Everyone gets something wrong in their predictions for the upcoming NFL season, so why not find the average? That’s what we did with 10 different NFL predictions of division finishes for the 2015 season. Some of the answers were pretty surprising.
The 10 sources chosen will all be listed at the end, and many will be discussed in the following paragraph. They include print sources like Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and USA Today, as well as more unique publications. On one end, we have the infamous analytics-intensive Harvard Sports Analysis study. On the other, Reddit’s r/NFL prediction model averages the game-by-game predictions of thousands of Reddit users across 96,000 computer-simulated NFL 2015 seasons. Whether thousands of users know more than one Sports Illustrated writer is debatable, but it is the biggest user-generated prediction model ever crafted in sports, so we think it deserves to be represented here.
Not everyone predicts an exact record, so we’ll stick to division placement. The average of all 10 sources will be listed next to each team. An average of 1.0 means that each of our predictors chose a team to finish first; conversely, an average of 4.0 means everyone chose that team to finish last. Let’s dive in:
Dallas Cowboys: 1.6
Philadelphia Eagles: 1.7
New York Giants: 2.7
Washington Redskins: 4.0
This one is extraordinarily close—it’s the difference between five first-place picks for the Cowboys and four for the Eagles. The Harvard study is the lone outlier, picking the Giants to win the division. Essentially, nobody knows what to think of the Eagles, but there is faith in coach Chip Kelly’s mad science experiment after two 10–6 seasons. The Cowboys read in reverse; analysts like the team, but they’re haunted by the three straight 8–8 finishes that preceded last year’s 12–4 record. Meanwhile, only two teams in the entire league were picked by all prognosticators to finish last in their division, and the Redskins are one of them.
Green Bay Packers: 1.1
Detroit Lions: 2.2
Minnesota Vikings: 2.8
Chicago Bears: 3.9
This one’s pretty cut and dry. Only Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated refused to pick the Packers for first—he chose the Lions instead. His argument is that the injury to WR Jordy Nelson takes the top off the Packers offense while RB Ameer Abdullah makes the Lions offense multi-dimensional. Otherwise, it was Packers all the way. Meanwhile, only the Harvard study believed the Bears might finish anywhere but last, and even then they only reached third. In fact, USA Today’s Nate Davis believes the Bears will be so bad they’ll be picking first overall when the NFL draft returns to Chicago next spring. In between, it’s a fight between the Lions and the Vikings. The general consensus seems to be that the Vikings have a young core to watch, but they may still be a year away from making it all gel.
Carolina Panthers: 1.7
New Orleans Saints: 1.9
Atlanta Falcons: 2.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3.9
As averages go, this is the most unpredictable division, perhaps because it contains the NFL’s least competitive set of teams—the Panthers won it last year with a losing record at 7–8–1. Nonetheless, most think the division winner’s record this year will be positive. The Panthers just barely edge the Saints, but the Falcons aren’t far off; they received two first- and no last place predictions. The Saints did get a last place vote from Doug Farrar at Sports Illustrated. The wheels are due to fall off of Saints QB Drew Brees sooner or later, though most think it won’t be this year and their defense is due to rebound. The Buccaneers are a near-unanimous choice to finish last again.
Seattle Seahawks: 1.0
Arizona Cardinals: 2.4
St. Louis Rams: 3.0
San Francisco 49ers: 3.6
There’s some complication over how every other team will stack up, but the Seahawks are one of only two unanimous division winners—nobody thinks they’ll slip enough to finish anywhere but first. Whether the Cardinals or Rams follow is debatable, but the Cards and (presumably) a full year of QB Carson Palmer have the edge. Few teams in recent history have had as bad an off-season as the San Francisco 49ers, yet their nucleus still contains enough talent that there’s some hope they may not finish last in the NFL’s toughest division.
New England Patriots: 1.2
Miami Dolphins: 2.1
Buffalo Bills: 3.0
New York Jets: 3.7
Everyone agrees on one thing: the talent gap in this division is closing in on the Patriots. Yet only two analysts (the Harvard study and Bleacher Report) think the Patriots won’t finish first. Those first-place votes go to a talented Dolphins squad in a make-or-break year for coach Joe Philbin. In fact, the Harvard study believes the Dolphins are the best team in the entire AFC. The Bills also have second-place votes, but unlike the Dolphins they have two fourth-place votes as well. Many others think the Jets will hang on to last place, despite a new coach and some superb free agent signings. That’s how it goes when your starting QB’s broken jaw is considered an improvement.
Baltimore Ravens: 1.6
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2.3
Cincinnati Bengals: 2.6
Cleveland Browns: 3.8
First place is generally agreed upon as belonging to the Ravens, but it’s not pat. Again, the Harvard study bucks the trend, choosing the Ravens to finish fourth even behind Cleveland. The Steelers and Bengals are duking it out for second, but the Steelers get the edge thanks to two first-place votes the Bengals lack. The difference lies with the QBs—the Bengals may have the better team, but no one thinks Andy Dalton is better or more consistent than a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers and Bengals each have a lone fourth-place vote, but it’s the Factory of Sadness—er, the Cleveland Browns—who seem on lock to finish last.
Indianapolis Colts: 1.0
Houston Texans: 2.0
Jacksonville Jaguars: 3.4
Tennessee Titans: 3.6
In most divisions, the competition is for first or second place, with last place belonging securely to one team. The AFC South, however, likes to do things differently: the Colts join the Seahawks as the only team unanimously selected to finish first in their division. Hilariously, the Texans were also unanimously selected for second, but the true excitement of the AFC South comes in that battle for last place. Six analysts believe it goes to the Titans, four to the Jaguars. What a nail biter! Nobody thinks either team will finish higher than third.
Denver Broncos: 1.3
San Diego Chargers: 2.3
Kansas City Chiefs: 2.4
Oakland Raiders: 4.0
You might think the Broncos would have been a unanimous choice, but Doug Farrar at Sports Illustrated and that blasted Harvard study beg to differ. While most think the Broncos are more vulnerable than in years past, they are hesitant to predict a different division winner. It is debatable as to whether the Chargers or Chiefs will gain the advantage, and that’s the real problem. Even if the Broncos slip, no team seems truly strong enough to take the lead away. Each gets a first-place vote—Farrar goes Chargers, Harvard goes Chiefs—and then it’s only the difference of one second-place vote in favor of the Chargers. The Raiders join the Redskins as the other team to be unanimously chosen last in their division. Though many believe they’ll be improved over years past, nobody thinks it will actually show in their record.
This is not an exhaustive poll of every single analyst, but rather a cross-section of NFL predictions: print and online, gut-check analysis and statistical analytics, traditional specialist and ultra-modern. Here’s the complete list of NFL predictions used in the above averages.
Nate Davis, USA Today
Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated online
Chris Burke, Sports Illustrated online
Harvard Sports Analysis study
Mike Sando, ESPN The Magazine
Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated print edition
Reddit’s r/nfl user-generated prediction model
Not all NFL predictions chose a Super Bowl 50 match-up, but the averages tend to go with the most popular picks: the Packers or Seahawks defeating the Colts (Greg Bishop at Sports Illustrated chose the Ravens defeating the Seahawks). Now let’s see which team surprises fans the most.
What are your predictions this season? Where did we hit; where did we miss? Let us know in the comments!