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Thanks to Peyton Manning's new residence in the Rocky Mountains, the Sanchez-Tebow, ahem, "drama" and the collective aptitude of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals making the North coalition the most competitive division in football, the AFC has hogged the gridiron headlines this August. However, with the G-Men's conquest in Indianapolis last February, the NFC has harbored four of the past five Super Bowl champions. Given the Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers boast three of the more formidable rosters in the NFL, along with title-aspirant teams in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Dallas, it's not a stretch to assert the Lombardi Trophy's forecast states another sojourn to the conference at season's end.
Though the Giants captured their second ring in the past five seasons, New York fans might not recognize their boys in blue. Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham departed for the West Coast, as did running back Brandon Jacobs. Tight end Jake Ballard is also gone, waived after suffering a torn ACL against New England in the championship game. Rookies David Wilson and Rueben Randle were brought in to fill some of these voids, as was the mercurial Martellus Bennett. Assimilating new faces into an offense is an arduous task, but the Giants faithful should rest assured, as Eli Manning is well equipped to deal with the changing scenery.
San Francisco signal caller Alex Smith will likewise be working with a revamped roster. While the 49ers were one of the league's surprises last season with a 13-3 mark, the offensive unit left much to be desired, as their 310.9 yards per game ranked 26th in the NFL. To help improve this company, the aforementioned Manningham and Jacobs, Randy Moss and rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James were added to the skill positions, transforming a pedestrian attack to one of the more versatile assaults in the conference.
Unlike their competitors, the Cheeseheads did little to supplement their squad during the offseason, although not much change was necessary from a team that went 15-1 in 2011. The Packers did strengthen their offensive line with the acquisition of five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday, and utilizing six draft picks on the defensive side undoubtedly augments a crew that was in the middle of the pack in points allowed last season.
Yet will these alterations equate to a voyage to the Big Easy, this year's site of Super Bowl XLVII, or have the adjustments distorted already-winning formulas for the franchises in question? To answer this query, we "played" the 2012 NFL season out thanks to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com pro football simulation engine. Running each contest 501 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), and minutia your brain can't handle at this time.
The rosters and depth charts used were up-to-date and accurate as of August 30, 2012.
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||9||7|
From a faculty standpoint, there's much to be desired from this contingent, as the Cowboys take the NFC East crown with just a 9-7 record. Don't misconstrue this sentiment as condemnation on the group's performance, as the division has its fair share of drama in store for 2012.
While pigskin pundits don't question the dexterity of the Giants in the playoffs, the team has struggled mightily in the regular season. Despite a manageable slate in 2011, Tom Coughlin's lineup went 9-7, and was a Tony Romo choke away from staying at home after New Year's. This is further evidenced by their point differential, as New York had a negative figure in this category. If the Giants plan on defending their belt, they will need to up their feats during the fall.
Speaking of improving their operation, I'd say the "Dream Team" didn't fulfill their self-professed prospects last season, finishing with a mediocre 8-8 record. The procurements of sturdy linebacker DeMeco Ryans and first-round pick Fletcher Cox will render a positive influence on defense. However, unless the beleaguered Eagles line is able to keep Michael Vick upright, don't envision the City of Brotherly Love to make much noise this season.
Overlooked by the Robert Griffin III hype were Washington's sly and solid grabs of Pierre Garcon, Madieu Williams and Brandon Meriweather. Alas, all eyes will be on RG3 and the offense. Though Cam Newton's ridiculous rookie campaign has placed an unfair onus on Griffin III (and Andrew Luck, for that matter), the Heisman winner just has to be competent for this team to compete. Considering the putrid play in our nation's capital the past three seasons, that's a proposition the fan base will readily take.
And we could pontificate on Dallas' improved secondary or dynamic rushing attack making the team a challenging foe. Sadly, unless Romo finally figures it out, this will also be a franchise whose hype won't match the harvest.
|Green Bay Packers*||11||5|
The black-and-blue division regains some of its yesterday aura, with three playoff contenders and an ambitious, up-and-coming bunch in Minnesota. Much like the SEC in college football, it will be a war of attrition that settles the winner of the NFC North.
The Bears were dealt a bad hand in 2011. Despite coming out of the gate with a 7-3 record, Chicago suffered a major blow when Jay Cutler was injured in Week 11, ending his season, as well as the hopes of a Bears' Super Bowl run. With backup Caleb Hanie under center, Chicago limped to a 1-5 finish down the stretch. There is optimism in Solider Field, however, as Cutler has finally been provided receiving weapons in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If Cutler and Matt Forte can stay healthy, the Bears could regain their 2010 form.
Most of the key components of one of the most explosive offenses return for the Detroit Lions, who posted their first winning year in over a decade. Unfortunately, not much good has derived from the Detroit front since the team's defeat to New Orleans last January. Numerous player arrests have dampened the sanguinity surrounding the organization, and Matthew Stafford remains a major injury risk. This, combined with backfield issues and a tougher schedule, have Lions fans fearing the worst for 2012.
The Vikings continue to build around their youthful core, and brought in sound investments in Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson. But while exciting neophytes litter this Minnesota roster, along with the esteemed Jared Allen, coming off a 22-sack season, the only news of importance produced by the Twins Cities this year will be the health of All-Pro Adrian Peterson. If Peterson cannot recover from knee surgery, it will be a long four months for those draped in purple.
As for Green Bay-well, they're pretty good. A 15-1 record speaks for itself, no? The only area of enhancement the Packers desperately need is out of the backfield, as the running game ranked 27th in the league. Late August acquisition Cedric Benson has impressed in abbreviated appearances, and the team hopes Alex Green will come to fruition at some point in the near future. That said, Aaron Rodgers and the aerial assault seemed to do just fine without reinforcement on the ground last season, so perhaps this isn't as big a deficiency as feared.
|New Orleans Saints||8||8|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||6||10|
Atlanta has racked up 43 wins in the past four seasons, Tampa is experiencing a renewed focus under Greg Schiano and Newton might be one of the most exciting players in the league. But in spite of these intriguing storylines, the only narrative receiving noise will be the Saints' response to the bounty scandal.
Yet for NOLA fans anxious on this counter, seeing No. 9 in the huddle should alleviate some of this apprehension. With Sean Payton relegated to the press box for most of last season, Drew Brees displayed he was more than capable of running the show on the field. And though Jonathan Vilma's leadership will be missed, in truth, his play noticeably regressed in 2011. In short: the Saints, minus their head coach and a few cogs on defense, should be just fine.
A full offseason under his belt should do wonders for Newton and the offense, as the second-year Auburn product had only an abbreviated August to digest the Panthers' offensive strategy last year. Nevertheless, if Carolina fails to make strides on the other side of the ball, where the team surrendered 26.8 points per game (third-worst in the NFC), the fireworks facilitated by Newton will be for naught.
In 2010, Tampa was one of the NFL's darlings, submitting a 10-6 record with an inexperienced, youthful delegation. Entering 2011 with heightened expectations, the Bucs fell flat on their face, notching just four victories, correlating to an exit for head coach Raheem Morris. Schiano seems to be a firm voice to right Tampa's ship, although this turnaround will take more than one season to come to fruition.
It's rare that a coach who's averaged nearly 11 wins per season in his tenure would find himself on the hot seat, but one can make the case that a scenario as such applies to the Falcons' Mike Smith. Unless Matty Ice and the Dirty Birds finally come through in the postseason (Atlanta is 0-3 in this forum since Smith took the reins), it's easy to envision a change of guard for the 2013 season.
|San Francisco 49ers*||11||5|
|St. Louis Rams||6||10|
The NFC West used to be known as the "NFC Worst," with the highlight, er, lowlight, coming in 2010, as the division "crowned" the Seahawks as champs with a 7-9 record. Yet after three teams won seven or more games last season, the division-ok, the division remains sort of a joke.
However, not to say this western party needs to be totally dismissed. Jim Harbaugh ignited a revitalization in the Bay Area, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record in his first season overseeing the program. Now blessed with one of the deeper and more talented skill pools in the NFL, if Alex Smith can be as efficient (17 touchdowns, five interceptions) in this upcoming year as 2011, the Niners may be Super Bowl bound.
Southeast of San Fran, the Cardinals quietly collected eight wins last season, not bad considering their major offseason acquirement, Kevin Kolb, was a total bust. Though there's nothing enticing about his play, if third-year arm John Skelton provides a steady presence under center, Arizona could be a dark horse as a Wild Card contender.
Speaking of underdogs, St. Louis commands a fair share of hope for a roster that went 2-14 in 2011. The Rams are optimistic that a new direction of leadership will guide Sam Bradford back to his 2010 fashion, where he threw for over 3,500 yards. Steven Jackson will need to hold up for St. Louis to have any chance, but Jeff Fisher has done more with less over his career.
In the Emerald City, the Seahawks are hoping to finally have their franchise quarterback in rookie Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch finally validated his college hype with a Pro Bowl campaign in 2011, though legal issues could spell trouble for the Cal product. The signing of Terrell Owens garnered hype, T.O. now finds himself on the NFL streets. Braylon Edwards, Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate provide Wilson a stable and deep receiving corps.
Throughout the 2012 NFL season, WhatIfSports.com will provide FOXSports.com its game predictions and fantasy projections on a weekly basis.
Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.