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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.
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McFadden begs you not to touch him.

Darren McFadden has missed games due to injury in each of his four seasons in the NFL. But he earns the label “injury prone” instead of “bust” thanks to his incredible production the past two years. In 2010 and 2011, McFadden totaled 2,432 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in 20 games while averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 10.0 yards per reception.

But is the injury prone label fair? From a rearview standpoint, it certainly is. But the label carries with it the perception that he will continue to be injury prone. Is that fair?

From a statistical standpoint, we’re really limited by sample size. In the past two decades, only a handful of young running backs have been as productive as McFadden despite dealing with significant injury issues. Ricky Williams played in 12 and 10 games his first two seasons, and earned the injury prone label before three straight 16-game seasons. Steven Jackson missed games here and there early in his career, and in fact still has just two 16-game seasons in his career. But Jackson is no longer considered injury prone and has also registered three 15-game seasons.

Fred Taylor resided for years at the intersection of talented and injury prone, earning colorful nicknames like ‘Fragile Fred’ and ‘Fraud Taylor.” He played in only 40 games in his first four seasons, but still scored 37 touchdowns, averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and averaged 106 yards from scrimmage per game. He would play in 16 games each of the next two seasons, before missing games due to injury every other season for the rest of his career.

Cadillac Williams played in 14 games in each of his first two seasons, and things only got worse from there. He played in just 10 games the next two seasons, before playing in 16 games in both 2009 and 2010. Julius Jones missed significant time in each of his first two seasons, but then played in 16 games in each of his next two years. On the other hand, Kevin Jones’s career went 15-13-12-13-11 in terms of games played. Robert Smith was a track star on the gridiron and often seemed as tough as one. In his first two seasons as the starter with the Vikings, he wound up being inactive half of the time each year. In 1997 and 1998, he played in 14 games, but Smith would only play one 16-game season in the NFL: his last one.

But back to McFadden. Let’s start with some baseline about what the anti-McFadden would look like. From 1990 to 2010, there were 911 running backs, age 25 or younger, who rushed for at least 1,000 yards and played in 16 games. Only 38 of those 91 running backs (42%) played in 16 games the next season, while the group averaged 13.9 games played in the following year. The median was 15 games played, with 58% of running backs playing in 15 or 16 games.
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  1. This excludes Robert Edwards, Jamal Lewis and Terry Allen, each of whom would suffered a season-ending injury prior to the start of the following season. []
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Gonzalez has made 12 straight Pro Bowls.

Kansas City didn’t send an offensive player to the Pro Bowl last year, and the Chiefs didn’t do so in 2009, either. But that doesn’t stop them from leading all teams in offensive Pro Bowlers over the last decade. Surprised? It’s been awhile, but the Chiefs ranked first in either points or yards in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. Kansas City sent 21 offensive players to the Pro Bowls in those seasons, but also delivered four Pro Bowlers in both 2006 and 2010.

The Chiefs could count on sending Tony Gonzalez to the Pro Bowl after every season, and guards Brian Waters and Will Shields each went to Hawaii five times. Kansas City sent three different running backs, two quarterbacks and a fullback to the Pro Bowl over the past decade.

The table below lists all 32 offensive Pro Bowl selections for the Chiefs since 2002. Note that this excludes WR Dante Hall who made two Pro Bowls as a returner.

On the other side of the ball, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear which team has the most Pro Bowlers. The Baltimore Ravens have seen 33 defensive players make the Pro Bowl since 2002, and rank fourth in terms of overall Pro Bowlers. And surprised probably isn’t the right word to describe how most people would react when they see which team has the most Pro Bowlers over the last ten years:
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