It is the most fun time of the NFL season, where experts show their expertise by making predictions that are luckily ignored since most of the prognostication is terrible. Since I have watched about four minutes of preseason football, I feel qualified to jump into the mix with my own predictions for this season.
Looking back at my predictions from last year, they weren't so hot. I was strong at guessing which playoff teams from the previous year would not return, terrible at picking the teams that would make it and my fringe honorable mentions all made the playoffs, including the Giants. It is far from an exact science, however what I can do is inject some facts into the mix before my picks.
First, on average, six teams that made the playoffs the previous year will miss the playoffs the next year. The last time it was only four new teams was 1995. Pat Yasinskas, Paul Kuharsky, Jeffri Chadiha and Mike Sando of ESPN picked two new teams. If your main job is to write about the NFL, and you don't even understand the basic structure of how the NFL works year after year, the cause is lost. Two, I can't do anything with two.
Second, in 11 of the last 13 years, multiple six win or less teams from the previous year have made the playoffs. This stretch includes five of the last eight years where three or four teams made the playoffs, including last year. Most likely multiple teams from the list of Miami, Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indy, Washington, Carolina, Tampa, Minnesota or St. Louis will make the playoffs. Even more strange, a team that had exactly four wins the previous season, has made the playoffs the next year in six consecutive seasons. Cleveland and Tampa have hope after all.
Third, four of the 16 ESPN experts picked the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl, six of them picked the Patriots to make it there. However, the last Super Bowl loser to even return to their respective championship game the next year was the 1993 Buffalo Bills. The last Super Bowl loser to win a playoff game the next year was the 2006 Seattle Seahawks. Before that it was the 1997 New England Patriots. The Super Bowl loss hangover effect is real.
Will the New York Giants return to the playoffs?
Fourth, playoff seeding does show a historical trend. The No. 1 seed in the AFC has returned to the playoffs in eight of the last nine years. The No. 3 seed in the AFC has been the most vulnerable recently, not returning to the playoffs in four of the last six years.The NFC is even more drastic with their trending. The last time the #2 seed returned to the playoffs in the NFC was 2006. The last time the No. 3 seed returned to the playoffs the next year was 2003. The No. 4 seed has missed the playoffs the last four years.
With some history in my predictions, and probably some regret in four months time, here is my best guess of how the 2012 season will unfold.
AFC East - New England
They got a lot of bodies they needed on defense in the draft, and Tom Brady is still easily the best QB in the division. They'll make the playoffs, just don't expect them to go too far once they do.
AFC North - Baltimore
This division is tough to pick, because both teams have a hangover from the playoffs lingering over them. Pittsburgh's defense got shredded by Tim Tebow. Baltimore was a Lee Evans drop away from the Super Bowl. I'm not sure either defense will be as good as last year, but Pittsburgh's defense was so good last year it probably won't be as incredible this year (at least in the regular season).
AFC South - Tennessee
Indy will definitely be better with Andrew Luck, and Houston's defense was superb at times last year, but with a quarterback situation in flux and their best player having an off year, Tennessee still finished 9-7. Houston is going to be in the mix, and they can get off to a great start while Tennessee's early schedule is brutal, but the last half of the season for Tennessee looks very manageable and Houston is on the road a lot.
AFC West - San Diego
I hate this pick, and I don't believe it for a moment, but this division stinks, and I have to pick someone. Denver is the chic pick, and I do understand it to a point, but I have a scenario for you. Imagine if Denver is 7-3, looking really good. Manning gets hurt and the Broncos have to use their backup. In comes Caleb Hanie, the same guy who sent the Bears season down the toilet last year. Yeah, Brock Osweiler might be named the backup by then, but he won't be developed, not behind Peyton. Kansas City will have Jamal Charles back but they haven't won a playoff game in forever. I have no good reason to pick San Diego.
Which Bad Team From 2011 Has the Best Shot to Make the Playoffs?
NFC West - Arizona
If the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds aren't returning, I can't pick San Francisco. Seattle appears close to playoff ready, however the Pete Carroll mad scientist scheme will probably derail them. St. Louis will be better because they couldn't be worse. Arizona has three reasons why they might surprise this year. One, John Skelton has already shown the ability to make plays down the stretch to win games, he just needs be better in the first three quarters. Two, the Cardinals defense improved down the stretch last year, and Patrick Peterson was close to becoming a star not only as a returner but as a defensive back. Three, the House of Phun. University of Phoenix stadium has this weird mystique to it. They were 6-2 at home last year, lost the "He gave himself up" game and had all sorts of peculiar endings. Teams don't normally win games because of a 99 yard punt return or calling a timeout on your own kicker. Seattle's stadium is great, Arizona's stadium is more magical. Ask Boise State.
NFC South - Carolina
The one team I am not sold on is Atlanta. For a team that in the big moments has floundered because their defense has failed them, to have done little in the off-season to address their defense is strange. New Orleans is still in the mix just because they made the playoffs last year even with a terrible defense, so defensive suspensions mean little with Drew Brees and that offense. Tampa was a four win team last year. I'm picking Carolina because they can run the ball, Cam Newton will be more experienced, and I have to pick a few risers.
NFC North - Green Bay
This is going to be a fun division. Chicago, Detroit or Green Bay could win it. I'm picking Green Bay just because Aaron Rodgers has played out of this world the last two years.
NFC East - Washington
This is truly the pick I make just because nobody looks at these months from now. Michael Vick probably won't stay healthy, the Cowboys have major depth issues and have won one playoff game in 15 years and the Giants barely made the playoffs last year. IF RG 3 can maintain close to his level of accuracy that he had in college, he is going to make a splash.
Wild Cards AFC - Buffalo and Pittsburgh
Just because of schedule, and hope, a team from the AFC East will probably be a Wild Card. Pittsburgh should still be one of the better teams in the AFC.
Wild Cards NFC - Chicago and Detroit
Chicago was playing great football before Cutler got injured last year. Matthew Stafford is close to becoming a superstar in the NFL.
From the AFC I will pick Pittsburgh to make the Super Bowl (the defense might not be as good but they have a great QB) and from the NFC I will pick Detroit. Wild cards in the NFC seem to make a lot of runs towards the Super Bowl, and since I eliminated New England because of history, Pittsburgh appears to be the next best choice in a QB dominant league. Anyone can pick the Packers.