard the pads popping, the crowds cheering and whistles blowing, I knew the NFL regular season couldn't be too far behind.

Unlike in years' past, we're publishing two versions of WhatIfSports.com's NFL simulation predictions. Consider it the simulation engine's version of two-a-days. We will be updating our 2012 NFL simulation predictions later this month as training camps play out, depth charts take shape and injuries are known heading into the regular season.

As always, all of our simulated NFL content is based on the statistical DNA of the league's 32 teams. The simulation process takes into account: team depth charts, injuries, passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, turnovers, rush defense, pass defense, offensive philosophy (pass versus rush), and minutia your brain can't handle at this time.

Using our NFL simulation engine, we have "played" the entire 2012 NFL season. Each game on this year's schedule was simulated 501 times.

The rosters and depth charts used were up-to-date and accurate as of August 7, 2012.

To hide the details, click here.

For this analysis, each regular season game is simulated 501 times, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not, our expected record (in parentheses next to each team) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.

Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.

AFC Final Projected Standings (*division winner, + wild card)

Wild Card tiebreakers based on projected win percentage.

I was recently asked what I thought the most compelling storyline was heading into the 2012 NFL season. With little hesitation, I answered Peyton Manning. No matter what you think of the elder Manning brother, the NFL missed the conductor under center last season. Sure, there are numerous questions as he takes the reins in Denver. What about his neck? Can he stay healthy? Does he have enough offensive weapons? His detractors will continue to blow hot-air, rhetorical questions, not interested in your answer, but by that point stop listening.

If Manning can stay upright and lead the Broncos to the simulation engine's projected 10-6 record, it would be one of the best comebacks of all-time. Manning could win Comeback Player of the Year and MVP (although unlikely) in the same season. That's compelling, don't you think?

But we must walk before we can run. So, let's evaluate Manning's competition in the AFC this season.

AFC EastWinsLosses
New England Patriots* 11 5
Buffalo Bills+ 9 7
New York Jets+ 9 7
Miami Dolphins 7 9
Tom Brady

As has been the case on so many occasions in years' past, to win the AFC East crown, you must beat the New England Patriots. That task this season seems as daunting as ever. This past offseason, the franchise adopted a fantasy football mentality signing every imaginable free agent receiver on the market (except Plaxico, Braylon and T.O.). The Pats signed Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Jake Ballard, and Visanthe Shiancoe to add to their stable of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. They ranked second in passing (318 yards per game) last season. My bet is they finish tops in the league this year.

The Bills (26th in total defense last season) drastically improved on the other side of the football. Their offseason was headlined by the signing of former Houston Texans All-Pro, Mario Williams. Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,832 pass yards/24 TD/23 INT) was signed to a seven-year deal after a few impressive games last season, but his season ended with a thud (nine interceptions last four games). He'll get Fred Jackson (missed last six games with a broken leg) back with C.J. Spiller as a nice change-of-pace back at the ready.

As for the Jets, we simulated the entire season with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. We love Mr. Tebow and wish him luck this NFL season, but until we learn more about his role, we're holding him out of our simulations.

At 7-9, the simulation engine was very generous to the Dolphins who will need to overachieve in the division to have a shot at the playoffs in 2012. David Garrard was recently named the starting quarterback over incumbent Matt Moore, while rookie Ryan Tannehill waits his turn. Reggie Bush stunned most NFL fans by finishing 2011 with four, 100-plus yard rushing performances. The Dolphins need that effort for 16 games to contend in the East.

AFC NorthWinsLosses
Pittsburgh Steelers* 10 6
Baltimore Ravens 9 7
Cincinnati Bengals 8 8
Cleveland Browns 7 9

Here's a division that advanced three teams to the playoffs in 2011. Each of them, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati, are dealing with different issues heading into 2012 that hinder their chance to repeat the feat.

For Pittsburgh it comes in the form of missing their leading rusher from a year ago and the holdout of their top receiver. Rashard Mendenhall (4.1 YPR in 2011 / 9 TDs) blew out his knee in the 2011 regular season finale against Cleveland and Steelers' general manager Kevin Colbert said he would be surprised if Mendy didn't begin the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list for the first six weeks of the season. Note: We simulated their first batch of predictions with Mendenhall missing the first four weeks. As for Mike Wallace (1,193 rec. yards / 8 TDs), he's still in the midst of a Cold Salary War with the franchise. He hasn't signed his free agent tender deal, can't negotiate with other teams and the Steelers' brass have said they won't trade him. So, he either signs and plays or sits out 2012. Right now, our sim engine has him playing 16 games.

Baltimore (third in total defense, fourth in passing defense and second in passing defense) lost one of their motors for the season in Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Ed Reed, despite being in camp, has been wishy-washy in his commitment to the Ravens. Ray Rice (1,364 rush yards / 12 TDs) has a new deal and an entire offense to carry on his shoulders this season.

The Bengals didn't resign Cedric Benson (1,067 rush yards / 6 TDs), sent number two receiver Jerome Simpson to Minnesota and are still working in camp to fill his open spot in the offense. Andy Dalton (3,338 yards / 20 TDs) and A.J. Green (1,057 rec. yards / 7 TDs) aren't going to surprise defensive backs this season. Defensive coordinators have plenty of tape on the duo and it could be up to tight end Jermaine Gresham and new starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to open up some space for Green down field.

As I write this, Cleveland's rookie running back Trent Richardson is reportedly getting his knee cleaned out, but should be okay to start the season. On the other side of the ball, top defensive back Joe Haden is facing a possible four-game suspension for taking a banned substance (appeal pending). Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has been named the starter, Colt McCoy is sad and the first-string receiving corps (Massaquoi, Little and Gordon) have a combined four years NFL experience. Good times ahead for the Brownies in 2012 with a strong chance of growing pains.

AFC SouthWinsLosses
Houston Texans* 11 5
Tennessee Titans 6 10
Jacksonville Jaguars 5 11
Indianapolis Colts 4 12
Andre Johnson

The sim engine strongly believes the Houston Texans are the team to beat in the South. Die-hard NFL fans know that's not saying much. It's a very young division up against a hyper-offense when all cylinders are running in unison.

Matt Schaub (2,479 pass yards / 15 TD in 10 games) returns from a foot injury. Andre Johnson (492 receiving / 2 TD in seven games) is taking it easy this training camp as he tries to avoid nagging hamstring/groin injuries that placed him on the shelf for a good chunk of last season. Everybody's favorite vegan, Arian Foster, is the catalyst for this offense. He, too, missed time in 2011 (three games), but still managed over 1,200 rushing and 600 receiving yards with 12 touchdowns.

The Titans won't get CJ2K back in 2012, but Johnson (1,024 / 4 TD) should be improved year-over-year minus the contract holdout this August. Our assumption is that Jake Locker takes over for Matt Hasselbeck (3,571 pass yards / 18 TD) at some point. For right now, the two quarterbacks split the season at QB1 within our simulation engine.

The Jags are currently dealing with Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout. We left him in for all 16 games in our simulation run. Blaine Gabbert will get a shot to start under center this season, but don't be surprised to see Chad Henne take plenty of snaps if the team starts slow.

Andrew Luck has veteran Reggie Wayne and college teammate/favorite target Coby Fleener at his disposal, but the Colts have plenty of holes to fill in this post-Manning era and it could be a bumpy ride in 2012. The simulation engine believes Indianapolis can manage four wins, which I think is fair as the offense is overhauled. The defense is aging and could be the area the Colts clean up in the 2013 NFL Draft.

AFC WestWinsLosses
Denver Broncos* 10 6
Kansas City Chiefs 9 7
San Diego Chargers 7 9
Oakland Raiders 7 9

Can the Denver Broncos win the West in Manning's first season? Yes, but as we witnessed in 2011, this division is a mess and a few injuries here and there on different teams sends the division into a tailspin.

Let's start with Oakland. If Darren McFadden (seven games played in 2011) can stay healthy (stop laughing) for all 16 games (seriously, stop laughing) and Carson Palmer (13 TD / 16 INT in 10 games), with a full training camp under his belt, can show a glimmer of the talent his possessed before, the Raiders could squeeze in as a wild card. Their defense (29th overall in 2011) is going to allow plenty of points - so the offense will need to carry this team into January.

San Diego was the sim engine's darling just a few seasons ago, but at 7-9, times have changed. Philip Rivers (20 interceptions) had a season to forget in 2011, but perhaps some new blood in the passing game is what this offense needed. The team lost Vincent Jackson, but added Robert Meachem (620 rec. yards / 6 TD with Saints) and Eddie Royal with Antonio Gates (foot, 778 rec. yards / 7 TD) claiming this training camp is the best he's felt prior to the start of a season in quite some time.

If you think about it, Kansas City finished 7-9 in 2011 without a good portion of their skill position players active. Jamaal Charles (ACL) missed most of the season, Matt Cassel (hand) missed seven games, Eric Berry (ACL) missed 15, and tight end Tony Moeaki (ACL) was missing in action. All those guys are back in 2012. The Chiefs could back up the simulation engine's claim of a nine-win season, if not more.

Throughout the 2012 NFL season, WhatIfSports.com will provide FOXSports.com its game predictions and fantasy projections on a weekly basis.

Editor's Note: We will be updating our 2012 NFL simulation predictions later this month as training camps play out, depth charts take shape and injuries are known heading into the 2012 regular season.

Ryan Fowler is the Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at rfowler@whatifsports.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FOXSportsFowler

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