For several years, I've tried to project the NFL season in the same way. I look at an NFL schedule, and for each game I circle a projected winner in fewer than five seconds of thinking about it. Is this a stupid way to do it? Of course. But it's probably stupid to spend any of my time on this at all.
When I make these quick decisions on each game, I largely think about the team's quarterback, the team's recent history (more than just last season), and the game's location.
When I am finished and I tally up each team's projected record, I'm often surprised myself. I end up projecting teams I expect to be good to be under .500, and teams I think will suck to be .500 or better. So as we go through each division, I'll discuss my game-by-game projection, as well as my wider sence of each team.
When I played out the schedule, the only team I found over .500 was the Vikings. I always underestimate the Packers when I do the game-by-game projections--they should be competitive. I really don't believe in the Bears (they'll win some games because of the defense, but they have no passing game and a questionable running game) and I'll probably never believe in the Lions (though Calvin Johnson looks like he might carry them to some wins they shouldn't get). The Vikings have a tough early schedule, and (in current appearances) an easy later schedule. I could see them starting 0-2, maybe 1-3, and still winning 10+ games.
Looking at Dallas in the second half of last season, this might not be a dominant team this season. But the offense appears so loaded, and the defense is good too, and they added another extremely good player in Adam Jones. My projections found them at 11-5, the Giants at 9-7. I think this is going to be a toughly contested division though--I really expect the Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles to be around 9-10 wins, with the division winner determined by how these teams all play against each other. I don't think Washington is that good.
Once again, this division could be utterly horrible. My projections have the Seahawks at 12-4, with the other teams under .500. Those teams just don't look that good.
But here's another thing: the Seahawks have been to the playoffs five straight years, and won their division four straight years. During most of that time, they've been a solid team: well-coached, quality quarterback, mostly a well-run organization. But they haven't been that good. They haven't been the sort of team that I would say "Yeah, it makes sense that they win five straight division titles." If one of the other teams (possibly the Cardinals) really improves, and maybe knocks off Seattle in their games, I could see Seattle finishing around 8-8 and missing the playoffs. I don't expect it, but it seems like they should.
I have the Saints and Panthers each going 9-7, with the Buccaneers and Falcons each being horrible. Horrible. The Panthers and Saints should each play each other to some tough games. Both are solid in several areas, and should compete every week.
I don't know why Carson Palmer does this for me: I have Cincinnati winning the division at 10-6, with the Steelers at 8-8, the Browns and Ravens under .500. There's no reason I should think the Bengals will win 10 games this season, but when I looked at a lot of their games, I saw them winning. This could be a weak division this year: I really expect the Steelers and Browns to decline, and the Ravens are going to struggle at quarterback.
In my projections, each team in this division had at least seven wins, with the Patriots taking the division at 10-6. Even if the Patriots have a severe decline, I see 10 wins as their floor. I don't really think the Bills or Dolphins are going to be good, but I found them at 8-8 and 7-9 respectively. The Dolphins should, however, be much improved. They've got a quality quarterback, they added an offensive tackle with the #1 pick in the draft, and they now have Bill Parcells building the team. The Jets are a mystery to me, which is why I have them at 8-8, I guess.
Kansas City and Oakland should each be very bad. Denver should be competitive, but they'll lose some games they shouldn't, and end up around .500 and probably out of the playoffs. In my projections, the Chargers are 14-2, the top record in the league. That seems unlikely to me for all sorts of reasons, but that's what I got. This is a weak division.
Can a team really win 12+ games six consecutive seasons? The Colts have done it five straight years, and they seem built to be able to do it again. They're extremely good offensively, featuring the best quarterback in the game today with perhaps the best overall group of skill position players in the league (Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Joseph Addai--any one of these players would probably transform another team's offense). They're extremely good defensively, featuring a lot of young, dynamic players and a head coach that always brings a defense ready to play. Somehow in my projections, every team in this division won 9+ games, with the Colts winning the division, but I don't think the Titans or the Texans are that good.
And my desires
If I really made a list of teams based on whom I desire to see win the Super Bowl, it would go like this:
1-31. Minnesota Vikings
Each season, I believe the Vikings have a realistic chance to win the Super Bowl: if I didn't, I don't know that I would watch football. And while I love watching all sorts of NFL games, and there are all sorts of teams and players I like and dislike, the only team I've poured my soul into is the Vikings. The Vikings winning the Super Bowl would be a transcendent experience for me. I might be pleased if the Colts win the Super Bowl, but it's not going to fill me with euphoric peace. Sometimes I despair: I'm overcome with the feeling it is for other fans to actually follow championship teams, that it will never really be for me to do so. But I hope, and that's why I'm watching.
I just want to emphasize that what I really root for in the deep of my soul is for the Vikings to win a championship this year. But there are some teams I really don't want to see win a championship this season.
Teams I don't like, and if any of these teams wins a Super Bowl, I probably wouldn't want to read anything about football for the entire offseason.
New England Patriots: Enough Boston. Enough Tom Brady. Enough Bill Belichick. I don't want this anymore.
New York Jets: Of course you know that a few weeks ago, I would have counted myself completely indifferent to the Jets. Not anymore.
Green Bay Packers: It's not just that I've spent a lot of time in Wisconsin, and currently work in Wisconsin. It's not just that I have relationships with Packer fans. It's not just that they're the Vikings' biggest rivals. It's not just that I resent the self-righteous, holier-than-thou Packer fans and their seeming sense of moral superiority because they root for the Packers. It's not just that I disdain the media love for Green Bay football. It's also that I root for a team that has never won a championship, and if I saw a division rival that is so near to us win its 13th championship before I even get to see my favorite team even win one, I'd probably be driven into a fit of nihilistic depression.
Players that I like to a greater or lesser extent, and thus wouldn't mind seeing them and their teams win a Super Bowl
I don't have loyalty to any team other than the Vikings. But throughout my football watching days, I've variously loved some non-Viking players, and this has made me temporarily like their teams. When I first started watching football heavily, my two favorite players were Dan Marino and Michael Irvin. So I liked to see these players succeed, and see their teams succeed. And today there are some players I like and would feel good seeing win a Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning: If you read this blog for thoughts on the Vikings, you've already grown weary of my Manning praise. He's my favorite non-Viking, and he's made the Colts my favorite non-Viking team. I've also grown to like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
Donovan McNabb: I like him a lot, and I'd either like to see him cement his legacy with a Super Bowl, or see the Eagles struggle, cut him in the off-season, and have him end up on the Vikings. Either/Or.
Carson Palmer: Don't ask me why I like him--I don't understand it myself.
I also root for...
Everybody on the Experience: yes, I really grow to root hard for the players on my fantasy football team. Some I continue to like after they're no longer helping my fantasy team (Reggie Wayne), but many I become indifferent to in following seasons. This year I see myself growing attached to players like Brandon Jacobs, Calvin Johnson, Torry Holt, and Dallas Clark, and if they're not on my team next year, I'll probably grow detached from most of them. Such is this stupid fantasy football habit.
And I root for my fellow suffering fans.
But beside players I like, I also root for those fans that have waited a long time to see their favorite team win a Super Bowl. There are 15 franchises that have not won a Super Bowl in their current location. Some of these franchises feature a loyal, often heartbroken fanbase. I'd like to see these fans assuaged. I feel a sort of kinship with fans of the Buffalo Bills, the other 0-4 Super Bowl team. I feel a sort of pity for Cleveland sports fans, who haven't seen a pro sports title since 1964. I'd like to see some other long-suffering fans be contented.
It's not hard to narrow the pool of MVP candidates. First, the MVP is almost always a QB or RB (the AP MVP only went to a player at a different position three times, the last in 1986). Second, the MVP usually plays on a team with the best record in its conference, but at the very least a playoff team.
The award will usually go to a QB who puts up elite numbers on a playoff team, but it may go to a RB that plays on an elite team and puts up gargantuan numbers that overshadow his own team's QB. And the MVP usually goes to an already established star.
With that in mind, here is my pool of potential MVPs:
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ladanian Tomlinson, Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Brees, Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer.
Based on my own projections for each team, that pool can shrink further. I'll drop from the list players whose teams don't make the playoffs according to my projections, leaving:
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ladanian Tomlinson, Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer.
Hasslebeck and Brees would be Rich Gannon picks: if the year provides a thin MVP pool (no great statistical seasons from a QB or RB on a playoff team), and Hasselbeck or Brees puts up really good numbers while leading his team to a #1 seed, he could win MVP. But I think other playoff QBs or RBs will have elite stat seasons. And while I have the Bengals making the playoffs, I doubt very much they'll be a top team in the conference, or that Palmer's numbers will be clearly ahead of everybody else. I also think Tomlinson is a long-shot: he's been putting up spectacular seasons for years, but to win MVP in 2006 he had to be on a 14-2 team and put up mind-boggling, record-breaking numbers. If he has typical LT season (say, 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs), he probably won't win MVP. That leaves us with:
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson.
If the Patriots have the top record in the AFC, and Brady throws for around 30 TDs and 4,000 yards, he could win MVP again. But I don't think he'll come close to last season's numbers, and so I think he's won his MVP award and he won't get another. I think the voters are tired of Manning's consistently great seasons: if they hadn't, he would have probably won MVP in 2005, too. I think it's possible Manning is going to have a transcendent statistical season like he had in 2004 (for a few reasons), but that's what it would take for him to get MVP again. For Romo to win MVP, he'll have to lead the Cowboys to a 1st or 2nd place finish in the NFC, and his numbers will have to at least match Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, if not far exceed them. And I don't think that will happen.
And so we're left with:
Believe it or not, when I started this little elimination exercise, I didn't think it was going to end with Adrian Peterson. And I don't really think he'll be MVP. But I can see the scenario: he has another incredible statistical season (in which he plays at least 14 games), he has a few bananas games (comparable to his games last season at Chicago and against San Diego), and the Vikings make the playoffs behind a tough defense, a brilliant running game led by Adrian Peterson, and a perceived weak passing game (which will be better than the perception). And so the next great running back and next great Viking could follow up his Rookie of the Year season with an MVP season.
And why no playoff predictions?
Based on my quick game-by-game projections, my NFC playoff teams are the Cowboys, Giants, Vikings, Seahawks, Saints, and Panthers, and my AFC playoff teams are the Patriots, the Bengals, the Colts, the Chargers, the Jaguars, and either the Titans or Texans. I find it hard to predict these games: not only is it difficult to forecast hypothetical January games, but most of these teams are really capable of beating each other. But the bigger issue is this: I can't in conscience pick against the Vikings winning the Super Bowl, but I also don't want to just be a homer blogger that picks his favorite team to win the Super Bowl.
(wait a minute...I don't mind being a homer blogger that picks his favorite team to win the Super Bowl...why would that bother me?...What do I care who judges me...I'm a completely senseless Viking fan...and didn't I just predict Adrian Peterson to win MVP? In for a penny...)
...On second thought
My 2008 prediction for Super Bowl champion:
Your Minnesota Vikings!