NFL 2012 Preseason Predictions by Division
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People like to say this is the time of year when every team can talk Super Bowl. History tells us otherwise.
Even with the parity that revenue sharing brings, the 2012 NFL season can be forecast as accurately as the weather along the Great Lakes. Last season, I predicted four of the six playoff teams in each conference and had the exact seed correct for five of the 12 overall.
True, the NFL is that every year since the new alignment, a team has gone from worst to first in some division. Most of the time, that team has a breakthrough season that is unexpected for most.
But there are four teams that remain high-percentage bets to make the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens may not win their division, but they have made the playoffs in eight of the last 12 seasons. One of the five times they did not win it, they still took home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Of course, they have been outperformed by their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The six-time champion has won both playoff matchups and six of the last 11 division titles, plus a championship in one of the other five seasons.
Yet their dominance does not go as far back as the Green Bay Packers. The 13-time champion has been in the playoffs for 14 of the last 18 years, with NFC North titles in five of the last 10 seasons and a Super Bowl championship in one of the others.
But the safest bet of all is the New England Patriots. They have won the NFC East in nine of the last 11 seasons.
Will any of them fall the way of the Indianapolis Colts, whose run of seven AFC South titles in eight years was broken last season? Here is a division-by-division breakdown...
(MJ Kasprzak writes professionally on both the San Jose Sharks and Bay Area Christian issues, and writes for fun on the team whose stock hangs on the wall at home, the Green Bay Packers...note use of first person when referring to the team is thus accurate.)
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1. The New England Patriots offensive line will not be as good as the immobile Tom Brady is used to. This will leave them vulnerable to losses against the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets (twice). Unfortunately for Patriots haters, they will have little trouble in the rest of their schedule.
2. The buzz surrounding the Buffalo Bills is not entirely warranted. Their defense will be good, but this is a quarterback-driven league and they are not in the top half of the league in that position. Ryan Fitzpatrick has never finished a season with a passer rating above 81.8. If he goes down, they are stuck with Tarvaris Jackson.
3. Joe Namath is right that the New York Jets are focused on capturing headlines: Hard Knocks and Rex Ryan's Super Bowl talk may be over, but Tebowmania is reaching new heights. What wrinkles has the team put in the offense for him? Will he take over for Mark Sanchez at the most important position in sports? Can they erase the memory of only one preseason touchdown? Those are not questions winning teams ask.
4. The Miami Dolphins hired an offensive coordinator who never called his own plays to be their head coach. They have dumped the most talented player on each side of the ball from a team with double-digit losses last season. Believe it or not, both were the right move, but they do not spell success this season.
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1. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted two players to upgrade one of the worst offensive lines in football. Guard David DeCastro went down and will not return early enough to develop at the position. But even without his development, the line will be better than last season, and there is still enough gas left in this aging defense to win the division because...
2. The Baltimore Ravens are going to miss Terrell Suggs. He might come back by the end of the season, but two of their remaining three defensive leaders are past their prime. The offense will be better, and had former Badger Lee Evans not dropped the ball, Joe Flacco would not have to face ridiculous questions about his acumen when he already has multiple road playoff victories.
3. The Cincinnati Bengals will find this season more difficult than last. The league will have made some adjustments to Andy Dalton and will come prepared for a very good team rather than mentally chalking up a win when they see Cincy on the schedule. But they will still win nine games, including an important matchup against the Buffalo Bills.
4. The Cleveland Browns are a team seeking a winning identity in one of the toughest division in football. Their owner is a fan of the team that has won the AFC North or the Super Bowl in six of the last 11 seasons. They are starting a rookie older than the average age at which an NFL player's career is over. There is a better chance for the New England Patriots to miss the playoffs than for the Browns to make them.
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1. The Houston Texans are the most balanced team in football. Their passing offense can keep up with any in the league when Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are healthy, and they have a deep stable of running backs. They also have a formidable pass-rush and are solid tacklers against the run.
2. The Tennessee Titans made the switch to their franchise quarterback this season. Jake Locker is good enough to be a successful starting quarterback already, and his best days are ahead of him. Matt Hasselbeck's best days are in the rear-view mirror, and even though he offered them the best chance of making the playoffs, he was not going to take this team to the Super Bowl.
3. The Indianapolis Colts will make the third-best run of quarterbacks in NFL history as they go from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck (behind Joe Montana-Steve Young and Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers). But in his rookie year with a team bereft of proven talent, Luck will do well to keep the losses from hitting double-digits.
4. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a contender for the top pick in 2013. They can't give away tickets because they are in the bottom half of the league in talent everywhere but running back. Because their blunders have served to compel Maurice Jones-Drew to hold out, that one good player could well be both under-utilized early and break down late.
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1. The Denver Broncos were one of the worst teams in the NFL before turning their offense over to Tim Tebow, who led them to the playoffs. Then they get rid of him and get even better at the position? Hard to see Peyton Manning being unable to win a division of mediocre teams.
2. The Kansas City Chiefs finished the season strong and are only one year removed from winning the division. They have the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball in both the run and passing games. And they are not lacking in character like...
3. The San Diego Chargers, often among "expert" picks to win the AFC West, may have finally been exposed to even the last believers. They have talent on both sides of the ball, but make crucial mistakes at critical times and do not like to play in September. And with a young talent hurt, another's peak was robbed by injury last year, and a third has developed a nasty proclivity to turn the ball over that continued into the preseason.
4. The Oakland Raiders are in a transition. They will be competitive, but will have to develop the professional approach that has been lacking. Some of the players will not fit it; others will adjust it...too many moving parts for much success this season. Still, the Raiders are my only fourth-place pick that I would not be at all surprised to see win the division, and as little as one game could separate all four teams again this season.
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1. The Philadelphia Eagles are the most talented team in this division. Because of the lockout, last year's free agents were supposed to gel in five weeks instead of five months, and it was a disaster. Now, that talent has the time, and a cause to rally behind.
2. The New York Giants lost more than they gained this offseason. That is pretty significant when you consider that one field goal at the right time would have sent them on vacation. This is a great team that knows how to win when it counts, but the division may be as tough as ever this season.
3. The Dallas Cowboys, much like the New York Jets, think the Super Bowl is won in the offseason, and with bravado. It is won with focus on priorities and humility. Only teams that respect the game and their opponents and commit all their attention to the details needed to overcome that talent win divisions like the NFC East. That still does not describe the 'Boys.
4. The Washington team with the offensive name has offensive expectations with its new quarterback. Robert Griffin, III (please, enough with the nickname!) is not the video game-generated player his receiver, Joshua Morgan, made him out to be—better than Vick athletically maybe, but as accurate as Brady or reads defenses as well as the smartest quarterback of all-time?
But he comes in better prepared than Cam Newton last season. Unfortunately, the team is still a year or two away from making the playoffs.
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1. The Green Bay Packers have won the NFC North or Central in eight of the last 16 seasons, plus won Super Bowl XLV in one or the other. The pass-rush issues were addressed. The best passing game in the league resides in Green Bay, with the deepest receiving corps and an MVP quarterback to deal them the rock.
Ironically, bad weather that hampers the passing game is the Kryptonite of the team playing on the Frozen Tundra because the opposition will likely hold the advantage in rushing both offensively and defensively.
2. The Chicago Bears will be a better team with Brandon Marshall, and he only lacks character off the field. He will give everything he has this season, and Jay Cutler will be thrilled to have a professional-level receiver to target.
The aging Bears defense has enough left in the tank to give the Packers all they can handle, and they are a serious contender for a Super Bowl. But whoever is going to bet on Cutler over Rodgers, raise your hand, then tell me what part of the City of the Big Shoulders you live in.
3. The Detroit Lions are a team with discipline problems led by a coach that has a tendency to cross lines himself. They will not handle success as well as they handled being disrespected (when emotional and unpredictable can be an ally). With the Packers and Bears in this division, one key loss gets the Lions knocked out of the playoffs, and that is exactly what happens.
4. The Minnesota Vikings are a mess. They went all-in to win a title, abandoning their future and fracturing the team structure. By the time they rebound, Adrian Peterson will be spent.
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1. The Atlanta Falcons upgraded their prime weakness by adding Asante Samuel to their secondary. They still have a balanced attack and two key players in their passing attack are still developing. Plus...
2. The New Orleans Saints will feel the consequences of the bounty scandal. They have apparently lost their best linebacker and head coach for the year. They are not alone as players or coaches suspended for more than one game. They can rally around a perceived injustice and the adversity all they want, but while the offense remains scary, the defense has been made substantially less-so.
3. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are just a year removed from being a division contender with a winning record. They had a necessary turnover in some of their talent, and have bolstered the team nicely this offseason. I believe this team will win at least eight games.
4. The Carolina Panthers have every reason to have Super Bowl aspirations this season. But it is easier to win when you are a team that has no such legitimate potential. They will be the hunted this year, especially after drawing attention to themselves by talking. The league made adjustments to Cam Newton last season, and when he shows he can beat those, they will have more. I doubt they finish over .500.
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1. The San Francisco 49ers have added to their receiving corps, giving Alex Smith the weapons he needs to succeed in the first legitimate NFL offense he has been in. He may not be a true No. 1 pick, but he is no one-year wonder. This offense was fine until the red zone last season; if they are even average there this season, they will dominate with last year's defense intact.
2. The St. Louis Rams are going to be out of the running for the division title before December. But the talent that everyone saw last year will surface under the direction of a very good coach. They still lack enough weapons, but by the end of the year, their youth will be closer to its potential, and a strong finish puts them in second place.
3. The Seattle Seahawks might as well go with Russell Wilson. He earned the job, and even though he will find the more complex regular season defenses more challenging than those faced in August, they would not be a playoff team with either at the helm and no one to throw to. Like any of the also-rans in the division, they could finish anywhere from second to fourth, but I will go with third.
4. The Arizona Cardinals do not make decisions like other teams. In the past three years, they have had controversy at the quarterback position and have made some unorthodox decisions with the position. If you do not have handle on the most important position in sports, how is the ball going to get in the hands of your most dynamic player? They do not play defense well enough to cover for the ineptness that results from that lacking production under center.