NFL Predictions: Projecting Every Record, Award, Leader and Champion

Sam QuinnContributor IIISeptember 4, 2012

NFL Predictions: Projecting Every Record, Award, Leader and Champion

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    Whether you're a diehard fan, a degenerate gambler, a fantasy player or just a staunch hater of the dead zone known as professional sports in July and August, you're probably aware that the NFL season starts in only a few days. As someone who falls under every category mentioned above, I'm going to predict how the entire NFL season will play out.

    When I say the entire NFL season, I mean the entire NFL season. We're going to go through every team's record, every major award, every league leader, every fired head coach and eventually, the Super Bowl champion.

    We'll discuss household names like Tom Brady and people you've never heard of like Omar Brown. We'll talk about Peyton Manning's neck, Adrian Peterson's knee and Norv Turner's brain. 

    If it has to do with the 2012 season it will be discussed somewhere in this behemoth of an NFL preview. So get your popcorn ready, buckle your seat belt and follow every other clichéd method of getting ready. This preview is about to begin. 

New England Patriots

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    Projected Record: 13-3.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: First.

    Projected Team MVP: Tom Brady.

    What? You were expecting maybe the Dolphins?

    Need any proof that the Patriots have one of the best offenses in the league? How about the fact that I'm projecting them to finish 13-3 despite their defense falling somewhere between "below average" and "2008 Detroit Lions."

    Brandon Lloyd is obviously a huge addition, but don't sleep on Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator. He ran the best offense in NFL history with the 2007 Patriots and turned Kyle Orton into a respectable NFL quarterback in Denver. As good as Bill O'Brien was, McDaniels is better. 

    The McDaniels-Lloyd combination is going to turn this offense into a unit that can finally stretch the field vertically, which will only makes things easier for Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. I'd say the same for running backs Shane Vereen, Steven Ridley and Danny Woodhead, but the Patriots no longer even pretend to have a running game.

    The one major bright spot on defense is rookie Chandler Jones. While he didn't stuff the stat sheet in the preseason, physically he looked like a future star. The Patriots found a keeper in him. 

    The Patriots are going to score a ton of points. They're going to take advantage of an absurdly easy schedule (they play only four playoff teams from 2011, three of which are at home). Barring a major injury, they'll be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. 

Buffalo Bills

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    Projected Record: 10-6.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: Fifth.

    Projected Team MVP: Mario Williams.

    That's right, the Buffalo Bills are headed back to the playoffs! Football is just more fun when the Bills are good.

    In all seriousness, every good team has an identity. The Giants won last year behind a relentless pass rush and the ability to throw the ball downfield. The Patriots made it the Super Bowl by being incredibly efficient on offense and playing great red-zone defense. 

    The Bills finally have a real identity. They have an elite front-seven on defense thanks to the additions Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, and they'll be able to run the ball with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. 

    The passing offense is actually sneaky-good. Remember when Ryan Fitzpatrick was slinging the ball around and forcing comebacks every week early in the season? I don't see why that can't happen again. There have been rumors that Fitzpatrick was injured late in the season, so if he's healthy he should be at least competent. 

    They also have one of the league's easiest schedules. Their placement games are against Jacksonville and Kansas City to go along with matchups with the NFC West and AFC South. Combine that with four games against the dysfunctional Jets and the even more dysfunctional Dolphins and I don't see why this Bills team can't win 10 games. 

New York Jets

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    Projected Record: 6-10.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Darrelle Revis.

    I hate to say this as a Jets fan, but I think this is the year that the crap finally hits the fan.

    I can't even think of an adjective to describe the offense. Even without Santonio Holmes, there isn't an excuse not to score any touchdowns for three straight preseason games. That falls on Mark Sanchez.

    Sanchez simply hasn't progressed since his rookie year. He doesn't look comfortable in the offense and his teammates clearly don't trust him.

    So, the question I'm sure you're all asking yourselves is when will Tim Tebow start? Well, take a look at the opening schedule. They open with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis and New England.

    Let's pencil in the Steelers, 49ers, Texans and Patriots as losses and a 2-1 record against the Bills, Dolphins and Colts. That means the Jets will head into their Week 8 game against Miami with a 2-5 record. If Sanchez doesn't perform, Rex Ryan could name Tebow the starter going into the bye week.

    By the way, if you're wondering how possible it would be for some Tebow magic to save the season, here's the Jets schedule from Week 8 on: Miami, bye, Seattle, St. Louis, New England, Arizona, Jacksonville, Tennessee, San Diego, Buffalo. If I think about this any longer I'll start talking myself into the fact that going 7-2 in that stretch is completely doable. 

    Santonio Holmes is going to feud with Mark Sanchez, the defense is going to openly complain about their lack of support and fans will be chanting for Tebow by Week 6. This is a disaster waiting to happen. 

Miami Dolphins

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    Projected Record: 5-11.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Cameron Wake.

    I actually thought the Dolphins had a chance to be a fringe contender when Matt Moore was the starter. He led them to a 6-3 run down the stretch last year, and this year's team is pretty similar on paper. Why couldn't he have led them to a 9-7 season?

    But alas, the Dolphins followed the trend set in 2008 when Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco started as rookies and led their teams to playoffs. If the Dolphins expect similar results with Ryan Tannehill they should remember the fact that Ryan's Falcons and Flacco's Ravens only drafted them because they lost long-term starters who led them to the playoffs in the past (Michael Vick and Steve McNair). 

    In other words, the Falcons and Ravens were already playoff-caliber teams, they just needed new quarterbacks. Same goes for the 2009 Jets with Mark Sanchez (replacing Chad Pennington with a brief Brett Favre stint). The Dolphins have made the playoffs once in the last decade.

    Fortunately for Dolphins fans, that doesn't appear to be their plan. Trading Vontae Davis and Brandon Marshall shows a commitment to rebuilding the team through the draft with high-character players. 

    While that is a smart plan for the future, it doesn't exactly help them now. When Reggie Bush is your second-best offensive player, you probably aren't headed for great things.

    As for Tannehill, I've written on numerous occasions that I think he's a clear bust candidate. I didn't see any tools, stats or intangibles from him during his college career that led me to believe he is a star. Miami's future depends on Tannehill, so if they hope to be contenders down the line, they better hope I'm wrong. 

Houston Texans

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    Projected Record: 11-5.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Second.

    Projected Team MVP: Arian Foster.

    Everyone is so quick to talk about who the Texans lost, but when you really look at it, they didn't lose much.

    Mario Williams was a non-factor last year. Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin did his job admirably last year and should only get better. DeMeco Ryans was a big loss in 2010, but he looked significantly worse last year after an achilles injury and really wasn't a major factor.

    On offense, they lost two starting linemen, but judging the merits of individual players in a zone-blocking scheme is nearly impossible. For all we know their two new starters will be fine. This scheme is based on coaching and knowing assignments more than physical ability, so if these guys have been coached well they should be fine.

    Now think about who they are getting. They're going from a third-string undrafted rookie at quarterback in TJ Yates to a former Pro Bowler in Matt Schaub. Considering the injuries to Schaub and Andre Johnson, the Texans essentially didn't have a passing game.

    Let's say the losses they've sustained make them 5-10 percent worse on defense and in the running game. Doesn't the revamped passing game more than make up for that?

    And think about this, the Texans were an incredibly young team last year. None of their starters on defense are over the age of 31, and many key contributors like J.J. Watt, Barwin, Reed, Kareem Jackson, Brian Cushing and Glover Quin are 26-and-under.

    Combine those guys with offensive players like Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Duane Brown and this team has plenty of room for internal improvement. Most of these guys are set to hit their prime in the near future.

    Now consider their schedule. They get six free wins against the brutally awful AFC South. They also get a few freebies against teams like Miami (Week 1) and Minnesota (Week 16). Assuming they can win a few games against better competition, they're a virtual lock to win the division. Once they're in the playoffs, they'll be able to compete with anyone. 

Tennessee Titans

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    Projected Record: 9-7.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Chris Johnson.

    I can't ever remember a season when the Titans did exactly what was expected. The season after losing the Super Bowl they went 7-9; the year after going 4-12 and taking Vince Young they went 8-8; and the year after Kerry Collins led them on a miraculous 13-3 ride they went 8-8. I don't know why, but the Titans just have a tendency to do the opposite of what we expect.

    This year, most people expect the Titans to be bad. Therefore, they're probably going to be good.

    I don't just base that off some weird trend; this team actually looks pretty solid. 

    Chris Johnson averaged 3.0 yards per carry in the first half of last season, but after adjusting to Chris Palmer’s offense, he saw that number jump to 4.8 yards per carry in the second half. He'll be back to his usual level of production, even if he doesn't quite reach 2000 yards.

    I'm also a huge fan of Jake Locker (although at the moment I seem like the only one). He reminds me of...

    ... (wait for it)...

    ... (keep waiting)...

    ... (the tension is killing me!)...

    Brett Favre! Obviously that's a premature comparison and I don't think Locker will be nearly as good as Favre, but Locker plays very much like him. I love how he runs around and keeps plays alive, I love how he makes big plays, and even though he's going to throw more interceptions than you'd like to see, he's got some serious gunslinger potential.

    Thing is, this team is built perfectly for a gunslinging quarterback. Kendall Wright is a complete burner, Kenny Britt was born to go up and grab jump balls and you never know what's going to happen if you can get the ball in Chris Johnson's hands.

    I love Locker. I think he's going to be a lot better than people think and will end up as the second-best quarterback of the 2011 class. 

    If Locker does what I think he can do, if Johnson can go back to being Chris Johnson and the defense can stay near the middle of the league (they were 18th in total defense last year), then I don't see any reason why this team can't win nine games. 

Indianapolis Colts

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    Projected Record: 5-11.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Reggie Wayne.

    The Colts are going to be about what you'd expect them to be. They obviously aren't a 2-14 team, not even Peyton Manning could have taken that type of talent to the playoffs in 2010, but losing Manning obviously hurt them just as much as it seemed. 

    Andrew Luck is going to mitigate much of the damage done by Curtis Painter last year. If only by not starting Painter the Colts should improve by a few wins. 

    If you're looking for a fantasy sleeper, this team has one of my favorites. I have no idea why Reggie Wayne is currently the 103rd ranked player on ESPN, but if you have a chance to grab this guy in the eighth round or so, you should take him.

    Wayne didn't get worse last year, his quarterback did. He caught 111 passes for 1355 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2010. Let's say the improvement to Luck makes up half of what he lost statistically last year. That would bring him up to 93 catches for around 1150 yards and 5 touchdowns. 

    Even after adjusting a bit for age, his numbers should still be impressive, but Wayne has even more in his favor. Pierre Garçon is gone, Austin Collie's health issues are well-documented and rookies tend to throw more to their No. 1 receivers than veterans. In other words, Luck is going to throw him the ball, a lot. Pick this guy!

    My major issue with the defense is that they just don't have the personnel for Chuck Pagano's scheme. The Cover 2 scheme they've been running for the past decade or so is based on speed, Pagano's defense demands size.

    As good as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are, do we know if they are big enough to play linebacker in the 3-4? Even if their pass-rushing is affected, they have no experience standing up. Tight ends are going to destroy them in coverage.

    The Colts don't have any size on the defensive line, they have a weak secondary and we have no idea how their two star rushers will adjust to a 3-4 defense. That's going to kill them.

    I like Indy's future. Andrew Luck looks like a stud. They just aren't going to win anything this year. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Projected Record: 2-14.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Daryl Smith.

    The Jaguars are going to be mind-numbingly awful this year. I say that with complete confidence. If you ever need a manual on how not to run an organization just ask Shad Khan. They might as well be handing out pamphlets.

    They expressed faith in Blaine Gabbert by trying to trade for local hero Tim Tebow. Sure, shake the confidence of your already-skittish quarterback even more, that makes sense.

    Then they refused to give Maurice Jones-Drew a new contract under some misguided notion that NFL contracts are binding. I guess I'd understand the sentiment if this were a mediocre offensive lineman, but MJD is their only player of note. No, not their only superstar, their only player of note. Alienating him sounds like a great idea.

    During free agency they splurged on a wide receiver who has never played all 16 games (Laurent Robinson) and a cornerback who you wouldn't want playing all 16 games (Aaron Ross). 

    They hired a head coach whose last three teams have all improved after he left. In fact, in both Pittsburgh and Miami (his last two stops as an offensive coordinator before Atlanta), his former team improved by a whopping 10 wins each in the year after he left. 

    The cherry on top? Their much-hyped first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon has already been arrested for a DUI. 

    This is going to be a tough year for Jaguars fans (all 17 of them), but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. USC superstar Matt Barkley may very well be wearing teal next fall. Other than that, well, there isn't really much I can say to cheer up the city of Jacksonville. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Projected Record: 11-5.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Third.

    Projected Team MVP: Ben Roethlisberger.

    Other than the Browns, every team in the AFC North should be slightly worse than they were last year. The Steelers lost several important pieces such as James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward and Chris Hoke. 

    The key for the Steelers isn't necessarily who they lost, but who they brought back. Mike Wallace recently reported to camp, but how quickly will he be able to pick up Todd Haley's new offense?

    Pittsburgh's entire ability to stretch the field is based on Wallace. They open with a tough slate against Denver, the Jets, Oakland and Philly. If Wallace isn't up to speed by then, the Steelers could be in for a slow start.

    Of course, Wallace won't make any difference if Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt. Prized rookie David DeCastro is going to miss the entire 2012 season, and the rest of the offensive line is well... terrible. 

    Roethlisberger has started 16 games only once in his career (2008), and seems to be held back by injuries every year. Is this the year that he finally misses significant time? If it is, the Steelers go from contender to bottom dweller. They no longer have an elite running game to fall back on (particularly without Rashard Mendenhall), so keeping Roethlisberger healthy is critical.

    The defense is going to do what they always do. You never have to worry about the Steelers defense. The key to Pittsburgh's season is the offense. If everyone picks up the new offense and stays healthy, this team can win the Super Bowl. If not, they'll lose this division to the Ravens. 

Baltimore Ravens

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    Projected Record: 10-6.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: Sixth.

    Projected Team MVP: Ray Rice.

    Could this be the year Baltimore's offense finally passes the defense? Well, let's break it down piece-by-piece:

    Leader: Joe Flacco vs. Ray Lewis.

    Flacco wins this one at the moment. Even though I firmly believe he's barely an above average quarterback, he's still a better player than Lewis right now. At this point, Lewis is living mostly off of reputation. He's still a fantastic person to have in the locker room, but he's not the old Ray Lewis anymore.

    Best overall player: Ray Rice vs. Haloti Ngata.

    This one is tough. Rice affects the game in more ways (running, receiving, blocking), but Ngata frees up the entire defense because of his ability to draw double and triple teams. Ngata gets a slight edge, but it's close.

    Biggest game breaker: Torrey Smith vs. Ed Reed.

    Right now the answer is Smith. He's one of the fastest receivers in the league and is poised for a breakout season. Reed is still a fantastic center fielder, but he's not going to change the game with huge interceptions quite as often anymore. His time as a true game breaker is over.

    Best sleeper: Omar Brown vs. Bernard Pierce.

    I just needed an excuse to talk about Omar Brown some more. During the preseason he recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass and recovered an onside kick. I know it's just the preseason, but he looked fantastic. Sadly, he didn't make the 53-man roster, so for now he's either going to be somebody else's sleeper or wait around on the practice squad until a spot opens up. This guy has a future in the NFL. 

    Age and depth:

    The dirty little secret about the Ravens defense is that right now they only have three elite players: Ngata, Reed and cornerback Lardarius Webb. Lewis is still good, but aside from those guys, this defense leaves a lot to be desired. Without Terrell Suggs they essentially don't have a pass-rush.

    The offense has talent everywhere. They have two very good receivers (Smith and Anquan Boldin), a top-three running back (Rice), a solid offensive line, and a quarterback who is at least decent in Joe Flacco. The offense wins this and the total comparison.

    This team is now based around the offense, and the offense will go as far as Joe Flacco takes them. I've personally never been impressed with him. He seems like he lives off of the great talent he has around him and just tries not to screw it up (in other words, he's Mark Sanchez, but actually successful).

    If he can carry the offense like the franchise quarterback he's supposed to be, this team will compete for the title. If not, he's going to be an extremely overpaid game manager. Baltimore's season rides on that progression.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Projected Record: 7-9.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: A.J. Green.

    I don't normally believe in things like sophomore slumps, but everything about the Bengals screams regression. 

    Of Cincinnati's nine wins, only two were by more than 10 points. Close games are one of the most unstable statistics in football. Even if they maintain the same level of play next year, they could very easily lose an extra game or two due to a simple regression to the mean.

    We also need to look at who the Bengals played last year. They played eight playoff teams (including their playoff game) and nine non-playoff teams. Their record against non-playoff teams was 9-0. Their record against playoff teams? 0-8.

    This team was good enough to beat bad teams, but not good enough to beat good teams. Well, the schedule gets a bit tougher for the Bengals this year. While they only play six playoff teams, they also have games against tough opponents like Dallas, Philly, Oakland and San Diego. 

    Their big offseason addition was BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but how much of an upgrade was he? Green-Ellis is going from one of the best organizations in football in New England to one of the most dysfunctional in Cincinnati. It's one thing to be a role player for a great team, it's another to be a star for a mediocre one.

    Oh, and Marvin Lewis has made the playoffs three times in his career as a head coach. His teams have won a combined 12 games in the years following the first two. Consistency isn't his strong suit. 

    I'm not saying last year was a fluke, but I think the Bengals are due to regress. They have a future behind Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, but the future isn't now. 

Cleveland Browns

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    Projected Record: 3-13.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Joe Haden.

    I want to take a moment to discuss just how stupid it was to spend a first-round pick on a 28-year-old quarterback. His age doesn't make him NFL-ready, he still needs NFL reps, experience, a mastery of the offense and an overall feel for the pro game.

    He's not going to hit his peak until his mid-30's, giving him only five or six years of major productivity at best. That's only if he actually does perform, which I highly doubt. He's coming out of a gimmicky spread offense with a great supporting cast, and honestly, if he was really an NFL quarterback he wouldn't have chosen baseball over football (I call this the Drew Henson corollary). 

    The Browns made no major additions through free agency, so their only avenue for improvement is the draft. That means they're relying on a 28-year-old rookie and an injured running back to get them further than their 4-12 record of a year ago.

    As much as I like Trent Richardson going forward, he's not going to be Adrian Peterson right away. His rookie season is going to go fairly predictably. There are going to be a lot of eight-man fronts, some complications from his injuries and by the third quarter of most games he'll be a non-factor because of how far behind the Browns will be.

    On defense they do have three legitimate blue-chippers in cornerback Joe Haden, defensive end Jabaal Sheard (the quietest 8.5 sacks I've ever seen) and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, but all three have question marks.

    Haden is facing a four-game suspension for taking Adderall, Jackson has played 16 games only twice and you never quite know how players will develop after their rookie year. 

    The Browns are going to bad this year. Really, really, really bad. If I were them I'd cut bait on Weeden after his inevitably bad year and go after one of the studs of the 2013 class (Barkley, Tyler Wilson, Logan Thomas or Landry Jones). Of course, this is the Browns, so we know that the length of Weeden's tenure as quarterback will be inversely proportional to his level of play as a starter. 

Denver Broncos

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    Projected Record: 9-7.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Team MVP: Peyton Manning. 

    No team has a wider range of possibilities than the Broncos. I could see them going 3-13 or 13-3. Nine wins is essentially splitting the difference.

    If you don't like Denver, it's probably because of Peyton Manning's neck. He doesn't have anywhere near as much zip on his throws, and one hit could end his career. The Broncos also have an absolutely brutal schedule.

    Not only do they draw the AFC North and NFC South (potentially the two best divisions in football), but their placement games against Houston and New England are far more difficult than anything their divisional foes will face. 

    If you like the Broncos you could point out how nicely their hardest games fit into their schedule. They get the Steelers in Week 1 before Mike Wallace has mastered Pittsburgh's offense, they get the Saints at home after their bye and their last two games at home against Cleveland and Kansas City.

    Manning's injury will obviously hurt him, but he's still Peyton Manning. Think of it this way, even if he can't throw the ball down the field, he'd essentially be a rich man's Chad Pennington. He'll be incredibly accurate and incredibly well-prepared. 

    If Pennington can make the playoffs four times as a starter, why can't Manning win a division as a better version of him?

    Remember, we don't really know how good Denver's receivers are. For all we know, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are studs who just didn't get to show it thanks to Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton. At the very least both should be significantly better than they have been in in the past. 

    Even if the defense isn't elite, they have an identity. They're going to get a ton of sacks between Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and they have a great set of corners with Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter. Stopping the pass is critical, and Denver should be able to do it. 

    The trend here is that this team isn't exactly in a great situation with health and depth, but if their starters stay on the field and perform as expected, the Broncos can be a very good team. If not, they could easily go 4-12. 

Oakland Raiders

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    Projected Record: 7-9.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Darren McFadden.

    This is another case of me splitting the difference. This team has the potential to be very good or very bad. 

    If you're looking for reasons to like the Raiders, think about all of the playmakers they have. When Darren McFadden is on the field he's one of the best runners in football, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore have shown flashes of brilliance and with Dennis Allen at the helm, the defense should improve.

    Year 2 in Oakland should be much easier for Carson Palmer. Remember, he didn't join the team until mid-October, so not only did he not have training camp, he didn't have any time to learn the offense during the season.

    If you're against the Raiders, you could point out that Dennis Allen is now Oakland's eighth head coach in 11 years since Jon Gruden left for Tampa Bay. Continuity is important, and while Allen and new GM Reggie McKenzie may turn this team around, it probably won't happen from the start. 

    Thanks to very limited cap space and the Palmer trade, the Raiders had virtually no ways to improve during the offseason. In fact, they lost several key players like Kamerion Wimbley, Michael Bush, Stanford Routt and Kevin Boss. 

    Even if Allen helps the defense, they were tied for 30th in points allowed and 29th in total defense last year. Considering the losses they've sustained, Allen's going to have a hard time just getting them to break even.

    Oh, and there's the fact that Carson Palmer hasn't been elite since 2006 or even good since 2009. Why is that changing now?

    If this division weren't so messed up, the Raiders might be looking at a five-win season, but with the talent they have and the teams they play, they might be able to scrape seven wins together. 

San Diego Chargers

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    Projected Record: 6-10.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Philip Rivers.

    I'm not entirely sure how this happened, but the Chargers somehow went from having what was universally considered the best roster in football to a group we now think will struggle to make the playoffs.

    I don't understand the sleeper buzz around San Diego. Three of their most important offensive players (Antonio Gates, Ryan Matthews, Malcolm Floyd) can't stay on the field, their offensive line is well below average, their defense was middle of the road last year and Norv Turner is their head coach. 

    If you're arguing that the Chargers are going to make the playoffs you're essentially arguing that Philip Rivers is going to play at an MVP level, because that is what would have to happen for them to overcome the rest of their problems.

    And again I'd like to stress, NORV TURNER IS THEIR HEAD COACH. Outside of the 13-3 season they had in 2009, the Chargers have gotten worse every year that Norv has been at the helm. Other than last year (in which they faced an unbelievably easy opening schedule), Turner's Chargers have never started better than 2-3.

    The one thing coaches can control is throwing the challenge flag. This is yet another area where Turner has notoriously struggled. In fact, in the 2008 season he didn't get a single call overturned. If you're wondering, Philadelphia's Andy Reid was the only other coach who did this, but Turner challenged one extra play during that season. 

    My favorite occurrence of Norv's challenging ineptitude? How about Week 11 of last year, when he wasted a timeout deciding whether or not to challenge a fumble recovery. He had both challenges left, so he can't make the argument that he was conserving a challenge, and even if he did, it wouldn't have made a difference because with only one timeout he'd lose his last challenge if he lost the first one.

    Oh, and there was 3:16 left in the game. Was he expecting to use two challenges in the one minute and 16 seconds he had left to use them?

    As long as Norv Turner is coaching this team, bad things will happen. Considering their brutal schedule and inevitable injuries, I'd say 6-10 is a fair prediction.

    By the way, I have another fantasy sleeper alert for you. Robert Meachem is the only weapon Philip Rivers has who has a fairly reliable health history. We have no idea how good he really is because he played for New Orleans, where fantasy receivers go to die. Not even Jerry Rice could average double-digit targets in that offense.

    I think Meachem is poised to absolutely explode. Rivers has to throw the ball to someone, right? 

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Projected Record: 6-10.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Tamba Hali.

    Normally I'd praise the Chiefs for getting rid of Todd Haley. He clearly wasn't an NFL head coach, his players hated him, and he just wasn't a good fit for that group of players. However, Scott Pioli somehow managed to massively downgrade at head coach. How did he do that?

    He hired Romeo Crennel! Don't get me wrong, as a degenerate gambler I'm thrilled about this development. I finally get to bet against Romeo again, it's like christmas every sunday! 

    If you're a Chiefs fan though, you should be burying your head in the sand. This is a coach so bad that he literally inspired an internet cartoon

    I could go on for days about Romeo, so I'll just leave it at this: the Falcons are only listed as one point favorites against the Chiefs in Week 1. Take it and run.

    Beyond Romeo, I think the Chiefs are far too optimistic about their improved health. Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry both tore their ACL's, those are two-year injuries. They aren't going to play like they did in 2010.

    Statistically speaking, there is very little chance that Matt Cassel gets back to his 2010 form. His almost 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio was a complete statistical outlier. His two other years as KC's starter were much closer to a 1:1 ratio, and even his 2008 season with New England didn't hit 2:1. 

    Interceptions and turnovers in general are one of the most unsustainable stats in football. They are heavily based on luck. Cassel happened to get lucky in 2010, that won't happen every year. Oh, and since joining the Chiefs, he's never completed 60 percent or more of his passes. That's a problem.

    Cassel is at best a league-average quarterback. Crennel is at best a bottom-five head coach. The Chiefs have a good roster, but they aren't the San Francisco 49ers. They aren't going to win this way. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Projected Record: 11-5.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Third.

    Projected Team MVP: DeMarcus Ware.

    Every year the Cowboys look like they're ready to break out and become the contenders we all expect them to be. I think this is the year it finally happens.

    We know they'll be able to pass the ball. They have two very good receivers, a very good tight end and a very good quarterback. The key to their season is health.

    Dez Bryant and Miles Austin both missed time last year and Jason Witten is currently nursing a spleen injury. If they're all on the field, the Cowboys should be able to score with almost anybody.

    If DeMarco Murray stays healthy they'll be able to run the ball. Even with their beleaguered offensive line (which should improve this year), Murray was fantastic when he was healthy. 

    They were seventh in the league in rushing defense last year, and their improvements in passing defense should help them maintain that level of strength.

    Speaking of the passing defense, that was Dallas' only real weakness last year besides health. They've completely revamped their secondary with big free agent Brandon Carr and star rookie Morris Claiborne. Both are potential No. 1 corners, and at worst they should be solid starters. 

    My question to Cowboys haters: if this team stays healthy, what can't they do? I don't see any real glaring weaknesses on this team aside from the offensive line, but that didn't stop them from being a solid offensive team last year despite all of their injuries.

    Remember, this team was one overthrow to Miles Austin away from winning the NFC East. If Romo hits Austin on that third down against the Giants, the Cowboys win that game and the division.

    If that happens, the Giants wouldn't have won the Super Bowl and the Cowboys would be the divisional favorites. I'm a proponent of using the regular season to judge teams, not the playoffs. The Giants got hot at the right time, they aren't some unbeatable juggernaut.

    On paper, I think the Cowboys are the best team in this division. You could make a convincing case for the Eagles, but I'm going with Dallas. The Giants are sorely overrated and I'm expecting them to be exposed this year. If that happens, the Cowboys are going to take their place at the top of the division. 

New York Giants

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    Projected Record: 8-8.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Eli Manning.

    As I stated in the Cowboys section, the Giants aren't elite and neither is their quarterback. They simply got hot at the right time. Remember that overthrow to Miles Austin? If he gets it, the Giants finish 8-8, miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year and Tom Coughlin probably gets fired. People talk about this team like they're the Patriots or Steelers. They aren't, they just have a penchant for getting hot late in the season.

    Now let's debunk this whole "Eli Manning is elite" thing. Eli Manning is an elite clutch quarterback, not an elite quarterback. Those are two very different things. Eli comes through when it matters, but he's incredibly inconsistent. 

    Eli led the NFL in interceptions in both 2010 and 2007. Last year the Giants lost to the 5-11 Redskins twice and to the 7-9 Seahawks at home thanks to three interceptions by Manning.

    This isn't a new trend, the Giants find a way to blow at least one game to a lackluster opponent every year. In 2010 it was to the 6-10 Titans at home (two Manning interceptions), in 2009 it was to the 8-8 Broncos, which doesn't sound too bad except for the fact that they were in the middle of a 2-8 stretch, and in 2008 it was to the 4-12 Browns (three Manning interceptions).

    The mark of an elite NFL quarterback is consistency. Manning isn't consistent. At his best he's fantastic, but at his worst he's dreadful. 

    If you're picking NFL quarterbacks, the first three are obviously Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees in some order. Let's say the championships cancel out between Eli and Ben Roethlisberger, Ben gets the edge due to his consistency. If big brother Peyton is healthy, he's better than Eli as well.

    That means that before you even discuss Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton, Eli is out of the top five. Even if you give him the edge over Peyton he's borderline top-five. If borderline top-five is elite, especially considering the chasm between No. 3 and No. 4, then we've watered down the term far too much.

    Oh, and one more thing. If Kyle Williams hadn't fumbled just one of his two muffed punts, we aren't having this conversation. Not even Eli's staunchest supporters can give him credit for that. Same goes for Tyree's miracle catch. If not for two of the luckiest things in NFL history, Eli would be ring-less and probably considered a fringe top-10 quarterback. 

    Now let's take a look at the schedule. The Giants play seven playoff teams, four really good non-playoff teams (Dallas and Philly), and two more against Washington, which as history shows, will give them trouble. Factoring in potential improvements from Carolina and Tampa, they really only have one easy game on the schedule: Cleveland.

    If anything, this Giants team is worse on paper than last year's. The swapped Mario Manningham for Reuben Randle, Brandon Jacobs for David Wilson and added Keith Rivers while losing Aaron Ross. Let's say this team is exactly as good on paper as last year's team.

    If that is the case, wouldn't the added difficulty to the schedule mean an extra loss or two? Remember, the Giants played the awful NFC West last year, drew the Dolphins while they were still winless, the Jets while they were falling apart and the Bills just as they were cooling off. They also faced Philly in a must-win game without Michael Vick.

    You could argue that everything broke perfectly for the 2011 Giants. That won't happen twice in a row. The Giants will miss the playoffs, that's my lock of the year. 

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Projected Record: 8-8

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: LeSean McCoy. 

    Don't think for a second that the picture above wasn't intentional, because that's going to be the story of Philadelphia's season. The working title for my 2012 Eagles book is "Down Goes Vick!"

    It's a shame, because this team is simply loaded on paper, the problem is a good chunk of the team has injury issues. Vick is going to miss his usual four or five games, Jason Peters won't be back for a while, and if DeMeco Ryans misses any time, the defense will be without any competent linebackers like they were early in the 2011 season.

    Aside from those guys, the Eagles have to worry about DeSean Jackson's effort. He openly admitted that he didn't give it his all last year, and now that he has a big contract, he doesn't have much incentive to play his best.

    Oh, and the team is still mourning the loss of Andy Reid's son Garrett. As we saw in Green Bay last year when the Packers laid an egg in their most important game, that's going to affect the Eagles.

    There are just so many potential problems for this team. It seems like they are made of glass both physically and mentally. 

    If the Eagles stay healthy, stay focused and don't get in their own way, they're a 12-4 playoff team. That's just not going to happen. 

    The real question here is what will happen to Andy Reid if the Eagles go 8-8 again. Honestly if I were Jeffrey Lurie, I'd fire him.

    Think of this like the Broncos firing Mike Shanahan a few years ago. Sometimes it's just time for a coach and an organization to part ways. Maybe Reid and the Eagles have reached that point. They've gone as far together as they possibly can. If they don't make it back to the playoffs this year, it could just be time to move on. 

Washington Redskins

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    Projected Record: 5-11.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Robert Griffin III.

    My man crush on Robert Griffin III is well documented, so I really hate to project this type of season for the Redskins, but I really don't have much of a choice. 

    Griffin is going to be awesome. I have no doubts about that. I just doubt what everyone else is going to do.

    Pierre Garçon is going from Peyton Manning's No. 2 and playing next to Reggie Wayne to being a rookie's top target. This may work out long-term, but right now, I have serious doubts. Long-term, Garçon is a better fit as a No. 2. 

    Contrary to popular belief, having five bad running backs does not equal one good one. Maybe Roy Helu has a good game or two and maybe Tim Hightower makes a few big plays, but the Redskins won't be a great running team. For all of you fantasy players out there, don't take a chance with Mike Shanahan's running back roulette, just avoid Washington's runners.

    What I really worry about is the offensive line. There is nothing more important to a young quarterback than staying upright. If Griffin starts getting hit, he'll start getting skittish, and if he starts getting skittish, he won't be able to go through his reads and hit his receivers.

    That's why I've been avoiding Griffin in fantasy leagues. We're going to see flashes of brilliance from Griffin, but I don't think he'll repeat what Cam Newton did statistically last year. His offensive line won't do him any favors, and he doesn't have a receiver like Steve Smith.

    There isn't much of note to say about the defense. They're going to rush the passer with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, they'll be around the middle of the pack and overall they'll do what they're expected to do. Stirring analysis, I know.

    All that really matters for the Redskins is the development of Griffin. All he has to do is show that he's headed in the right direction. If he does that, the future is bright in Washington. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Projected Record: 9-7.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Team MVP: Josh Freeman.

    That's right, I just predicted that Tampa Bay is going to win the NFC South. Why am I making such a prediction? 

    First of all, if we've learned anything from the NFC South, it's that it's unpredictable. If ever there was a time for someone to knock New Orleans off their perch, it's now. I could just slide the Falcons into their spot, but I like Tampa more.

    The Greg Schiano-Jim Harbaugh comparisons go much further than the fact that both came from the college game. Both revitalized dead programs, both led their teams to legitimate national contention and both kept weak programs in a state of constant respectability. The only major difference is that Schiano didn't have Andrew Luck.

    Continuing with the comparison, both Schiano and Harbaugh replaced arguably the worst head coach in the league at the time of their firing. Every year we see a team replace a terrible coach with a decent one, and it's always worth several wins.

    On paper, the Bucs made significant improvements at five different spots while only losing one major contributor (Kellen Winslow). They filled arguably their five biggest holes with Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Eric Wright, Mark Barron and Doug Martin. New Orleans and Atlanta both got worse during the offseason; Tampa got way better.

    Finally, there's the schedule. In a division as good and as tight as the NFC South, things like attrition and the schedule make a big difference. Their two placement games are against the Vikings and Rams—two easy wins—whereas the Saints have to play the 49ers and Packers and the Falcons have to play the Cardinals and Lions. 

    The Saints and Falcons play each other twice in 18 days in November, which sets up perfectly for Tampa. They don't have to travel to New Orleans or Atlanta until Week 15, which not only gives them time to build a lead in the division, but also allows them to watch the two heavyweights beat each other up before having to play them on the road.

    The key to all of this is Josh Freeman. If he plays like he did in 2010, the Bucs are a playoff team. If he plays like he did in 2011, they'll win six games or less.

    Fortunately for the Bucs, it's extremely rare for a quarterback to have a flash in the pan sophomore season and then fall off a cliff afterwards. Last year's failure was most likely due to him being out of shape (which was quite noticeable) and the entire team giving up on Raheem Morris.

    Freeman should be reinvigorated by all of his new offensive weapons. He should be thrilled with the coaching upgrade from Morris to Schiano and should be very good in 2012. I believe in Freeman, I believe in Schiano, I believe in the Bucs.  

Atlanta Falcons

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    Projected Record: 9-7

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: Sixth.

    Projected Team MVP: Matt Ryan.

    Ok, I'll come out and say it. Are we sure that Matt Ryan is that good?

    He has never finished better than eighth in the league in passing yards or passer rating, has been in the top 10 for yards per attempt only once and has never finished in the top 10 in the league for completion percentage. Oh, and he has an 0-3 record in the playoffs. That certainly doesn't help.

    Those stats alone are pretty damning, but remember the circumstances Ryan has had in his favor. He plays in a dome at least nine times per year (eight home games and a trip to New Orleans).

    He has always had at least one elite running back (Michael Turner) and wide receiver (Roddy White) on his team, last year he had two elite receivers (White and Julio Jones) and for the past three years he has had an elite tight end (Tony Gonzalez). 

    I submit to you that Matt Ryan is not an elite quarterback. In fact, I submit to you that not only is Ryan not elite, but that he is a game manager. An excellent game manager, perhaps the best in the league, but a game manager none the less.

    Here's why this is troubling to the Falcons. The entire argument for Atlanta being an elite team revolves around Ryan being an elite quarterback, which he simply isn't. 

    They won't be able to lean on the running game anymore, as Dirk Koetter is supposedly going to make Atlanta a pass-first team and Michael Turner is past his prime. Their defense is going to take a step back without Curtis Lofton, even if Asante Samuel makes up some of that loss. It's up to Ryan to play at an elite level if his team is going to. 

    I just doubt that he actually does. I think he plays well, so the team will play well. He'll be an above-average quarterback with a very defined ceiling, so that's exactly what his team will be. They'll go 9-7, they'll earn a wildcard spot and then they'll lose their opening playoff game. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Projected Record: 8-8.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Drew Brees.

    This just feels like the type of season where everything goes wrong for New Orleans. Not only do they have to deal with the aftermath of Bountygate, but they are hosting the Super Bowl and are still waiting on the belated madden curse from Drew Brees' cover two years ago. 

    I have some major questions about how the Saints have handled some of their post-Bountygate decisions, particularly in terms of their head coach. Why would they promote Joe Vitt to interim coach if he was suspended as well?

    There are two capable candidates on the coaching staff who weren't suspended. The Saints should have given the title of interim coach to Steve Spagnuolo or Pete Carmichael Jr. The Saints need leadership from their interim coach, especially in the wake of this scandal. It's hard to get leadership from a coach who isn't there.

    Speaking of the coaching situation, we have no idea how this team will perform without Sean Payton. He's probably the best offensive mind in the NFL, and we have no idea how good Drew Brees can be without Payton calling his plays.

    To be fair, the defense should probably be better in 2012. They added Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Broderick Bunkley to replace Jonathan Vilma, and Steve Spagnuolo is an upgrade at defensive coordinator over Gregg Williams. 

    We just don't know what to expect from the offense. They lost two major pieces in Robert Meachem and Carl Nicks, their coach is gone and it'd be rare for any team to play as well as the Saints did on offense last year twice in a row. 

    I just don't trust the Saints this year. I'm not saying they aren't a good team, I'm just saying that too much has already gone wrong. The Saints will be back in the hunt in 2013 when Payton is back, but for now they're on the outside looking in. 

Carolina Panthers

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    Projected Record: 6-10.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Cam Newton.

    Before I talk about why I don't think the Panthers will win many games this year, let me be the only person in the world to defend Jonathan Stewart's new contract.

    Don't think of it as just a contract for Stewart, think of the combined money the Panthers have invested in the running back position. Between Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert they have approximately $92 million invested in the running back position. Admittedly that's a lot, but it's less than the $96 million Minnesota has invested in Adrian Peterson.

    They didn't spend money on one great running back, they spent money on a great running game. For at least the next few years the Panthers will have one of the best rushing attacks in the game even if one of their guys gets hurt. Can Minnesota say the same?

    The passing game actually concerns me a bit more than the running game. While Cam Newton undoubtedly had a great rookie year, his stats are a bit misleading.

    He threw for 853 of his 4051 yards in the first two weeks of the year, approximately 21 percent of his total. That leads me to believe that defenses started to figure him out later in the year. 

    It's not like he's throwing to stars either. Steve Smith is 34-years-old and may have just had his last great year, and after him you could argue that none of their other receivers would get playing time on other teams. The Panthers are going to struggle a bit more through the air than people expect. 

    Carolina will also have a slightly tougher schedule in 2012 than 2011. Last year, they faced the AFC South and NFC North, one great division and one terrible division, but this year they'll face the AFC West and NFC East. Between the two divisions, only one team is universally predicted to be bad (Washington). 

    That added difficulty to the schedule will offset any improvement in Carolina. They're going to be competitive, but this isn't a playoff team yet. Once they make improvements on defense and get a few extra receivers, they'll be ready to contend. 

Green Bay Packers

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    Projected Record: 14-2.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: First.

    Projected Team MVP: Aaron Rodgers.

    The Packers are the best team in the league. It's that simple. I'm not going to get cute and try to argue otherwise. They went 15-1 last year and made it look easy, and if not for the tragic loss of a coach's son, they may have won the Super Bowl and gone down as the greatest team in NFL history.

    If Cedric Benson can give them at least some semblance of a running game, their offense could be even better than last year's. Considering how much defenses have to back off because of Rodgers and the passing game, I'd say Benson is a solid fantasy sleeper. 

    Speaking of the passing game, it should be even better this year. Jeff Saturday is an improvement at center over Scott Wells, Jermichael Finley should be healthier now that he's two years removed from a torn meniscus and Randall Cobb now has a year under his belt in the NFL. 

    The only real question mark is the defense, but I'm not nearly as concerned with it as everyone else seems to be.

    In 2010, the Packers were ranked fifth in total defense, but then fell all the way to 32nd last year despite only losing one major contributor (Nick Collins). So how will they get back to their 2010 level?

    Well first of all, losing Collins made it much harder to defend the deep ball. Dom Capers is hoping Charles Woodson can fill the hole by moving to safety, with Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Sam Shields taking over full-time at cornerback.

    They're also hoping for a massively improved pass-rush. Clay Matthews pressured the quarterback just as much as he always has, but didn't get as many sacks because of constant double-and-triple-teams. 

    To remedy this, Green Bay brought in a number of defensive linemen and linebackers to help take pressure off Matthews. Rookies Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels along with veteran Phillip Merling are expected to make a significant difference. 

    Speaking of rookies, the Packers spent their first six draft picks on defense. Considering Ted Thompson's fantastic track record, you have to figure that a few of them are going to hit. 

    Repeating a 15-1 or 14-2 season would be difficult for any team, but Green Bay is in a relatively good position to do it. Their schedule breaks very nicely for a team that just won their division.

    As an NFC North team, they get to play against the AFC South and NFC West, arguably the two worst divisions in football. Their hardest regular-season opponent, the 49ers, has to travel to Green Bay. They get to travel to Detroit after their bye week, and only have two really challenging road trips to Houston and New York (to face the Giants). 

    I can't see any reason, beyond an injury to Aaron Rodgers, that the Packers wouldn't be the best team in the NFC in 2012. You may disagree with everything else I write in this preview, but this should be pretty universally accepted. 

Chicago Bears

26 of 41

    Projected Record: 11-5

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Julius Peppers.

    I wish the Bears weren't in the NFC North, because they're the second best team in the NFC. In fact, other than the 49ers, I don't think anyone else is close.

    Here's one way to look at it: the Bears are, on paper, essentially a mirror image of the Steelers. Both have great quarterbacks, receivers and defenses. Both have very good head coaches, terrible offensive lines and a few significant health questions.

    Here's the difference. The Bears have everything Pittsburgh has, but also has an elite running back in Matt Forte and elite special teams (second only to San Francisco).

    It's a random comparison, but it gets my point across. The Bears, on paper, are very similar to a team that is constantly at the top of the league, but have two significant advantages. 

    People seem to forget that the last time Brandon Marshall played with Jay Cutler, he was arguably the best receiver in the NFL. Not just a great receiver, arguably the best in the NFL

    In their last two years together Marshall caught 206 passes for 2600 yards and 13 touchdowns, and that was when defenses could double-and-triple-team him because Denver didn't have a running game. Good luck doing that with Matt Forte in the backfield.

    They also brought in Alshon Jeffrey, who by all accounts has been fantastic in training camp. Not only does this give the Bears two solid starters, it also moves Earl Bennet into the slot (where he belongs) and allows Devin Hester to become more of a gadget player than a full-time receiver.

    We haven't even mentioned Michael Bush (who will really help lighten Matt Forte's workload) and Jeremy Bates, the guy who coached Cutler and Marshall in Denver and is now Chicago's quarterbacks coach. This offense is going to be awesome. 

    The defense should be as good as ever. They didn't lose any significant pieces, but added rookies Shea McClellin and Brandon Hardin as well as veteran linebacker Geno Hayes. 

    If you're running down the checklist of an elite team, what don't the Bears have? They're going to score a ton of points, they're going to have a great defense, they're going to have great special teams and they have a great coach. The only question mark I see is the offensive line, but Mike Tice taking over for Mike Martz as offensive coordinator should help remedy that situation.

    The 2012 Bears are going to be great. They're legitimate Super Bowl contenders. For the record, they're currently listed at 15:1 to win the Super Bowl. If you're looking for a sleeper bet, take the Bears. 

Detroit Lions

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    Projected Record: 6-10.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Calvin Johnson.

    Every year there's a playoff team or two that completely falls off a cliff. This year I'm predicting that team is the Lions. Everything about their 2011 screams unsustainable.

    Matthew Stafford missed 19 games in his first two years in the NFL. Just because he played a full season last year does not mean he isn't injury prone. I would be very surprised if he played 16 games again. 

    The Lions had four major second-half comebacks last year. Statistically speaking, that's incredibly rare, as most close games are essentially a toss-up and teams don't often see drastic declines in performance between two halves. It would be incredibly unlikely for the Lions to have that many comebacks in 2012.

    Calvin Johnson's 2011 season is also going to be essentially impossible to match. No receiver has ever caught 16 touchdown passes two seasons in a row. In fact, no receiver who has ever caught 16 touchdown passes in a year has followed that up with more than 13. 

    Detroit was third in the league in 2011 with 34 takeaways on defense and fourth with a turnover differential of +11. If anything is as random statistically as close games, it's turnovers. In 2010, the Lions were tied for 11th in turnover differential and 12th in takeaways. Expect the Lions to regress back towards those numbers in 2012, especially if Stafford misses any time.

    Finally, the Lions have an extremely top-heavy roster. If either Stafford or Johnson misses time, the offense will be almost completely decimated, whereas Green Bay could survive without Aaron Rodgers or Greg Jennings for a few weeks if need be.

    The same goes for the defense. Outside of their incredibly deep defensive line, the Lions are very thin. If someone like Stephen Tulloch or Louis Delmas missed significant time it would cripple the entire unit.

    It shows in the stats. The Lions were 23rd in the league in both total defense and points allowed last year thanks in large part to an injury to Delmas and a suspension to Ndamukong Suh. 

    On offense, the Lions averaged 29.6 points per game last year compared to only 22.6 in 2010. The only significant difference between the two seasons (unless you count rookie Titus Young who had an admittedly nice rookie year) was that Stafford played in 16 games in 2011. That essentially means Stafford is worth a full touchdown per game to the Lions.

    It's nice to have a few blue chip players on the roster, but the Lions simply aren't deep. They are going to be affected by injuries far more than the average team. 

    Not many playoff teams have as many glaring holes as Detroit does. Last year, the Lions were 29th in the league in rushing offense, 23rd in rushing defense and 22nd in passing defense. According to Football Outsider's advanced stats, their special teams were ranked 29th. 

    This means that the Lions were carried entirely by their elite passing attack. Not only does it seem almost impossible for a team ranked so poorly in every other area to win 10 games twice in a row, but any injury to a significant piece of the passing game would completely erase any possibility of it actually happening. 

    Oh, and it hasn't exactly been a great offseason in Detroit. Not only did they lose key cornerback Eric Wright, but several players are dealing with legal issues, creating major distractions going into the season. 

    It seems absolutely impossible to me that the Lions could recapture the magic of their 2011 season. I really like their young core, but they need to fix the rest of the roster and the culture of the organization before they'll be ready to take the next step as a contender. 

Minnesota Vikings

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    Projected Record: 4-12.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Jared Allen.

    The $96 million question surrounding the Vikings is whether or not Adrian Peterson will be healthy at the start of the season.

    The answer, in my completely medically uninformed opinion, is that there's no freaking way he's healthy. You simply don't recover from a torn ACL in eight months. The last person to try it was Carson Palmer, and he went from a potential Hall of Famer to someone who has an entire internet forum devoted to how bad he is. 

    The Vikings throwing Peterson into the fire in Week 1 is the type of shortsighted decision making that has kept them from winning Super Bowls. What is the best case scenario here for the Vikings? If anything, Peterson coming back at 80 percent (his approximate Week 1 ceiling) hurts Minnesota by slowing down the development of Christian Ponder and getting them a lower draft pick. 

    The best case scenario for Peterson is probably what happened to Tom Brady during his recovery. Brady was visibly slower and more cautious en route to a mediocre (by his standards) season before returning to form in 2010. The difference is Brady got hurt in Week 1, Peterson got hurt in Week 17. 

    I'd love to hear someone explain why Peterson isn't at least going to miss the first month of the season, if not more. The smart organizational move would be to rest him until they're sure he's 100 percent healthy, and then platoon him with a more experienced Toby Gerhart and a more developed Christian Ponder. Why take a risk on your best and most expensive player?

    Of course, that's not what the Vikings are doing. I'm not surprised, considering this is a team that employed both Mike Tice and Brad Childress as head coach, but it's agonizing to fans of common sense. I don't care how much of a freak Peterson is, this isn't going to work. 

    My Peterson prediction: he's injured again in some way by the middle of October. Don't say I didn't warn you.

    Since this section isn't entirely about Peterson, I should probably mention some of their other players.

    I'm not a fan of Christian Ponder. He's Chad Pennington without the legendary accuracy. He had moments of respectability last year, but I think his absolute best case scenario is somewhere between 2000 Trent Dilfer and 2002 Brad Johnson. 

    My biggest issue with Ponder is that Minnesota's offense feels noticeably more dangerous when Joe Webb is on the field. No offense should be scarier when the backup quarterback is on the field. Would you ever say that about Jim Sorgi?

    I've criticized the Vikings enough for one slide. Time to give them credit for something they did right. I love Harrison Smith. He does everything: he's a hard hitter, he can cover the deep ball and intercept passes, and he's smart enough to be the quarterback of the defense. He's the rare safety who can be both a ballhawk and an enforcer depending on the situation. He's a stud.

    Alas, he's one of the few Vikings I like. It's going to be a long season in Minnesota. At least Jared Allen can chase the sack record while nobody notices again. 

San Francisco 49ers

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    Projected Record: 12-4.

    Projected Divisional Finish: First.

    Projected Conference Finish: Second.

    Projected Team MVP: Patrick Willis.

    Any talk of the 49ers being a fluke should have ended when they beat New Orleans in the playoffs last year, but many are predicting that the 49ers will fall back to Earth in 2012.

    While I see the validity of some of those points, I disagree with them strongly. The main argument is that the 49ers won't be able to maintain their ridiculous turnover margin.

    I agree with that. It'd be nearly impossible for them to have a +28 turnover margin again, but they're still by far the best turnover team in the NFL. Their entire offense is built around not giving away the ball, and while Randy Moss and Mario Manningham may cause a few more interceptions with their deep routes, the basic philosophy of the team isn't changing.

    The defense is still by far the best in the NFL. They return all 11 starters from arguably the best defense of the past decade. They may not turn the ball over quite as often, but it's absolutely not a stretch to say they'll lead the league in scoring defense again.

    Remember, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman are still nowhere near their primes. Other than Justin Smith, who should have been the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, their entire defense is still in their prime. There is no indication that this group is going to get worse.

    The special teams are still probably the best in the NFL. They have the best punter (Andy Lee), a top five kicker (David Akers) and a top five returner (Ted Ginn).

    You have to give the 49ers credit for actively addressing their only major weakness: wide receiver. Rather than just pick up one player, they went through pretty much every available option. They got a veteran looking for a ring in Randy Moss, a free agent in his prime in Mario Manningham and a rookie first-round draft pick in A.J. Jenkins.

    I love that strategy. They didn't want to risk their entire passing offense on one player, so they brought in several who will help in different ways. Now unless you have strong feelings against Alex Smith, this team doesn't have a weakness.

    Even if their record doesn't quite show it, the 49ers will be just as good as in 2012 as they were in 2011. They didn't lose anyone significant and added an entirely new dimension to their offense.

    My advice? Wait for them to lose to Green Bay in Week 1, let the public overreact and then bet on their Super Bowl odds. You'll get great odds. 

Seattle Seahawks

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    Projected Record: 8-8.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Second.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Marshawn Lynch.

    I don't think I've ever loved a rookie third-round pick as much as Russell Wilson. I currently own him on all but one of my fantasy teams, I've placed a large wager on Seattle in Week 1, and I may or may not be planning on buying his jersey. 

    There's nothing more fun than a quarterback who can run. There's nothing more agonizing than a quarterback who can run but not throw. I've been through that with Tim Tebow all preseason, but Russell Wilson can actually do both.

    In the preseason he has looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback as a thrower alone. When you factor in his ability to run, the Seahawks might be interesting for the first time... ever? I can't even say I enjoyed watching them during their Super Bowl run. Now I'll watch every week.

    My favorite part of this? He's only 5'11'', which will help put an end to the asinine belief that short quarterbacks can't succeed in the NFL, following Drew Brees, Michael Vick and Jeff Garcia in the past decade alone. Height helps, but any quarterback with the arm and the brain to succeed in the NFL will, no matter how tall they are. 

    You know who else benefits from this? Marshawn Lynch. Ask LeSean McCoy and Willis McGahee how much fun it is to play with a quarterback who can run. Defenses are so afraid of them that they forget about the guy who actually gets paid to do it. 

    If Wilson is as good as expected and Lynch can maintain his level of production from 2011, the Seahawks have a chance to be good. Especially considering how underrated their defense is.

    Seattle was ranked ninth in total defense and seventh in points allowed last year, and they have several talented young players.

    Earl Thomas is on his way to becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL (if he isn't already there). Brandon Browner looks like a linebacker at corner, and if he can fix his penalty issues he's going to be awesome. Chris Clemons just had perhaps the most unnoticed double-digit sack season of all time.

    I'm also one of the few people who actually likes rookie Bruce Irvin. The reports out of training camp have been great, and a smart defensive coordinator can always find an use for speed-rushers. 

    The Seahawks are a sneaky good team. Nobody really noticed, but last year they were solid in the second half. Even if you haven't heard of most of their players, the Seahawks are worth watching this year. If nothing else, Russell Wilson will make two or three ridiculous plays per game. 

St. Louis Rams

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    Projected Record: 5-11.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Third.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Steven Jackson.

    As much as I loved the move to trade down from No. 2 to No. 6, I hated the Rams going all the way down to No. 14. The Rams don't need depth. They have plenty of decent players and thanks to the RG3 trade they'll have plenty of opportunities to add more in the next few drafts. What the Rams need is top-end talent. 

    Think about it. Do the Rams have even a single, true blue chip player? Chris Long is certainly an excellent player, but there are a ton of great pass rushers in the NFL. I don't know that I'd consider him a truly rare talent. The same goes for Steven Jackson.

    That's why I hated the idea of moving down and taking Michael Brockers. Even if it filled a need, Justin Blackmon has a chance to be a star. He's going to be a legitimate playmaker. The Rams don't have anyone like that.

    That's going to make it very hard for Sam Bradford to truly develop. He looked great as a rookie in 2010, but when he lost his only legitimate receiver (Danny Amendola), he simply had nobody to throw to. Occasionally that can be remedied by a great offensive line, but the Rams didn't have one of those either.

    Bradford never had open receivers, and was hit so often that by the time Brandon Lloyd was acquired, it was too late. Years like Bradford had in 2011 can often be catastrophic to long-term development (just look at Joey Harrington and David Carr). He was the sixth-most sacked quarterback in football despite playing in only 10 games.

    The Rams did absolutely nothing to remedy this situation. They could have gone out and spent money on someone like Carl Nicks to protect Bradford or Vincent Jackson to give him someone to throw to, but instead they paid big money for a cornerback, Cortland Finnegan. Defense wasn't the problem last year, offense was.

    And then in the draft, they only managed to bring in two offensive players with any sort of potential, and neither Brian Quick nor Isaiah Pead are going to be the type of playmaker St. Louis needs.

    The Rams are building their team around mediocrity. There is a time to trade down in the draft and there is a time to add players to your best unit, but right now the Rams are attempting to forego some of the most important elements of building a championship team. They aren't bringing in elite talent and they aren't helping their quarterback.

    Even if Jeff Fisher is as good as advertised (and he isn't), he isn't going to change what is so blatantly obvious about the Rams: they don't have enough talent. They have just enough decent players to not make fools of themselves, but without elite talent it's impossible to go anywhere in the playoffs.  

Arizona Cardinals

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    Projected Record: 4-12.

    Projected Divisional Finish: Fourth.

    Projected Conference Finish: N/A.

    Projected Team MVP: Larry Fitzgerald. 

    Did you know John Skelton had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives last year? It's true, that's only one less of each than Tim Tebow. Look it up

    Why am I taking such a surprised tone about this? Because absolutely nobody noticed. At all. Apparently if you don't pray after touchdowns or win a Heisman your comebacks don't matter.

    You know what else people didn't notice? Skelton was worse than Tebow last year. That's right haters, Tim Tebow wasn't the worst quarterback in the league last year.

    Skelton beat Tebow in completion percentage (54.9 to 46.5), but Tebow had the edge in touchdowns (12 to 11) and, more importantly, interceptions (14 to six). Combined with Tebow's remarkable running ability, the two were at least equally bad. 

    At this point you're probably wondering why I've spent the past few paragraphs comparing Skelton to Tebow. Well, everyone loves talking about how Tebow is the worst quarterback in the league. Skelton is worse, and he's a starter. A full-time, won the job outright, throwing-specialist starter. And nobody seems to have a problem with this. I guess that's what happens when you play in Arizona.

    Assuming Skelton keeps up his terrible play, what's going to happen in 2012 when the comebacks stop coming? I'll tell you what will happen, the Cardinals will lose. Often. Badly. 

    But what if, hypothetically, miraculously, Skelton still has a little bit of comeback magic in him? Well, remember how close games are notoriously random? The Cardinals didn't win a single game last year by more than a touchdown. Any leftover Skelton magic should be offset by the predictable regression to the mean in close games for Arizona. 

    The one hope Arizona has is its surprisingly good defense. With guys like Calais Campbell, Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett and Patrick Peterson, they have a ton of talent.

    Here's the problem, winning around defense requires that defense to play at a consistently elite level and mistake free, run-first play from the offense. Neither of those things are going to happen. 

    While Arizona's defense is good and should get better, they were only middle of the pack last year and didn't make any significant improvements. The offense meanwhile, is going to turn the ball over (Skelton's 14 interceptions came in only eight games) and will never be a run-first unit as long as Larry Fitzgerald is a Cardinal.

    The Cardinals are never going to win anything until they find a real quarterback. It's that simple. They have weapons and a solid defense, but none of that matters without a passable quarterback. It doesn't have to be Peyton Manning, just someone who can keep them in games and make an occasional throw. 

    Think of these Cardinals like the Redskins last year. They had talent pretty much everywhere, but the quarterback position was such a problem that they could only win five games. Skelton is even worse than Rex Grossman, so the Cardinals will be even worse than the Redskins.

    Maybe next spring the Cardinals will find their RG3, but for now, they're the worst team in the NFC West. 

Yardage Leaders

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    Passing: Aaron Rodgers.

    Why rock the boat here? I'm giving Rodgers every award he can take until someone knocks him off his perch.

    Rushing: Ray Rice.

    Ray Rice and Arian Foster are probably the two best running backs in football, the difference here is circumstance.

    Foster is dealing with two new starters on his offensive line, a more extensive injury history than Rice (although neither is a big risk), the return of his starting quarterback and a very capable backup (Ben Tate).

    Rice only has one new starter on the offensive line. We know exactly what to expect from Baltimore's passing game, and unless you count rookie Bernard Pierce as a big threat to Rice, he should get most of the available carries.

    Receiving: Calvin Johnson.

    This is another one that doesn't require much thought. Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL and led the league in yardage last year.

    Johnson came in ninth in 2010 when Matthew Stafford played in only three games, now he's even better. Even if Stafford misses time he should compete for this title. If Stafford stays healthy, Johnson doesn't have much competition.

    Kick/Punt Returns: Ted Ginn Jr.

    Devin Hester doesn't return enough kicks to win this. Patrick Peterson's increased role on defense should also take him out of the running. Leon Washington is always a health risk, and San Francisco has the best special teams in the league. Ginn seems like the right choice.

    Interception/Fumble Returns: Charles Woodson.

    Woodson's versatile role in Green Bay's defense makes him a prime candidate for turnovers. Defenses can't avoid him like they do Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha.

    Woodson is usually good for a few sacks, a few forced fumbles and a few interceptions per year. Assuming Green Bay is in the lead as often as they should be and teams have to pass it, Woodson should have plenty of opportunities to create turnovers.

Touchdown Leaders

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    Passing: Aaron Rodgers.

    Do I really need to explain?

    Rushing: LeSean McCoy.

    This has to be the year Michael Vick stops running around so much, right? If Vick is really thinking about his health, he'll give up his goal-line carries. 

    Philadelphia doesn't really have a goal-line threat at receiver. Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson are both small and Brent Celek isn't exactly a superstar. Someone has to take advantage of Vick's touches, right?

    Receiving: Jimmy Graham.

    Robert Meachem caught 20 touchdown passes in the last three years. Graham should be one of the main beneficiaries of Meachem's absence.

    Sean Payton isn't coaching the Saints. That means Drew Brees isn't going to be quite as comfortable. If that's the case, doesn't it seem logical that he'd look to his security blanket more often than in the past? As much as the Saints may struggle without Payton, Graham figures to benefit greatly from the situation.

    Kick/Punt Returns: Devin Hester.

    Even if Hester doesn't return kicks quite as much as you'd like, the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey should allow him to focus more on his special teams duties.

    Oh, and he's the greatest returner of all time. Why bet against him?

    Interception/Fumble Returns: Charles Woodson.

    Same reasoning as before. He'll cause a few turnovers and is explosive enough to take them to the house. 

Defensive Leaders

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    Sacks: Jared Allen.

    Why doesn't anybody realize how good Jared Allen is. He had 22 sacks last year. He has 62 over the past four years. The fact that any pass-rusher other than DeMarcus Ware is mentioned in the same class as Allen bothers me.

    Jason Pierre-Paul has too much competition on his own team from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora to lead the league in sacks. Ware will give Allen some trouble, but Allen will face much worse left tackles in the NFC North. 

    I'm a big believer in Clay Matthews this year, but I don't think he can catch Allen either. He was an absolute monster last year and will be again this year. 

    Tackles: Brian Cushing. 

    Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are the two best inside linebackers in football, but they'll cancel each other out statistically. The only person who could have done that to Cushing is DeMeco Ryans, and he's now a Philadelphia Eagle. 

    Last year's leaders were D'Qwell Jackson (a major injury risk) and London Fletcher (37-years-old). This spot is up for the taking. 

    Interceptions: Brandon Carr.

    Carr is a great sleeper bet for the interceptions title. He's going from the run-heavy AFC West to the pass-happy NFC East, DeMarcus Ware will force quarterbacks to make bad throws, and Morris Claiborne should be good enough that teams can't completely ignore Carr.

    Darrelle Revis is the obvious bet every year, but nobody ever throws at him. Nnamdi Asomugha should get the same treatment. Legitimate superstars rarely lead the league in interceptions for that reason. I have no idea if odds are even offered on this, but if they are, Carr is a good bet. 

Individual Awards

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    League MVP: Aaron Rodgers.

    I'm getting bored of this.

    Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers.

    Is it wrong that I want to give this one to Tim Tebow just to shake things up?

    Defensive Player of the Year: Jared Allen.

    This award has become notorious recently for picking the wrong winner. The past three winners (Charles Woodson, Troy Polamalu and Terrell Suggs) all should have lost (to Darrelle Revis, Clay Matthews and Justin Smith, respectively).

    They can't get it wrong four years in a row, right? Allen is going to lead the league in sacks and finally get the recognition he deserves. If Allen is close, the media might give him the edge just because of last year's snub. Of course, the same could be said for Smith.

    The difference is Smith is going to be 33 during the season. Allen is 30. Age isn't an exact science, but Allen should be more likely to maintain his level of performance. If he does, he's got a real shot to win this award.

    Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning.

    If Peyton plays all 16 games, he'll win this one by default. In fact, if he plays in 12 games, he'll win this one by default. While he doesn't look 100 percent healthy yet, he does look healthy enough to play. It would take another neck injury to keep Peyton from winning this award.

    Most Improved Player: Eric Decker.

    This isn't technically a real award, but it should be, so I'm awarding it. Decker was made to play with Peyton Manning. His stats should see a massive bump, and if Denver makes the playoffs, he'll be in the national spotlight as Manning's top receiver.

    Realistically there will probably be another Victor Cruz-type player who would win this award, but I'm not gonna try to predict that. Decker gets the predictable version. 

    Offensive Rookie of the Year: Robert Griffin III.

    This one is realistically going to come down to the quarterbacks. Weeden and Tannehill are already out because of their terrible supporting casts (and the fact that they're Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill). 

    That leaves Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. We don't even know if Wilson has the job permanently, so he's too risky.

    That leaves Luck and Griffin, which basically comes down to personal preference. I prefer Griffin, so he gets the award.

    Defense Rookie of the Year: Mark Barron.

    This award usually goes to a pass-rusher or a tackling-machine, but there isn't an obvious candidate in either category except for maybe Luke Kuechly. 

    Barron's effect on Tampa's defense should be evident all year. If he's as good as he seems, he can absolutely win this award. 

    Coach of the Year: Greg Schiano.

    New coaches tend to monopolize this award, and Schiano is the best of that group. He's really in a perfect situation: if he wins right away, he's hailed as a god (a la Jim Harbaugh), if he doesn't, nobody can blame him because of the mess Raheem Morris left behind. 

    I'm one of the few who thinks Tampa Bay can make the playoffs. If they do, he'll win this award. 

Coaching Firings

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    Pat Shurmur: The Browns were recently sold, and Shurmur doesn't seem to have the Browns on the right track so far. Another bad year and the new ownership group will want to bring in their own coach. 

    Norv Turner: It's about freaking time.

    Andy Reid: Reid and the Eagles are like a married couple that doesn't love each other anymore. They've just been together for too long, they've grown apart. Another year out of the playoffs should seal the deal for Reid. 

    Leslie Frazier: Someone name me an interim coach who has had the tag removed and gone on to do great things? Don't be surprised if you can't think of one because it doesn't exist. No former interim coach has ever won a Super Bowl with the same team.

    This was an ill-fated hiring at the time and nothing has changed. Of course the Vikings were fired up to play for him, it meant that they didn't have to play for Brad Childress. That shouldn't be the qualifying factor in hiring a coach. Another bad year should be the final straw for Frazier.

    Ken Whisenhunt: I really hate to say this, because Whisenhunt really isn't a bad coach, but his mishandling of this quarterback situation might cost him his job.

    Think about it. Arizona hasn't even had a below-average quarterback since Kurt Warner retired. Every guy they've played has been terrible. Someone has to take the fall for that. Whisenhunt will succeed somewhere else if he gets the right roster, but his Arizona tenure seems to be winding down. 

Wild-Card Playoffs

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    (4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. (5) Chicago Bears:

    As I've said, the Bears are the second-best team in the NFC, a road trip to Tampa Bay won't slow them down.

    Tampa's improved secondary should help against Marshall, but their run defense will have a ton of trouble with Matt Forte and Michael Bush. They were ranked last in the league in rushing defense last year.

    On the other side, Chicago's defense should be able to contain Tampa Bay's offense. Charles Tillman can cover Vincent Jackson, Julius Peppers will get after Josh Freeman and Brian Urlacher will do Brian Urlacher things.

    Winner: Chicago.

     

    (4) Denver Broncos vs. (5) Buffalo Bills:

    This is a tough one. Peyton Manning has had a notoriously hard time against great pass-rushes, and Buffalo's running game seems well-suited for a January game in Denver.

    On the other hand, can you really see Ryan Fitzpatrick beating Peyton Manning on the road in a playoff game? I can't either, which is why I'm giving this one to Denver.

    Winner: Denver. 

     

    (3) Pittsburgh Steelers vs. (6) Baltimore Ravens:

    I swear this one was completely accidental, but I don't think anyone will mind this as the Saturday night game during the wild-card round. 

    This one is always a toss up, but I'm going with Baltimore. They owned this matchup in 2011, and there's a decent chance Terrell Suggs could play in this game. Homefield-advantage doesn't mean much in this series. These teams know each other too well. I'm going with my gut here.

    Winner: Baltimore.

     

    (3) Dallas Cowboys vs. (6) Atlanta Falcons:

    This Atlanta team hasn't won a playoff game yet and I'm not gonna be the one who says they will. I need to see it from them first.

    Winner: Dallas. 

Divisional Playoffs

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    (1) New England Patriots vs. (6) Baltimore Ravens:

    We saw this game last year and New England won. The 2012 Patriots are better than the 2011 Patriots and the 2012 Ravens are worse than the 2011 Ravens. Combine that with the fact that New England looked dreadful in the AFC championship game and still won and there isn't much of a reason to pick Baltimore here.

    Winner: New England.

     

    (1) Green Bay Packers vs. (5) Chicago Bears:

    Screw San Francisco and Dallas, this is the real NFC championship game, and it should be a great one. 

    Green Bay is the better team here, but Chicago will give them all they can handle. Their defense knows Aaron Rodgers well and should have a great game plan cooked up for the Packers, and the Cutler-to-Marshall combo should give Green Bay fits.

    The more I think about it, the more I want to give this one to Chicago. They have a clear edge on defense and if they get the lead, they can keep it through the running game. I just can't bet against Aaron Rodgers. At least not this early in the playoffs (even if that same strategy cost me quite a bit of money last year). I'm going with the Packers.

    Winner: Green Bay.

     

    (2) Houston Texans vs. (4) Denver Broncos: 

    This one has the potential to be great. These are two completely different teams, one based around the run and a bend-but-don't-break defense, the other around the pass and getting after the quarterback. 

    Peyton Manning has given the Texans fits for a decade, but he's not throwing to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne anymore. He also doesn't have Edgerrin James to keep defenses honest. Wade Phillips' unit is too good for a one-trick pony like this Denver team. The Texans take this one in a close game.

    Winner: Houston.

     

    (2) San Francisco 49ers vs. (3) Dallas Cowboys:

    Through years of fandom and repeated gambling losses, I've learned one irrefutable truth about professional football: there will be at least one inexplicable upset during the Divisional round every year.

    It won't happen to New England or Green Bay again, as both have suffered from this truth over the past two years. That leaves Houston and San Francisco.

    I think the Texans win their game, which means I have to pick against San Francisco. And honestly, this is a secretly good matchup for Dallas.

    The 49ers struggle (by their standards) against elite tight ends (Jimmy Graham torched them last year), and their entire defense is geared towards the run. Not that they can't stop the pass as well, but Dallas is a pass-first team that is more equipped to score on San Francisco than a team like Houston.

    On the other side, Dallas has one of the better pass-rushes in the NFL. Remember what happened the last time San Fran faced a great pass-rush in the playoffs? Alex Smith looked awful en route to an upset loss to the Giants. Why can't the Cowboys copy that defensive formula?

    I hate picking against the 49ers, but I don't have much of a choice. I don't know for sure who it will be, but there will be at least one upset during this round, and I'm going with San Francisco. 

    Winner: Dallas. 

Championship Round

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    (1) Green Bay Packers vs. (3) Dallas Cowboys:

    I know exactly how this is going to go down. We're going to see tons of articles about how Tony Romo has "changed" and is now a championship-caliber leader. ESPN talking heads are going to call the upset. Dallas fans buy their tickets to New Orleans.

    And then the game starts. It's over by halftime. Green Bay wins by at least 20. 

    Winner: Green Bay.

     

    (1) New England Patriots vs. (2) Houston Texans.

    This one is a bit tougher. It's hard to see the Patriots losing a home playoff game, but the 2010 Jets and 2009 Ravens proved it's not impossible. 

    If anyone were to go into New England and beat the Patriots, it'd have to be a team like Houston, right?

    The Texans can run the ball in cold weather. Their defense can keep the game close enough for them to maintain their strategy rather than jump into a shootout with Tom Brady. The passing game is good enough (assuming everyone is healthy) to mount a comeback if necessary.

    Last year, Houston almost beat the Ravens with their third-string quarterback. The Ravens then went on to almost beat the Patriots. If Matt Schaub was healthy I think the Texans would have won the AFC last year.

    Well, Schaub is healthy right now. Houston's defense and running game are elite. On paper, they're built to beat New England. That's why I think they'd win this matchup.

    Winner: Houston. 

Super Bowl XLVII

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    (1) Green Bay Packers vs. (2) Houston Texans:

    This is the matchup we should have seen last year. The best team in the AFC and the best team in the NFC both fell short for perfectly acceptable reasons, but they'll be right back at the top in 2012.

    Part of me thinks Houston will be able to use the same strategy against Green Bay that they use against New England, but there are some key differences that give Green Bay a distinct advantage.

    First of all, this game won't be played in cold weather. It will be played in the Superdome. Green Bay's explosive passing game won't be hindered by weather.

    Second of all, most of the Packers played in the Super Bowl two years ago. They know what to expect, how to prepare and how to avoid all of the pressure that comes with playing in the big game.

    We can't say the same about Houston. This is a fairly young team that just had it's first taste of playoff football last year. 

    The Super Bowl has almost become about picking quarterbacks. Last year, Eli Manning made the big plays when it counted and Tom Brady didn't. That's why the Giants won.

    When it comes down to it, Aaron Rodgers is going to make the big plays when it counts. I don't know if Matt Schaub will. That's why the Packers are your Super Bowl XLVII champions.