The winds of change have certainly blown in the NFL in the past couple seasons, no longer is the AFC the dominant conference as the NFC now appears to have the advantage both in ability and parity. Such parity makes it nearly impossible to predict the outcome of this 2012 season, but hey predictions are our job right? So here goes nothing, my predictions for the 2012 NFL season are as follows
1. Philadelphia Eagles 11-5... The Eagles will build on their strong finish in 2011 with a division title....if the offensive line can keep Michael Vick in one piece. LeSean McCoy will battle for offensive player of the year honors as he has become an all around offensive weapon that has Eagles fans asking...Bryant Who? Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are as fast and explosive a duo at WR in the NFL, but their ability to stay both healthy and happy will be key to the Eagles success. Defensively, the Eagles have an outstanding front four led by Ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin as well as defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and the vastly underrated Mike Patterson. With the addition of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and pass rushing defensive end Vinny Curry in the draft, the Eagles flaunt one of the deepest front lines in all of the NFL. Look for that fearsome pass rush along with the presence of feared cover corner Nnamdi Asomugha on the other side to help playmaking corner Dominique Rogers Cromartie lead the NFL in INT's in 2012
2. Dallas Cowboys 10-6... The Cowboys are on the right track, but there's just too much talent in the NFC for this to be their year. Provided he can stay healthy, DeMarco Murray could very well lead the NFC in rushing in 2012, if the offensive line can open up enough holes for him. Tony Romo could be primed for a career season if super talent Dez Bryant can stay healthy and out of trouble for a full 16 game season. On defense DeMarcus Ware is still as good as it gets in terms of an outside pass rusher, and the addition of free agent cornerback Brandon Carr and rookie 6th overall pick Morris Claiborne out of LSU revamp what was a porous pass defense in 2011. The Cowboys should be battling it out with the rest of the mighty top temas in the NFC until the very end, the difference could very well be some of the deepest tie breaking we've seen in NFL history.
3. New York Giants 10-6.... It will take no less then an MVP performance in the regular season, not just the Super Bowl, for the Giants to repeat in 2012. They will get a defensive MVP performance out of the freakishly gifted Jason Pierre-Paul. Victor Cruz will look to prove his 2011 season was no fluke, and his counterpart Hakeem Nicks looks to continue to emerge as one of the elite playmaking receivers in the NFL.
4. Washington Redskins 6-10...RG3 will provide some electrifying moments, but the Redskins are too green to compete in the tough NFC East. Who will emerge as the starting running back is anybodys guess with Mike Shanahan running the show, but chances are we will see a little Roy Helu here, a little Evan Royster there, and a little Alfred Morris as well. Pierre Garcon has the speed to take advantage of RG3's ability to keep plays alive with his feet and throw the ball downfield. Every rookie quarterback loves his tight end, and Fred Davis should be a talented beneficiary of that. On defense Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan form of the best young duos at outside linebacker in the league, and London Fletcher even entering his 15th season is still a tackling machine. The Redskins are without question on the right track, and have some very key pieces, but they are simply in the wrong conference in the wrong division to hope to make any noise in 2012.
1. Green Bay Packers 13-3...The Packers won't match their 15-1 regular season from a year ago, but they with an improved defense and running game, they won't repeat their first round playoff exit either. Clay Matthews will re-emerge as a star on defense with the addition of Nick Perry as a pass rusher in the other side, and Charles Woodson should thrive in his new role as a free saftey free to roam and free lance and use his outstanding instincts.
2. Detroit Lions 10-6.... Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson may be the most explosive duo in the NFL, but the parts around them aren't quite ready to challenge the mighty Packers for the division crown. A pair of 2011 draftees Mikel LeShoure and Titus Young could be key to Lions offensive attack. Wide receiver Young, could provide a big play threat out of the slot with his speed and quickness to take attention away from the mighty Megatron, and Mikel LeShoure, after he serves his two game suspension, could provide the Lions with the power running game they were sorely lacking a season ago. Defensively Ndamakong Suh is still a force of nature in the middle of the defensive line who should continue to wreak havoc as long as he can control his temper, and Cliff Avril has emerged as a pass rushing star at defensive end. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has all the ability needed to be a force alongside Suh, if he can simply mature and get his act together.
3. Chicago Bears 7-9.... Jay Cutler finally has a real go-to receiver in Brandon Marshall, but an atrocious offensive line won't give him enough time to get the ball to him enough to make the Bears a winner. Coordinator Mike Tice has stated publically that he would like for both running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush to be 1,000 yard rushers in 2012. Bith backs have the ability to do so, but with the state of the Bears offensive line, he better just hope he can get one of them to that plateau, and have both of them in one piece by seasons end.
4. Minnesota Vikings 4-12... Clearly the cellar dwellers in the North, the Christian Ponder led passing game will not be effective enough to take enough pressure off the still recovering Adrian Peterson. Jared Allen is a one man show on defense.
1. New Orleans Saints 10-6...Sean Payton may be gone, but last I checked he didn't gain a single yard or score a single touchdown in 2011, Drew Brees is back, Jimmy Graham is still redefining the tight end position, Jonathan Vilma is reinstated on defense, that's enough to win the South, barely
2. Atlanta Falcons 10-6...Julio Jones is everyone's Fantasy darling in the preseason and Roddy White is still one of the most explosive receivers in the game, giving Matty Ice perhaps the most dynamic duo in the NFL, now can he finally breakthrough in the playoffs? Defensively, the addition of Asante Samuel gives a boost to the nickel pass defense.
3. Carolina Panthers 8-8...Cam Newton is one big hombre, but with his style of play it's difficult to see him staying healthy all 16 games, if he does, and he builds on his massive 2011 campaign he could sneak the Panthers into the playoffs. Luke Kuechly will be among the league leaders in tackles as a rookie
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11...Doug Martin is viewed by new coach Greg Schiano as a Ray Rice type talent, he will be the leagues most productive rookie. Vincent Jackson will be a disappointment as a free agent signing. Gerald McCoy needs to stay healthy to provide an inside presence on defense
1. San Francisco 49ers 11-5...Offensive weapons have been added to compliment the leagues most dominant defense. How much can Randy Moss provide after a year off, How much tread is left on Frank Gore's tires, and if there's not enough will Jim Harbaugh give the reigns of the running game to the more explosive Kendall Hunter? Can Alex Smith, in a quarterback driven league, be a good enough quarterback to win in the playoffs? Will Micahel Crabtree finally emerge as a true number one WR? While the defense has few questions, the offense is jam packed with them. If the answers are positive the 49ers could reach the promise land.
2. Seattle Seahawks 8-8...The Seahawks have one of the most talented young secondaries in football, Earl Thomas may be the leagues next Ed Reed. They may have found the steal of the draft in Russell Wilson, who stole the show and the quarterbacking job from free agent signee Matt Flynn this preseason. But when the games count, can the rookie provide enough offensive punch for the Seahawks to compete with the powerhouses of the NFC?
3. Arizona Cardinals 6-10... Larry Fitzgerald may be the most gifted receiver in football, but his talent is being wasted by mediocre quarterback play since the retirement of Kurt Warner. Ryan Williams will emerge as the clear cut number one runner in this backfield over the disappointing Beanie Wells.
4. St Louis Rams 4-12....Sam Bradford had no toys to play with last year, and the Rams basically did him no favors this off-season. Steven Jackson has to be toward the end of the line as he has been overused and abused the past three seasons as the only viable offensive threat in St Louis. Jeff Fischer will get this team to play tough hard football, but there isn't near enough talent for anyone to expect him to work any miracles in 2012.
Wild Card Teams: Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
NFC Champion: Green Bay Packers
NFC MVP: Aaron Rodgers QB Green Bay Packers
NFC Defensive MVP: Jason Pierre Paul DE New York Giants
NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year: Doug Martin RB Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly LB Carolina Panthers
1. New England Patriots 11-5...Theres enough firepower in the passing attack led by the likes of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker to lead the Patriots to another division crown in a mediocre AFC East, however is there enough talent on the defensive side or in the running game to allow them a return visit to the Big Dance?
2. Buffalo Bills 8-8....The Bills could be one of the surprise playoff contenders in the AFC in 2012. The duo of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller will give the Bills on of the more well rounded ground attacks in the game, and the defense is poised to be one of the better playmaking units around with ball hawks in the secondary and the addition of free agent prize Mario Williams returning to a role he's better suited for as a 4-3 defensive end. The biggest question is whether the real Ryan Fitzpatrick is the one we saw before or after he signed his big contract extension in 2011. If Fitzpatrick can put together two solid halves of a season the Bills could shock the football world and find themselves playing football well into January.
3. New York Jets 7-9....Rex Ryan is following in the tradition of his father Buddy in coaching a team that is outstanding defensively, atrocious offensively, and a quagmire in the locker room. Look for the poor offensive play to lead the coaching staff to turn to Tim Tebow by week 8 to try and repeat the magic he provided the Broncos last season in their magical playoff run, don't look for it to work however, and don't look for Rex on the Jet sideline in 2013.
4. Miami Dolphins 4-12...It's a long road ahead for coach Joel Philben and the Dolphins, Ryan Tannehill has loads of physical potential, but has too many bad habits in terms of decision making and telegraphing his throws to be ready to attack an NFL defense. The Dolphins would be better bringing along the physically gifted but raw Tannehill more slowly, particularly because he lacks a big time receiver to turn to to bail him out of trouble, but they decided to make him the starter, now they better hope he has the mental toughness to deal with the tough times ahead. Look for the Dolphin passing attack to reach historic lows.
1. Baltimore Ravens 11-5...The Ravens lost Terrell Suggs to a torn achilles in the offseason which is a devastating blow to their defense. But they still have enough talent on that side of the ball to be one of the better units in the league, and that coupled with an offensive attack led by perhaps one of the best all around weapons in the game in Ray Rice and the steadily improving play of quarterback Joe Flacco should be enough for the Ravens to hold off the Bengals and Steelers in the AFC East....but not by much.
2. Cincinnati Bengals 10-6...Its just difficult to imagine the Bengals putting together two successful seasons in a row since it's been such a long time since they've done so. However, if Andy Dalton can continue to improve in his sophomore season, and AJ Green continues his assent into the Calvin Johnson-esque stratosphere his talent would lend you to believe he's headed for, the Bengals may just have enough firepower to topple the annual Northern giants the Ravens and the Steelers. If BenjarvuGreen-Ellis can provide a solid running game look for the Bengals to reach the top of the AFC North.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8...This is a team that is in a state of transition as past stars retire or get to the age in which they should. The offense will be under a new coordinator in Todd Haley, running back Rashard Mendenhall comes into the season banged up and star receiver Mike Wallace sat out the entire pre season in a contract dispute. Ben Roethlisberger is still among the best quarterbacks in the game, and the 3-4 attack of Dick Lebeau still has some playmakers, but theirs far too many questions on this team and too many holes on the offensive line to expect the Steelers to be serious contenders in 2012.
4. Cleveland Browns 3-13...The Browns have decided to turn the reins of their offense to a 27 year old rookie in Brandon Weeden. This is a move reminiscent of the 1-15 Carolina Panthers years ago who trusted their 28 year old rookie Chris Weinke to be their starter. The difference is that Weinke was a Heisman Trophy winner and may have actually been better prepared. Trent Richardson will be a viable threat on the ground, but he comes into his rookie season after missing almost all of the preseason due to injury. Things should get real ugly in the dog pound.
1. Houston Texans 12-4....The Texans should clearly run away with their second consecutive division crown as they are clearly the class of a very young and weak AFC South. The Texans emerged last season to claim their first division title and playoff birth in franchise history, and may very well have been poised for even greater things had they not been forced to turn to third string rookie quarterback TJ Yates after starter Matt Schaub went down to a season ending foot injury. If Schaub can remain healthy through the finish line in 2012 the Texans have enough firepower around him on both sides of the ball to seriously challenge for a birth in their very first Super Bowl. Had Ben Tate not gotten hurt at the start of his rookie season, Arian Foster may never have gotten the opportunity to start and shine in the Texans backfield. Now the duo form one of the most complete and explosive backfield tandems in the entire National Football League. When healthy Andre Johnson is as gifted as any receiver without the nickname Megatron in the NFL. Linebacker Brian Cushing is on the verge of becoming one of the elite all around defenders in the game, he is the emotional leader of the defense and indeed the entire team. Health is the key for the Texans, if Schaub and Johnson can finally stay healthy, the sky's the limit for the Texans.
2. Tennessee Titans 7-9...The Jake Locker era has offically begun in Nashville. However make no mistake about it, this offense still lives and dies with the production of speedy running back Chris Johnson. Don't expect Johnson to have another 2,000 yard season like he did in 2010, but also don't expect another disappointment like last year either. Johnson enters the season fully healthy with a full training camp under his belt so expect something closer to the CJ of two seasons ago. However, there simply isn't enough talent supporting him, and Locker simply isn't ready to lead a team to the playoffs in his first year under center in the NFL. A healthy and trouble free Kenny Britt would make a a big difference in the passing game, but not enough to make the Titans viable playoff contenders in 2012.
3. Indianapolis Colts 6-10..Andrew Luck may be the most NFL ready rookie quarterback to enter the National Football League since the last time the Colts started a rookie quarterback they drafted with the number one overall pick, that guy's name was Peyton Manning. Indeed, the athletic and cerebral Luck has been groomed for this moment since childhood, just like the man he is taking over for, and the comparisons are as inevitable as they are justified. Both players eat, sleep and breath football and both are outstanding leaders who's learning curve should be shorter then the average rookie. Expect the Luck-led Colts to be a team out of the playoff hunt in the last month of the season, but yet be a team that no team wants to face come seasons end. The Colts did an outstanding job drafting young offensive talent this past April, one name to remember is TY Hilton. He is a speedy slot receiver out of Florida International who has developed a quick chemistry with Mr Luck. Look for Hilton to be a major weapon for the new look Colts much sooner then later.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11...Despite the fact that Blaine Gabbert is in his second year in the NFL, it could be argued that he isn't as developed as his rookie divisional counterpart in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. Gabbert should show improvement though in his second year, and the addition of the gifted first round wide receiver Justin Blackmon should pay immediate dividends. Maurice Jones Drew was a one man offensive show for this team a season ago, and for the Jags to be successful they would need a simliarly productive campaign from MJD. However that is far too much to ask from "Pocket Hercules" two seasons in a row, especially considering he sat out the entire preseason in a contract dispute.
1. Denver Broncos 11-5.... The Broncos were the Cinderella story of the 2011 season led by the all guts no arm quarterback play of (ironicaly) cult legend Tim Tebow. The truth of the matter is, the emergence of an outstanding defense led by sensational rookie Von Miller, pass rushing extraordinare Elvis Dumerville and future hall of fame corner Champ Bailey kept the Broncos in games for three quarters while Tebow stunk out the joint, giving him the chance to do what he does best and find some way, any way to win in the 4th quarter. Now that defense will be teamed with an offense led by a quarterback who's more then just a great leader, but also a real quarterback, a Hall of Fame quarterback, Mr Peyton Manning. The arrival of Manning should mean great things for physically gifted receiver Demaryius Thomas and the crafty sure handed Eric Decker. Along with a reliable running game from Willis McGahee, the Broncos shouldn't have much trouble repeating as AFC West champions.
2. Kansas City Chiefs 9-7...The Chiefs were among the most disappointing teams in 2011, beset by injuries and a head coach who didn't mesh well with his players in Todd Haley. However, after the departure of Haley and the promotion of Romeo Crennel as interim coach, some good things began to happen for the team from Arrowhead. Despite losing starting quarterback Matt Cassel for the last part of the season to injury, the Chiefs showed enough signs of life including being the only team to defeat the mighty Packers in the regualr season, that management felt Crennel had earned the job on a full time basis. In his first season as coach, Crennel gets an outstanding influx of talent returning from injury, including explosive running back Jamaal Charles, playmaking free saftey Eric Berry, and sure handed tight end Tony Moeaki. The Chiefs also added some pieces via free agency including running back Peyton Hillis, who should team with Charles to give the Chiefs an outstanding "thunder and lightning" duo at running back. Those pieces, as well as an abundance of returning talent such as Pro Bowl linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, and bona fide number one wide-out Dwayne Bowe (playing for a new contract) should give the Chiefs enough firepower to compete for a playoff birth in 2012, provided quarterback Matt Cassel can be an effective game manager.
3. Oakland Raiders 7-9.... Darren McFadden may very well be the most physically gifted running back in the entire NFL, he also may be the most fragile. If McFadden can make it to the finish line in 2012 he could very well compete for an MVP award, but that's as big an "if" as Mcfadden's bones are fragile. Those injury concerns made it even more surprising that the Raiders did not set out to retain or seriously replace Michael Bush as a number two running back. Carson Palmer is set to begin his first season as the starter for the silver and black. While there's no question Palmer can still sling the rock with the best of them, there's some question about whether he has the mobility to run an offense that calls as many bootlegs and waggles as this one. There are also those who question Palmer's leadership ability dating back to his years as a Bengal. Derrius Heyward Bey had a breakout season in 2011, showing some of the speed and big play ability that made the late Al Davis fall in love with him enough to make him the seventh pick in the 2009 draft. If he can build on that season, and his counterpart at receiver, last season's fifth round surprise Denarius Moore can build on his promising rookie campaign, there's a good chance there is enough talent in Oakland on both sides of the ball to make the previously dominant Chargers cellar dwellers for the first time in recent memory.
4. San Diego Chargers 6-10... The key to success for the Chargers in 2012 will be the health of injury prone running back Ryan Matthews, who enters the reualr season with a broken collarbone, and tight end Antonio Gates, who's foot problems have slowed him for the past three seasons. The Chargers added wide receiver Robert Meachem from New Orleans to replace the departed Vincent Jackson. Meachem was overshadowed by more productive receivers for the Saints, and never seemed to reach his full potential. Some say it's because of the abundance of talent in New Orleans, while others say Meachem just never delivered on his potential. The Chargers bet big in free agency that it was a case of the former and not the latter. Defensively, Melvin Ingram is a promising rookie who could provide some of the missing pass rush from the outside that the team has lacked since Shawne Merriman's career to a rapid downward spiral. But the bottom line is that Phillip Rivers is a gifted quarterback, but he's not gifted enough to overcome a lack of talent around him. Rivers can be productive if he has the weapons in place, but without them, he becomes very average very fast. Look for that to be the case in 2012, as the Chargers are very much a team in transition, and don't look for anymore second chances for Head Coach Norv Turner.
Wild Card Teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Championship Game: Denver at Houston
AFC Champion: Houston Texans
AFC Offensive Player of the Year: Ray Rice RB Baltimore Ravens
AFC Defensive Player of the Year: Brian Cushing LB Houston Texans
AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck QB Indianapolis Colts
AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: Melvin Ingram OLB San Diego Chargers
NFL MVP: Aaron Rodgers QB Green Bay Packers
NFL Defensive MVP: Jason Pierre-Paul DE New York Giants
Super Bowl: Green Bay Packers def Houston Texans