Predicting NFC West with, without Warner

Simulations suggest Arizona will not be the same with Matt Leinart, right, replacing Kurt Warner. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

They don't crown NFL division champs before December or January, but we do -- time and again.

The subject appeared tapped out pending additional offseason developments until ESPN.com teammate Kevin Seifert put together an NFC North prediction item that caught my prognosticating eye. Seifert consulted AccuScore projections showing what might happen if NFC North teams played out 10,000 repetitions of their 2010 schedules -- with and without Brett Favre quarterbacking the Vikings.

"Using 10,000 such simulated seasons last year," Seifert reported, "AccuScore correctly predicted the NFC North's final standings. This year, AccuScore is picking Minnesota to win the division if Favre returns and the Packers if he doesn't."

That was interesting enough for me to ask AccuScore's Stephen Oh to run similar projections for the NFC West -- with and without Kurt Warner. But first I wanted to know Accuscore's track record with the Cardinals coming off their Super Bowl appearance.

"Despite the Super Bowl hangover jinx," Oh replied, "AccuScore's 2009 season forecast gave Arizona the second-best chance of winning its division behind San Diego in the AFC West."

Sure enough, the Cardinals posted a 10-6 record to win another division title.

The system is only as good as the variables used to value players and teams. As Seifert explained, "AccuScore people develop variables to create digital profiles for NFL coaches and players. Those profiles are used to create 'teams' that are then run through a computer simulation to play out a 'season' based on each team's actual NFL schedule."

AccuScore played the NFC West season 10,000 times, first with Warner and then without him.

The Cardinals went from averaging 10.8 victories with Warner to 7.2 victories without him, making Warner worth 3.6 victories per season relative to backup Matt Leinart. While Warner throws roughly twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions, the AccuScore people think Leinart's ratio will come in closer to even.

"Leinart's inability to complete passes downfield has AccuScore forecasting a pass TD-to-INT ratio of just 20 to 16 despite completing 64.5 percent of his passes in 2010 simulations," Oh said. "If Derek Anderson were to start, his completion percentage is well under 55 percent and he throws more interceptions than TD passes."

The simulations showed the 2010 Cardinals winning the division title 76.1 percent of the time if Warner had not retired, with the 49ers winning 22.9 percent of the time. The Seahawks and Rams had virtually no chance with Warner part of the equation. Taking away Warner made San Francisco the division winner 73.5 percent of the time while opening the door slightly for Seattle as a dark horse candidate. The Rams' chances also improved without Warner, although the simulator had them winning less than 1 percent of the time even with Warner retired.

You don't need 10,000 simulations from AccuScore to realize Leinart will have to outperform prevailing expectations for the Cardinals to win a third consecutive division title.

"As a Ravens fan, I remember the 2007 game when Warner took over for Leinart at Baltimore," Oh said. "It was obvious that not only was Warner vastly superior to Leinart skill-wise, he was a leader that the rest of the team respected."

Warner completed 15 of 20 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns as the Cardinals turned a 23-6 deficit into a 23-23 tie before Baltimore finally prevailed on a field goal. Leinart finished the game 9-of-20 passing for 53 yards.

There is one caveat to the AccuScore projections. They have not yet been updated to reflect players added through the 2010 draft. The results probably will be somewhat similar in the NFC West unless Cardinals first-round nose tackle Dan Williams starts taking snaps from center.