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Season in review: AFC and NFC West

AFC East and NFC East Season in review
AFC North and NFC North Season in review
AFC North and NFC South Season in review

In the case of the AFC West, a picture can say a thousand words.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 10 through 16)
Minimum wins: 9 (after weeks 3, 5 )
Week 1 comment: Watching Peyton Manning work his magic was a thing of beauty on Sunday night. The less John Fox touches this offense, the better, but I think everyone in Denver already knows that.

Once Peyton Manning proved that he was healthy and back, the AFC West race was effectively over. Officially, that happened in the week 6 comeback over the Chargers. That win only made them 3-3, but here is what I wrote then: According to Advanced NFL Stats, Denver is the best team in the league. Their remaining schedule is absurdly easy, so I’m going to perhaps prematurely give them a two-win bump. Their week 15 game in Baltimore may be for a bye, and I now think Denver is the favorite.

Kudos to Brian Burke’s model for correctly identifying how good the Broncos were early in the year. After week 9, I pegged Denver at 12 wins, and wrote: As a matter of principle, projecting a team to finish 7-1 is never advised. But this seems to be a good place to make an exception.

The next week, I bumped them to 13 wins, and never moved off that number. They got a late Christmas present from Manning’s old team, and now the AFC playoffs will have to go through Denver.

San Diego Chargers

Pre-season Projection: 9 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1, 2, and 4)
Minimum wins: 6 (after weeks 10 through 13, 16)
Week 1 comment: Unimpressive on Monday Night Football, but the schedule lines up for them to succeed. Philip Rivers is still elite, so expecting them to only go 8-7 the rest of the way is probably more of a knock on them than anything else. A healthy Ryan Mathews back will help.

The Chargers schedule was ridiculously easy, but they lost to the Browns, Saints, and Panthers, and couldn’t beat the Ravens, Bengals, or Bucs. The decline of Philip Rivers from elite quarterback to throw-it-out-of-bounds master is depressing, and it’s easy and probably appropriate to point the blame at the general manager. Going into 2013, San Diego will have a new head coach and GM, and we’ll see if that is what was needed to resurrect Rivers’ career.

It’s not easy to remember, but the Chargers were actually 3-1. At that point, I wrote: An unimpressive 3-1 team with a struggling offensive line. I really wanted to keep them at 8 wins, but their schedule is too easy and Philip Rivers — even in a down year — is good enough to lead them to a .500 record the rest of the way.

But by the time they were 3-4, I had already started with the “I can’t think of anything positive to say about the Chargers right now” comments. I summed up the Chargers season after week 13, when I wrote: This team started 2-0 but hasn’t beaten anyone but the Chiefs since then.

Of course, San Diego being San Diego, the Chargers did finish with 7 wins, but it was another disappointing season for the franchise. It’s hard to think back to September, but Vegas really did project the Chargers to win this division.

Oakland Raiders

Pre-season Projection: 7 wins
Maximum wins: 7 (after week 8)
Minimum wins: 4 (after weeks 13 through 16 )
Week 1 comment: A home loss in week 1 isn’t good for a team that needed all the bounces to go their way to make the playoffs. I still like their skill position talent, but not much else. As my friend Jason Lisk put it, “They couldn’t snap the ball last night, which kind of sums up their chances.”

It almost felt like the Raiders season never really started; we kept waiting for Darren McFadden to break out of his early season slump and return to his star form; instead, he returned to his injury-prone form. Tight End Brandon Myers had a breakout season and Denarius Moore had some good games, but mostly the only interesting thing to track each week was when the Carson Palmer Garbage Time Switch would be activated.

I don’t really remember this, but I guess there was some hope for Oakland in mid-season. After week 8, they were 3-4, and I (correctly) noted: “Dominating the Chiefs means they’re not as bad as the Chiefs. I think.” But then the Raiders looked terrible in consecutive losses to Tampa Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, and the calls for Dennis Allen’s head began. Like the next team, the Raiders have to answer the Big question in the off-season: what do you do at quarterback?

Kansas City Chiefs

Pre-season Projection: 8 wins
Maximum wins: 7 (after weeks 1 and 3)
Minimum wins: 2 (after weeks 11, 12, 15, and 16)
Week 1 comment: I can’t get a good read on Kansas City. Some continue to tout them as sleepers, but they’ve now been outscored by 186 points in their last 19 games.

I never understood all the pre-season love the Chiefs were getting. Frankly, Kansas City wasn’t very good last year and entered 2012 with one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. Jamaal Charles ran for over 1,500 yards, but that wasn’t enough to carry a miserable team that got outscored by 214 points. The Chiefs still haven’t won a game in 25 years with a quarterback drafted by Kansas City.

The high point of the year was in week 3, when the 0-2 Chiefs came back and defeated the Saints in overtime. After week 8, they were 1-6, and by then I had projected them with four wins, tied with the Jaguars and Browns for fewest in the league. That week, I wrote: When the Bills killed the Chiefs in week 2, I thought “man, the Chiefs might be really bad this year.” Nostradamus, look out.

This was a lost season for a proud Kansas City franchise. For Jason Lisk’s sake, I hope 2013 offers some hope.

Let’s move on to the NFC West, my vote for the toughest division in football.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 12.5 (after week 12)
Minimum wins: 10.5 (after weeks 10 and 14)
Week 1 comment: At this point, the class of the NFC. Defense looks elite, schedule is manageable. Excited to see [if] LaMichael James can get on the field for them and add another dimension to that offense. It may be too early to make the Bill WalshJim Harbaugh comparisons, but Harbaugh has been nothing short of brilliant.

Looking at the 49ers graph shows you just how hard it was, at least for me, to get a read on this team all year. I pegged them at 11 wins after week 1, and just should have flatlined the rest of the way. Instead, I went up to 12, down to 11, up to 12, down to 11, down to 10.5, up to 11.5, up to 12.5, down to 11.5, down to 10.5, and then finally ended up at 11.5. For a great team with only four losses, the 49ers were pretty inconsistent. Maybe it’s just me, but when I think back to the 2012 49ers, the losses and the team’s inability to put together even one three-game winning streak are my lasting memories. At least, for now.

San Francisco started the season in impressive fashion with wins over the Packers and Lions. Then the 49ers stubbed their toe in Minnesota, and I wrote: A loss to Minnesota has to drop them a game. I’ll keep them at 11 for now, but a loss to either the Jets or the Bills the next two weeks probably gets them back down to 10.

After getting shellacked by the Giants in week 6, I wrote: A reality check for a 49ers team that looked unstoppable a week ago. Last week I wrote “I can’t imagine projecting SF under 12 wins again this year.” My imagination is pretty narrow, apparently.

After the week 10 tie, I wrote: There are no gimmes left on their schedule and the 49ers are starting to show some cracks.

In the second half of the year, Colin Kaepernick had his moments, but the 49ers still lost to the Rams and Seahawks and nearly blew a 28-point lead against the Patriots. In the end, their playoff story will be the only story that counts, but their 2012 season was more disappointing than impressive for arguably the league’s most talented team.

Seattle Seahawks

Pre-season Projection: 7 wins
Maximum wins: 11 (after weeks 14 through 16)
Minimum wins: 8 (after weeks 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8)
Week 1 comment: Seattle has a tough schedule but I like the makeup of this team. Very good defense, strong running game, and I think they have enough talent to get to 8 wins.

The week 1 comment was spot on, but I just didn’t realize how good the defense, running game, and eventually, Russell Wilson, would be. The Seahawks had a tough schedule and lost some close games, but arguably finished as the most impressive team in the regular season. At their best, Seattle is as good as any other team in the NFL, and they finished 2nd to the Patriots in the SRS. Even though they are dominant at home, I thought the Seahawks were a complete team, which made me pick Pete Carroll as my Coach of the Year.

Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas formed the most intimidating secondary in the NFL, while Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin gave Seattle a strong pass rush. By the end of the year, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson produced Pro Bowl type numbers.

In retrospect, it’s shocking that the Seahawks lost to the Lions in week 8, and that was the last time I had the Seahawks projected to finish with fewer than nine wins. The turning point, I think, was the comeback win over the Bears in week 13. After that, I wrote: Russell Wilson is climbing up the Rookie of the Year charts. He doesn’t have to do as much as Luck or Robert Griffin III but he’s been excellent. And that was before their 150-30 scorched earth run in weeks 14-16.

St. Louis Rams

Pre-season Projection: 6 wins
Maximum wins: 7.5 (after weeks 13, 14, and 16)
Minimum wins: 5 (after week 3)
Week 1 comment: Impressive performance in Detroit; 6 wins may be pushing it, as I think the Rams are one of the least talented teams in the league. But they’re going to be a well-coached team and will have their share of upsets.

[pats back]

The Rams ended up winning 7 games as underdogs, tying the record in the modern era. This was your prototypical “scrappy, Jeff Fisher-coached team” and we can only expect them to get better next year. I maintain that the talent, especially on offense, is among the worst in the league, but they have the ammunition in the form of draft picks and cap room to fix that.

When they were 1-2, I wrote: The NFC West is brutal; the Rams are going to be heavy underdogs most weeks, making even 5 wins a challenging goal. They need to win at least one game the next two week as they host Seattle and Arizona or this season could go downhill in a hurry.

But I kept them in the 6-7 win range for the next 8 weeks, until they lost to the Jets. Along with a humiliating loss in London, though, that was the only really embarrassing moment of the year. More importantly, they rebounded by winning three straight after that game, including the highlight of the year, a victory over the 49ers in overtime. The Rams graph depicts a bad team that improved throughout the year, mirroring reality.

Arizona Cardinals

Pre-season Projection: 7 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 3, 4, and 5)
Minimum wins: 4 (after week 14)
Week 1 comment: Getting a win against the Seahawks prevents them from being a tier below; not much to like here, although they’ve got some legitimate superstars in Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson. Even Jets fans think the Arizona quarterback situation is ugly.

For fun, let’s just keep this going.

Week 2 comment: Had them at 6 wins last week, and you can imagine that that none of those wins were projected to come against the Patriots. But still not convinced about this offense, hence just a one-game bump to 7 wins.

Week 3 comment: A two-game bump seems appropriate given how dominant the Cardinals’ defense and special teams have been so far. I’m far from convinced about this team, though, which is why I’m still projecting a losing record the rest of the way.

Week 4 comment: Roughly 20% of 4-0 teams end up with 9 or fewer wins, and Arizona certainly feels like they fit in the bottom percentile of 4-0 teams. Arizona’s defense is allowing more NY/A and more YPC than the Cardinals’ offense is gaining. The schedule is not going to do them any favors, either.

Week 5 comment: No running game and no passing game? Still only need to go 5-7 to get to 9 wins, but man did that bandwagon deflate quickly.

It only got worse from there, as the Cardinals went from 4-0 to 4-12. In the process, they continued to sabotage the career of one of the game’s of one of the game’s best players.