Revisiting Predictions at Midseason (AFC)

(or: How I don’t have to think of a unique idea for a post or do any specific in-depth analysis but still manage to write something this week.)

Every team has played at least eight games. Some have played nine. That makes this the unofficial midpoint of the NFL season, and with it from columnists all across the land comes the time to look back, assign grades, compare predictions, and revise projections.

I don’t give out grades– they seem so arbitrary– but I will review, in brief, what I thought would happen with each team, what is happening, and what I think will happen.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots

  • What I thought: 11-5. “It’s hard to imagine a Belichick/Brady team losing this division until a similarly well-constructed franchise rises up to challenge them. … I liked what I saw of Kenbrell Thompkins in the preseason.”
  • What happened: 7-2. More or less that, although Thompkins was a healthy scratch last week. On the one hand, they’re ahead of my projected win total. On the other hand, Brady has looked shaky at times, the offense has sputtered occasionally, and the defense has suffered multiple critical injuries.
  • What will happen: They’ll win the division comfortably. If the offense plays going forward more like it did against Pittsburgh, they could once again contend for a title.

New York Jets

  • What I thought: 5-11. “The team’s set up to fail– there’s just an astounding lack of offensive talent here.”
  • What happened: 5-4. Hey, I got the five wins right! The defense is better than I expected, in part because Sheldon Richardson is way better than I expected. The offense has been capable. Geno Smith has made some big mistakes but has played well enough other times. A middling team still ultimately limited by its offense, but middling is well ahead of where I expected them to be.
  • What will happen: Thanks to the collapses of Houston, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, the #6 seed is up for grabs, and the Jets have a legit play at it– especially considering nine wins will likely do the trick.

Miami Dolphins

  • What I thought: 9-7. “I like Ryan Tannehill … I’m not sure [of] Mike Wallace … or the offensive line or middle of the defense … But the team is trending upward and has some hope going forward.”
  • What happened: 4-4. Tannehill has been OK, although he is hampered by the performances of Wallace and the offensive line. Oh, and speaking of them, that whole Jonathan Martin – Richie Incognito thing happened. Team is not as good as I expected; a dysfunctional clubhouse should spell trouble for the highers-up, particularly considering what a mediocre overall record Jeff Ireland has displayed.
  • What will happen: This team is .500-caliber but could steal a game or two and make the playoffs. I think Martin will come back and Incognito won’t; I think the Dolphins are due for major changes barring some kind of resurgence and deep playoff run, because ownership is going to want to hold someone accountable for the locker-room debacle.

Buffalo Bills

  • What I thought: 5-11. “I think Buffalo’s biggest problems are going to come from a relatively tough schedule and the injuries, particularly to E.J. Manuel. … I think the Bills will be well-coached and play hard every week; they are just too lacking in talent … to be very good just yet.”
  • What happened: 3-5. Marrone has kept this team competitive through multiple quarterback and secondary injuries. The defensive line has played very well. Kiko Alonso seemed like a reach at the time of the draft, but he’s been outstanding. Still, though, the assessment is fundamentally accurate; the team is trending upward, but that is contingent on Manuel’s development and the addition of a couple more key pieces.
  • What will happen: More of the same. The bigger keys to this franchise’s fortunes will be how Manuel develops and how they draft next year.

AFC NORTH

Cincinnati Bengals

  • What I thought: 10-6. “One of the best young defenses in the league (Geno Atkins might be a top-three defender right now) … Giovani Bernard is going to be a huge weapon on offense … good enough to win the division.”
  • What happened: 5-3. Leading the division by a game and a half. Bernard has had some huge plays. I am very sad about the loss of Atkins, as he was a special talent and there are only so many opportunities to watch those.
  • What will happen: They’ll still win the division. Their playoff hopes depend on how the defense adjusts to the loss of Atkins (and Leon Hall, as well) and if Andy Dalton’s improvement this year is real and sustained.

Cleveland Browns

  • What I thought: 7-9. “I actually have faith this team will be improved this year… Of course, there are still problems… Brandon Weeden… I think the team will be better than last year, but they still need some more quality players, and an easier schedule, before they can compete. The front office seems to know that; their draft-day trades this season netted them an extra 3rd and 4th round pick in 2014.”
  • What happened: 4-5. Oh, and they added ANOTHER 2014 pick– in this case, a first-rounder, via Indianapolis for Trent Richardson. Richardson has looked very ordinary in Indianapolis, especially compared to the running backs on hand, who aren’t exactly world-beaters. Brandon Weeden still stinks; he’s now lost the starting job to two different QBs this season, and he may not even be on the team in 2014. What did Mike Holmgren see in him? The rebuilding continues, and it now likely includes a franchise QB in next year’s draft. (Another receiver would also go a long way toward making Cleveland’s offense potent.) They are playing better, but they are still rebuilding.
  • What will happen: More of the same, except with less Brandon Weeden. 2014 could be exciting, though.

Baltimore Ravens

  • What I thought: 8-8. “Too much talent lost and not adequately replaced. … There are just too many question marks here, especially in the passing game.”
  • What happened: 3-5. I guess the question marks have become… is there a punctuation mark for a negative response to a question? Ray Rice’s struggles haven’t helped. I had the right idea but didn’t realize how much the team would slip from last year’s performance.
  • What will happen: A sub-.500 finish and an attempt to rebuild the foundation.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • What I thought: 8-8. “I think the loss of Mike Wallace will hurt them, although Markus Wheaton has the talent … There are just too many questions– whether the young talent is actually any good, whether Roethlisberger can stay upright, whether they’ve reloaded in the front seven, whether they can run the ball…”
  • What happened: 2-6. Losing Wallace hurt. Wheaton has been invisible. The young talent has not been very good, Roethlisberger cannot stay upright, and they have not reloaded in the front seven. Le’Veon Bell can run the ball, but the offensive line is such a mess that it’s still hard for him to. To boot, Todd Haley’s offense is an ill fit for this team’s strengths and weaknesses. Mike Tomlin is busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Well worse than even I thought they would be.
  • What will happen: This team came by its record honestly. They are not very good. Todd Haley will probably be fired, the team will probably have a top-ten draft pick, and they will probably use it on an offensive tackle, because they are in dire straits there.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts

  • What I thought: 8-8. “Andrew Luck will take a step forward, but the team ran hot to even be in position for his fourth-quarter comebacks … [free agent] money wasn’t necessarily spent on good players.”
  • What happened: 6-2, with wins against what are likely the three strongest teams in the league. Andrew Luck did take a step forward, and by being the only one of the young QBs who took a clear and significant step forward, he’s now clearly the best of the young bunch, and possibly the best asset in the entire league. More than anything, common wisdom was that the defense wasn’t very good last year and the signings the team made didn’t address the weaknesses with enough talent. I think we may have all underestimated Chuck Pagano’s coaching acumen: Not only is the defense better than it was last year, when Pagano missed most of the season being treated for leukemia, but he has gotten the players we didn’t think much of previously to be legitimate contributors. The defense seems to be outperforming its talent, which suggests coaching is the major factor in its improvement.
  • What will happen: Easy favorites for the AFC South, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get a first-round bye, although the loss of Reggie Wayne is really going to hurt. They’re going to regret not being able to use that first-round pick to continue to upgrade the o-line or find Wayne’s long-term replacement. I think Ryan Grigson has made some shaky moves (he did nail it with T.Y. Hilton, though) and doesn’t seem to value his draft picks highly enough. As a fan of good football, I hope that doesn’t hinder Andrew Luck’s prime.

Tennessee Titans

  • What I thought: 5-11. “They have no defense and I don’t have confidence in their coaching or their GM. … I think Jake Locker is too inaccurate to ever cut it as an NFL QB. … I don’t think they’ve improved enough to be a serious contender.” … If I could get decent odds on a bet that Jacksonville would finish better than Tennessee this season, I would take it.”
  • What happened: 4-4. I’ve honestly watched very little of the Titans, so I can’t tell you where I went wrong. I thought Locker would be inaccurate enough that the team would look to move on after the season, but his completion percentage is up significantly and his turnover numbers are down. If that keeps up, he has enough athletic talent that a team can win with him, although I don’t think he’ll ever be in the top tier of quarterbacks. I thought the team’s moves would fail and they would collapse. Instead, they’re basically an average team.
  • What will happen: Technically in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they still have Indianapolis twice and Denver. I pencil them in for 7-9 or 8-8.

Houston Texans

  • What I thought: 12-4. “The same team you’ve always known. … [the coach and QB] would come in last of all the Super Bowl contenders [in clutch rating].”
  • What happened: Whoops. Well, Matt Schaub completely lost it, the coaching staff only adjusted out of absolute necessity, and the team continued to blow game after game. They’re 2-6. The coaching staff and front office have managed to escape accountability for years; the cynical side of me thinks Gary Kubiak’s health scare during Sunday night’s game will buy him another year just out of principle.
  • What happens next: The team starts Case Keenum the rest of the way and decides whether or not to use their probable top-10 pick on a new quarterback.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • What I thought: 6-10. “I want to say that the Jaguars will surprise people … The new front office and coaching staff, I think, will be a marked improvement over last year. There’s just still not quite enough talent on the roster for this team to compete yet.”
  • What happened: 0-8. At least I was right about the roster not having enough talent to compete.
  • What happens next: Hope the Bucs fire Greg Schiano so the Jaguars can put away the Teddy Bridgewater Sweepstakes.

AFC WEST

Kansas City Chiefs

  • What I thought: 9-7. “I think a soft schedule and improved coaching can take the team into a wild-card berth.”
  • What happened: 9-0. Their schedule gets more difficult from here on out– it’s absurdly soft to a degree nobody could have predicted, with their run of third-string quarterbacks faced– but they’re a stone-cold lock for at least a wild-card berth. The offense isn’t very effective outside of Jamaal Charles, but the defense has carried the day.
  • What will happen: If pressed, I’ll say they finish with the 5 seed instead of the division. I still think Alex Smith fundamentally limits the offense, which fundamentally limits their ceiling, and I don’t think they’ll have much success against truly good teams. They’re about to have to face Denver and San Diego twice each, so we’re about to find out if the defense can hold up against legitimately good quarterbacks.

Denver Broncos

  • What I thought: 12-4. “What’s to say? Peyton Manning is great, the receivers are great, and the team added talent pretty much everywhere this offseason.”
  • What happened: 7-1. Julius Thomas’ emergence means the receiving talent is even better than expected. The defense has struggled, though.
  • What will happen: Assuming Peyton Manning’s arm doesn’t just plain fall off at some point, a first-round bye seems likely to me. I think they’re the best team in the league, but not by enough that I expect them to sweep through January easily.

San Diego Chargers

  • What I thought: 6-10. “I have basically no opinion on Mike McCoy or Tom Telesco at this point, but A.J. Smith’s firing was overdue. … Because of Smith’s roster mismanagement, the Chargers just don’t have enough talent to compete this year.”
  • What happened: 4-4. Better than I thought, because McCoy seems to have revived Philip Rivers. Having Rivers playing back at his former level elevates the whole team. They’re good enough to challenge for that last wild-card spot, even though they are weak on the offensive line and the defense in general (save a couple of players, especially Eric Weddle).
  • What will happen: I think their schedule going forward is too tough for them to really have a shot at a playoff berth. Their next four games are DEN, @MIA, @KC, and CIN. They could realistically be 4-8 afterward. I think 7-9 sounds about right.

Oakland Raiders

  • What I thought: 4-12. Even with the soft schedule the AFC West teams drew, it’s hard to see Oakland doing much. … they’re still trying to rebuild the roster from the ground up.”
  • What happened: 3-5, and looking more competitive than I expected. The defense is already playing pretty well, and Terrelle Pryor is showing flashes that he may be a franchise quarterback. They still have a rebuilding project ahead of them, but the foundation may be in place.
  • What will happen: Probably something like 6-10. I think the team will keep Pryor going forward. I’d love to see the Raiders draft Mike Evans to pair with him.

Tomorrow, the NFC (probably).

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