50 NFL Predictions for the Upcoming 2012 Season
Don’t look now, but the official start of the 2012 NFL season is less than one week away. By now, you should be memorizing your team’s 16-game schedule, finalizing your fantasy drafts and making your season predictions.
Preseason has shown us a glimpse of what may be to come this season. The New York Jets will struggle to score points no matter who plays quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles could be flat-out dominant on their defensive line. Injuries will play a major role in shaping every team’s season.
What we don’t know though is which teams will make the playoffs, who will be the breakout players on each team and who will be the biggest disappointments. This offers just a snapshot of how I think the 2012 season will play out.
Cam Newton Will Have a Sophomore Slump
Last year, Cam Newton revolutionized the NFL as a rookie, becoming the first quarterback in history to pass for over 4,000 yards and rush for over 500 in the same season, and he added 35 touchdowns in the process—all in a shortened offseason without sufficient time to practice with his new team.
I don’t think he will be as good in 2012; in fact, I think he will take a significant step back. Newton really benefited from weakened defenses early in the season, and his numbers tailed off down the stretch.
He had the fortune of playing 10 games against teams that rated in the bottom half in scoring defense. His numbers against the other six teams: 2-4 record, 56.3 completion percentage and 79.0 passer rating.
While people are quick to point out his passing yardage, he was actually 0-3 in games that he threw for over 300 yards and 5-1 in the games with his six lowest passing yardage totals of the season. He rated just 15th in the league in passer rating and 16th in ESPN’s new QBR statistic. He was a tremendous runner, but 14 touchdowns just can’t happen again; it's unrealistic for a quarterback to run the ball 126 times in a season and not get hurt.
Newton is blessed with astounding size, but the Carolina Panthers know how much he means to them, and there’s no way they will let him take off to run that many times again. Steve Smith is another year older, and the team really has no solid No. 2 receiver.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Newton add a few passing touchdowns to his totals but throw at least 20 interceptions and post a passer rating slightly worse than last year’s mark while running for around five or six touchdowns. That would constitute a slump for a player expected to be a top-producing fantasy player at his position already.
Michael Vick Will Stay Healthy and Have a Career Year
Michael Vick’s future is on the line in 2012—no question about it. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Nick Foles in the third round of this past year’s draft, and he’s played refreshingly well in the preseason, showing the team he has the tools to be the quarterback of the future.
Vick has played all 16 games in a season just once in his career, and he’s already suffered two near-injuries in preseason. He’s also 32 years old, and he’s a running quarterback with a notorious history of getting hurt—but I think 2012 will be his best year yet.
I see Vick staying healthy for 15 of 16 games this season, passing for over 3,500 yards and throwing 25 touchdowns. He’s also a terrific runner and will probably add five or six rushing touchdowns to his totals, and that makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.
Maurice Jones-Drew Will Struggle
This really isn’t that bold of a prediction at all, but I would be saying this even if there hadn't been a holdout.
Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for over 1,600 yards in 2011 on an offense with a struggling rookie quarterback and a limited supporting cast of receivers. He averaged over 100 yards on the ground per game while playing against mostly eight- and nine-man boxes.
Now he’s entering his seventh season and has nearly 1,500 career carries on his resume—and he’s coming off a season in which he led the NFL with 343 carries and 386 touches. He’ll be lucky to get 1,000 rushing yards after this holdout.
Brandon Lloyd Will Top 1,500 Receiving Yards
I really like the New England Patriots’ acquisition of Brandon Lloyd. He had a breakout season with the Denver Broncos in 2010, leading the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards, and now that he has Tom Brady and plays in an offense with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, he should have an even better year in ’12.
Lloyd will likely be a Pro Bowler, and he should put up 1,500 yards or more with a dozen touchdowns in an offense that scores at least 500 points.
Jake Locker Will Be an MVP Candidate
He hasn’t gotten a lot of hype heading into 2012, but I think the Tennessee Titans made the right choice going with Jake Locker as their quarterback.
Locker was a first-round pick in ’11, and he inherits a team with a pretty solid offense—Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Jared Cook and Chris Johnson—plus a very fine offensive line that includes two bookend offensive tackles and newly signed guard Steve Hutchinson.
Locker played sparingly as a rookie last year but he accounted for five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) without turning the ball over once. I think he will lead the Titans to the playoffs this year, putting up around 25 touchdown passes through the air and five or so rushing touchdowns.
Marcell Dareus Will Be Unblockable
Marcell Dareus is not a sexy pick, but he’s my candidate to win the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Dareus quietly had a spectacular season for the Buffalo Bills after they made him the third overall pick in last year’s draft, and now that he plays on a defensive line that features Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in addition to Kyle Williams, Dareus—and the Bills—will be extremely tough on defense.
Dareus can play defensive end, defensive tackle or nose tackle. Last year, he registered 5.5 sacks and 24 quarterback pressures as a pass-rusher while picking up 32 solo tackles and 31 stops as a run-stopper.
Dareus is a mammoth force at 6’3”, 319 pounds, and he’s going to be difficult for one man to contain. I think he will finish with around a dozen sacks, a pile of forced fumbles and an overall presence that helps the Bills make the playoffs.
Billieve in the Bills
I really like the blueprint for the 2012 Buffalo Bills—they’re preparing to win games in the trenches, and they have the talent to do so. The interior offensive line is one of the best in the game with Andy Levitre and Eric Wood as Pro Bowl-caliber players, and the defensive line rivals that of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL’s best.
The Bills signed Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year deal (although they overpaid him) and grabbed Mark Anderson (10 sacks in 2011) from the New England Patriots to go with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, two players that are already unblockable themselves.
The Bills should put up 50 or more sacks this year, and I’m going out on a limb and saying Dareus is my NFL Defensive Player of the Year pick.
Tim Tebow Won’t Be the Answer in New York
I think Sanchez will start all 16 games, believe it or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tebow playing entire quarters at some point. However, I don’t think Tebow will be the answer in New York for several reasons.
First of all, he’s not very good. His completion percentage suggests he should be playing a different position, and he’s liable to get injured with how much he runs.
Second, I don’t think the team is as good as the Jets think. They lack explosive pass-rushers, the right tackle position could cost them and the wide receivers and running backs are subpar.
Tebow might run for six or seven touchdowns and make some nice third- and fourth-down conversions, but he’s not going to get the Jets to the playoffs, and he’s not the long-term answer.
The 2011 NFL Draft Will Go Down as One of the Best Ever
I can’t believe how good the first-round picks from last year’s draft played just as rookies. Cam Newton and Von Miller—the first two picks—won the Offensive Rookie and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards.
In fact, nearly every team has to be feeling really good about its top-10 pick. Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith and Tyron Smith all look like the kind of players that teams can build their franchises around.
I think Jake Locker will have a great year, and players like Robert Quinn and J.J. Watt could each be on the verge of putting themselves on the list of top 10 players at their position.
5 Quarterbacks Will Get Benched This Season
Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert, John Skelton, Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill will all get benched at some point this season.
The Oakland Raiders drastically overpaid for Palmer, and they’re about to realize it’s time to move on from him and maybe give Terrelle Pryor a shot. Gabbert, Weeden and Tannehill will fall under the classification of quarterbacks pushed into the starting spot too soon, and Skelton just isn’t very good at all.
A.J. Green Will Lead the NFL in Receiving Yards
The Cincinnati Bengals picked A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and they got a Pro Bowl season from him already as a rookie.
Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton in his first season, and I think he’s poised to become arguably the best receiver in the league by the conclusion of 2012.
Green is hands down the No. 1 target on his team, and I envision him catching around 100 balls for more than 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Tom Brady Will Win Another MVP
The New England Patriots enter 2012 with an offense that could challenge the undefeated 2007 club for offensive dominance.
They return Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, while adding playmaking receiver Brandon Lloyd, who led the National Football League in receiving yards (1,448) in 2010. The offensive line is stout, and the team gets the luxury of playing the easiest schedule in the league in 2012.
Tom Brady may be 35 years old, but he has shown zero signs of declining. He’s coming off a season in which he threw for 5,235 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, while posting a 105.6 passer rating. Brady plays in a system fit to maximize his potential, and you’re going to see it this season.
Tyron Smith Will Start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl (For the Next Decade)
The Dallas Cowboys made a terrific move when they selected offensive tackle Tyron Smith with their first-round selection in the 2011 NFL draft, and they’re going to be reaping the rewards for the next decade or more.
Smith was one of the top tackles in the league already as a rookie last year, finishing as the fifth-best player at his position in the National Football League (per Pro Football Focus). He showed signs of dominance as both a run-blocker and pass-blocker, and he’s only going to get better in year two.
The NFC doesn’t have the elite offensive tackles that it did in the days of Orlando Pace and Walter Jones, and with Jason Peters’ Achilles injury, Smith is almost a lock to make the Pro Bowl this season. Once he makes it and gets his name out there, he’s going to make it every year—or as long as the Pro Bowl exists.
There Will Be No Reason to Ever Watch a Jacksonville Jaguars Game
The Jacksonville Jaguars have an absolutely pitiful offense, and the team might not have scored a point all season without Maurice Jones-Drew ending his holdout.
Realistically, they will probably stumble to 200 points or so by default, but they’re going to be bad. Blaine Gabbert showed nothing positive as a rookie, and I’m not a fan of their selection of wide receiver Justin Blackmon in the first round. The other receiving targets are mediocre players like Laurent Robinson, Brian Robiskie, Cecil Shorts and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Pencil them in for anywhere from two to four wins and a top-five pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Philadelphia Eagles Will Register 60 Sacks
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks. The year before, the Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 48 sacks. The last teams to register 60 sacks were the 2006 San Diego Chargers (61) and the 2006 Baltimore Ravens (60).
The Eagles have a defensive line that is the best in the league and could be for them what the New York Giants had last year. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are nearly unstoppable pass-rushers, and the backups behind them—Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Phillip Hunt—could probably start for most teams.
On the interior line, Mike Patterson may not play this season, but Cullen Jenkins and Derek Landri are a fine starting duo, Fletcher Cox is a Pro Bowler in the making and Antonio Dixon and Cedric Thornton give the team strong depth.
The Eagles have 19 sacks in the preseason already, and that’s without Babin—and Cole hasn’t played much either.
The San Francisco 49ers Will Stumble to 9-7
The San Francisco 49ers won’t be as good in 2012 simply because Jim Harbaugh squeezed every drop of talent he could out of the team in 2011.
Alex Smith had a career year, the defense stayed remarkably healthy—all 11 starters started at least 13 games, and nine started 15 or more— and the team went 7-2 in close games, a rate that very likely won’t carry over to 2012, considering the NFL average is 50 percent and it’s been proven that winning close games does not correlate from year to year.
The division is better—the Seattle Seahawks have an underrated defense, as do the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers will probably be in the hunt for the NFC West title all year, but I don’t see them emerging as champions.
Sam Bradford Will Show Signs That He Is the Next David Carr
After a solid enough rookie season in 2010, Sam Bradford showed major signs of regression in 2011, throwing for just six touchdowns and a 70.5 passer rating while winning one of 10 games.
His offensive line is truly atrocious—Rodger Saffold is a disastrous left tackle, and former second overall pick Jason Smith was bad enough at right tackle that the team just traded him to the New York Jets for an equally as bad right tackle (Wayne Hunter). Last year, the Rams gave up a league-high 55 sacks after allowing just 34 in 2010.
If the Rams’ line is as bad in 2012, Bradford will look like the next David Carr—a talented quarterback who will be done in by his inept offensive line.
Peyton Manning Won’t Be as Good as People Think
Peyton Manning is a 36-year-old quarterback coming off four major neck surgeries in the last two seasons. He’s going to a team that had the ninth-worst scoring defense in the league and an offensive line that rated ninth-worst in the league in pass-blocking and dead last in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
The running game is headed by a 31-year-old back who had a career year under a running quarterback in 2011, and Manning will have to learn a new offense in a new system. He doesn’t have the arm strength he had back in his prime, and he inherits a schedule that ranks second-toughest in the NFL. Oh, and he goes from playing his home games in a dome to outdoors.
I actually worry about Manning’s long-term health after this season. He’s taken quite a beating during his career. I think Manning will probably throw for about 3,500 yards and 20-25 touchdowns simply because that’s almost the norm for quarterbacks these days. But he’s nowhere near a league MVP candidate anymore.
Chad Johnson Will Be Irrelevant
I started compiling the topics for this article several weeks ago, and Chad Johnson being irrelevant has already happened, as the Miami Dolphins released the former six-time Pro Bowler.
Johnson technically could still sign with an NFL franchise, but I would seriously question the motives behind a team signing him. He didn’t make any impact at all for the New England Patriots in 2011, and at the age of 34 with his best days clearly behind him, he may have to find an Arena Football team if he wants to keep playing.
Jared Cook Will Be the AFC’s Next Great Tight End
Jared Cook is a popular fantasy sleeper pick heading into 2012 for the way he broke out down the stretch last year, and I’m fully on board that bandwagon.
In his final three games, Cook averaged seven receptions for 112 yards and caught a touchdown. He finished with 49 receptions for 759 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, and I think he could put up 1,000 yards this year.
Kenny Britt can’t stay healthy—or out of trouble—and Kendall Wright is a rookie, which means quarterback Jake Locker may feel most comfortable with Cook as an intermediate target.
The Seattle Seahawks Will Lead the NFC in Scoring Defense
The Seattle Seahawks don’t have a big-name defense, but they have the ability to be really good in 2012. Their defensive line is extremely solid with players like Red Bryant, Alan Branch, Chris Clemons and Brandon Mebane, plus Bruce Irvin rushing the passer from the outside linebacker position.
The secondary is probably the NFL’s best: Brandon Browner picked off six passes last year and made the Pro Bowl, Richard Sherman held opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage and 57.3 passer rating and Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the best safety duo in the league.
The team finished seventh in the league in scoring defense in 2011 and ninth in total defense. Considering the Seahawks get to face Kevin Kolb/John Skelton, Sam Bradford and Alex Smith six times this year—plus Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Tannehill for another three—they have no excuses not to finish as a top-five defense this year.
Problems on the Offensive Line Will Cost Norv Turner His Job
Norv Turner probably should have been fired in 2010 and definitely in 2011, so the fact that he’s still around for the 2012 season is absolutely perplexing.
The San Diego Chargers—despite an immensely talented offensive unit with Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates—haven’t so much as made a Super Bowl during Turner’s tenure, and they’ve missed the playoffs for two years running.
The team is in trouble on the offensive line heading into this year, as longtime offensive linemen Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman each retired during the offseason, and new left tackle Jared Gaither can’t stay healthy.
That’s bad news for the Chargers, especially considering right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Jeromey Clary are awful players. Rivers may spend more time on his back than standing upright this season, and that will cost Turner his job.
Morris Claiborne Will Be a Godsend for the Dallas Cowboys
What a draft-day trade the Dallas Cowboys pulled off when they traded up to select future All-Pro corner Morris Claiborne, the one man who will give DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz trouble in the future.
The Cowboys were beaten constantly with Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick in 2011, but now they have Claiborne and free-agent acquisition Brandon Carr from the Kansas City Chiefs. Claiborne has the physical tools to excel immediately in this league, and I think he will make his fair share of Pro Bowls between now and 2025.
Asante Samuel Will Lead the NFL in Interceptions
The Atlanta Falcons picked up a tremendously talented ball-hawk corner in Asante Samuel for just a seventh-round pick, and it’s going to pay off for them in 2012.
The NFL is a passing league, and having three good cornerbacks is almost a must. Samuel gives the Falcons a terrific trio, and he’s got a natural feel for the ball that will carry over. Samuel has picked off at least six passes in four of the past six seasons, and he has led the league on two occasions.
This will be his third such time leading the NFL. I’ll say eight picks, two returned for touchdowns, and another pick-six in the playoffs.
Eli Manning Will Have His Best Year Yet
I still don’t think Eli Manning is an elite quarterback yet. This is a quarterback who threw a league-high 25 interceptions as recently as 2010, and he still put up some dud games last year—just check out his performances against the last-place Washington Redskins both times.
I think he will be at his all-time best in 2012 though. Manning threw for 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and set NFL records for fourth-quarter comebacks (seven) and game-winning drives (eight) in a season.
Now that he has Rueben Randle in addition to Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Manning has weapons that would make almost every quarterback in the league jealous.
Passing yards don’t correlate to victories nearly as much as people think, but I think Manning will still put up 4,500 yards or so on at least 8.5 yards per attempt with 30-35 touchdown passes and no more than 15 interceptions. His passer rating last year was just 92.9, which wasn’t even his career best, but I think he will approach 100 in 2012.
Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall Will Be Like the Old Days
The Chicago Bears made an incredible move when they sent a pair of third-rounders to Miami for playmaking wide receiver Brandon Marshall, which reunites Marshall with his old Denver quarterback, Jay Cutler.
Cutler to Marshall was one of the league’s best QB-WR duos back in the day, and I think they will recapture their magic in 2012. Marshall will be helped by Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery, and I see him picking up close to 100 catches for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Cincinnati Bengals Will Repeat Their 2011 Success
The Cincinnati Bengals surprised the world by winning nine games in 2011 with a rookie QB and rookie WR, and I think they will win the division in 2012.
I think Andy Dalton will take a step back; he really underachieved down the stretch, especially as he faced elite defenses like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens twice each. But A.J. Green is an absolute stud, and Jermaine Gresham is a Pro Bowl tight end.
The offensive line is very stout—especially the offensive tackles—and the defense did rank very well in many key areas in 2011, finishing ninth in scoring defense, seventh in total defense and fourth in adjusted net passing yards per attempt.
The Steelers are aging, and their offensive line will be subpar with Mike Adams underachieving so far in preseason and David DeCastro likely out for the season, plus Mike Wallace has had a lengthy holdout. The Ravens are missing Terrell Suggs, their offensive line took a hit when Ben Grubbs left in free agency and they can’t rely on Ray Lewis and Ed Reed forever.
Ray Rice Will Set the NFL Single-Season Record for Yards from Scrimmage
I love the way Ray Rice fits into the Baltimore Ravens offense, and I think he will have a big year to show for it in 2012.
Rice rushed for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, while adding 76 receptions for 704 yards out of the backfield, giving him a total of 2,068 yards from scrimmage, which led the NFL.
I think he will be even more of a focal point of the Ravens offense this year, rushing for close to 1,600 yards and adding just over 900 out of the backfield on receptions, just edging Chris Johnson’s 2009 mark of 2,509 yards from scrimmage in a single season.
Blaine Gabbert Won’t Show Any Improvement
The Jacksonville Jaguars reached for Blaine Gabbert in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft and then all but threw him under the bus when they made him the starting quarterback in Week 3 with a receiving corps that included players like a washed-up Mike Sims-Walker, Jason Hill, Cecil Shorts and Chastin West.
What in the world were they thinking? Gabbert didn’t help their case by shying away from contact and looking like a player who had never played the position before, but I blame the Jacksonville Jaguars for pushing him into the starting role when he wasn’t ready.
I don’t see Justin Blackmon playing well as a rookie, which means Gabbert will struggle again; it’ll probably be Chad Henne time by Week 7 in Jacksonville.
Randy Moss Will Make a Positive Impact on the San Francisco 49ers
After spending most of 2010 bouncing from team to team and 2011 out of the NFL, Randy Moss signed on with the San Francisco 49ers this year.
The team has a logjam at wide receiver—there’s Michael Crabtree, first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, Ted Ginn Jr., Mario Manningham and Moss. Tight end Vernon Davis is actually a better target than any of those players, and I think he will be Alex Smith’s go-to guy again.
However, I think Moss could put up 30 to 40 catches for maybe 450 yards and four touchdowns. That won’t be anything close to the player that made the Pro Bowl so many times during his prime, but it’s much better than what counterpart wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson are doing at this point in their careers.
The Detroit Lions Will Miss the Playoffs
Teams that increase their win total by four or more games from year one to year two typically finish somewhere in the middle in year three, simply because they typically overachieved in year two.
The Detroit Lions had what was probably a career year from both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in the year of the quarterback. If both duplicate their success again in 2012, I will admit that I’m wrong, but I think that’s just asking too much.
The offensive line is one of the weaker units in the game—especially the tackles, who won’t be doing Stafford any favors—and the defense did give up nearly 400 points last year, finishing 23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense and 30th in average net passing yards allowed per attempt.
The Chicago Bears are an improved team, and the Green Bay Packers are one of the two or three best teams in the league, so I expect the Lions to finish around the middle of the pack at 8-8.
Ryan Tannehill Will Have a Truly Miserable Season
There’s not a lot to like about the Miami Dolphins heading into 2012. They jumped the gun and took quarterback Ryan Tannehill after whiffing on Peyton Manning. They made the dumbest move of the offseason by signing Chad Johnson—although fortunately they righted the wrong by releasing him.
They traded starting corner Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts. And they already decided they’re going with rookie Tannehill as their starter even though he’s probably not ready to start in this league for two seasons at least.
Tannehill will be throwing passes to guys like Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and Marlon Moore. His running back, Reggie Bush, is coming off a career year, and last year’s draft pick (Daniel Thomas) looks awful. Oh, and the offensive line rated as the eighth-worst pass-blocking unit in the league last year, per Pro Football Focus.
Don’t pick Tannehill in fantasy football, and if you’re a Dolphins fan, plan something else on Sunday afternoons so you don’t have to watch.
The Carolina Panthers Will Lead the NFL in Rushing Yards
The Carolina Panthers have two running backs both locked up to long-term deals and a quarterback who runs the ball more than anyone else at his position in the league.
That’s the recipe for a ground game that will put up 2,500 or more yards, and I think the 2012 Panthers will move the ball on the ground as well as any team in the game (especially because I see Cam Newton taking a step back as a passer).
Matt Ryan Will Be the NFL's Fourth-Best Quarterback by the End of the Season
Since the Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan with the third overall pick of the 2008 NFL draft, he’s been a terrific quarterback, but he hasn’t quite taken that leap into the elite conversation.
Much of the blame has been for his lack of playoff success (although you’ll have to excuse him for losing games when his defense gives up an average of 34 points per game).
However, save for a sophomore slump, Ryan has improved his numbers every year. His passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating have gone up every year other than his second, and he now has a stud receiver in Julio Jones to go with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
Factor in that Michael Turner is regressing and the Falcons will have to pass more than ever—and that two of the other three teams in the NFC South ranked in the bottom six in the league in scoring defense—and that could be the recipe for a 4,800-yard, 36-touchdown season from Ryan.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Will Be the NFL’s Surprise Team
I don’t like picking a surprise team simply for the sake of the fact that there will be a surprise team (because there always is).
That said, I really think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make major strides in 2012. They were a 4-2 team last year before they rolled over and played dead to get Raheem Morris fired.
Josh Freeman will have to show whether he more resembles the quarterback that played at a Pro Bowl level for all of 2010 or the one that struggled mightily for all of 2011 (and as a rookie back in 2009). He has some significant offensive additions though—the Buccaneers signed Vincent Jackson to a five-year deal, drafted running back Doug Martin in the first round and signed All-Pro guard Carl Nicks in free agency.
They grabbed college football’s top safety in Mark Barron to help shore up a unit that allowed nearly 500 points last year—although how many of those points were simply because they just gave up? With new coach Greg Schiano—a no-nonsense disciplinarian whipping the players into shape—their defense should more rival the 2010 unit that ranked ninth in the league in scoring defense.
They also have the sixth-easiest schedule in the league. It really will come down to the play of Freeman at quarterback, although an improved performance from the dreadful linebacker corps would go a long way too.
If You’re Expecting RGIII to Be Cam Newton, You’re Going to Be Disappointed
Robert Griffin III has so much in common with Cam Newton that people are thinking RGIII is the new Newton.
Both dominated in college football and won the Heisman Trophy before declaring for the NFL draft. Each was largely a one-year wonder. Each is a running quarterback who also can pass with the best of them.
Newton passed for over 4,000 yards and accounted for 35 total touchdowns. That’s high expectations for RGIII, and he won’t have the benefit of playing out-of-shape defenses after a lockout-shortened offseason. He also plays the NFC East, which features unstoppable defensive lines in the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, plus a much-improved secondary in the Dallas Cowboys.
Griffin doesn’t have great weapons around him; Santana Moss is no longer a No. 1 receiver and the Washington Redskins are kidding themselves if they think Pierre Garcon is a legit starter. I envision Griffin playing conservative football, running frequently and finishing with somewhere around 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on a 5-11 Redskins team.
Patrick Peterson Will Become a Shutdown Corner
As a rookie in 2011, Patrick Peterson didn’t show much as a corner, contrary to what people think. Peterson allowed more passing yards (834) than all but two cornerbacks in the NFL, getting torched for 7.69 yards per attempt and five different games of at least 80 receiving yards allowed.
Peterson fared better down the stretch, routinely covering the other team’s No. 1 receiver and allowing just 134 receiving yards in his final four games. He made the Pro Bowl because of his impressive punt returning skills (four touchdowns), but his coverage skills left something to be desired.
I think he will take the step to being elite in 2012 though. After all, the Cardinals picked him fifth overall because of his amazing cover skills in college, and Peterson plays behind a very good defensive line that will get pressure on the opposing quarterback and make life easier for him.
Chris Johnson Will Bounce Back in 2012
When people got on Chris Johnson’s case for his “slump” following his 2,000-yard season, it bothered me. Of course he’s not going to duplicate a 2,000-yard season; that’s just setting the bar too high.
What he did do—1,364 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, 4.3 YPC and a Pro Bowl appearance—was terrific, especially considering the quarterback situation was subpar with Vince Young and Kerry Collins.
Last year though, CJ2K became CJ2YPC, as he consistently showed the world that he had no interest in playing football now that he had gotten paid ($53 million over four years, $30 million guaranteed). Johnson has looked good this preseason though, and the Tennessee Titans made an underrated acquisition during the offseason when they signed future Hall of Fame guard Steve Hutchinson to help the running game.
I think Johnson has a chance to win the rushing title, although I think a top-five finish is more realistic. Still, 1,300 or more rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry and 10 to 12 touchdowns on the ground is reasonable.
Charles Woodson Will Make the Pro Bowl at Safety
The Green Bay Packers have moved Charles Woodson to safety as he enters his 15th NFL season, and I don’t think Woodson will miss a beat.
The Packers really need a solid season from him considering former All-Pro safety Nick Collins was released after a neck injury and the secondary was torched repeatedly last season. The return of B.J. Raji as an elite defensive tackle and the addition of USC pass-rusher Nick Perry will help Woodson too.
People Will Realize John Skelton Isn’t Much Better Than Kevin Kolb
I certainly don’t blame Arizona Cardinals fans for wanting someone other than Kevin Kolb to play quarterback for their team. The fact that Ken Whisenhunt gave him a five-year contract with $12 million guaranteed should cost Whisenhunt his job.
But do Cardinals fans really want John Skelton? He saw some fourth-quarter success in 2011, but how many quarterbacks can repeat that success two years in a row—without really being that good? Skelton’s statistics from 2011: 54.9 completion percentage, 11 TD, 14 INT and a 68.9 passer rating that actually stands at 12.2 points behind the mark Kolb put up last year.
Skelton did win more games, as he was 5-2 while Kolb was 3-6, but the Cardinals defense also gave up no more than 23 points in any of Skelton’s starts while averaging 19 points allowed. For Kolb, they gave up 30 or more in four straight games and averaged 24 allowed.
A Record 11 Quarterbacks Will Pass for 4,000 Yards
List of quarterbacks that will pass for 4,000 yards in 2012: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman and Joe Flacco.
That will set the record, and I think several more will come close to 4,000 without quite reaching the mark (Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Matt Schaub).
The NFL is more of a passing league than ever, and there’s a reason teams are switching to three-corner defensive backfields and two-tight end offensive formations.
JPP Will Lead the NFL with 20 Sacks
I think Jason Pierre-Paul will be even better in 2012. He had 16.5 sacks as a second-year player in 2011, helping the New York Giants win the Super Bowl while making Philadelphia Eagles fans everywhere resent Brandon Graham for going two spots ahead of JPP in the 2010 draft.
JPP plays on a defensive line with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora (and don’t forget Mathias Kiwanuka as a pass-rusher), and I think he will challenge the NFL’s single-season sack record.
Andy Reid Will Save His Job with a 12-4 Season
Realistically, that’s not a ridiculous statement. If Reid can’t win more than half his games again with this kind of talent, it’s time to move on. Sure, if Michael Vick goes down with an injury in Week 1, it’s a different story—and the fact that the offensive line is without All-Pro tackle Jason Peters hurts.
However, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and an unbelievable defensive line that could lead the NFL in sacks in 2012 should mean at least double-digit wins, even in a tough division and with the seventh-toughest schedule in the league. I’ll say 12-4 and a deep playoff run.
Six Coaches Will Be Fired After the Season
The National Football League sees a shocking turnover rate among its head coaches on an annual basis. Suffer through one losing season and you better improve quickly. Two in a row and you’re definitely on the hot seat. Three means you’re trying to get a coordinator job somewhere else.
With that in mind, the following head coaches will be fired this season (with their team’s predicted record in parentheses):
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals (4-12)
Rex Ryan, New York Jets (5-11)
Norv Turner, San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns (3-13)
NFC Playoff Teams
NFC East: New York Giants (12-4)
NFC North: Green Bay Packers (13-3)
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Wild Card: Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)
Wild Card: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
I mentioned in an earlier slide that I think the Buccaneers will be a surprise success. I think the Chicago Bears will nearly make the playoffs (10-6), but I have them ultimately just missing out.
The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions will be average teams despite expectations that they will do well. I also have the San Francisco 49ers missing out, which will come as a surprise to many.
AFC Playoff Teams
AFC East: New England Patriots (14-2)
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
AFC South: Houston Texans (11-5)
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Wild Card: Buffalo Bills (10-6)
Wild Card: Tennessee Titans (9-7)
The big surprise here is the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens both missing the playoffs. As I wrote earlier, I’m not a fan of either team heading into 2012.
Ben Roethlisberger is a top-notch quarterback, but he’s due to get hurt and miss substantial time behind that offensive line, and I don’t think the Steelers can rely on Troy Polamalu to stay healthy or Mike Wallace to repeat his 2011 success after a lengthy holdout.
NFC Championship Game
Everything in me wanted to pick the Green Bay Packers to make the conference championship game.
From an NFL standpoint, I absolutely love the makeup of their team—Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game, they have a pair of bookend tackles that should hold down the fort for the next decade and they have two tremendous receivers and an elite tight end in Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley respectively.
However, they have too many problems on the defensive side of the ball. Don’t forget this team gave up the most passing yards in NFL history in 2011, and they lost Nick Collins to retirement. Their running game is atrocious too.
Instead, I’m going with the Atlanta Falcons over the Packers in a surprise NFC Divisional Round upset, which puts the Falcons against the Philadelphia Eagles in a battle of the birds, with the winner going to the Super Bowl. This would be a rematch of the 2004 NFC championship Game, and it would put Michael Vick and Asante Samuel head-to-head against their old teams.
I see Matt Ryan finally getting over the playoff hump that has plagued his career, and I see Andy Reid losing his fifth conference championship game.
Final Score: Atlanta 24, Philadelphia 20
AFC Championship Game
I don’t think the AFC is going to be very strong this season. I don’t have perennial playoff contenders the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers qualifying for January ball this year, and I really don’t think there’s anyone that can compete with the New England Patriots.
In fact, I think the Patriots may finish with at least three more wins than any other AFC team. I have the Patriots squaring off against the Houston Texans—a very solid football team with Matt Schaub healthy again, Andre Johnson healthy, Arian Foster, a terrific offensive line and a tremendous defense.
However, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick win this one easily, which puts them in their sixth Super Bowl in the past 12 years.
Final Score: New England 38, Houston 20
The New England Patriots Will Win the Super Bowl
I think this will be a really good game. By this point in the season, I think Matt Ryan will have graduated from the kind-of-elite club with players like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler to the definitely elite club.
The Atlanta Falcons will give the New England Patriots lots of trouble with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, but then again, the Patriots can counter with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
I’m sure Asante Samuel will record a pick against his old team (by the way, would he be the first Pro Bowl player ever to play his former teams in the conference championship game and the Super Bowl in the same season?), but the Patriots offense will just be too much.
Final Score: New England 34, Atlanta 24
And Who Else but Tom Brady Will Win the Game’s MVP?
If you found out the New England Patriots were going to win the Super Bowl, the odds of Tom Brady winning the game’s MVP award would probably be at least 75 percent.
Sure, it could be Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker or even a defensive player, but the Patriots are a passing team that will put up a ton of points, and this game could cement Brady’s reputation as the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
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