Picking the Winner of Each NFL Division in 2012
Even in mid-June, it's never too early to get those preliminary preseason prognostications presented.
Sure, NFL minicamps aren't over yet, there are some free agents still on the market and every team has a few (or more) issues that need to be ironed out during the preseason, but all 32 teams have the bulk of their rosters set.
Based on those rosters, what took place last season and the schedules being out there for all to see, educated guesses can be made about which teams are playoff contenders and which are not.
Here's an extremely early look at each division and a guess about which team will come to claim the crown, ultimately earning (at least) a home playoff game and thus the inside track to a Super Bowl berth.
This isn't quite the no-brainer it seems.
Yes, the 49ers dominated the NFC West last year on their way to a near-Super Bowl berth. They've also made some significant additions on offense, namely Brandon Jacobs, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins.
Recently, though, we've seen many surprise division champions stumble the next season. Last year's Chiefs and Seahawks come to mind—and before that, the 2008 Dolphins and 2009 Bengals. So I don't expect the 49ers to dominate (at least in the regular season) like they did last year.
More important than any "jinx," however, is the fact that the rest of the NFC West has improved significantly.
Seattle and St. Louis probably aren't playoff contenders, but the Seahawks have a ton of quarterback depth, and the Rams have a new, proven head coach to go along with a ton of young talent: Sam Bradford, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Chris Long and Janoris Jenkins. Both teams should be a threat to San Francisco in one of their two matchups.
But the real contender to knock off Jim Harbaugh's club is Arizona.
The Cardinals added a potential star in Michael Floyd, and Kevin Kolb has now had both a regular season and an offseason to learn Ken Whisenhunt's offense. With Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Sam Acho and Calais Campbell, their defense is very promising as well.
Nevertheless, the 49ers have so much depth and such a strong running game that if those wide receiver additions provide even a slight boost to Alex Smith, they will have no problem winning 10-plus games, something their NFC West rivals will fail to do.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
I'm sure most people out there figure that the Saints are dead and buried because of the Bountygate suspensions and Drew Brees' contract problems. (Even if they do lock Brees up by the mid-July deadline, he'll still have missed all of minicamp and OTAs, and he is going to be without Sean Payton.)
So while they'll have an "us against the world" mentality, an assumption of their demise is warranted. They won't bounce back from this, at least not in 2012.
So what does that leave? Two up-and-comers in Tampa Bay and Carolina and a good, yet-to-be-great franchise in Atlanta.
Let's start with the former. Since there seems to always be a surprise division champion loaded with youth that no one saw coming, the Bucs and Panthers are good candidates. Both have energetic head coaches and plenty of talent.
However, don't assume that Tampa Bay's passing game will instantly become a dynamo now that Vincent Jackson is there. Josh Freeman really took a step backwards in 2011, and now he has to learn an entirely new scheme from an inexperienced head coach and coordinator.
While the Panthers have a superstar under center, Cam Newton, as well as a tremendous three-headed rushing attack, their front seven has a long way to go if they hope to slow down some of the excellent rushing attacks on their schedule.
Twice, they'll play Tampa Bay, which has LeGarrette Blount and Doug Martin, and the Saints, who have Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. They also face potentially great rushing attacks in Seattle, Denver, Oakland, Philadelphia and Kansas City. That's asking a lot of rookie Luke Kuechly and a run defense that was 25th in the NFL last year.
So with Tampa Bay and Carolina still a year away, the Falcons should slide right into a division title. They have a very dangerous offense with Michael Turner and those three high-profile passing targets (Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez) for Matt Ryan, as well as a defense that made a huge addition via Asante Samuel. The Falcons won't run away with the crown, but it won't come down to Week 17 either.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
Much like the NFC West, I don't think this division is quite as easy to predict as it might appear.
Yes, the Packers lost just one game during the entire calendar year of 2011. Furthermore, they still have the defending NFL MVP in his prime at quarterback and might just have corrected their pass-rushing problems by drafting Nick Perry and moving Clay Matthews over to the right side.
However, that secondary is another year older, A.J. Hawk's play dipped last season and they still don't have a very reliable running game.
That opens the door for the Lions and the Bears to possibly steal the division crown. (Even if he returns in miraculous fashion for Week 1, Adrian Peterson will not be the same star runner in 2012, and that means the Vikings will struggle just to win six games.)
Assuming the Bears can come to terms with Matt Forte, they might have an offense capable of scoring enough points to compete. Jay Cutler now has a true No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall, and with Forte and Michael Bush, they would have tremendous balance to complement an excellent defense. But since they still haven't completely addressed a leaky offensive line, they are extremely vulnerable in protecting the quarterback.
The Lions' approach is much different (they are capable of winning a shootout every week), but they too are a good matchup with the Packers. They are loaded with talent on the front four (discipline problems aside), but they might not have the depth or strength in the secondary to slow down Aaron Rodgers or even Cutler, now that he has Marshall.
Both of those lone, yet glaring weaknesses are enough to give Green Bay the division crown...but maybe not enough to prevent both Chicago and Detroit from wild-card berths.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
First things first: Don't count on the Redskins to become playoff contenders in 2012. Even if Robert Griffin III enjoys a rookie season like Cam Newton's, that doesn't instantly translate to a playoff berth. Remember, for all Newton's heroics, the Panthers still went 6-10 last year.
While the Redskins might have a little more talent than Carolina did in 2011, they still have to play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
So after ruling Washington out, it's a three-team race in the NFC East.
Dallas seems due for a breakout season, especially since it revamped its secondary (Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr) and offensive line (Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau) and saw great potential from DeMarco Murray. But Rob Ryan gambles so much, and given the athleticism (Griffin, Michael Vick) and accuracy (Eli Manning) of the quarterbacks in the NFC East, that makes for a dangerous approach.
Having said that, I think the division title is really a two-team race between Philly and the Giants.
We all know that the Giants tanked the last time they tried to defend a Super Bowl crown, but Plaxico Burress isn't around to shoot himself in the leg midseason, and Eli Manning is so mature and so consistent. Furthermore, they won't be trying to fill an enormous void like the one Michael Strahan left in 2008; that defensive line is as nasty as any in recent years.
Still, a year after the Dream Team turned into a nightmare, Philadelphia is my pick. It's seemingly corrected the problems with the middle of its front seven, adding Fletcher Cox and DeMeco Ryans, and since it was already loaded with skill players (Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin), it can definitely keep pace with the Giants in a shootout.
So (and this is a big assumption), assuming King Dunlap or Demetress Bell can adequately fill Jason Peters' shoes, it will be able to eke out a division crown, probably after that Week 17 showdown at MetLife Stadium.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
The AFC West is certainly the most wide-open of all the eight divisions: All four teams have a legitimate chance of winning it.
The Broncos are probably the sexiest pick now that they have Peyton Manning, but I'm just not sold on a) his ability to endure even a single brutal hit and b) that offense adapting so quickly to a radically new scheme that was so run-heavy just a year ago. Wild-card threat, yes; division winner, no.
The Raiders and Chiefs, two clubs that will open the season with head coaches different from those at the helm a year ago, have contended for the title in the last two years, but both are overloaded with question marks at similar spots.
At running back, who knows if Darren McFadden can stay healthy, and who knows what to expect as Jamaal Charles recovers from a torn-up knee? At quarterback, both USC alums, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel, underwhelmed last year.
(On a side note, I do expect more from the Chiefs than the Raiders, simply because of all that talent on the defensive side of the ball: Derrick Johnson, Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, Allen Bailey, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe and two studs in Eric Berry and Tamba Hali will together keep Romeo Crennel's team in plenty of games.)
But—stop me if you've heard this before—the Chargers should win this division. Should. Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal (who Norv Turner is gaga over) will make for a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, and Ryan Mathews is poised for a breakout season, so the offense should stay on schedule.
As well, with the additions of Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram as a situational pass-rusher, that defense will make enough stops to save Turner's job for at least one more year.
Winner: San Diego Chargers
With all due respect to the Colts, Jaguars and especially the Titans, Houston is head and shoulders above its AFC South counterparts.
The Colts are starting from scratch and have plenty of young skill players, namely Andrew Luck, but they have so many holes in the secondary and along the offensive line, and their backfield is average at best. They'll be fortunate to win six games in 2012.
I would say that Jacksonville is destined to do better now that it's added two promising wide receivers in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson and since Blaine Gabbert has a full season under his belt. After all, its defense was pretty strong in 2011, allowing the sixth-fewest yards in the NFL.
However, this Maurice Jones-Drew contract situation will torpedo any chance of a playoff spot. Even if he doesn't miss a single game, expect him to miss a huge chunk of the preseason, and we saw what that did to Chris Johnson last year.
Speaking of Johnson, the Titans are expected to build on the momentum they had at the end of 2011, nearly earning a playoff spot. The additions of Steve Hutchinson and Kamerion Wimbley are critical upgrades. But what are we to expect from the quarterback position? Matt Hasselbeck has struggled to stay healthy for several years, and Jake Locker is still very raw.
Furthermore, that secondary lost Cortland Finnegan and is pretty thin after Jason McCourty. Given their out-of-division schedule (Patriots, Chargers, Lions, Packers), that could lead to real problems.
Now, the Titans' main rival for the division title, Houston, isn't flawless. It will have to replace two starting offensive linemen (Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel) and still doesn't have a strong threat opposite Andre Johnson.
However, considering their awesome two-headed backfield of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, as well as a defense that was incredible last season and will only become more ferocious with the first-round selection of Whitney Mercilus, the Texans should run away with the AFC South.
Winner: Houston Texans
As competitive as the AFC West and NFC East are, this is probably the toughest division to predict a winner.
Sorry to say for Cleveland fans, but (no surprise) the Browns are not in the hunt for an AFC North title. There's a mess at quarterback (neither Colt McCoy nor Brandon Weeden is likely to have a big season), and to make matters worse, they have a subpar-to-outright-bad receiving corps.
While the Browns now have Trent Richardson and a few excellent young defenders (Phil Taylor, Joe Haden, Jabaal Sheard) to go along with D'Qwell Jackson, they are still at least a year away.
The Browns' three hated rivals, on the other hand, are real Super Bowl threats. Although the Steelers and Ravens have suffered some serious losses to free agency (Jarret Johnson), injury (Terrell Suggs), salary-cap issues (James Farrior), retirement (Hines Ward) and possibly contract woes (Mike Wallace, Ray Rice), both teams are so deep, especially on defense, that they'll still be there in the end.
The Bengals pose a much different threat. They aren't as physical or deep on defense, but they greatly improved their secondary, added a very reliable back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and have a potentially lethal combination in Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
So who comes out on top? In an extremely close race that will definitely come down to Week 17, I'll take Pittsburgh. Not only do the Steelers close with three home games in the final four weeks, but the significant upgrades on the offensive line (namely David DeCastro, but also Willie Colon moving to guard) suggest their running game will be much improved, giving them a balanced offense that neither of their divisional foes possesses.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
As I did with the NFC East, let's dismiss the non-contenders immediately. The Dolphins have countless question marks (more than just at quarterback), and I won't be surprised if they end up regretting the Ryan Tannehill pick, not because he isn't talented and a potential star, but because there's a good chance they can land Matt Barkley at the very top of the 2013 draft.
Looking past South Florida, the Bills are a contender, or at least they will be in the first half of the season, much like they were a year ago. Since they have a solid running game and some talent at receiver, they can score points.
But that defense still has to be a concern. Sure, Mario Williams is a star, and they have what might turn out to be a great young cornerback tandem (Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams), but neither strength will necessarily improve a terrible run defense.
While defense isn't the Bills' strong suit, their division counterpart in New Jersey does boast an excellent defense. The Jets had setbacks at times in 2011, but I really liked the Quinton Coples pick as a way to improve the pass rush. In Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, they have a pair of incredible corners too. If they get even decent, relatively turnover-free play from Mark Sanchez, they will be better than .500.
The Bills host the Jets in Week 17, and although both will probably have a shot at a playoff berth when they square off, the winner of that game will ultimately claim second place in the AFC East: The Pats will win a fourth consecutive division title and ninth in 10 years.
Losing BenJarvus Green-Ellis hurts a bit, but the addition of Brandon Lloyd makes Tom Brady even more dangerous. As well, through the past two drafts, Bill Belichick has stockpiled so much defensive talent (Ras-I Dowling, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard) that they are incredibly deep.
Couple those picks with the signing of Steve Gregory, Will Allen and Bobby Carpenter, and the Patriots should once again be a favorite for a Super Bowl berth.
Winner: New England Patriots