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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.
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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 9

Are the Bears the best team in the NFL? This week at the New York Times, I profiled the incredible season the Bears are having. If you feel like every few years the Bears come out of nowhere with an incredible defense and a questionable offense, you’re right.

The 2012 Bears stand as the next in a long line of Bears teams that wildly exceeded expectations thanks to a great defense. Chicago ranks second in points allowed and rushing yards allowed, and fifth in net yards per pass allowed. Chicago leads the league in turnovers forced and red zone defense. But this year’s defense is doing things no other Bears defense — or any other N.F.L. defense, for that matter — has ever done.

Chicago has returned seven interceptions for touchdowns in eight games. Before this season, no other team had more than five pick-sixes after eight games, and the Bears are only one interception return for a touchdown away from tying the single-season record, held by the ’98 Seahawks (in the A.F.L. in 1961, the San Diego Chargers returned nine interceptions for touchdowns). But Chicago’s defense hasn’t just been a big-play defense. The Bears have allowed only 10 touchdowns this year, and five of them came in garbage time. Matthew Stafford threw a touchdown with the Lions down by 13 with 36 seconds left, and four other touchdowns came in the second halves of Chicago victories with the Bears already leading by 20-plus points. That means the Bears’ defense has allowed only five meaningful touchdowns while scoring seven of their own. Incredible.

Against the Colts, Chicago forced Andrew Luck into three interceptions and allowed just 7 meaningful points. Against the Rams, Chicago scored 7 points and allowed 6. In Dallas, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs scored on interceptions, while the defense limited the Cowboys to just 10 meaningful points and intercepted five Tony Romo passes. In Jacksonville, Tillman and Briggs became the first teammates to score on interception returns in consecutive weeks, and the Bears limited Jacksonville to 3 points.

Against Detroit, the Bears forced six fumbles (recovering three) and held the Lions’ high-flying passing attack to a last-second touchdown; half of Detroit’s 12 drives ended in three-and-outs. Against the Panthers, Chicago’s defense was forced to overcome a Bears offense that gained just 61 yards in the first three quarters and held the ball for only 23 minutes 22 seconds in the game; still, Tim Jennings’s defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter proved to be the play of the game.

Chicago’s performances in the first half of the season were apparently just a warm-up act for Week 9 against Tennessee. On Sunday, on the first play from scrimmage, Charles Tillman forced a fumble, giving the Bears the ball in Titans territory. The Bears forced Tennessee to go three-and-out on each of its next two possessions, with the second stalled drive leading to a punt that was blocked and returned for a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Hester returned a punt to the Titans’ 8-yard-line, setting up a one-play scoring drive. On the Titans’ next drive, Urlacher intercepted Matt Hasselbeck and returned it for a touchdown. On Tennessee’s next play from scrimmage, Tillman stripped Chris Johnson of the ball, giving Chicago possession at the Titans’ 16. Three plays later, Cutler found Brandon Marshall for a 13-yard score. After the first quarter, the Titans had eight drives, and the four that ended in three-and-outs and punts were the good ones.

Tillman ended the day with four forced fumbles; while not an official statistic, Tillman continues to force fumbles at an unprecedented rate for a cornerback. Unofficially, he now holds the modern record for most forced fumbles in a game, and with seven this season, he could easily exceed the record of 10 forced fumbles by Osi Umenyiora (2010) and Dwayne Harper (1993). If not for the monster season J.J. Watt is having for Houston, Tillman would be a leading candidate for defensive player of the year.

Check out the full article for some historical comparisons and some insight from Aaron Schatz.

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