I know, I know. It's way too early. We still have a month before the NFL season actually starts. Right. I get it.
But as far as I'm concerned, the preseason is under way and that gives us the green light to start going football crazy.
Admittedly, I'm a 49ers fan, and I've never been more excited about my team coming into a season than I am this year. I will try to take deep breaths and remain impartial as I unveil my 2012-2013 NFL predictions on the following slides.
That being said, questions are lingering. CAN the 49ers pull off a repeat performance? Will the Saints rebound from a messy offseason? Are the Giants, Patriots, Packers and Ravens still the teams to beat?
Predicted order of finish (2011 records in parentheses):
1. Denver Broncos (8-8)
I'll say it: The Broncos' success was a fluke last year. Tim Tebow seems like a great guy, but he's not a good quarterback. You know who is a good quarterback? Peyton Manning. This division is such a crap shoot to begin with, that if Manning stays healthy, I see no reason why the Broncos don't have a legitimate shot at double-digit wins.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Nobody was hit harder by injuries last season than the Chiefs, who saw their star running back, tight end, cornerback and quarterback all hit the shelf early in the season. Before that, the Chiefs had a promising young nucleus of players, and I figure they will return to form this season. Still not quite good enough to snag a wild-card spot, though.
3. San Diego Chargers (8-8)
The Chargers have been constantly disappointing. For all the talent on this roster, one would think they would be perennial playoff contenders. With the improvements made by Denver and Kansas City's health issues aside, I think the Chargers lose more ground in the West and fall completely out of the playoff picture this season.
4. Oakland Raiders (8-8)
I promise, I don't have anything against the Raiders. The Bay Area rivalry between them and the 49ers is more like a big brother beating up on a little one. Recently, at least. That being said, I'm interested to see how Carson Palmer responds with a full season. I still think this organization is a mess and is at least a few seasons away from contending.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
The order of this division isn't going to change much. That doesn't mean teams will improve or regress; it just means the swings won't be big enough. I think the Ravens actually regress, but stay atop the division. Eleven wins is an optimistic goal with the defense aging, but I still want Ray Lewis in a walker commanding my D over most guys in the game today.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
This team is getting old too, and it will show. Don't get me wrong, this is still a playoff-caliber team, especially with tough, clutch play out of the quarterback spot. But it's going to be a battle. The Steelers are going to have to get to 10 wins and maybe get help to return to the postseason, especially with the young, hungry Bengals breathing down their necks.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
I really like this team, though injuries have already been an issue, and they haven't played a meaningful snap yet. I'm a fan of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the defense is definitely an up-and-coming unit. That being said, I'm not quite sold on the Bengals as a whole. I still think they finish third this season, but they will grab that second Wild Card.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)
We'll see how long Brandon Weeden actually controls this team and performs well enough to justify starting at quarterback. I truly believe Colt McCoy will be the starter by about Week 6. I don't believe in Weeden, and his performance in their first preseason game just verifies my worries. It could be another long season for the Browns and their fans.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Houston Texans (10-6)
I wish I could tell you something more exciting would happen to shake up this division in 2012, but I just can't. Not only are the Texans expected to be better than ever—they ARE better than ever. That defense is still ferocious, and the Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson connection should be in full force. I think that Houston will creep up on a 12-win season and run away with the division.
2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Who is going to quarterback this team? Both Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck have their problems. Hasselbeck is old and mistake-prone. Locker just doesn't have the "it" factor the Titans were hoping for. Unless one of them steps it up big time in 2012, I fully expect the Titans to regress at least to a .500 record and miss the playoffs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Is Blaine Gabbert the future QB in Jacksonville? This may be his make or break year. After a 65.4 rating in 2011, it's time for the former first-round pick to prove his worth. He has good, young weapons around him in Justin Blackmon and Maurice Jones-Drew, and while I expect an improvement this season, I won't rely on Gabbert to give Jag fans a .500 season.
4. Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
After all the hype surrounding Andrew Luck before, during and after the draft finally subsided in time for his first start in the preseason, the machine may be firing up again. Luck looked great in that game—granted, against the Rams and basically an exhibition, but the Colts could realistically triple their win total from last year if Luck plays well.
Predicted order of finish:
1. New England Patriots (13-3)
If you think it will be anyone else, you're kidding yourself. Barring a catastrophic barrage of injuries, the defending AFC champions got even more athletic and more talented all around. The defense, the main knock on them in the 2011 season, was strengthened through the draft. I wouldn't be surprised one bit to see Tom Brady lead his boys to another 13-win season.
2. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
I'm taking a leap of faith with the Bills this season. Part of it is my lack of faith in the mess that is the Jets, but I do believe the early-season success for Buffalo last year wasn't entirely a fluke. Surprising and premature, yes. But I think they have the talent to compete for a wild-card spot. They won't actually get the spot this season, but I think .500 is very realistic.
3. New York Jets (8-8)
Conversely, I don't think .500 is realistic for the Jets. Not with a quarterback combination like they have. Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow are arguably the two most fundamentally poor passers in the league, and the glory days of sneaking up on teams with a big running game and opportunistic defense seem close to over for Rex Ryan and Co.
4. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
Ryan Tannehill is the starting quarterback. Chad Johnson came by to hang out for approximately one week. And this team just doesn't have it. They went hard after Peyton Manning and missed badly. I question if this team is focused enough (let alone talented enough) to even repeat last season's six-win performance? I'll watch, but I won't like it.
Predicted order of finish:
1. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Is it realistic to expect another 13-win season from my 49ers? Yes, based on the additions they made in the offseason. But that still has to translate to the field. Aside from six divisional games, the 49ers have to play in Foxboro against the Patriots, in Green Bay, in New Orleans, and welcome the Lions, Giants and Bears to San Francisco.
2. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Listen, I'm going to take the Seahawks seriously. However, I do think Russell Wilson will be the starting quarterback who gets this team going. I don't think Matt Flynn's one mop-up start with the best offense in football was deserving of a big contract, and we all know Tarvaris Jackson isn't one to carry a team. The defense is solid though, and I think the 'Hawks make a run at the playoffs this year.
3. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
The offensive line on this team is just so horribly atrocious, I don't believe that they have any semblance of a chance to contend. Not to mention the Kevin Kolb and John Skelton combination of quarterbacks just strike laughter into the gut of opposing defenses. There are pieces there, but the Cardinals are a new line and QB away from the playoffs.
4. St. Louis Rams (2-14)
St. Louis got absolutely obliterated by the Colts in their first preseason game. Usually that means nothing, but with the Colts improving, this battle of the two worst teams in football from last year should have been closer. Jeff Fisher has his hands full if he's going to win over this baseball city and return the Rams to glory.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Green Bay Packers (15-1)
The Pack didn't have any significant subtractions from last year's one-loss juggernaut. I fully believe this team is on track to cruise to another division title. That being said, the defense still could use some shoring up before I consider them favorites to win another Lombardi Trophy. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, don't put it past them.
2. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Chicago was beat up by injuries last season and still almost snuck into the playoffs without Jay Cutler. With their quarterback fully healthy, I think they end up winning a lot of those close games they lost in 2011 and return to the postseason as a Wild Card. Don't forget they have added Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall to the receiving corps and can expect bigger things out of Matt Forte this year.
3. Detroit Lions (10-6)
Don't hurt me, Detroit. This placement has nothing to do with the Jim Harbaugh/Jim Schwartz beef last season. (Though that will be a fun storyline going into their 2012 matchup, no?) I simply don't think the Lions are grounded enough to return to the playoffs. They were aided immensely by the Bears' bad fortune. I think they put up nine wins and fall just short of a playoff berth this season.
4. Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
Will it be the Vikes battling the Rams for NFL futility this season? That remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see Christian Ponder's development at quarterback, but I can almost guarantee that it will be a long, cold winter for fans in Minnesota. Again, it was just a preseason game, but the Vikings were absolutely manhandled by the Niners this past weekend.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
I really wanted to pick the Saints to retain their division title, but I think the Falcons will be the beneficiaries of an organization in disarray. With key defensive players and their head coach out for extended amounts of time, the Saints have basically given the Falcons a green light to take the South. I believe Matt Ryan and the Falcons will oblige.
2. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Just kidding. I didn't want to pick the Saints. Not after the 49ers were some of the main targets of the bounty scandal. I used to respect that organization, but now I'll sit back and laugh as they go down in flames in 2012. By "down in flames" I mean worse than usual and barely miss a playoff spot. Because I think Sean Payton really is that important to this football team.
3. Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Raise your hand if you are excited to see what Cam Newton can do in his second full season? Everyone outside of Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans should have two arms raised. This guy is as electric a playmaker as you'll find in football today. And while the defense did get some reinforcements, I don't think the Panthers are quite there yet. Can they hit .500?
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
It's confusing to me how the Bucs spiraled out of control so quickly. I really liked their young nucleus of players, especially quarterback Josh Freeman. But last season's debacle is making me question if 2010 was just a flash in the pan. We'll see this year—a new coach, a new system and a new attitude in Tampa might make all the difference.
Predicted order of finish:
1. New York Giants (9-7)
The defending Super Bowl champions technically are the "team to beat" until proven otherwise in 2012. But that's not the reason they top my standings in this division. It's because their flaws are very minor compared to their division rivals. The defense is filthy, and Eli Manning has proven himself time and time again. Respect to the champs.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
Will Michael Vick make it through the season? The Pac-12 alum in me hopes he sits out a few games so former Arizona QB Nick Foles might get a shot to see some game action. But if it reaches that point for Philly, it means their season is more than likely toast. I could see this season being a Miami Heat-esque dream team rebound in the second season, health pending.
3. Washington Redskins (5-11)
I really do believe in RGIII that much. I think the 'Skins improved drastically, especially at the quarterback position. Going 5-11 with Rex Grossman as a quarterback is impressive, and now they have a guy at the position with seemingly unlimited athletic ability, similar to Cam Newton. Adding Josh Morgan is a bigger move than people think, too. I think .500 is definitely in play for Washington.
4. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Before you freak out and call me a Cowboys hater, let me clarify two things: First, I do hate the Cowboys. But I'm a journalist and am therefore morally obligated to be unbiased. Secondly, this doesn't mean the Cowboys are going to be a bad team. It means I think they will regress to about seven wins and slip just behind the Redskins. Tony Romo is still in need of a lot of help. The D should be better in 2012 though.
If everything goes according to plan, and it should, because I asked the football gods very nicely, this is how the 2012 NFL postseason will shake out:
No. 1 New England Patriots (bye)
No. 2 Houston Texans (bye)
No. 3 Baltimore Ravens
No. 4 Denver Broncos
No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
No. 1 Green Bay Packers (bye)
No. 2 San Francisco 49ers (bye)
No. 3 New York Giants
No. 4 Atlanta Falcons
No. 5 Chicago Bears
No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles
No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals over No. 3 Baltimore Ravens
No. 4 Denver Broncos over No. 5 Pittsburgh Steelers
That Denver vs. Pittsburgh matchup isn't going to be quite the same as last year's overtime playoff thriller. Peyton Manning will take care of the banged-up Steelers' D in a much more professional, methodical...how you say, talented, manner. I think the Broncos can take a knee in the fourth against the Steelers for their second-straight playoff win against Pittsburgh.
As for Cincy and Baltimore, we have a case of the underdog coming in hot and knocking out a division rival and favorite. Honestly, I expect this to be a really well-played, back and forth battle with a few breaks going the Bengals' way that ultimately kill my secret dream of seeing a Harbaugh brother Super Bowl.
No. 3 New York Giants over No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles
No. 5 Chicago Bears over No. 4 Atlanta Falcons
Both of these matchups should be really fantastic games. I'm envisioning the Eagles coming into the playoffs with a head of steam on a winning streak that got them into the postseason in the first place. Alas, the Giants have been there before, and Eli Manning will lead one of his patented fourth-quarter drives to bury his division rivals.
And the Bears' ferocious defense now has a scary offense to go with it. Assuming health isn't an issue again, I think Chicago would actually take care of Atlanta on the road quite easily. Remember, I think the Falcons are basically being handed the division because of disarray in New Orleans. This will be one of those "upsets" everyone sees coming.
No. 4 Denver Broncos over No. 1 New England Patriots
No. 2 Houston Texans over No. 6 Cincinnati Bengals
The magic stops here for the bad boy Bengals, as they run into a fully operational Houston defense that absolutely devours A.J. Green and pressures Andy Dalton into oblivion. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson connect for two touchdowns, and despite a furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter, the Texans secure a spot in the AFC championship by a double-digit win.
As for the renewal of the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning saga, this should be a classic. I imagine this matchup in the snow coming down to a long field-goal attempt as time expires in a tie game. Matt Prater is going to nail it, and Manning's comeback to prominence will be complete. Naturally, with how good the Pats will be, they will have to make a few mistakes for this outcome to be realistic.
No. 1 Green Bay Packers over No. 5 Chicago Bears
No. 2 San Francisco 49ers over No. 3 New York Giants
The Pack and the Bears are playing in another epic rivalry game that dates back to the beginning of American football as we know it. Green Bay will have home-field advantage, but not by much. Chicago is used to playing the elements at home, too. And as their third meeting of the season, both teams will be familiar with the other. I think Rodgers and Co. have learned from their mistakes last season, though.
What great storylines in my 2012 playoff picture, huh? The Niners and Giants square off in a rematch of last year's tightly contested NFC championship. This time, a botched punt or two won't be the difference because San Francisco stole two of New York's biggest weapons in Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. Both will play big roles against their former team in a two-touchdown victory.
No. 2 Houston Texans over No. 4 Denver Broncos
If the Texans were at full strength in 2011, I think they would have been playing in the Super Bowl instead of New England. In 2012, they are a better, presumably healthier team and hungrier than ever before. That doesn't make playing against an inspired Peyton Manning any easier, but they manage it here, forcing a turnover late in the fourth quarter to secure a trip to New Orleans.
No. 2 San Francisco 49ers over No. 1 Green Bay Packers
After starting their high-expectation season on a sour note with a close loss in Green Bay, the 49ers bounce back in the NFC championship to squeak out a victory over the Pack and send them to the Super Bowl that so narrowly dodged them last season. It won't be the defense entirely this time. Much like in the game against the Saints in 2011, Alex Smith plays hero, hooking up late with Mario Manningham to beat Green Bay.
San Francisco 49ers 27
Houston Texans 19
Don't ask me where I got those final scores. Just accept it as fact. It's okay that I picked my favorite team to win the Super Bowl because of my disclaimer on the first slide, right?
All kidding aside, the 49ers are one of a few elite teams coming into this season favored to win the Lombardi Trophy, and I think Jim Harbaugh will deliver the first title to San Francisco in 18 years.
Both defenses are absolutely stellar, and both offenses can crush opposing defenses if given the right situation. In this game, it will be the crazy deep backfield of the 49ers that does in the Houston defense. I believe Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs will pound the front seven of the Texans into fatiguing enough to open the door for an Alex Smith-to-Vernon Davis touchdown in the fourth quarter that puts the game out of reach.
And based on the nature of these two squads, chances are a special-teams play is a major back-breaker in the contest as well. With the 49ers' return duo of LaMichael James and Ted Ginn, Jr. and kicking duo of David Akers and Andy Lee, they have an edge in a game that will come down to the wire until the last half quarter.
When all is said and done, the San Francisco 49ers, already favored in Vegas at 9-1 odds (behind only New England and Green Bay), will hoist the Lombardi Trophy in early February of 2013.
I'm no betting man, but I'm confident in my opinion on how the 2012 NFL season plays out. Remember, it's just my take on things, but everyone has their own version, so please comment below with your criticisms, praises and arguments. Looking forward to the debate! On Twitter @Jamblinman.