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Season in review: AFC and NFC North

On Monday, I examined the seasons of the teams in the AFC and NFC East. Today I will do the same for the AFC and NFC North, starting in the AFC.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (after weeks 2, 5, and 9)
Minimum wins: 8 (after week 16)
Week 1 comment: Sunday Night was one of the best games I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger. An elite team that will be favored to win most weeks, although questions remain about the offensive line, the running backs, and the age of the defense.

Pittsburgh started off 6-3 and looked like a contender, but tanked in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger went down. Even when Roethlisberger returned, the offense never quite looked right. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall were unexciting plodders, which is an improvement over the 25 carries that went to Baron Batch. No Steeler finished the season with more than two rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both failed to match last year’s lofty numbers. The potential was there, but the results were not in Pittsburgh in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense performed well by conventional measures — through week 16 (which is when they were knocked out of the playoff race), they ranked 1st in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and ranked 2nd in net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed. But the defense wasn’t really up to Steelers standards — through week 16, they ranked 10th in points allowed and, more damningly, had forced more turnovers than just three teams. Pittsburgh allowed 5 4th quarter game-winning drives, which ultimately cost them the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (first after week 3, last after week 13)
Minimum wins: 9 wins (after week 15)
Week 1 comment: Great performance on Monday Night, but I have to imagine missing Terrell Suggs is going to hurt this team. He’s too good to simply expect business as usual in Baltimore, and their schedule (AFC West, NFC East, Houston, New England outside the division) is riddled with traps.

The schedule was riddled with traps, but the Ravens rode some late-game success and excellent special teams to a 9-2 record. At that point, I wrote: I still don’t believe in this team, because they aren’t going to have amazing special teams or amazing 4th and 29 conversions every week.

Joe Flacco had a solid but not great year, while Ray Rice continued to prove effective when given the carries. The big issue for Baltimore was defensively. Through 16 weeks, the Ravens ranked 20th in yards allowed, 18th in NY/A, and 24th in first downs allowed. While the Ravens won the North, 8 games out of Terrell Suggs, 6 games of Ray Lewis, and 6 games of Lardarius Webb simply wasn’t enough to give them the defense Ravens fans were used to seeing.

Cincinnati Bengals

Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 10 (after week 16)
Minimum wins: 6 (after week 9)
Week 1 comment: I said the Bengals had a chance to prove themselves on Monday night. Unfortunately for them, they did.

Cincinnati made the playoffs but didn’t earn much respect entering 2012. After week 9, they were 3-5 and I wondered if Marvin Lewis was going to be on the hot seat. The Bengals then upset the at-the-time great Giants, before sweeping the dregs of the AFC West the next three weeks.

The Bengals aren’t a great team but they’ve taken care of business. A.J. Green has been excellent while Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham have fit in well as complementary players. Interestingly enough, Andy Dalton’s NY/A and ANY/A numbers were nearly identical to his 2011 performance, and that was good enough to send Cincinnati back to the playoffs. One reason for that? A defense that ranked in the top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed, NY/A allowed and YPC and rushing yards allowed through 16 weeks. Geno Atkins’ 2012 season ranks in the top ten among sacks by a defensive tackle since 1982. Between Atkins and Green, the Bengals have a chance to give the Texans fits on nearly every snap next week.

Cleveland Browns

Pre-season Projection: 5.5 wins
Maximum wins: 6 wins (after week 14)
Minimum wins: 3 (after week 5)
Week 1 comment: Their schedule is a nightmare. Only three games against teams I’m projecting with fewer than 7 wins — @Indianapolis, home for Buffalo, and @Oakland — and they’ll probably be underdogs in all three.

The Browns started the season 0-5, but then won 5 of their next 8 games against mediocre competition. Brandon Weeden looked like a disaster after week 1 but rebounded to have a somewhat respectable season. Trent Richardson was a touchdown machine but that wasn’t enough to salvage the offense. The bright spot of the season may have been the third rookie, Josh Gordon, who became a legitimate deep threat for the team. Of course, in typical Browns fashion, Gordon injured his ankle and was carted off the field in week 17.

Cleveland showed some flashes this year, but in the AFC North, they are at least two years away from competing. That’s business as usual for the worst expansion team ever. With new management in place, the next month will tell us a lot about where the Browns are over the next five years.

Let’s move over to the NFC side of things…

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Pre-season Projection: 12 wins
Maximum wins: 12 wins (after weeks 15 and 16)
Minimum wins: 9 (after week 5)
Week 1 comment: The defense was bad last year and looked no better Sunday against the 49ers. It looks like we’ll see regression — perhaps significantly so, considering the 2011 production — by the offense, and I think the Packers are going to take some lumps this year. But the schedule is very manageable and more importantly, the Packers will be as dangerous as anyone in the playoffs.

It was a winding road, but it the Packers ended the season with 11 wins, which is where I pegged them after week one. At 2-3, I dropped them to 9 wins, but I never put them below double digit wins again. Aaron Rodgers is in that Tom Brady/Peyton Manning territory where I just don’t think you can predict fewer than ten wins for their teams when healthy.

The Packers ended the year on a rough note by losing out on a bye, but Mike McCarthy has done a great job getting Green Bay back on track after every obstacle. Green Bay is going to be a tough out in the playoffs, and is a heavy favorite at home against Green Bay. I certainly don’t think there are many 49ers fans that will be excited to see the Packers against this year, even if San Francisco defeated them in the opener.

Chicago Bears

Pre-season Projection: 9.5 wins
Maximum wins: 12 wins (after week 9)
Minimum wins: 9 (after weeks 2 and 3)
Week 1 comment: Jay Cutler finally has some weapons and the defense should be strong. Getting to face the NFC West and AFC South is helpful, and a split with GB will put the division up for grabs.

The Bears did manage to crush the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans, but the NFC West was no picnic for anyone this year. Chicago had one of the most front-loaded schedules you’ll ever see, and here’s what I wrote about them when they were 7-1 after week 9: Dominant defense but they have a brutal remaining schedule. If they lose to the Packers, they may drop from a bye to the 5 seed.

Games against Houston, San Francisco, Green Bay, Seattle formed a brutal second half, and that’s before you consider two games against the Vikings. They ended up missing out on the playoffs because the Vikings defeated the Packers while the Bears could not. There’s no denying that this was a depressing season for Bears fans, but there are obviously some positive takeaways from a ten-win season. While sometimes it feels like Jay Cutler only has eyes for Brandon Marshall — and that distorts the stats a little bit — I maintain that Marshall had one of the most outstanding and under-appreciated seasons in years. Chicago did end the season as a top-five defense, but fell far off their scorched-earth pace of the first half of the season. Part of that was injuries, part of that was SOS, and part of that is simply you can’t be that dominant for that long. All in all, this was a 9-11 win team all year long, but they happened to schedule like a Big 10 team. If Chicago can improve the offensive line and add another weapon to the Matt Forte-Marshall-Cutler triumvirate, the Bears can be a Super Bowl contender next year.

Minnesota Vikings

Pre-season Projection: 6 wins
Maximum wins: 9 wins (after weeks 5 and 16)
Minimum wins: 5 (after week 2)
Week 1 comment: Not as bad as people think; had some tough luck last year, Adrian Peterson is a robot, and they’ve already banked a win.

Don’t be fooled, I had no clue how much of a robot Peterson really was. Minnesota has one of the most interesting graphs here, going down to 5 wins after week 2 then up to 9 wins after week 5, before steadily dropping back down to 6 wins after week 13. I’ll be honest, the Percy Harvin-less Vikings looked like such a disaster in weeks 12 and 13 that I didn’t expect them to win another game. Instead, the defense and the running game simply dominated, and Christian Ponder got out of the way. You just had to watch those losses in Chicago and in Green Bay to understand just how shocking it is that the Vikings ran the table to make the playoffs.

Minnesota’s season was like the tale of four teams. Early on, Ponder was playing really well (comment after week 3: If we chose Pro Bowlers after week 3, Christian Ponder would make it in the NFC and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees would not. A huge win over the 49ers at least gives the Vikings some playoff hope.); then Harvin began to dominate (comment after week 5: Minnesota proved that they were ‘for real’ last week, but now must answer the bigger question: are the Vikings “for real for real?”). Then they went in the tank, or so it seemed (after week 9: Sell. Sell. SELL!; after week 13: Percy Harvin out for the year is the final nail in the coffin for the Vikings’ playoff hopes) in the third quarter of the year. But over the final four weeks, All Day and the defense began to suffocate opponents.

Minnesota was one of the most interesting stories of the year. I still don’t understand why there wasn’t much correlation between Vikings wins and Peterson’s performance. But I do know this: in retrospect, I didn’t give Leslie Frazier enough credit in my Coach of the Year article. Getting them to 10 wins was admirable.

Detroit Lions

Pre-season Projection: 9.5 wins
Maximum wins: 9 wins (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 4 (after weeks 15 and 16 )
Week 1 comment: The star model is alive and well in Detroit. With Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Lions will hang around. Can they get Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to become nightmares for opposing offenses?

The Eagles of the NFC North! Pro Football Focus ranked both Suh and Fairley as top-five defensive tackles. We all know about Megatron. So what happened to Detroit? Part of the blame falls on head coach Jim Schwartz, who cost his team by being ultra-conservative in losses to the Texans, Colts, and Titans. The Lions weren’t a bad team: according to Football Outsiders, through 16 weeks Detroit was 13th in yards/drive, 19th in points/drive, and 12th in drive success rate on offense, and 13th, 19th, and 12th in those categories on defense. In terms of net drive success rate, the Lions ranked 7th.

In other words, this is a team that was much better than their record. My guess is Vegas puts their win total at around 8 next year, and I won’t take issue with that. In the pre-season, I raised the question about Matthew Stafford’s unimpressive Y/A from 2011; well his Y/A fell nearly a full yard in 2012, as his completion percentage dipped below 60% and his average yards per completion also dropped. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers about Stafford right now, regardless of the fact that he’s thrown for 10,005 yards the last two years.