2012 NFL Preview Part 2: The Bests of the Wests
Our major NFL preview rolls on to the AFC and NFC West.
Ah the west coast. The best coast, as they say. The sandy beaches of San Diego. The breezy bay winds of San Francisco. And Missouri. Somebody explain that one. 25 percent of the teams in the Western divisions of football are from the state of Missouri. Thanks for ruining the atmosphere guys.
One could say that the AFC West was almost completely average last year. In total, the division had a record of 31-33.
That collective record was better than the AFC South, the NFC West, and the Super Bowl champion producing NFC East. The problem is that no single AFC West team rose above 8-8, and it really seemed at times like none of them should have even gotten to the .500 mark.
Tim Tebow sat quietly in the corner and watched as team after team inexplicably imploded in front of his eyes. I lost count of how many dropped passes, missed field goals, fumbles and bonehead mistakes that their opponents made. It really was unbelievable.
The Broncos played one legitimately good game, and that was in the playoffs against an injury-ridden Pittsburgh team. That does not make them good. Process of elimination won the AFC West last year. No one wanted it. You would have thought it was cholera.
The Chargers posted a 4-1 record in both their first five and final five games. But something went haywire, as it always seems to for San Diego, in the middle part of their schedule.
A horrendous six game slide that dropped them to 4-7, and effectively destroyed their season. Philip Rivers did not have a great year, by his standards, and the entire offensive line was decimated by injuries.
Again, silly special teams mistakes cost the Chargers a seat in the playoffs, as Rivers fumbled a snap on a kneel down (which I have never seen before and doubt I will ever see again) and Nick Novak missed multiple game winning field goals.
The Raiders looked on pace to make a playoff run last year, as they sat atop the division at 7-4 with five games remaining. But replacements Carson Palmer and Michael Bush were unable to hold the lead, dropping four of their last five, culminating in a loss to a Chargers team in week 17 that had absolutely nothing to play for.
I'm not exactly sure how the Chiefs got to seven wins without Jamaal Charles (another player you could have found on my fantasy team at the start of last season).
They started three different quarterbacks throughout the year (with newly ex-Bronco Kyle Orton having the most success) and failed to find a steady run game to replace Charles (Thomas Jones, Jackie Battle and Dexter McCluster all took turns being mediocre).
The team seems to be in a rebuilding position, but doesn't seem very interested in any kind of forward progress.
1. San Diego Chargers (10-6)
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Disclaimer: This prediction is 100% dependent on Peyton Manning failing to play the full season in Denver. More to come on that later.
The way I see it, the Chargers should be a bit better than last year.
First, I expect Philip Rivers to turn things around and get back to his 2010 form (4,700 yards, 30 TDs, 13 INTs). Second, the offensive line will (mostly) be back healthy and Ryan Mathews shouldn't miss much time with his recent clavicle injury (fingers crossed).
Most importantly, Antonio Gates is supposedly healthy and ready to go. He could provide the offense with a much needed boost, especially with the departure of Vincent Jackson.
I pair the Chargers slight improvement with the declines I expect to come from the rest of the division, and it makes sense that they should finish atop the rankings this year.
In terms of pure talent, the Chargers are always at the top of the food chain. But Norv Turner is still around, and a 10-win season might be a little optimistic on my part. Let's all hope that the Chargers pull out a couple of those games that they usually let slip away.
2. Oakland Raiders (9-7)
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I don't want to believe that Carson Palmer might be a serviceable quarterback, but it is a real possibility. His stats are not as awful as I would like them to be.
He did throw 16 INTs, but six of them came in his first two starts, in which it was clear he had forgotten how to throw a forward pass. An additional four of them came in one game against Green Bay, which is somewhat forgivable.
In terms of passing yards, he racked up 2,753 in his ten games. Over a whole season, that pace would translate to just over 4,400, which would have been good for 7th most in 2011. Yeah, wrap your brain around that.
The 2012 Raiders season will not come down to Carson Palmer though. It'll come down to Darren McFadden.
I love Darren McFadden. I think he is amazing. He's got that dangerous combination of size and speed that so few running backs can maximize. He could carry this team to the playoffs. But his injury history is so damning.
We would have to come up with a stronger term than "injury prone" to adequately describe his situation. He has only been in the league for four years, and he has missed at least three games each season, each time with a different injury.
The most worrisome part was his inability last year to recover from a minor injury. The original diagnosis was that he would only miss two or three weeks, but he ended up missing the last half of the season. You want to guess who's fantasy team he was on? It's not even funny at this point, is it?
But let's put all that aside. Even though it goes against everything I believe in to root for good things for a Raiders player, I genuinely hope he plays a full season. I remember watching him at Arkansas. I remember thinking he'd be a great NFL player. But this could be a defining year for him. I won't be rooting for him in weeks 1 and 17 (weird that they bookended it like that) but for every week in between, I'm pulling for the kid.
3. Denver Broncos (8-8)
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You think I'm being harsh until you realize that I am giving them the exact same record as last year. Now I seem a little more generous, don't I?
Here is where we get into the world of speculation and guesswork. The biggest question mark of this season rests on the surgically reconstructed shoulders of Peyton Manning. I'll be realistic for a moment; if Peyton Manning plays all 16 games, the Broncos win the division. It won't even be close. They could be 11-5 or 12-4 with even 75 percent of total Peyton capacity.
Their schedule starts out rough and lessens up in the second half. But if Peyton can't get back into a rhythm, things could start to snowball very quickly. If he takes one hard hit, that could be it. I mean, their backup quarterback is Caleb Hanie...
So basically, the Broncos could finish anywhere between 4-12 and 12-4. I just don't know. I went with 8-8 because I would be surprised if Manning makes it all the way through the season unscathed. Neck injuries are serious business. It's not just going to go away.
I will predict that he plays about eight games, going 5-3 (they have to play Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston, New England, and New Orleans in that span, so calm down). And from there, 3-5 seems terribly generous if it's Caleb Hanie running the team.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11)
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I have seen, on at least three separate occasions, someone claiming that the Chiefs will win the AFC West this year. Don't believe these lies. There is no way. Their 2011 passing offense was bad (25th in the league). Their 2011 rush defense was bad (26th in the league). It's not going to happen.
The only marketed improvement we might see will be out of the running back spot. Jamaal Charles had a fantastic 2010, rushing for nearly 1,500 yards. But there is no guarantee that he will return to that form.
He tore his ACL, full recovery usually takes more than a year. He won't be able, right away, to cut the way he used to. It is going to be awkward for him. Which will be awkward for the whole offense.
I just don't see much coming out of Kansas City, except people making the "somewhere over Dwayne Bowe" joke two years too late.
The San Francisco 49ers and first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh surprised everyone en route to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
Everything lined up just right for them.
Alex Smith minimized his mistakes. Frank Gore played the whole season without injuring himself. Vernon Davis stopped having those nightmares of Mike Singletary screaming at him. Life was good in San Francisco.
Apparently, this division also had three other teams playing in regularly scheduled action, but you could have fooled me.
The Cardinals actually went on a 7-2 run at the end of the season. But like many mediocre teams, their 1-6 start destroyed any chance of making the postseason.
Let's not be fooled by their 8-8 finish, consider that they played in four overtime games, and won them all. That is not easily replicable. With the erratic nature of sudden death overtime, that could easily have been 0-4, making their final record 4-12.
Surprisingly, the Seahawks marked a pedestrian 4-4 home record. I guess I shouldn't be expecting a lot more. They do only get to play St. Louis one time at home.
I do believe though, that Seattle underachieved last year.
They scored impressive victories over the Giants, the Ravens, and the Eagles. And they lost narrowly to the Falcons and 49ers. Their defense was surprisingly strong. It could have been a very different season with a better quarterback.
The Rams won two games. I'm not sure how. Steven Jackson is pretty cool, I guess. Sam Bradford has... expectations to meet. I'm sorry, I'm not at all prepared to talk about the Rams. It's just too depressing. Let's move on.
1. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
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Whoa! That came out of nowhere. I didn't even know the Seahawks would be here, and I wrote the article!
Okay, I did know, I'm just trying to make things more exciting. Remember how I said things could have been different if Tarvaris Jackson hadn't been Seattle's quarterback last year? Well, now they have an embarrassment of riches at the QB position.
Not only did they pick up greatest backup QB ever, Matt Flynn, they also drafted Russell Wilson out of Wisconsin. I was originally miffed when Pete Carroll named Wilson the starting QB for week 1, but boy does the kid look good.
I never advise putting too much stock in the preseason. And personally, I find that stats are completely useless before week 1. But just take a look at some of Wilson's preseason highlights, look at how he moves, how he carries himself. He looks so comfortable, so at ease. Think about how Blaine Gabbert looked last year: uncomfortable and unsure. If you can't tell, I'm excited about Russell Wilson.
But that's not all! I expect good things from Marshawn Lynch as well, who rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2011. Plus, I like the receiving duo of seasoned vet Sidney Rice and young up-and-comer Golden Tate.
Their defense has potential, and if it all comes together just right, we could be seeing Seattle back in the playoffs. Although it will take better than a 7-9 record this time around.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
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Like I said, everything just kind of fell into place for the Niners in 2011. I think that their 13-3 record was a result of an embarrassingly easy schedule and a couple guys playing well above their normal ability.
I cannot, in a time when the quarterback position is so important, approve a team headed by Alex Smith. He played just fine last year, but I don't think he can repeat his performance.
I'm also not so sure that the addition of Randy Moss is a good thing for him.You overthrow Randy Moss a couple times and he'll be quitting on his routes and hanging you out to dry.
Plus, I expect some regression from Frank Gore as well. He's reaching that point in a running back's career, when things start to wear down. Especially for a guy with a mild injury history, I don't know how many more 1,000 yard years he has left.
With all that being said, this defense is incredible. They aren't going to give up many points, they will keep the offense in it even during Alex Smith's off days. It comes down to their games against Seattle. If either team sweeps, the division will be theirs. Look for the other in the wild-card chase.
3. St. Louis Rams (6-10)
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Yes that's right, improvement.
I still have a little, tiny bit of faith in a healthy Sam Bradford. And I do like Steven Jackson quite a bit. But he, like Frank Gore, only has so much left in the tank.
The Rams addressed one of their major weaknesses in the draft with defensive lineman Michael Brockers. Their rush defense was the second-worst in 2011.
Surprisingly though, their pass defense was in the top 10. And I just get the feeling that they will be more competitive this season. I can find six possible wins in their schedule, especially because I expect that they could find two wins against the Cardinals.
4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)
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When you bring all the factors together: the messy quarterback situation, the turnstile offensive line and the porous defense, it doesn't make me feel very hopeful for Arizona football. John Skelton was named the starting quarterback this week, which is fine because he's not Kevin Kolb. But then again... he's John Skelton. What a mess.
I wanted to berate Beanie Wells for being a terrible running back, but then I saw that he had over 1,000 yards last season. So I will hold back on you for now, Beanie. But I'm still not convinced. I wouldn't be surprised to see Beanie benched in favor of Ryan Williams at some point in the near future.
Larry Fitzgerald is the only bright spot on the team, but there's only so many times you can watch the ball sail helplessly over his head. He still managed 1,400 yards and 8 TDs last season, but I wouldn't expect those number again.
Maybe I'm being harsh, but I think the Cardinals could be in the conversation for worst team in football this year. Like I said, they could have easily been 4-12 last year.
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Come back tomorrow, as we head North.