NFL Predictions: Separating the Pretenders from the Contenders

Jeff Nowak@@JNowakTSNContributor IIIOctober 27, 2011

NFL Predictions: Separating the Pretenders from the Contenders

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    It’s that time again.

    This is the annual point in the NFL season where several pretenders are teetering on the edge of exposure.

    Some key players will be coming off injuries while some key injuries will begin to devastate some high-flying teams.

    Here is a list of six potential pretenders, along with predictions as to how they will fare the rest of the way.

San Francisco 49ers: Not Just a Flash in the Pan

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    Current Record: 5-1; Predicted: 12-4

    This is an obvious pick for a potential pretender simply based on their sudden surge of success. However, I will not take the easy way out here.

    The 49ers are a contender and this is why: Alex Smith finally has a head coach who understands how to use him.

    Under Mike Singletary, the former All-Pro linebacker, Smith was not utilized or handled effectively—something that was reflected in his numbers (22 games: 429-714 (60%), 4,720 yards, 32 TDs, 22 INTs).

    This year under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback, Smith has been one of the top QBs in the league. Imagine that. The former No. 1 overall pick has performed like his draft position would suggest (6 games, 100-158 (62%) 1,090 yards, 8 TDs, 2 INTs).

    Combine Smith’s breakthrough with a healthy Frank Gore and an always stout defense, and this team has all the staying power of a true contender.

Baltimore Ravens: Age Can Creep Up on You

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    Current Record: 4-2; Predicted: 9-7

    While it may seem like bandwagoning to say the Ravens are going to fall off after their ugly Monday Night Football loss to the Jags, I’m going to have to hit that train with full force.

    A 4-1 group losing to a one-win team is what some might call a trap game, but I call it an exposition of holes.

    Joe Flacco’s early-onset anemia is one thing that should have Ravens fans wringing their hands, but it is not even the most worrisome of signs.

    The biggest warning sign is the Ravens defense and the amount of players that are closer to 30 than 20. The Ravens and Flacco have been leaning on the defense heavily in the early going this season; as they tire down the stretch—and late in games—expect to see the Ravens dip in the rankings.

New York Giants: Recovering at the Right Time

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    Current Record: 4-2; Predicted: 11-5

    After the past two years of strong starts, the Giants are automatically relegated to the potential-pretender list for no other reason than precedent. Also, with Big Blue’s gauntlet of a second-half schedule—a lineup that includes the Patriots, Saints, Packers and Cowboys twice—it would be easy to predict a Giant downturn.

    However, I don’t think that will be the case.

    This is a team that has gone 4-2 (with wins over the Bills and Eagles) and is seventh in the league in passing after losing a receiver that holds the franchise record for receptions in a single season (Steve Smith). This is also a team that has performed solidly on the defensive side of the ball, despite being without Osi Umenyiora for the first two weeks and Justin Tuck for the last three before the bye. Oh, and Prince Amukamara, the team's first-round pick in this year's draft, hasn’t played a down yet.

    Brandon Jacobs has also missed the past two games, and Ahmad Bradshaw had his best game of the season in their most recent victory over Buffalo.

    While most teams are tiring and players are going down with injuries, the Giants will be recovering from them; Big Blue's record will reflect that.

San Diego Chargers: Figure It out

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    Current Record: 4-2; Predicted: 8-8

    The Chargers are, by far, the most overrated team in the NFL.

    I personally recommend jumping off of the Philip Rivers bandwagon before he pushes you off himself.

    Rivers is the classic case of excellence in obscurity. When playing out in San Diego, where the weather is nice and it wouldn’t really make sense to go to a football game when you could be laying on the beach, he’ll play great.

    But put him in any playoff scenario and he won't get the job done. Couple that with Antonio Gates’ propensity for injury and the sizable hole left by the miniature Darren Sproles, and you have a team on the verge of a letdown.

    My other prediction is that after the Chargers' collapse, Norv Turner will finally be out of a job.

Buffalo Bills: Can They Keep It Up?

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    Current Record: 4-2; Predicted: 10-6

    Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and the Buffalo Bills are not pretenders. Unfortunately, it is difficult to call them a contender in a division with the Patriots.

    Yes, they hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots at the moment, but unless they go into Foxborough and win the second matchup, I wouldn’t make too much of that.

    What they are contenders for is the wild card position—something they will likely be fighting for with the New York Jets come season’s end. The two games remaining against Gang Green will go a long way toward deciding Buffalo’s fate.

Detroit Lions: Not Enough Depth

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    Current Record: 5-2; Predicted: 9-7

    This is a team with some of the best players in the NFL. Unfortunately, it takes more than a few good players to be consistently good in the NFL.

    The Matthew Stafford to Megatron (Calvin Johnson for those of you living under rocks) connection will go a long way toward winning games, but it will ultimately falter against the more complete units in the league.

    The Lions have lost two straight and have no semblance of a running game, but they will get it together. It won’t be until the ultimate hype game against the Packers on Thanksgiving when they will be exposed.

    I predict them to be blown out, and they won’t rebound.