2013 NFL Preview - AFC Predictions From WhatIfSports.com image

2013 AFC Preview and Projected Final Standings

Denver Broncos are team to beat in the AFC
WhatIfSports.com
August 29th, 2013

"True irreverence is disrespect for another man's god," said Mark Twain and indirectly referring to the plight of the Baltimore Ravens. For what defending Super Bowl champion has received less civility than the Purple and Black?

Perhaps it has to do with the franchise's idol, Ray Lewis, whose flamboyant persona, past legal issues and, ahem, "questionable" health remedies made the Ravens a natural villain. Current team leader Joe Flacco's relative pedestrian output at the most celebrated position in sports triggers its fair share of belittlement from the public. The trash talk of Terrell Suggs undoubtedly rubs some the wrong way, and one could make the case that America is simply Harbaugh-ed out.

What can't be contended: the residence of the Lombardi Trophy, currently on display at M&T Bank Stadium. For haters can dispute the Ravens' merits all they want, but Baltimore has the ultimate, unfailing validation: scoreboard.

Yet Lewis' retirement, departures of multiple veterans (Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard) and a continued lack of faith in Flacco's ability have analysts painting an ominous forecast for Baltimore. Will this change open the door for other AFC aspirants like the Texans, Broncos and Patriots, or can the Ravens reload in their title defense?

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.

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.

Playoff participants are denoted by * (division winners) and + (wild card recipients). Wild card tie breakers are based on projected win percentage.

AFC EastWinsLosses
New England Patriots* 10 6
Miami Dolphins 7 9
New York Jets 7 9
Buffalo Bills 6 10
Danny Amendola

Sure, three of Tom Brady's primary targets are gone (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez) and a fourth's availability (Rob Gronkowski) is still unknown. But the Pats still have Brady and Bill Belichick. In this division, that alone is good enough for top standing.

The offensive cupboard is far from bare. Running back Stevan Ridley racked up over 1,200 yards and found the end zone 12 times on the ground in 2012. A quartet of rookies in Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Zach Sudfeld will give Brady plenty of weapons to work with, and that's not counting the return of Gronk. The x-factor will be recipient machine Danny Amendola. The former Rams wideout has seamlessly replaced Welker in the passing attack, and will be looked upon to provide a veteran presence among the Pats' neophytes. Unfortunately, Amendola has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and has already dealt with an undisclosed ailment this preseason. If Amendola is stuck on the sidelines, New England's road will be rockier than imagined.

Conceivably, the Dolphins could prove a formidable obstacle for the Patriots. Ryan Tannehill quietly posted a solid rookie debut in South Beach despite a lack of tools at his disposal. Mike Wallace's arrival will help mend that wrong, as well as the emergence of running back Lamar Miller. Miami's not quite ready for the big time, evidenced by the 7-9 record, yet don't be surprised if the Dolphins rattle the cages in the AFC East.

The Jets lost their best player in the offseason (Darrelle Revis), their backfield is banged-up, the roster features a plethora of underwhelming receivers and the team is facing uncertainty at the quarterback position. So basically, it's a reincarnation of the 2012 Jets. As for the Bills...well, Jeff Tuel, who rocked a career 4-22 record in college, is likely starting Week 1. No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills, eh?

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

A young core and stout defense have made the Bengals the media darling of this division, with the hype from Hard Knocks fanning these flames. Additionally, regardless of a major overhaul to the roster, the Ravens are still picked by most as a playoff contender for 2013.

Yet the WhatIfSports.com engine likes the division champs to hail from the Steel City, as the Steelers are predicted to take the crown with a 10-6 record. This undoubtedly will raise a few eyebrows, as Le'Veon Bell's injury and an unproven receiving corps don't seem to bode well for the Steelers. Nevertheless, a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu should energize solid units on both sides of the ball, and Bell may be back on the gridiron earlier than expected. Pittsburgh dealt with a rash of health issues and bad breaks in 2012 and still finished 8-8. A clean bill of health with luck on their side could be all the assistance the Steelers need to be a factor in January.

The Ravens defense won't live up to its historical billing this fall, though Baltimore will hardly be considered a pushover. The arrival of Elvis Dumervil gives the Ravens another fearsome linebacker to pair with Suggs, and Haloti Ngata is one of the best nose tackles in the league. Moreover, the loss of Lewis won't render much of a negative impact, as the aging linebacker was woefully slow and often out of position in returning for Baltimore's playoff run. Reed's exodus to Houston will be felt, and the Ravens offense would not be classified as "explosive" by any means. However, a sound coaching staff and front office have put the pieces in place for Baltimore to remain relevant in the AFC race.

Notching playoff appearance in three of its past four seasons, Cincinnati has made grounds in shedding its infamous "Bungals" image. Alas, Cincinnati is still searching for its first postseason victory since the 1990 campaign. Armed with one of the league's best receivers in A.J. Green and fresh talent in Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Mohamed Sanu, Andy Dalton has enough ammo in his arsenal to make a deep playoff run. Although the simulation engines predict a 9-7mark, a deep defense will keep the Bengals in the thick of things in 2013.

And how about the Brownies! Sure, it's still a losing record, but given Cleveland hasn't won more than five games since 2007, don't think the Dawg Pound will complain about seven victories.

AFC SouthWinsLosses
Houston Texans* 10 6
Indianapolis Colts 7 9
Tennessee Titans 6 10
Jacksonville Jaguars 5 11
Arian Foster

Plain and simple, this division belongs to Houston. The Colts might be the up-and-comers, but most advanced statistics expressed extreme providence in the Indianapolis corner in 2012, with the Horseshoes likely facing regression this season. With Jacksonville and Tennessee flaunting two of the more depleted rosters in the NFL, the Texans merely have to be adequate to clinch the AFC South.

Houston is not without its woes. Arian Foster is off the PUP list and should be ready for Week 1, but with over 950 carries the past three seasons, it's only a matter of when, not if, the amplified workload will take its toll. Houston has a more than capable replacement in Ben Tate, yet it will be tough to reproduce the output of the All-Pro Foster. Keeping him fresh will be of paramount order.

Sticking with the Houston offense, Matt Schaub was shakier than his stats illustrate in 2012. The 32-year-old tossed for 22 touchdowns and over 4,000 yards; unfortunately, closer examination reveals nine of these scores derived from two games, and subtract Schaub's record-setting 527 yards versus Jacksonville and the Houston QB's average yards per game drops to a humble 232 yards per outing. Schaub still has the services of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, and rookie DeAndre Hopkins has the aptitude to be the receiving complement Houston has so desperately needed, but if Schaub doesn't right the ship, Houston's Super Bowl chances will be sunk.

After a short sabbatical from the playoff ranks in 2011, Indianapolis returned to its status as one of the top teams in the conference last season, highlighted by the arrival of No. 1 pick Andrew Luck and the inspiring story of coach Chuck Pagano's battle with cancer. Regrettably, 2013 might not have the same Cinderella tone. The Colts lack a viable run game, and though upgrades were made in the secondary, the defense won't be giving the opposition nightmares. Luck should make strides in his sophomore go-around, and has a strong group of wideouts at his side to spur his development. Unfortunately, that rapport alone won't translate into a playoff appearance.

Bottom feeders Jacksonville and Tennessee do employ two of the more exciting backs in the conference in Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson, but the putrid talent at quarterback will keep both from attaining much of significance. Keep an eye on Jones-Drew, who returns from a foot ailment that caused a 10-game absence in 2011. A revitalized MJD will at least keep the Jags from being a total pushover. And, while the "CJ2K" version of Johnson is unlikely to return, the Titans back still has the ceiling of an elite playmaker. For those in fantasy leagues, make sure he's on your radar come draft time.

AFC WestWinsLosses
Denver Broncos* 12 4
San Diego Chargers+ 9 7
Kansas City Chiefs 6 10
Oakland Raiders 4 12

Much like the AFC South, the conquering of this division appears preordained, with the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers not expected to put forth much of a fight against the Broncos.

Denver has been dealt early blows this postseason, with star linebacker Von Miller hit with a six-game suspension, and injuries to the offensive line received notoriety, as protecting the venerable Peyton Manning cannot be overstated. Luckily for fans in Mile High, the positives outweigh the negatives. The team added offensive weapons in Welker and Montee Ball this offseason, giving extra firepower to an already-explosive aerial game. Running back Ronnie Hillman has progressed nicely, and Denver's defense persists as a stalwart resistance. A mostly-favorable schedule should provide the platform for the Broncos to compete for the conference's top seed this season.

There's hope in Kansas City that Alex Smith and Andy Reid can turn the fortunes in Arrowhead Stadium around, a conviction that's not totally out of the realm of possibility. Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe are two of the better performers at their respected positions, and the defense has enough playmakers to make a playoff berth seem feasible. Yet, though Smith and Reid should deliver affirmative change, this squad still has growing pains ahead. Look for the Chiefs to be more of a factor in 2014.

The Chargers defense has a quality foundation, one that could catapult the Lighting Bolts into contention. However, the play of Philip Rivers took a significant drop in 2012, and San Diego did little to shore up a weak receiving crew. (Kudos to those who can name three Chargers wideouts.) Throw in the injury-prone natures of Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates, and it's hard to forecast the Chargers as a player in January.

Out in Oakland, Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn are "battling" for the starting quarterback role. Maybe if Darren McF...aw, who are we kidding? The only thing the Raiders will be contending for this year will be for the right to draft Jadeveon Clowney.

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 jbeall@whatifsports.com.

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