“The future ain’t what it used to be.” -Yogi Berra
The NFL regular season gets underway in less than 24 hours, but the prediction season has been going strong ever since the final seconds of Super Bowl XLVI ticked off the clock and the New York Giants paraded around Lucas Oil Stadium as World Champions. And of course, I’ve got the itch to play fortune teller with my own set of predictions and prognostications about the 2012 season. First, some music (this one’s for you Pat)…
There we go. I’ll be selecting the division winners and wild card teams for each conference, as well as breakout and bust teams. I’ve also got picks for the awards distributed at the end of the season. Then, I’ll list my eight “somewhat bold” predictions, one for each division. And last, but definitely not least, I’ll give my Super Bowl XLVII matchup and winner. Now let’s get to the predictions before Bill Cowher blows a gasket.
Division Winners & Wild Cards
AFC Division Winners: New England, Baltimore, Houston, Denver
AFC Wild Cards: Pittsburgh, Tennessee
NFC Division Winners: New York Giants, Green Bay, Atlanta, San Francisco
NFC Wild Cards: Detroit, New Orleans
In the AFC, I think New England and Houston are shoe-ins to win their respective divisions, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, I think one of them wins the North and the other takes one of the wild card spots, but I give the edge to the Ravens this year, thanks to clutch play from Joe Flacco, the one-man rushing attack that is Ray Rice, and their defense that never seems to age. Denver gets the slight edge over Kansas City (not San Diego, more on that later) to win the West. Their defense is young and strong and they have this guy under center named Peyton Manning, maybe you’ve heard of him? Tennessee takes the other wild card spot. I really like the chemistry Jake Locker built with his offense during the preseason and I believe Chris Johnson will return to pre-2011 form.
In the NFC, Green Bay and San Francisco are the automatics. I give the edge in the East to the Giants, although it’s a slight edge. Atlanta is poised for a breakout year behind the high-powered offense of Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones & Company, which is why I think they take South. Detroit takes one of the wild card spots, as I believe (and hope, for fantasy purposes) Matthew Stafford will stay healthy and no one (defenders or Madden Curse) will be able to slow down Megatron. The other wild card spot goes to New Orleans. It’s a close battle between the Eagles, Cowboys, and Bears, but I give the advantage to the Saints, since Drew Brees not only knows how to win, but he’s basically running the team with Sean Payton being suspended for the season.
Breakout & Bust Teams
AFC Breakout: Kansas City
AFC Bust: San Diego
NFC Breakout: Carolina
NFC Bust: Dallas
Let’s start with Kansas City. Their squad was decimated last year by injuries and the general ineffectiveness of Todd Haley at head coach. But entering 2012, the Chiefs’ positives greatly outweigh the negatives. Romeo Crennel enters his first full season as head coach (remember, he helped Kansas City beat Green Bay last season, their only regular season loss). Jamaal Charles is healthy and ready to run. Newly acquired Peyton Hillis is poised to be the “Thunder to Charles’ “Lightning.” And don’t forget about new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who will immediately enhance the offense’s performance.
On the flip side, San Diego will have a disappointing season. Vincent Jackson is gone. Mike Tolbert is gone. Vincent Brown is shelved until November at the earliest and Ryan Mathews is on the mend as well. Philip Rivers has Antonio Gates as his top receiving target, but Gates always seems to find his way to the injured list. Looking at San Diego’s schedule, after opening the season at Oakland on Monday night, the Chargers follow with home games against Tennessee and Atlanta, then traveling to Kansas City and New Orleans, and finishing at home against Denver before their bye week. If you’re keeping track, that could be a record of 1-5, or even (gasp!) 0-6 by mid-October.
Carolina is on the way up this season. Cam Newton experienced a record-setting 2011 and I think he’ll go through a sophomore bump, rather than slump. His chemistry with Steve Smith can only improve from last season and the rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert will ease some of the pressure off of Newton’s shoulders (or arm). Sure, their schedule isn’t easy and they live in a stacked division, but I think at least an 8-8 campaign is reasonable for the Panthers.
Which brings me to Dallas. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic. Or maybe I’m turning into my dad. But I just don’t see it from the Cowboys this year. I hope I’m wrong, but they have way too many question marks to be considered a contender in my mind. Can DeMarco Murray continue the success he had last season before injuring his foot? Can any of the receivers stay healthy throughout the season? Can the offensive line do their job and keep Tony Romo upright? Can the secondary back up the performance of the front seven and prevent opposing offenses from running free? I want to say yes, but I can’t say it confidently. As tough as it is to say, it’s going to be a down year for the Cowboys. If you’re listening Dallas, please prove me wrong.
Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
Offensive Player of the Year: Tom Brady, QB, New England
Defensive Player of the Year: Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chandler Jones, DE, New England
Eight “Somewhat Bold” Predictions
AFC East – Buffalo is the top team outside of the AFC “playoff bubble.”
The Bills are on the up and up this season, thanks to a much-improved defense, headlined by the acquisition of Mario Williams. They won’t make the playoffs (you can blame Stevie Johnson’s drops for that), but there’s a lot of promise for Buffalo’s future.
AFC North – Cleveland clinches the top spot in the 2013 Draft.
Cleveland’s schedule is absolutely brutal. Not only do they go against a very strong AFC North for six games, but they also have the luxury of eight games against an always-tough NFC East and a much-improved AFC West. The other two games? Buffalo at home and Indianapolis on the road. I highly doubt anyone, other than Browns fans, can go through their schedule and confidently pick out three definite wins this year. Why so happy Mr. Weeden?
AFC South – Indianapolis wins at least six games behind Andrew Luck.
The Colts are not a bad team. They’re not even the worst team in their division. Sure, Andrew Luck is a rookie, and we know how well the last rookie QB fared in Indianapolis (Peyton Manning went 3-13). But Manning didn’t have the talent that Luck has in front of him. An aging but able Reggie Wayne will provide a nice target, as will Coby Fleener, Luck’s security blanket since their old playing days at Stanford U. What remains to be seen is if the offensive line can keep Luck comfortable and not running for his life all season.
AFC West – All four starting RBs (Jamaal Charles, Ryan Mathews, Darren McFadden, Willis McGahee) miss at least one game each during the regular season.
Mathews is already likely to miss the season opener with his broken collarbone from the preseason. McFadden has yet to prove he can stay healthy throughout an NFL season. Charles is returning from a significant knee injury and is bound to absorb some nicks and bruises after being sidelined since last September. And McGahee is a 30-year old running back, which by NFL standards means he’ll be using a walker and an AARP card in about two years.
NFC East – The division title is not clinched until Week 17.
The NFC East is always a dogfight, plain and simple (no, that Michael Vick pun wasn’t intended). Can you remember the last time the NFC East division winner won the title by more than one game? The year was 2008, and the Giants were the top dogs (these Vick puns have to stop). In fact, last season, the division title was decided not only during the final week, but during the final game of the regular season. All in all, the NFC East will do a lot of barking before the Week 17 bite (I know, that one was forced).
NFC North – Chicago earns the distinction of top defense in the league.
Let’s face it. The Bears’ defense is getting old. Brian Urlacher is 34. Julius Peppers is 32. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are 31. To be cliche, Chicago’s “window” is closing. Urlacher & Company know this, and with their rejuvenated offense (oh hey Brandon Marshall), the defense will go balls to the wall in the hopes of making 2012 a Super year. They might not have many more chances.
NFC South – All four teams go at least 7-9.
I think the Buccaneers are the only team that might prevent this prediction from becoming reality. The Falcons and Saints will definitely earn winning records and I think the Panthers can turn in a solid 8-8 year. The Bucs were a major disappointment last season, leading to the hiring of Greg Schiano and a culture change in Tampa Bay. If Doug Martin pans out the way experts think he will, and Josh Freeman reverts to his 2010 form, the Buccaneers should have no problem picking up seven wins.
NFC West – Marshawn Lynch wins the rushing title.
Yes, I know. This prediction is influenced by my own interests (Lynch is a starter on both of my fantasy teams), but if he can continue the momentum he built up at the end of last season, a rushing title will not be out of reach. After years of struggling in Buffalo, Lynch has found his niche in Seattle. He’s a hard runner and arguably the best option for a Seahawk offense led by rookie Russell Wilson. If Lynch can stay injury-free, Seattle (and my fantasy teams) will benefit greatly. And maybe then, he can refresh everyone’s memory on how to tip their whip and/or cart.
Super Bowl XLVII – New England vs. Green Bay
I know. I’m not really going out on a limb here. It might be the “safe” pick, but it’s hard to choose any other matchup with confidence. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick just know how to win (except in their last couple Super Bowls) and Green Bay seems to be way ahead any other NFC team. As long as both teams don’t have an off day during the playoffs (looking more at you, Packers), Super Bowl XLVII should be an offensive clinic, and an exciting one at that. But hey, if some other teams want to sneak in there (ahem, Dallas, cough), be my guest. Just make it a good game please. And maybe I can win my box pool? Pretty please?
Winner: Green Bay
Those are my predictions. Now let’s see how many actually materialize. I’d be happy with half. Like Bernie Mac.
Thank you, good night.