3 Insights from Accounting for Schedule Strength in Passing and Rushing Analytics

This is a paradigm shift for The Power Rank.

So far, we’ve been mostly about team rankings. Based on a statistical physics Ph.D. from Stanford, some guy developed an algorithm that nicely accounts for margin of victory and strength of schedule in ranking teams. And the rankings give predictions that are more accurate than the Vegas line in picking the winner of college football bowl games.

But analytics on the team level doesn’t provide much insight into American tackle football. It has become clear to us that people want a deeper application of analytics in football. How well does a team pass the ball? Run the ball? Who should win the Heisman trophy when the contenders play schedules of such varying strength? This is our first post towards applying our algorithm to answering these questions.

The Power Rank algorithm in Passing and Rushing Analytics

We’ll start with passing and rushing analytics. Traditionally, the media uses yards per game to evaluate both defense and offense in these two categories. However, this is deeply flawed. Some teams throw the ball much more than others. Using passing yards per game to compare Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense which rarely runs the ball with Air Force’s triple option offense that rarely throws the ball is meaningless.

The first step in passing and rushing analytics is dividing total yards by the number of attempts. This normalization is analogous to tempo free basketball statistics in which points, assists and just about everything else are divided by the number of possessions for a team. It allows for a fair comparison between fast break teams like North Carolina and half court teams like Northern Iowa. Dean Oliver pioneered this analysis with his book Basketball on Paper, and Ken Pomeroy uses it in his college basketball analytics.

However, yards per attempt still does not account for strength of schedule in evaluating passing and rushing. We apply our algorithm to adjust yards per attempt for schedule strength. This is particularly important in college football because of the wide range of team strength. Oregon might rush for almost 10 yards a carry against Missouri State. These rushes all count in their raw yards per rush attempt. Here, we adjust this number to account for a lower subdivision defense.

Let’s look at some rather surprising insights from these passing and rushing analytics in college football.

1. How good was the Texas pass defense?

Don’t let all those words per day fool you. Matt Hinton of CBS Sports is a numbers guy. When he served as Dr. Saturday over at Yahoo Sports, he did a very complete analysis showing the predictive power of recruiting rankings in college football. So when he recently wrote an article about how Texas’s defense struggled against top passing offenses in the Big 12, we took notice. He comments how poorly the pass defense performed against Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State last year.

Well, Baylor certainly ripped apart Texas through the air. Robert Griffin III threw for an astounding 13.7 yards per attempt against Texas, earning Griffin the Heisman trophy. But Baylor tore up everyone, topping our pass offense rankings. Our analytics predicted they would throw for 9.12 yards per attempt against an average bowl subdivision pass defense.

However, the Texas defense actually performed well against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, holding both below their season average in yards per attempt. Overall, Texas had the 6th best pass defense last year. This is much better than the 13th they rank in raw yards per pass attempt, since they faced some very good pass offenses in the Big 12.

2. How good was Alabama’s passing defense and offense?

It’s not that surprising that Alabama had the best pass defense in the nation last year. They finished first across the board in yards per game, yards per attempt and our adjusted yards per attempt. Our analytics predict they would allow a microscopic 4.02 yards per attempt against an average subdivision pass offense. The secondary had 3 players drafted in the NFL draft, including safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round.

However, it may be surprising that Alabama had the 10th best passing offense in the country. Quarterback AJ McCarron and crew racked up 7.22 yards per pass attempt, good for 27th in the country. When adjusting for schedule strength, they get upgraded due to 2 strong performances against LSU. Against this 2nd best pass defense, Alabama threw for about 6.2 yards per attempt in both meetings, well above the 4.53 that LSU gave up on average.

Alabama’s strength in both pass offense and defense played a large role in their National Championship run last year. Passing correlates to winning more than running. Remind us to write an article about that.

3. Which back up running back should I draft on my fantasy team?

Utah State really stands out in our rushing offense rankings. They finished 3rd, behind only the up tempo style of Oregon and the offensive line tradition of Wisconsin. Even after adjusting for schedule strength, Utah State’s rushing attack ranked higher than the pro style offenses at Alabama (11) and Stanford (21). Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, the two running backs that powered this attack, were both taken in the NFL draft and could make for interesting additions to anyone’s fantasy team.

Seattle drafted Robert Turbin, which most likely makes him Marshawn Lynch’s back up this season. While Turbin was Utah State’s leading rusher by total yards, Michael Smith actually had a better yards per carry. His 7.63 yards per rush attempt over a significant 114 carries was quite a bit better than the 6.09 of Turbin. Tampa Bay drafted Smith, and according to Athlon, he has LeGarrette Blount and fellow draft pick Doug Martin of Boise State to compete with for carries.

Here’s where analytics makes a rather bold prediction. Boise State ended last season with the 80th best rushing offense. Yes, the run first pro style offense led by quarterback Kellen Moore finished just above the bottom third of teams. They didn’t earn enough yards per attempt against rather poor rush defenses. Of course, rushing offense strongly depends on the offensive line. However, left tackle Nate Potter of Boise State got drafted, while no linemen from Utah State cracked the 7 rounds of the NFL draft. This analysis suggests that Michael Smith is a better running back than Doug Martin.

You probably don’t even need to draft Michael Smith on your fantasy team. Just take him off the scrap heap mid season.

What else?

With these passing and rushing rankings for both offense and defense, we have 480 new numbers to sort through from last season. We could go on for days writing about the passing and rushing analytics. But it would probably be better just to post last year’s rankings and let you figure it out for yourself. To see the rankings, click here.

Thanks for reading.

NFL Rankings, Week 15

To continue last week’s discussion of The Power Rank’s predicted playoff picture, I’d like to start with the games that were predicted incorrectly.

Misses by the Power Rank include Philadelphia over New York, Kansas City over St. Louis, and Detroit over Tampa Bay.  These are unfortunate errors, but the fault may not lie with The Power Rank, but rather with its interpreter…  me.

Last week I mentioned that The Power Rank accounts for games played in neutral sites, which isn’t the case for NFL football games other than the Super Bowl.  I gave each of the home teams an added three points to their rating, and in each of those games, there was an upset.  Had I stuck purely to The Power Rank’s ratings the predictions would have been 100% accurate.  Apparently my arbitrary adjustment was a little too much.

As it is, two of those three games were very close finishes.  Detroit beat Tampa Bay with a field goal in overtime, and New York lost to Philadelphia when their rookie punter made the mistake of letting DeSean Jackson get a chance to return a punt on the last play of the game…  which he returned for the winning touchdown.  The Kansas City win over St. Louis was far more convincing.

In all of the games where the three point adjustment didn’t affect the outcome the Power Rank was spot on.  Let’s see if it can keep up its streak in week 16!

The only game in the remainder of the season that was affected by the three point adjustment is this week’s match between the Bears and Jets in Chicago.  In light of last week’s revelation, I will take away the three points earlier spotted to the Bears and predict that the Jets will be victorious in spite of Rex Ryan’s alleged foot fetish fiasco.  The Jets will also be helped by the most unpalatable of late season NFL traditions, clinched teams sitting stars to get them rest before the playoffs.  The Bears have clinched the NFC North division and may rest some of their key personnel for a good portion of the game.

Speaking of clinched teams, Atlanta has also secured a spot in the playoffs, although they still have to fight for homefield advantage, and with division rival and playoff bound New Orleans visiting Atlanta this week they will have their work cut out for them.

The NFC playoff prediction has been significantly altered by last week’s errors.  With their loss to the Eagles, the Giants are predicted to lose their playoff spot to the highest Power Ranked NFC team, the Green Bay Packers.  The Rams loss to the Chiefs opened up the NFC West, with San Francisco staying alive and Pete Carrol’s Seahawks pulling into the lead.

In the AFC, the Patriots clinched a playoff berth with the help of an improbable 71 yard kick return by their guard Dan Connolly.  The Steelers have also clinched a spot, although neither team has clinched their division or locked up home field advantage.

The only change to the AFC prediction from last week is that Kansas City’s record improves although they would lose out to the Chargers based on the third NFL divisional tiebreaker, record in common games.

Games to watch this week:

Giants(#15) at Packers (#2) – The two playoff contenders meet in Lambeau in a must-win game for both franchises.  Prediction:  Packers win.

Seattle (#29) at Tampa Bay (#21) – Seattle can lose in Tampa Bay and still get into the playoffs with a win over St. Louis in week 17, but Tampa must win to keep hope alive.  Expect both teams to come hungry with a win by the Bucs.

San Francisco (#28) at St. Louis (#27) – Two division rivals in a win-or-go-home scenario, directly next to each other with less than one point of rankings separating them?  It may be the Toilet Bowl, but it should be an exciting game.

1. New England, 12-2, 9.35
2. Green Bay, 8-6, 6.19
3. Pittsburgh, 10-4, 5.15
4. Baltimore, 10-4, 5.15
5. Atlanta, 12-2, 4.78
6. Philadelphia, 10-4, 4.67
7. San Diego, 8-6, 4.60
8. Indianapolis, 8-6, 3.16
9. New York Jets, 10-4, 2.84
10. New Orleans, 10-4, 2.44
11. Chicago, 10-4, 2.43
12. Tennessee, 6-8, 1.79
13. Cleveland, 5-9, 1.28
14. Miami, 7-7, 0.88
15. New York Giants, 9-5, 0.83
16. Kansas City, 9-5, -0.43
17. Oakland, 7-7, -0.50
18. Detroit, 4-10, -0.59
19. Houston, 5-9, -0.98
20. Dallas, 5-9, -1.19
21. Jacksonville, 8-6, -1.83
22. Buffalo, 4-10, -1.83
23. Tampa Bay, 8-6, -2.04
24. Washington, 5-9, -2.81
25. Cincinnati, 3-11, -2.89
26. Minnesota, 5-9, -3.29
27. St. Louis, 6-8, -3.54
28. San Francisco, 5-9, -4.48
29. Seattle, 6-8, -4.96
30. Denver, 3-11, -5.09
31. Arizona, 4-10, -7.80
32. Carolina, 2-12, -11.30

NFL Rankings, Week 14

In the immortal words of Leonard Nimoy:  I am about to boldly go where The Power Rank’s predictive capability has never gone before.

OK.  So that might be a slight misquote, but I’m sure if the NFL were popular on Vulcan he very well might have said it.  After all, how could Spock resist the logic of The Power Rank algorithm?

A few weeks ago, I discussed playoff predictions and how The Power Rank’s best teams didn’t quite match up with the current playoff scenario at the time, in a very incomplete season.  This week I’ve used The Power Rank’s week 14 ratings to project the victors of all games in the final three weeks of the season and calculated who will make the playoffs based on those projections.

One important modification had to be made, however, as The Power Rank’s ratings only account for a game in a neutral location.  A common practice for football bettors is to give an automatic three points to the home team to compensate for the home field advantage.  I used that convenient number to do the same with The Power Rank’s ratings when projecting the outcome of the remaining games in the season.

This three point home field bonus was surprisingly not a factor in most of the games.  Instances where it did change the outcome of a game were generally very good match ups that will certainly be big games in the upcoming weeks.

Home Field Upset Number One – Bears (#12) over Jets (#10) in week 16.  A battle between two of the NFL’s nastiest defenses fighting for a playoff spot in late December…  it could be the tag line for a movie.

Home Field Upset Number Two – Rams (#25) over Chiefs (#16) in week 15.  The Rams make a huge jump through that tightly packed middle to beat cross-state rivals.  If this prediction is correct it locks up the Ram’s playoff spot and shuts Kansas City out.

Home Field Upset Number Three – Giants (#14) over Eagles (#6) in week 15.  This one is huge.  With the three point bonus, New York edges out Philly by a mere .08 points.  If this tiniest of margins helps sway the game in favor of the Giants it will not only edge Green Bay (#3) out of the playoffs but also make a tie for division winner between the Eagles and Giants in overall record, head-to-head record, and division record.  Even though both teams make the playoffs either way, a Giants win could bring the seeding into question.

Home Field Upset Number Four – Buccaneers (#21) over Lions (#19) in week 15.  This…  is not an exciting game.  The Lions proved last week against the Packers that they could be potent playoff spoilers, but The Power Rank suggests that the Lions won’t thaw in time to win when visiting sunny Tampa Bay.  This win helps Tampa eventually climb to 10-6, but they still fall short of the playoffs unless…

Non-Upset Big Game Number One – Buccaneers (#21) at New Orleans (#8) in week 17.  The Power Rank predicts a solid victory for the Saints, but consider this a March Madness style play-in game.  The Power Rank predicts both NFC South teams will enter this game at 10-5, meaning the winner will move on and the losers will go home.  If both teams do show up tied expect a battle.

Check out the predictions for Week 15 here.

On to the winners…

The AFC doesn’t have many surprises as the top ranked teams finish strong and secure their playoff spots.

The NFC is a bit more jumbled.  #3 ranked Green Bay feels the sting of five losses by a total of 16 points and doesn’t make it.  Making Packer and Buccaneer fans especially angry is St. Louis limping in with the NFC West title and an 8-8 record.

So, 10  of the Power Rank’s top 12 are expected to make the cut.  The exceptions are Green Bay (#3) and Cleveland (#11), with the Giants (#14) and St. Louis (#25) taking their place instead.

1. New England, 11-2, 9.29
2. Pittsburgh, 10-3, 5.98
3. Green Bay, 8-5, 5.69
4. Baltimore, 9-4, 5.22
5. Atlanta, 11-2, 4.78
6. Philadelphia, 9-4, 4.12
7. San Diego, 7-6, 4.09
8. New Orleans, 10-3, 3.03
9. Indianapolis, 7-6, 2.87
10. New York Jets, 9-4, 1.83
11. Cleveland, 5-8, 1.53
12. Chicago, 9-4, 1.50
13. Tennessee, 5-8, 1.42
14. New York Giants, 9-4, 1.20
15. Miami, 7-6, 1.07
16. Kansas City, 8-5, -0.96
17. Houston, 5-8, -1.12
18. Oakland, 6-7, -1.15
19. Detroit, 3-10, -1.19
20. Dallas, 4-9, -1.22
21. Tampa Bay, 8-5, -1.52
22. Jacksonville, 8-5, -1.71
23. Buffalo, 3-10, -2.43
24. Minnesota, 5-8, -2.52
25. St. Louis, 6-7, -2.63
26. Cincinnati, 2-11, -3.03
27. Washington, 5-8, -3.23
28. San Francisco, 5-8, -3.59
29. Seattle, 6-7, -4.38
30. Denver, 3-10, -4.52
31. Arizona, 4-9, -7.01
32. Carolina, 1-12, -11.39

NFL Rankings, Week 10

…cue the Youtube videos of beer commercials featuring Jim Mora screaming about the playoffs, because we are going there today.

Ten weeks into the season the Power Rank seems to be stablizing quite well with few major jumps, as illustrated by last week’s article.  To build on that stable foundation I’d like to discuss something of importance that is looming on the horizon for many teams that aren’t from Carolina – the playoffs.

The playoff picture is especially interesting because of the field of teams that are competing for spots.  Both the AFC West and NFC West are so bad that teams low in both The Power Rank and NFL standings have a shot at glory in early 2011.

I decided to take a look into the crystal ball that is the Power Rank algorithm to get a peek at what the playoffs might look like this year.  I started by separating the conferences and placing them in The Power Rank order.  Then I highlighted who would be in the playoffs (if they started this week) based on Power Rank standings and on NFL standings. 

A few teams would be in regardless of whose standings are used, and their names should be no surprise to any follower of The Power Rank or of the NFL.  The Jets, Ravens, Patriots, Colts, and Steelers all seem to own five of the AFC playoff spots.  The Power Rank and the NFL standings agree on each of these selections, although The Power Rank does indicate that Tennessee still has a chance to make a solid bid for a wildcard spot.

In the NFC things are not so clear cut.  In both scenarios Philadelphia and Atlanta win their divisions, but these are the only two spots that appear in both playoff pictures.  Green Bay is also in both, although in the current NFL standings they would be a wildcard team and not a division winner.  It is not total agreement, but it is a solid indication that Green Bay is on the fast track to the playoffs.

The other three NFC playoff spots are taken by completely different teams in each list.  The Power Rank has New Orleans, Detroit, and St. Louis joining the top three teams of the NFC in the playoffs.  The NFL standings instead put Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Seattle in the hunt.  The difference between St. Louis and Seattle in the fight to win the NFC West is neglible, and both teams could easily find their way into the backdoor of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay has been finding ways to win games, but according to The Power Rank it’s all smoke and mirrors.  They are the lowest ranked team to be in the playoff hunt, and they’re doing it as a wildcard.  Do not be surprised to see this squad fall off the map in the next couple of weeks.

Chicago is making a solid bid for the NFC North title, and their early season win over the Packers has made the going rough for Green Bay fans who would like to see their team separate itself from the pack (no pun intended).  Chicago is ranked rather low but their classic defense and special teams oriented play is still making the big plays that produce results. 

The most interesting thing to come out of the NFC North is the Detroit Lions, of former 0-16 fame, showing up in The Power Rank playoff picture.  The polar opposite of the Bears (again, no pun intended) the Lions seem to have an explosive offense and terrible luck that prevents them from translating their big plays into wins.  Remember that controversial Calvin Johnson non-touchdown in week one?  Don’t count the Lions out just yet. If they go on a nice streak they could break into the playoffs with critical momentum, much like the 2007 Giants.

The last team to discuss in the NFC is the Saints.  Yes, they have undoubtedly experienced a massive Super Bowl hangover.  Still, they are not as bad as they appear – they just aren’t living up to the hype that the media has piled onto this team.  Remember, they were a surprise in 2009 that was taken for granted as a 2010 contender and that’s a recipe for falling short of expectations.  The Saints are still a solid team that knows how to win, and they will most likely live up to their rank and make a strong playoff push in the final few weeks of the season.

By this point some AFC West fans are wondering why I didn’t mention the discrepency between The Power Rank picking the Chargers and the NFL taking the Raiders as AFC West division champs.  This division is tough.  The Chargers have played below their potential and have lost by poor special teams play.  The Raiders are playing well above their potential but the young squad seems to coming together and building steam which makes them a solid dark horse candidate.  The Chiefs haven’t kept up the winning ways of their early season success but are still a presence in this division.  In other words, this one is too close to call.

There are still seven weeks left in the season though.  Seven wins would put just about any team firmly in the playoffs, and seven losses would deny almost every team from entry so it may be too early to be making calls, but with such agreement between standings and ranking I find it hard to not start looking forward.

1. New York Jets, 7-2, 6.71
2. Green Bay, 6-3, 5.78
3. Baltimore, 6-3, 5.72
4. New England, 7-2, 5.39
5. Indianapolis, 6-3, 4.42
6. Pittsburgh, 6-3, 4.39
7. Philadelphia, 6-3, 4.04
8. Tennessee, 5-4, 3.61
9. Atlanta, 7-2, 3.37
10. Miami, 5-4, 2.06
11. San Diego, 4-5, 1.49
12. Cleveland, 3-6, 1.15
13. New Orleans, 6-3, 0.90
14. Kansas City, 5-4, 0.60
15. Detroit, 2-7, 0.53
16. Chicago, 6-3, 0.48
17. New York Giants, 6-3, -0.15
18. Oakland, 5-4, -0.42
19. Minnesota, 3-6, -0.77
20. Denver, 3-6, -1.00
21. Cincinnati, 2-7, -1.31
22. St. Louis, 4-5, -1.99
23. Houston, 4-5, -2.11
24. Seattle, 5-4, -2.87
25. Washington, 4-5, -2.96
26. San Francisco, 3-6, -3.00
27. Tampa Bay, 6-3, -3.52
28. Jacksonville, 5-4, -3.54
29. Dallas, 2-7, -3.94 
30. Buffalo, 1-8, -4.05
31. Arizona, 3-6, -6.08
32. Carolina, 1-8, -12.92

NFL Preview

After months of drama, it’s time to forget Roethlisberger’s indiscretions, Favre’s indecision, and Al Davis’ incompetence and start the NFL season. Here is the Power Rank’s 2010 NFL preview.

AFC East.

If you’re like me you’ve been watching HBO’s Hard Knocks and head coach Rex Ryan has intimidated you into believing that his Jets are going to repeat their playoff run. Darrelle Revis (CB, 24) has a contract, Ladanian Tomlinson (RB, 21) is in town, and Mark Sanchez (QB, 6) has a season of experience under his belt. Add this to an underrated receiving corps and you’ll be hearing lots of “J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!” cheers this winter.

The division doesn’t stop in New York though. Randy Moss (WR, 81) and Tom Brady (QB, 12) are getting older but they’re still a major threat to any defense and head coach Bill Belichick can be expected to field a competitive team as he always does, even if they won’t be as dominant as they have been in the past.

The Miami Dolphins and their wildcat offensive scheme can be expected to make a splash again this year with the addition of receiving phenom (and headcase) Brandon Marshall (WR, 19). It will be interesting to see how Ronnie Brown (RB, 23) and Ricky Williams (RB, 34) will perform when teams can’t stack the box against them and their dominant offensive tackle Jake Long (T, 77).

The Bills have done little to improve, and their record will show it this year.

AFC North.

It’s the Raven’s year. Ray Rice (RB, 27) is looking to improve on a great season and Joe Flacco (QB, 5) is expected to break out with new targets like Anquan Boldin (WR, 81) and TJ Houshmandzadeh (WR). With a rock solid Greg Mattison coached defense led by Ray Lewis (MLB, 52) to keep opponents at bay, the Ravens are looking to play a game in February this year.

The Steelers and the Bengals will be looking to spoil the Raven’s Superbowl dreams with teams loaded with talent. The Bengals offense of Carson Palmer (QB, 5), Terrell Owens (WR, 81), and Chad Ochocinco (WR, 85), reads like an All-Star program… from the 2004 season. If they can collectively shake off the dust they will be a killer trio, but don’t expect this scenario to be likely. Pittsburgh enters the season without Big Ben (QB, 7) and in disarray offensively. But you can’t count out a Pittsburgh defense that’s 2 seasons removed from Superbowl glory. Expect some late season heroics that will see the men in black in the hunt for the postseason.

The Browns have been making moves to improve their team, but with Montario Hardesty (RB, 31) shredding his ACL they seem to be the wrong moves. At least they got rid of Brady Quinn though, right?

AFC South.

The Colts haven’t gone anywhere. Peyton Manning (QB, 18) will continue to be the best in the NFL (and possibly history) and he’s got all of the same targets that he had last year, plus Anthony Gonzalez (WR, 11). The really bad news for Colts haters: Bob Sanders (SS, 21) is back and is looking good in the defensive backfield.

Don’t expect to see anyone else take this division, but don’t be surprised if there’s at least one and maybe even two wildcards coming from the South. The Texans are a lot of analyst’s breakout pick this year, but they have been for the last few years running. Matt Schaub (QB,8) has the tools on the outside led by Andre Johnson (WR, 80), but injuries and running back controversy may continue to plague this team.

The Titans return with Chris Johnson (RB, 28) hoping to repeat and improve on his 2000 yard season, but that may prove difficult with the loss of blocker Kevin Mawae (C). Vince Young (QB, 10) rounds out the offensive attack that will keep the Titans competitive with any team in the NFL.

The Jaguars’ explosive back Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, 32) is expected to start the season healthy, but preseason injuries leave doubts about his effectiveness this year. With little passing attack and a lackluster defense, expect the Jags to stay in limbo this year.

AFC West.

Yet again, it’s going to be all Chargers this year in the AFC West. Phillip Rivers (QB, 17) will continue to throw touchdowns with or without Vincent Jackson (WR, 83), and running back Ryan Matthews (RB, 24) from Fresno State seems to be everyone’s pick for Rookie of the Year. Don’t forget the explosive and versatile Darren Sproles (RB, 43) and the solid defense that will help the Chargers slide into what may be the easiest playoff slot in the NFL this season.

Let’s look at the other quarterbacks in this divison: Cassel (KC), Orton/Tebow/Quinn (DEN), and Jason Campbell (OAK). Some people are big on Jason Campbell (QB,8) to finally breakout, others think Matt Cassel (QB, 7) will regain his Patriot glory… don’t buy it. These guys are mediocre at best and the only target worth mentioning on all three teams is Dwayne Bowe (WR, 82) of Kansas City. Don’t expect to see any of these teams in January this year. If you’re like me, you’re just hoping that rookie Tim Tebow (QB, 15) will get a chance to skipper the Broncos and show what his athleticism and poor mechanics can do.

NFC East.

The best division in the NFL is just too close to call. The Cowboys bring back Tony Romo (QB, 9), a stacked backfield, a nasty defense, and a possible future star in Dez Bryant (WR, 88). The Eagles return with their signature defensive power and a very young but very talented offense led by Kevin Kolb (QB, 4), DeSean Jackson (WR, 10), Jeremy Maclin (WR, 18), and Brent Celek (TE, 87). The Giants didn’t get the better of the Manning brothers but Eli (QB, 10) is a solid performer with good targets in Steve Smith (WR, 12) and Hakeem Nicks (WR, 88), and the third strong defense in the division.

The only team the won’t be on top of this royal rumble is Washington. The Redskins’ strategy of overspending on aging stars will continue to haunt them as Donovan McNabb (QB, 5) and Clinton Portis (RB, 26) will not live up to their 2004 stat lines, which will only be a shock to the Washington front office.

NFC North.

As a Packer fan, it pains me to say the you can expect to see more purple this January. Brett Favre (QB, 4) is back for one reason, and that is to win a Superbowl. The hall of famer is backed by the single most dominant player in the game, Adrian Peterson (RB, 28), and pass rushing media darling Jared Allen (DE, 69) (for more on Allen, check out this week’s Fine Line).

The Packers will be one of the most dangerous teams on the gridiron this year. Aaron Rodgers (QB, 12) is enjoying a statistically unprecedented start to his career with a bevy of targets that can score almost at will. Veteran slant receiver Donald Driver (WR, 80) and burner Greg Jennings (WR, 85) are joined by the emerging talent of Jermichael Finley (TE, 88), James Jones (WR, 89), and Jordy Nelson (WR, 87). Charles Woodson (CB, 21) and Clay Matthews (OLB, 52) lead the defense with the most takeaways in the league, but the Green Bay defense also has some big holes that make them more porous than consistent, which will cost them over the season.

The Bears welcome new offensive coordinator Mike Martz who will have little to work with this year. Calling Jay Cutler (QB, 6) a gunslinger won’t make him Brett Favre (MIN), and even though Matt Forte (RB, 22) is poised for comeback year it won’t be enough to keep this offense from stalling on a weekly basis.

The Lions are likely to continue to be the worst team in the NFL, but at least they are rebuilding aggressively with Matthew Stafford (QB, 9), Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (WR, 81), and Jahvid Best (RB, 44). Look for this squad to make waves in my 2013 season preview.

NFC South.

The reigning Superbowl champs won’t have the magic of 2009, but the Saints will still be a force this year. Drew Brees (QB, 9) and his targets Marques Colston (WR, 12), Jeremy Shockey (TE, 88), and emerging Robert Meachem (WR, 17) will perform on a weekly basis in one of the most potent offenses in the league. The defense was a surprise last year and won’t perform quite as well as last year, but the noise of the awakened “Who dat” nation will support them at home as a solid 12th man.

The Falcons whole team hit a sophomore slump last year as Matt Ryan (QB, 2), Michael Turner (RB, 33), and Roddy White (WR, 84) all failed to live up to high expectations as the team was plagued with injuries and misfortune. Expect this year to go by more smoothly, for Turner to return to dominance, and the Falcons to become competitive again.

The Panthers and Buccaneers have always been known for solid defenses but their lackluster offensive traditions will hold them back again this year. Carolina wisely dumped Jake Delhomme, but haven’t filled the spot with experience, and that will cost them. Tampa Bay also has quarterback woes even though Kellen Winslow Jr. (TE, 82) is sure to be one of the best targets in the league.

NFC West.

Someone has to get into the playoffs by default from this division, and it’s a shame.

The 49ers will most likely win out in this division with a nasty defense led by Patrick Willis (MLB, 52) and under the tutelage of head coach Mike Singletary. Their offense will continue to pound the ball on with Frank Gore (RB, 21) and the new addition of veteran running back Brian Westbrook the ground attack may be even more potent that usual. Vernon Davis (TE, 85) will snag a few touchdowns from Alex Smith (QB, 11) but don’t expect the passing attack to be featured in San Francisco this year.

The Cardinals still have Larry Fitzgerald (WR, 11) and Steve Breaston (WR, 15), but they’ve lost Anquan Boldin (WR) and Kurt Warner (QB), and have recently cut Matt Leinart (QB). For a team that lives and dies with their air attack, you can expect this team to die many painful deaths on the field this year.

Pete Carroll seems to be cleaning house in Seattle this year, cutting TJ Houshmanzadeh (WR) and picking up 6 million dollars of his salary while the Ravens enjoy his talent. Veteran running back Julius Jones is also unemployed this fall. The message from Seattle: we’re rebuilding, don’t expect us to win this year.

St. Louis seems to have picked a gem in Sam Bradford (QB,8) who’s looked sharp leading the offense this preseason, but the Rams’ problems go beyond what one rookie quarterback can fix. Expect Bradford and Steven Jackson (RB, 39) to pull out a couple wins this year but not a whole lot more than that.