The NFL has more year-to-year upheaval than any other major professional sports league in the world. Each year, mediocre teams morph into Super Bowl contenders while strong teams collapse. Injuries are difficult to forecast yet have a huge impact. Lower-round draft picks break out as surprising contributors, while star veterans become aged and useless. The whole thing comes in a 16-game sample size that leads to heavy variation from year to year even if the team's underlying performance stays consistent.
Despite these challenges, it's our job as NFL analysts to try to forecast the season. At Football Outsiders, we do it with a statistical projection system. The system accounts for numerous variables, including experience, continuity, draft value added in recent years and two years of various stats and splits from our main DVOA metric. We produce a range of possible team performances based on these variables and use those ratings to play the season out a million times. That gives us an idea of what's possible for each team, and the number in the middle of each range -- each team's mean win projection -- is the most likely result.
We're giving ESPN Insiders a sneak peek into our forecasts for 2012, not just which teams we think are most likely to make the playoffs but why. You can find much more on each team and its forecast in our book, "Football Outsiders Almanac 2012."
Remember that statistical projections are by their nature conservative. We project a wide range of possibilities, including the possibility that good teams will turn bad, often because of injuries, or bad teams will surprise and turn good. That drags all projections closer to 8-8, so we end up predicting a lot of division champions to win nine or 10 games. In reality, the teams that have good seasons will usually end up winning a few more than we forecast and the teams that have bad seasons will end up winning fewer.
Here are the 2012 Football Outsiders division winner projections:
AFC East projected champ: New England Patriots (12.0 wins)
The rest: Buffalo Bills (9.7), New York Jets (9.2), Miami Dolphins (6.9)
By our projections, this is the strongest division in the AFC. The teams are further helped by an easy schedule featuring the NFC West and AFC South.
The Patriots are our pick for AFC favorite. It's hard to argue when the team has gone 14-2 and 13-3 the past two seasons and won eight of the last nine division titles.
The bigger surprise is our projection for the Buffalo Bills, which we forecast as the most likely surprise playoff contender for 2012. The Bills average 9.7 wins in our simulations and make the playoffs 57 percent of the time, better odds than all but six teams. Our projections really like the Bills defense, because a Pro Bowl-level pass-rusher is probably the best offseason addition you can make other than at quarterback. The defense has a good mix of young and in-prime talent and should be healthier this year. Mario Williams aside, the defense's best player, Kyle Williams, is coming back from missing most of last season with an injury, and the second-best player, Marcell Dareus, should improve like most high draft picks do in their second season. The Bills also had a top-10 offense before a number of injuries in the second half of last season, including to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The New York Jets are also projected to be wild-card contenders. In general, offense is more consistent than defense, but the Jets have been unusually consistent on defense -- in the top five of the Football Outsiders rankings for three straight seasons -- and there's no reason to expect 2012 to be different. Our old compatriot Bill Barnwell did a good job in this Grantland piece of discussing why last season's Jets defense was much better than points allowed would indicate.
Even the Miami Dolphins have a better chance to make the playoffs than most fans believe. Last season, the Dolphins outscored opponents 329-313, and it's better to have an average quarterback such as veterans Matt Moore and David Garrard than it is to have a bad quarterback. If the Dolphins go with rookie Ryan Tannehill, it will likely be a rebuilding season.