Pretty soon free agency as we have come to know it this season will conclude, and we will move on to the other great pastime for the hardcore fan and the paid football pundit...
...NFL season predictions!
But it would be too easy to look things like the Texans signing defensive backs
who are 1000 times better than last year who are good at what they do, or New England stocking up on washed-up prima donnas veterans and make generic predictions like you will find everywhere on the interwebs that will literally take last year's records, add a win or two based on free agency, and essentially give you the exact same playoff bracket as last year with Houston and Detroit replacing a team at random.
Or, you can read something totally different, after the jump.
As you may have surmised from my Numb3rs reference, this is all about the numbers. There are unexplained "curses" rampant through the NFL, and there are numerous other trends that can not necessarily be explained by sports science. Nonbelievers would dismiss this as "parity" but I intend to look deeper and use these trends to predict this season. Wish me luck.
A quick note: By default, my analysis only goes back to the 2002 realignment. It felt to me like going to a time when there were less than 8 divisions (and no Houston Texans) added too many variables, which any scientist will tell you can ruin the experiment.
Overall Playoff Picture
Before dissecting the divisions to determine a winner, a quick look at the playoff picture in general. When dating back to the 2002-2003 playoffs, I tracked how many teams actually made it back the next year:
3 7 5 5 6 5 5 7 ? <- The ? is this upcoming year
If you are a math nerd like me, you like symmetry, so it makes sense to finish the apparent pattern:
3 7 5 5 6 5 5 7 3
So out of the 12 teams that made the tournament last year (NE, NYJ, BAL, PIT, IND, KC, PHI, CHI, GB, ATL, NO, SEA) only 3 get to go back.
Taking this one step further, the NFC has had a pattern over the past 6 years of 1,3,3,1,3,3 teams making a return visit. So I'm giving the NFC one team to go back, and two to the AFC. Take a moment and pick your 3, then keep reading and see if you guess right.
Trends: New England has won this division 7 out of 9 tries
Only one team has ever earned a wildcard from this division: the Jets (4 times)
What they mean: They mean that a math man that sees that much consistency from the Patriots predicts it to continue. It also means that I will not predict a Miami or Buffalo wildcard berth.
Division Winner: New England
Trends: SUPER LOSER CURSE! (More Below)
MADDEN CURSE - Cleveland's Peyton Hillis (more below)
Only twice has the division champ defended his title; both times it was Pittsburgh
What they mean: The third trend leads me away from predicting Baltimore wins the division.
The Super Loser Curse is an alleged trend that the loser of the Super Bowl fails to make the playoffs the next season, usually from injury to the starting QB. However, since these two traits don't always happen (F--- U Peyton!), I dug deeper.
The REAL curse is that the Super Loser has lost anywhere from 4-7 more games the next season (exception: Arizona, playing with Kurt Warner in the NFC
Wuss West). This is how Indy survived the curse; they went from 14-2 to 10-6. Pittsburgh was 12-4 last year, so their best hope is 8-8. I don't have to tell Texans fans that 8-8 won't earn the playoffs.
So, who's left? The Cleveland Browns. BUT WAIT! What about the Madden Curse? Well, yes, Peyton Hillis is screwed. Not that I wish for this to happen, but I can damn near guarantee he gets injured. It has always happened. Even in good years like Ray Lewis and Larry Fitzgerald (missed the Pro Bowl due to injury; got lucky as far as the curse is concerned), some level of injury occurs.
HOWEVER, the last 6 teams carrying a Madden Cursed player ended up with winning records of either 9-7 or 10-6. So if I were you, I'd go after Montario Hardesty late in your fantasy draft. Just sayin'.
Division Winner: Cleveland
Trends: A perceived curse on the San Diego Chargers, allegedly due to the trade of All-Star WR Lance Alworth to the Dallas Cowboys (supposedly reversing the fortunes of both teams). It is believed that this curse prevents the Chargers from winning the Super Bowl.
Most Active "Former Head Coaches" have a losing record when they debut with a new team (only exceptions: Norv Turner and Chan Gailey, both inheriting awesome teams and told not to f it up)
Of the 25 current coaches who are not debuting this year, they were 8-14-3 at debuting with a winning season.
What it means: The Chargers curse clearly does not prevent them from winning the division (though it may explain how they always manage to choke in the playoffs). The Broncos are f'ed as John Fox goes through growing pains.
As for Hue Jackson, well, by shrinking the aforementioned record to accomodate the 7 debuting head coaches, I predict 2 have winning records, 1 goes 8-8, and 4 have losing seasons.
One winner is Pat Shurmer (CLE). The Other is NOT Hue Jackson.
Kansas City does not feature any math that by-definition inhibits their chances, but I only get to keep 2 of last year's playoff teams, and my math favors another over the Chiefs. (More later)
Division Winner: San Diego
Trends: Indianapolis has won the division 7 out of 9 times.
Since 2003, the AFC South has always had at least one team repeat in the playoffs.
Three times since 2002, an AFC South team went 10-6 and lost in the wildcard round, including IND last year. The two times before (IND in 02, TEN in 07), the team won the division the next year.
What they mean: All three of those trends point to one thing: Indianapolis wins the division again.
I know. I was pissed too.
Division Winner: IND
Trends: Only one AFC division has ever put 2 wildcards in the playoffs in the same season: AFC South (2007)
You can guess where I'm going with this.
I've already reached my quota of returning teams, so NYJ, BAL, PIT, and KC are out. DEN and OAK will have losing seasons, so they're out. The East only gives the Jets a wildcard spot, so MIA and BUF are out.
Your choices are Houston, Jacksonville, and Cincinnati. Some people would say I should eliminate Houston because they "have shown a trend of not making the playoffs". However, I chose to discard a team's individual track record unless there was some bigger curse at work (like San Diego's Alworth curse or the apprent block on AFC East wildcard teams, which also affects New England). That said, I had to pick one team to eliminate. The Bengals have a pattern since realignment of Suck-Suck-Suck-WIN!-Suck-Suck-Suck-WIN!. That said, I predict the Bengals to win the North in 2013, and nothing until then.
Wildcard: Houston and Jacksonville
Curses/Trends: No repeat division champ since 2005.
Not only has the title been rotated around the past 6 years, but it has been an even (if not 100% repetitive) split. If you split the past 6 years in half, the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants each take a title. It’s been 3 years since the G-Men took their turn with the company car.
Division Winner: New York Giants
Curses/Trends: The Bobby Layne curse
A Hall-of-Fame QB, after being dumped to the Steelers, he allegedly declared that the Lions wouldn't win for 50 years. 50 years later, they go 0-16...and draft a QB who lived in Layne's neighborhood and played QB at his high school. So, maybe Stafford breaks this one.
However, Detroit is the only team to never claim the division crown, so unless I can eliminate the other choices, I won't give it to the Lions. (In Houston's case, there was no alternative, so it WAS different)
Minnesota? Rookie head coach, and not my pick for "Rookie Winner #2". Out.
Green Bay? Well, the Super Winner Curse is much less defined, and the past 9 champs have been all over the place data-wise, ranging from +1 to -5 wins, but the average over those seasons was exactly -2, which puts the Pack at 8-8. Out.
Chicago? Since 2001, the Bears have shown a pattern of Win-suck-suck-suck-Win from 01-05 and 06-10. So they'll win the division this year again, and next time in 2015.
Divison Winner: Chicago (sorry Detroit)
Curses/trends: The Pottsdam Maroons Curse
Another "urban legend", but the Chicago Cardinals lost to the Pottsdam Maroons in the 1925 NFL Championship game, but, due to a rules violation involving the Maroons playing an alumni club from the University of Notre Dame, they were stripped of the title and it was awarded to the Cardinals. The Pottsdam, Pennsylvania community declared that the Cardinals would never win another championship until justice was served and they gave their 1925 title back to Pottsdam.
This urban legend is given credence partially due to the fact that, the one time Arizona got close, a Pennsylvania team, the Steelers, were imbued with a miracle play that sealed defeat for the Cardinals. (And, yes, that Santonio catch can be called a miracle. It was spectacular)
But, I mean, how often does Pennsylvania get to hurt Arizona. I mean, it’s not like they want to trade for a QB from Philadelphia…oh no…
The other three teams are lacking in pattern data. So, my last resort? Logic.
Jim Harbaugh gets my vote as the rookie to go 8-8. That leaves the Rams and the 'Hawks. Sam Bradford vs. Tavaris Jackson...
Division Winner: St. Louis
Curses/Trends: The NFC South is in a class all its own. Wikipedia, if you please...
"In every season since the division's first season, the team which finished in last place in the previous season would significantly improve their record in the following season."
"From 2002 to 2009, no team in the NFC South earned back-to-back playoff appearances."
To the first point, in 06,08, and 10, the improvement was 7 games.
Me: Really? REALLY? You think that by throwing the playoffs into such disarray by violating the rules that a 7-9 team WINS ITS PLAYOFF GAME is breaking the curse? No. Seattle vs. New Orleans was NOT a curse broken. It was a curse REINFORCED.
That said, I can not in good conscience side with Carolina as winning the division. The curse is okay if they make the playoffs – the Earth did not shake when Atlanta earned a #5 seed as an 11-5 team in 2008. Unless the Panthers break through the 7-game ceiling, they are still looking at 9-7. 9-7 plus the right tiebreakers can earn a playoff bid, but not a division not named the West.
Tampa is owed their playoff appearance, and it’s hard to imagine that team failing to accomplish that given how they look and that nearly every important player on that team has yet to enter his prime or is in his prime.
WINNER: Tampa Bay
Wildcard #5: Detroit
Wildcard #6: Carolina
Again, there is not much to pick from when you start eliminating other teams for various reasons. Remember, the NFC only gets to bring back one team according to the symmetrical history of playoff repeats, so that eliminated Philly, and Green Bay, Atlanta, and New Orleans are out based on previous data. The odd team out is Washington. Yeah, no.
PLAYOFFS – Based on past performance, home teams win about 2 of the 4 wildcard games, 2 to 3 of the divisional games, and 1 to 2 of the 2 Conference Finals. These numbers will be applied to the Playoffs
AFC Seeding: #1-NE, #2-SD, #3-IND, #4-CLE, #5-HOU, #6-JAX
NFC Seeding: #1-NYG, #2-CHI, #3-TB, #4-STL, #5-DET, #6-CAR
Patterns determined the seedings, but this is long enough, so I'll spare you.
The only trend I could find is that home teams do favorably against divisional wildcard opponents in this round (4-2, 2-4 in other rounds). .667 isn't as conclusive as I'd like but it's good enough. And since that's 2 home team wins, the visitors win the other games.
IND def JAX; HOU def CLE; TB def CAR; DET def STL
1's are 4-1 vs 5's, so sorry fans of Houston and Detroit. 2 vs 3 is more even (5-4) so a split there makes sense and puts at 3 home wins which still fits the percentages. So, who falls? Well, any Texan fan should know that the Chargers are undefeated against the Colts in the playoffs. Since Peyton is also known to be un-Peyton in the playoffs, this is not a real stretch.
NE def HOU; SD def IND; NYG def DET; TB def CHI
The data for the Giants and Bucs is inconclusive; the Pats vs Bolts is not. On top of a block from winning the Super Bowl, the Bolts are the same 0-2 versus NE that IND is against them. Plus, the Patriots are 3-1 when they make it to the finals. Only one home team gets to win, and I have made my choice.
NE def SD; TB def NYG
Super Bowl: Patriots vs Buccaneers
Not a whole lot of conclusive data, but one thing stuck out. #1 seeds are 2-8 since 2000, 1-7 if you throw out the 1 vs 1 in 2009. With nothing else conclusive to refute this, it walks.
TB def NE to win the Super Bowl.
Take that Peter King!
Comments are welcome, and while I will clarify my position if desired, but I will not defend against an outright refusal to accept what math has provided. We'll see if math beats popular logic.