Three Up: An Early, EARLY Look at the 2013 Season

Because it’s never too early to make haphazard predictions about events that will occur seven months from now, here’s a list of three teams that missed the playoffs in 2012 but look like decent bets to make it in 2013 (at least to these eyes!). Tomorrow, I’ll list the three teams that made the playoffs this year but sure don’t seem to have the sturdiest foundation for next year. We’ll call this Three Up, Three Down in honor of pitchers and catchers reporting yesterday – and I, for one, can’t look forward to the Cubs’ upcoming 95-loss season enough (it’ll be a six-game improvement!). Without any further ado…

Three Up

1. Carolina Panthers. Sure, their special teams are always a mess and you can always count on finishing with one or two fewer wins than you probably deserve when Ron Rivera is your coach. But even those impediments can’t keep the Panthers from starting out 0-7 in games decided by seven points or less again; they didn’t get their first win of the year in one of those close games until the last game of the season against New Orleans. This, after going 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less in 2011. Remember a certain team from 2011 that had AWFUL luck in close games its previous two seasons and then made up for lost time in a big way? This isn’t to say that the Panthers are going to win 15 games or that Cam Newton will win MVP next year. However, the fact is the Panthers averaged 5.8 yards per play offensively this season and gave up just 5.3 per play defensively. Cam Newton has been a top-ten quarterback in the NFL in both of the last two seasons and he’ll only turn 24 next year. Sure, Rob Chudzinski’s off in Cleveland now and the schedule’s not a cakewalk. But simple regression towards the mean in close games is due to add two or three wins to Carolina’s total next year.

2. Detroit Lions. I’m still baffled at how this team could have finished 4-12. They finished with 77 more first downs and ran 162 more plays than their opponents and ended up ranking 9th in our Predictive Yards per Play rankings…and finished 4-12. How could this have happened? Bad luck in close games certainly played a part (3-8 in games decided by seven points or less) and TERRIBLE fumble luck played a HUGE part in that poor record in close games. The Lions only recovered 14 out of the 43 fumbles that occurred during their games last season – that’s a recovery rate of less than 33% when the league average is right around 50%. Additionally, they had seven non-offensive touchdowns scored against them over the course of the season, including two in back-to-back weeks in seven-point losses to Tennessee and Minnesota. Who knows whether Matthew Stafford will ever feel like throwing with consistent mechanics again, but it would take a miracle for the Lions to keep up that abysmal fumble recovery and return touchdown rate. Couple that with a last-place schedule and a top-five pick and we may actually end up saying the Lions’ 2012 collapse was the best thing that could have happened to them.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers. Unlike the first two teams on this list, the Steelers’ 2012 record describes their team quality that year pretty accurately. The aging defense remained one of the top five units in football for seemingly the 40th year in a row, but the comparably youthful offense (which had been one of the top-ten offenses in the league in both 2010 and 2011) sputtered terribly in their first season under Todd Haley and finished 26th offensively in our Predictive Yards per Play rankings. Even with the likely departure of Mike Wallace, however, there’s simply too much young talent around Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers to post back-to-back subpar showings. Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, and Emmanuel Sanders will all still be with the team next year and the Steelers have fortified their offensive line with numerous early round picks (Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, etc.) over the past few years. Additionally, even with their offensive struggles, the Steelers were still one of the five best teams in the AFC last year and the conference may get even worse in 2013. An expected bounce-back toward average would lift the Steelers back to even ground with the Ravens and Bengals, if not surpassing them.

Tomorrow in Three Down: The three 2012 playoff teams likely to drop off…

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