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The NFL has trumpeted its parity for years. The degrees of variance in talent and faculty are so infinite that it makes each week must-see TV. Though not every team has a realistic chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy (cough cough Browns cough), more teams than not believe the playoffs are in reach, and that simple principle fuels the league's "must-watch TV" attribute.
Well, most of the time, that is.
The captivating spectacle of professional football obviously remains, but for the first time in decades, one team has risen above the fray, universally projected as Super Bowl bound. Odd, as this roster is coming off a loss in last year's title game.
Make no mistake, the San Francisco 49ers are loaded. The defense doubles as an All-Pro squad, their offensive line and running game are strong, Colin Kaepernick might be the most exhilarating signal caller outside our nation's capital and Jim Harbaugh...well, Harbaugh, for better or worse, is a living incarnation of a Friday Night Lights character. Basically, everything you could hope from an NFL lineup and more.
However, the Niners are far from infallible. Transfixing as his play may be, question marks persist on Kaepernick's long-term forecast under center. The receiving ranks have been decimated with injuries, Frank Gore's mileage is rapidly accumulating and the special teams unit was inefficient. Worse, San Fran is a Kaepernick-injury away from...gulp...Colt McCoy as the starting quarterback.
So while fans in the Bay Area are eager for the season to begin, let's pump the brakes on crafting itineraries for a February trip to the Meadowlands. One of the main reasons the NFL is so appealing in the first place is the notion that anything can happen. In this case, even the proposition of San Francisco being left out in the cold of East Rutherford.
But if not the Niners, which franchise will come out on top of the NFC? To answer this query, we "played" the 2013 NFL season out thanks to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com pro football simulation engine. Running each contest 1,001 times, we were able to decipher the playoff contenders for the upcoming campaign, as well as which players are free to start making vacation plans for January.
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), the aptitude of the local PED dealer, etc.
The rosters and depth charts used were up-to-date and accurate as of August 27, 2013.
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.
Playoff participants are denoted by * (division winners) and + (wild card recipients). Wild card tie breakers are based on projected win percentage.
|New York Giants||8||8|
The overall merit of the AFC North is better, and the competition within the NFC North is superior in combativeness. Yet, while no longer considered the crème de la crème of the NFL, the variance in talent and endowment between NFC East rivals is minuscule, making this one of the more lively divisions in the conference.
In the midst of this homogeneity, the prediction engine likes Washington to emerge as victor. Outside of a dubious secondary and unproven receivers, Mike Shanahan's squad is mostly without question marks. You know, outside the health of Robert Griffin III, but given the lack of national coverage on the Washington quarterback, it's probably not that big of a deal...
Even if Griffin III can perform at 90 percent efficiency, it will be adequate enough to make Washington a playoff contender. Second-year back Alfred Morris and a sturdy offensive line will be the unheralded stars of this team, and should provide a solid foundation while Griffin III assimilates into the swing of things. And while the former Heisman winner's return has garnered much of the focus, it's the recovery of defensive stud Brian Orakpo that makes Washington a tall order. Orakpo's presence should take the spotlight off a susceptible pass defense, alleviating a major flaw in last year's team.
The Cowboys finished 31st in rushing last year, due to a beleaguered offensive line and battered backfield. Though the capability of the big men up front remains to be seen, a healthy DeMarco Murray will help turn around one of the worst rushing games in the NFL. However, expect the Cowboys to remain a pass-happy raid, especially with Dez Bryant developing into a bona fide playmaker and Jason Witten maintaining his standing as one of the best security blankets at his position. His putrid record in big games makes Tony Romo an easy target for criticism, but the three-time Pro Bowler is more than competent enough to take this team to the Promised Land. If the defensive front seven can intensify their pressure, the Cowboys could wear the division crown at season's end.
The Giants are only a year removed from a Super Bowl victory, and retain most of the integral parts from that championship run. The onus is on David Wilson to provide a complement to Eli Manning and the Giants passing game with backup running back Andre Brown's leg injury in the final preseason tune-up. Hakeem Nicks is viewed as the x-factor for the offense, but in truth, New York has a deep enough receiving corps to offset any injuries or shortcomings from Nicks or Victor Cruz (who heads into Week 1 dealing with a heel ailment). The Giants defense is more bark than bite, and a questionable linebacker crew could be the weak link in the chain. Nevertheless, a strong group of pass rushers will still make New York a nightmare for its adversaries.
There's plenty of enthusiasm in the City of Brotherly Love, as Eagles backers are hoping Chip Kelly's offense can energize a lethargic company. Though Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson should light up the highlight reels, the Eagles defense will be facilitating its fair share of fireworks, too. Unfortunately, it will likely be for the other time. Philadelphia has struggled mightily in stopping the run this preseason, and the secondary hasn't fared much better. Unless Kelly's offense plans on replicating his Oregon Ducks' scoring habits, it could be a long season at the Link in 2013.
|Green Bay Packers*||10||6|
A lot of noise emitted out of this division during the offseason. The Bears brought in Canadian Football League offensive guru Marc Trestman to take the reins as head coach, the Lions acquired Reggie Bush to stiffen up a weak rushing unit, the departed Greg Jennings took some unveiled shots at Green Bay idol Aaron Rodgers and the Vikings...well, Christian Ponder's still there, but at least they got some new threads, eh?
The Packers lost some key pieces from their defense, and injuries to the offensive line and wideouts have taken some of the polish of this once-glamorous roster. Luckily for the Cheeseheads, Rodgers remains under center, and with viable weapons in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, this high-octane offense is projected to sit atop the division with a 10-6 record.
Assisting Rodgers this fall will be rookie running back Eddie Lacy. Viewed as a power back, the Alabama product is more versatile than he's credited for, and should have a noticeable existence in the Green Bay aerial strike. A sound terrain attack should give Rodgers more breathing room, a benefit he's been lacking since Ryan Grant was phased out a few seasons ago. As scary as it sounds to Packers' opponents, Rodgers could be more dangerous than ever in 2013.
Charles Woodson no longer calls Lambeau home, but B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews provide enough umph to the Green Bay resistance. The Packers were just outside the top-10 in team defense in 2012, a mark that could improve if some of the younger contributors make a leap this year.
The Bears were the toast of the conference in the first half of 2012, rolling out to a 7-1 start. Alas, Chicago dropped five of its next six contests to miss the postseason and ultimately ending the Lovie Smith Era in the Windy City. Enter Trestman, who's looking to revitalize an apathetic offense. Bears fans are hoping Trestman's tutelage helps Jay Cutler turn the corner, but we are keeping our eye on Matt Forte as the possible breakout star, as the running back will be the piston that fires Chicago's engines. With the Bears lacking a balance to Brandon Marshall, Forte's role as a receiver could be his greatest asset this year, one which could decide Chicago's fate.
The advanced stats proclaim Detroit wasn't as bad as their 4-12 mark in 2012 showcased, although Matthew Stafford's bloated passing yardage somewhat jades those projections. Nevertheless, the Lions offense received a major uplift in the addition of Bush, whose adaptability will keep opposing defenses on their toes. A healthy Ryan Broyles will also be like adding a new player to the Detroit offense, as attention to Broyles will give Calvin Johnson room to roam in the secondary. And while Cliff Avril's exodus might seem like a big loss for the defense, the Lions have more than ample resources to fill his void. Though the WhatIfSports simulation machine has Detroit finishing 7-9, don't be surprised if they're contending for a playoff spot in December.
We give Minnesota's Ponder a hard time, but the third-year arm out of Florida State does have respectable options at his disposal this season, even accounting for the loss of Percy Harvin. Adrian Peterson's endeavors will collect most of the hype, yet the efforts of Minnesota's defense will decide the Vikings' fate. Aside from Jared Allen, Minnesota doesn't have a ton of recognizable faces in this detachment, and leader Antoine Winfield's parting leaves a hole in the secondary, though young guns like Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes will give the Vikings a fighting chance.
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers+||9||7|
|New Orleans Saints||8||8|
Who doesn't like offense? Outside of the Falcons, defense will not be an area of focus for teams in the NFC South. Each roster is capable of putting 40 on the scoreboard, and few of their rivals will have the necessary means to stop such a venture. After a year-long sabbatical, Sean Payton returns to New Orleans, boosting the stock of the Saints, and Tampa fans are hoping Year 2 of the Greg Schiano Era provides dividends. Yet the Falcons hold the conch in this division, and are predicted to finish first with a 10-6 record.
The Falcons have racked up 56 wins in the past five seasons under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, transforming the Dirty Birds into perennial contenders for the Super Bowl. However, this comes with a bit of an asterisk, as the duo has notched just one playoff victory in this span. The Falcons brought in veteran contributors in Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyora to hopefully cross this next-level precipice, and Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez endure as the best receiving trio in football. But if Atlanta suffers another setback this postseason, Smith could find himself in the unemployment line at this juncture in 2014.
The Buccaneers have one of the more exciting and multitalented rushers in the league in second-year back Doug Martin. The No. 31 overall pick out of Boise State a season ago, Martin rushed for over 1,450 yards on the ground and added another 472 yards in the receiving game. Though Tampa Bay's line is in doubt with the absence of Carl Nicks, Martin's dexterity will be enough to keep the Buccaneers a threat. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay is also facing numerous questions: Can Josh Freeman cut down on his inconsistent play? Can the defensive line improve on their lack of pass rush in 2012? Will Darrelle Revis regain his All-Pro play? Unless the answer is "yes" to the aforementioned inquiries, it could be a rocky fall for the Bucs.
With "Bounty-gate" behind them, the Saints seem poised for vengeance in 2013. The arsenal for Drew Brees has never been deeper, and a three-headed monster in New Orleans' backfield (Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles) could vault the Saints into the top offense in the conference. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is implementing the 3-4 defense, and down men Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks should help that transition. The secondary was strengthened in the offseason with the drafting of Kenny Vaccaro, but the unit as a whole is still viewed as subpar. The WhatIf engine doesn't expect that Payton magic to return, yet one would be a fool to count out Brees and company.
In Carolina, it's Cam Newton...and that's about it. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is one of the rising defensive stars in the league, and DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith still have a little gas left in the tank. Yet the Panthers have a shortage of dependable assets at almost every major position. Without a solid vision from the front office, this franchise is still years away from competing.
|San Francisco 49ers*||11||5|
|St. Louis Rams||7||9|
The sentiment was expressed at the top, but it warrants repeating: this is the Niners' title to lose. The Seahawks have attracted love as a sleeper Super Bowl pick thanks to their unwavering defense and a durable running game, and they're a strong bet to secure a Wild Card bid. Putting them on the same level as San Fran, though, is a misnomer, as the Niners have the deepest and deftest roster in the NFL.
There's no questioning the virtue of the offensive line, led by Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Joe Staley, and the trio of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith conjures imagines of the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens. And while Gore is rising in age, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are decent back-ups in case the esteemed Gore misses time. The secondary could take a hit with the departure of Dashon Goldson, and the depleted nature of the receiver ranks is well documented. All the same, something went seriously wrong if San Francisco fails to make the playoffs in 2013.
As mentioned, the Seahawks will trot out a terrifying defense, highlighted by a ridiculous secondary in Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The addition of second-round pick Christine Michael augments a good rushing attack, and, despite an injury to Harvin, Seattle has enough playmakers for Russell Wilson to exceed. With a tougher schedule, will Seattle be able to maintain last year's strong finish, or will heightened expectations crush this squad's Super Bowl dreams?
The Cardinals are hoping Carson Palmer adds stability to an offense that was on life support in 2012, but an awful front line and nonexistence of a running game will keep Arizona grounded. The Cardinals do have a decent front seven on defense, and their secondary could be one of the more explosive in the conference. Still, hard to win if you can't put points on the board. And though the Rams have a quietly-effective defense, unless Sam Bradford begins to fulfill the outlook expected from a No. 1 pick, St. Louis will be fighting to stay out of the NFC cellar.
Throughout the 2013 NFL season, WhatIfSports.com will provide FOXSports.com with game predictions and fantasy projections on a weekly basis.
Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.