NFL Power Rankings: Early Projections for 2012 Season

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIFebruary 6, 2012

NFL Power Rankings: Early Projections for 2012 Season

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    Super Bowl XLVI is now behind us, as the New York Giants are NFL champions. Just like that, we can now put a cap on the 2011 NFL season, tuck it away and start turning our attention to the 2012 NFL season.

    Coming into the 2012 season, what teams are considered the favorites? What teams are ready to make that jump to reaching the playoffs after being eliminated from the postseason for many years in a row? What teams that were perennial contenders are ready to take a dive in the standings?

    Obviously making projections right now is not the easiest assignment, since we don't know what key players are going to be brought back, which players will be released, who will be drafted and what kind of trades can be executed that will give certain teams better odds for the upcoming season.

    What we can do is show in what areas each team was outstanding in 2011, and what areas need drastic improvement. With so many unknowns, this is speculation to get the juices flowing and people thinking. We are going to look at the changes that teams have made already, what happened to them in 2011 and try to put it all together and come up with our projections for where everybody will finish in 2012.

    Expect a few surprises. The final slide will include my prediction of 2012 playoff teams and my prediction of the Super Bowl XLVII teams.

32. Indianapolis Colts

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none. 

    Bottom-five ranks: overall offense, rush defense, sacks, average points scored and average points allowed.

    The Colts averaged 15 points per game on offense and gave up 26 points per game on defense. Both of those totals need to be drastically improved before they can think about winning more games than they lose.

    Bill Polian is gone. Jim Caldwell is gone. Peyton Manning probably is gone. Out of the wide number of free agents that saw their contract expire after the 2011 season, a number of them will probably be gone. Maybe the Colts will try to sign some, but they could opt not to come back. The only constant appears to be owner Jim Irsay. Good luck with that.

    New head coach Chuck Pagano will have to break his players into his brand of football, but will also need to break the team in on new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. That is a significant amount of change and with all of the change comes growing pains. Lots and lots of growing pains. At least the Colts fans can look forward to cheering for either Andrew Luck or for Robert Griffin III for many years to come.

    But, that still doesn't mean that the 2012 season is going to be very good. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if 2012 is downright ugly. Sure, there will be some highlight moments for the rookie quarterback and a couple of upsets, but this is the year for him to experience some growing pains and learn on the job. The question is who will Luck or Griffin be throwing to, and how many of them used to catch passes from Peyton Manning?

    The Colts have a large number of key free agents that may not fit into the team plans going forward. I suspect that there will be a few surprises in which veterans are allowed to walk away and explore the free-agency market, but with a major overhaul in place, that is to be expected.

    2012 Projected Finish: 3-13 and last in the AFC South. Well, at least the Colts will own the rights to the first overall draft selection in the 2013 NFL draft as the rebuilding continues.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: rush offense, overall defense, rush defense, sacks, points allowed and third-down conversion percentage.

    As you can see from this laundry list of bottom-five categories, the Bucs need to improve in a bunch of ways. They will need to get more physical on both sides of the ball with regards to the running game. Converting more third downs would help both the offense and the defense.

    Raheem Morris is out and Greg Schiano is in. Tampa Bay is now officially starting over again, and the job that lies ahead for Schiano is to figure out how to motivate the Bucs again and get them to play a full 60 minutes. That was something that they stopped doing for Morris.

    The Bucs have some weapons on offense, but until I see enough evidence that they have added some key parts, I am just not convinced that they are going to be very good in 2012. This is going to be their bottoming-out phase, and they will be slowly but surely working their way back toward respectability starting in 2013.

    It is interesting that Schiano has only one offensive coordinator candidate that he wants to talk to in John McNulty, although the Cardinals blocked that marriage from happening. What about interviewing multiple candidates and trying to learn something from some of the other bright minds out there that are available to you?

    The Bucs can only hope that Schiano will be able to bring his college enthusiasm and intensity to help transform the team in the same way that Jim Harbaugh did for the San Francisco 49ers. The main problem with that thought is that the 49ers had more talent for Harbaugh to walk into, so Schiano's work is cut out for him.

    2012 Projected Finish: 3-13 and last in the NFC South.

30. Cleveland Browns

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: pass defense and points allowed. 

    Bottom-five ranks: overall offense, rush offense, rush defense, points scored and red-zone conversions.

    Improving on both sides of the ball regarding the run game seems to be a major priority for the Browns in 2012 as well as doing a better job of converting more scoring opportunities in the red zone.

    When the Cleveland Browns announced that they decided to hire Brad Childress as their offensive coordinator, I didn't get a sense of great things on the horizon, but more of the same. 

    It is conceivable that I have the Browns ranked too low, but until I see some more positive signs of real offensive weapons added to this team, I will keep them in the bottom five of the NFL because their offense is just plain offensive.

    For all of the bad vibes that were coming out of Cleveland over the lack of performance from Peyton Hillis all year, he is now suddenly back in their good graces! What? Something just isn't adding up.

    It will be interesting to see what the Browns do at the draft this year. They very well may opt to trade down in the first round again, and depending on the bounty that they wind up with, they may be looking at a faster rise to respectability than it appears now. But when I see the evidence that they have taken some positive strides I will adjust their rank accordingly. Until then, they are staying right where they are.

    Projected 2012 finish: 4-12 and last in the AFC North.

29. Minnesota Vikings

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush offense. 

    Bottom-five ranks: passing offense, sacks allowed and points allowed.

    In 2011 the Minnesota Vikings gave up 28 points a game and scored 21 points a game on average. Both of those numbers have to improve in 2012.

    I like Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Christian Ponder and Leslie Frazier. But let's face it—the Vikings are still in rebuilding mode, and they have a long way to go to get back to where they were just two short years ago, when they were battling the New Orleans Saints in overtime for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

    Going 1-7 at home had to be a tough pill for Vikings fans to swallow. Then you add in all of the stadium issues with local and state politicians and you have the ingredients for another downer of a year. The Vikings will ultimately get better, but they are going to need to take some smaller steps before they can start running again.

    The extent to which new defensive coordinator Alan Williams can improve the defense (ranked No. 21) remains to be seen. The Vikings also have to do a better job of protecting Christian Ponder, as well as adding some weapons for him to throw to. At least Frazier and his staff got an up-front look at lots of talent at the Senior Bowl, and I expect them to have a very good draft in 2012 as a result.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 4-12 and last in the NFC North.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall offense, passing offense and average points scored

    Jack Del Rio and David Garrard are gone. New head coach Mike Mularkey has come in and will be asked to try to develop quarterback Blaine Gabbert. I am not sure that Mularkey will be able to do that, because there are serious doubts about Gabbert being a franchise quarterback.

    Gabbert suffers from happy feet, as he tends to get nervous when the pressure starts to close in on him. It is understandable based on how big defensive linemen are these days, but isn't necessarily a good thing if you are trying to coach a NFL team. It wouldn't surprise me if the Jaguars sign a veteran quarterback (at the level of a David Garrard) to have somebody ready to step in if Gabbert shows no outward signs of growth in his sophomore year.

    The Jaguars also need some more weapons at wide receiver, as Maurice Jones-Drew is the main driving force in this offense, and you simply need more than just one weapon to keep defenses off-balance.

    The Jaguars defense did an admirable job in 2011 and now they just need the offense to step up and meet them halfway. Given the feedback on Gabbert, that seems unlikely for the 2012 season.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 4-12 and in third place in the AFC South.

27. Washington Redskins

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: turnover margin and red-zone conversion percentage.

    The Washington Redskins had a middle of the pack offense (No. 16 overall) and a slightly above middle-of-the-pack defense (No. 13 overall).

    Then you factor in that the offense averaged only 18 points a game, while the best teams are averaging 30 points per game. The defense is giving up 22 points a game, which isn't terrible, but if you are only scoring 18, then it is a problem. The Redskins went only 2-6 at home and 2-4 in the NFC East.

    Taking better care of the ball and converting more red-zone opportunities into touchdowns instead of field goals will be a big emphasis in 2012 for Mike Shanahan and his team.

    The biggest question about the 2012 Redskins is who will quarterback this team. Will it be Rex Grossman or John Beck? Will they trade up in the draft to select Robert Griffin III, or will they sign a guy that is expected to be available in free agency like Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn? Maybe they can lure Jason Campbell back.

    What I do know is that the Redskins didn't give any reason to believe in them by the way they finished out the 2011 season. They went 2-10 over their final 12 games in 2011, which tells me that this team has a long way to go before they are considered a reasonable contender in the NFC East.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 5-11 and last in the NFC East.

26. Denver Broncos

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush offense.

    Bottom-five ranks: passing offense and percentage of converting on third down. 

    While Denver Broncos fans have to be delighted with the big comeback in 2011 to win the AFC West and the exciting overtime playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I am not convinced that the Broncos are set up to be better in 2012. In fact, they could be much worse.

    The Broncos made a good hire in bringing in Jack Del Rio to coordinate their defense, and Tim Tebow appears to be comfortable with Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator.

    John Elway is going to allow Tebow to enter training camp as the starting quarterback. But we won't know until well into camp who is going to emerge as the starting quarterback. If it is somebody other than Tebow, what did the Broncos do at the draft that allows the team to run an efficient offense with greater emphasis placed on the passing attack, and less on running the ball?

    Of course, the Broncos could draft with that thought in mind, but if Tebow wins the job in camp, then where are you?

    I watched Tebow get flustered in Buffalo, go crazy against Pittsburgh and then get beat up by New England. The six-game winning streak was great, but this is also a team that closed out the 2011 season by losing four of its final five games. Don't care how you try to spin that one, but that isn't very good.

    I project a rocky 2012 season due to the Tebow factor and believe that the Broncos will ultimately go in a different direction as an organization. They will be better in 2013 as a result, but in 2012, not so much.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 5-11 and in last place in the AFC West.

25. St. Louis Rams

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall offense, passing offense, rush defense, third-down conversion percentage, sacks allowed, average points scored and red-zone conversion percentage. 

    It will be interesting to see if the Rams draft a player when they are on the clock with the No. 2 overall draft pick, or if they do wind up trading down to secure more high draft picks. My belief is that the Rams will in fact trade down and benefit from the additional picks.

    The St. Louis Rams have a talented core of young, talented players, and that is one of the main reasons that new head coach Jeff Fisher was attracted to taking over the team. But when you look up above and see how many different major categories the Rams finished in the bottom five in in the NFL, you realize that this team has a serious talent issue or lack of depth that results in very poor play.

    It is just not one unit. The problems pop up on both sides of the ball.

    The 2012 season will be of constant change as the Rams try to bring in players that Fisher thinks will fit his image of what he needs. He also needs to find players that will keep new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer happy, as well as finding players that fit the schemes that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to run.

    As a result, there could be a huge number of transactions throughout the 2012 season, as warm bodies are rotated in and out on the active roster. The Rams won't be an overnight success because there is just simply too much baggage to fix here in one year. I envision some steady growth going forward, and if the Rams can match the way that the Lions kept getting a little better in each of the last three years, that might be a good example to shoot for.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 5-11 and tied with Arizona for third place in the NFC West.

24. Arizona Cardinals

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: third-down conversion percentage, sacks allowed and turnover ratio.

    Who will quarterback the Arizona Cardinals in 2012? Will it be Kevin Kolb or John Skelton? What about the prospect of Peyton Manning throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald and company? It is debatable that Kolb is worth the $65 million that the Cardinals paid to sign him. Maybe that is why Larry Fitzgerald was dining with Peyton Manning during the Super Bowl week. Possible recruiting mission?

    After a brutal start to the 2011 season, the Cardinals closed out the year by going 7-2 over their final nine games. That momentum would hopefully carry over into a positive start to 2012, but unless the Cardinals upgrade their quarterback, I am just not convinced that they can maintain that standard.

    The Cardinals will have to decide about free agent Calais Campbell, in that they either try to get him signed to a long-term contract or to put a franchise tag on him. Either way, it appears Campbell is a priority. The other priority is beefing up the offensive line with some better pass-blockers and taking better care of the football.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 5-11 and tied with St. Louis for third place in the NFC West.

23. Miami Dolphins

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush defense.

    Bottom-five ranks: sacks allowed.

    Joe Philbin was hired to replace Tony Sparano as head coach. Philbin brings a strong offensive mind to the Dolphins who should have more influence on the team than the new offensive coordinator that Philbin hired, Mike Sherman. There is also a new defensive coordinator on board, Kevin Coyle, so there was a clean sweep of the three main coaches on the team.

    What that also means is that there won't be much continuity from the 2011 season to the 2012 team. Brand new schemes, new terminology and new playbook. It means a steep learning curve, and a team that will be making a number of mistakes getting used to the new way of doing things.

    Looking ahead at the 2012 Dolphins, I think they will be searching for answers in the first half of the season and will continue to improve as the games wind into the second half of the year.

    What would help the speed of the Dolphins' growth is to get an upgrade at quarterback, but if Peyton Manning isn't physically ready to play, then one has to wonder if Matt Flynn is a new version of Kevin Kolb.

    When Brandon Marshall complimented the elite quarterbacks that were throwing the ball to him at the Pro Bowl, he was slighting Matt Moore. But I guess that isn't the first time that Marshall has done something that would make people scratch their heads.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 5-11 and in last place in the AFC East.

22. Seattle Seahawks

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: turnover ratio.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall offense and sacks allowed. 

    The Seahawks had a positive streak in the middle of the 2011 season where they won five out of six games, which included wins over Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago. But they couldn't maintain the pace and finished the year at 7-9, which ironically was the same record that allowed them to win the NFC West division title in 2010.

    One of the problems with the Seattle team is the passing offense just isn't that productive. In nine games in the 2011 season, the Seahawks weren't even able to pass for 200 yards. In a league that is so heavily geared toward sophisticated passing attacks, the Seahawks have to upgrade their weapons.

    It also would help if they could upgrade their pass protection, as giving up 50 sacks is just way too many. What is scary about that is that the Seahawks used two top draft picks in James Carpenter and John Moffitt to beef up their offensive line. That area still needs more talent.

    Fan favorite Marshawn Lynch is a free agent, but the Seahawks just might prefer to use a franchise tag on him, as the hit against their salary cap appears to be a reasonable figure. Running backs with a franchise tag have resulted in lower figures the last two years running, going from $9.6 million to $8.2 million to $7.7 million. So, if Seahawks fans don't see any talks surfacing about a long-term deal, don't panic. 

    Projected 2012 Finish: 6-10 and in second place in the NFC West.

21. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: sacks, average points scored and conversions in the red zone.

    Besides the areas we cited above, the Chiefs also are ranked at No. 25 or lower in overall offense, passing offense and rush defense. That demonstrates how much this team has to improve to get back to a playoff contention team. 

    Is the overall perception of the team and the organization a climate where communication and winning is built? Not according to this article by Kent Babb of the Kansas City Star, which discusses at length the paranoia and anxiety that permeate the Chiefs headquarters. And Romeo Crennel wanted to remain on the job?

    The Chiefs could be called New England West, since they pattern so much of what they do according to the Patriots way of running a team. But the Chiefs were hit with a number of injuries to key players early in the 2011 campaign that they had trouble recovering from. Todd Haley was fired and now Crennel will try to rally the troops. He has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll to try to elevate the offense to score more points and get more touchdowns on the board.

    It will be interesting to see who Daboll and Crennel decide to start at quarterback, especially if Kyle Orton is brought back to compete with Matt Cassel. That battle could go either way.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 6-10 and in third place in the AFC West.

20. Carolina Panthers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush offense and average points scored.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall defense.

    What else can you say about NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton? He broke all kinds of rookie records and gave the rest of the NFL notice that he will be around to terrorize the dreams of NFL defensive coordinators for many years to come. Steve Smith proved that he is still a major threat and staying in Carolina with Newton will probably add years to his career, because this duo is dynamic together.

    The main problem in Carolina is the defense, and that is what will still be holding them back in 2012. According to a story in Pro Football Weekly, the Panthers are probably going to release key linebacker Thomas Davis due to a $8 million roster bonus considering his injury history. The article also stated that the Panthers want to find a backup quarterback that is close to what Cam Newton does, so that if Newton ever gets hurt, the offense could continue without drastic changes needed.

    It isn't out of the question though that the Panthers and Davis could work out a deal for less money. You have to wonder how effective Davis is after three different ACL injuries.

    One good development out of the frenzy to hire new head coaches and coordinators is that the Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is still with the team and will be back to continue working with Cam Newton. He was a hot ticket for several weeks, but he is staying put.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 6-10 and in third place in the NFC South.

19. Tennessee Titans

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: sacks allowed and red-zone conversions.

    Bottom-five ranks: rush offense and sacks.

    The Tennessee Titans got a strong year out of free-agent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, so they can let him compete with Jake Locker to see who will be the starter in 2012. That is a healthy situation and a good problem to have.

    What the Titans surprisingly don't have is a strong running game to give their quarterbacks some degree of help. With Chris Johnson you would figure that the Titans would be all set, but with Johnson they still finished in the bottom five of the rushing attacks in the league. It seems like Johnson has lost a step and if that is the case, the Titans have lost one of the best features of their previous offense.

    Mike Munchak did a good job in his rookie year of keeping the Titans competitive. But the overall production on both offense and defense has to go up if they expect to reach the playoffs again. In 2011, their average score was the offense scoring 20 points and defense giving up 19 points. That is cutting it way too close for comfort, and if you have that many close games, you can lose just as many as you win.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 7-9 and will finish second in the AFC South.

18. New York Jets

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall defense, red-zone conversions and pass defense.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    From this slide, only Brian Schottenheimer has left the Jets so far. How much longer before Mark Sanchez follows him out the door? How about Rex Ryan following suit?

    The New York Jets had to be one of the most dysfunctional teams down the stretch run of the 2011 season. Okay, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were probably worse, but the Jets were a close second. Deep-seated problems were going on in the locker room and Rex Ryan was oblivious to it all. Lovely. Nothing like your coach being in tune with what is going on with the pulse of his team.

    I honestly don't know what to expect from the Jets in 2012. But I have a strong feeling that things are going to get worse first, before they get better. All of the promises and predictions from Rex Ryan now seem like a steady stream of hot air, and the line of free-agent players wanting to play for him has probably dwindled considerably.

    We don't know who is coming back, but we have a good idea of who is leaving. Plaxico Burress and LaDainian Tomlinson appear to be headed out the door. The Jets hired Tony Sparano to return the offense to more of a ground-and-pound type of attack. The defense should still be good but the offense still has too many question marks for me to rank the Jets any higher than a middle-of-the-pack kind of team.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 7-9 and will finish third in the AFC East.

17. Chicago Bears

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush defense.

    Bottom-five ranks: pass defense and sacks allowed.

    The Chicago Bears were cruising along at 7-3 in 2011 when they lost Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. They immediately went into a five-game losing streak, which eliminated them from playoff contention. Caleb Hanie proved not to be ready for prime time, so the Bears have to go back to the drawing board and overhaul their offense to be able to withstand injuries to key players and fall apart as a result.

    The average score in Chicago last year was 22 points for the offense and 21 points allowed for the defense. That is way too thin of a margin and so when I look at the Bears, I need to see some dynamic additions to their offense to make me think that they can survive the regular season. We will see if the addition of Mike Tice as offensive coordinator will make a difference.

    For 2012, the Bears have to sign Matt Forte to have any realistic shot at winning. Preferably they take care of him with a multiyear contract as opposed to slapping a franchise tag on him. They have messed around with Forte for long enough—time to treat him right.

    As this is a very early projection for 2012, I see the Bears as a .500 team and possibly a slightly less-than-.500 team. Based on who the Bears draft or key free agents that they sign, I will reserve the right to change my opinion later, but for now I am just not very high on the Bears.

    Projected 2102 Finish: 7-9 and will finish third in the NFC North division.

16. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: sacks and sacks allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    The Cincinnati Bengals are an improving team that I think is still about one year away from making a bigger splash. The main reason that I don't have them ranked higher is that I really think they have to learn how to defeat quality teams, and since that didn't happen in 2011, that is one of the priorities for the 2012 season. That is something the young Bengals team has to learn to do collectively.

    The Bengals are returning their entire coaching group of Marvin Lewis and coordinators Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, so there should be strong continuity to build on the progress from 2011. Andy Dalton could have a little sophomore slump, but I think he will continue to prove that he belongs. It will be interesting to see how the Bengals cash in their draft chips from the Carson Palmer trade, as they can add some key new talent at the draft.

    On the free-agent front, the Bengals might be losing some key veterans, so we will wait to see what they do to replace them. Potential Bengals that could leave are Reggie Nelson and Cedric Benson. Nelson might be tempted to check out the Dolphins and the Bengals could easily draft a younger running back to replace the aging Benson.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 8-8 and third place in the AFC North. The .500 record is not good enough to get the Bengals into the 2012 playoffs.

15. Atlanta Falcons

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: turnover ratio.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    Head coach Mike Smith has two new coordinators to break in: Mike Nolan on defense and Dirk Koetter on offense. That means that there will be a break in some of the prior continuity that the Falcons enjoyed. The mettle of the Falcons will be tested in 2012, because after two straight one-and-done exits in the playoffs, it would not a shock if the fire isn't burning quite as brightly as it was the last two seasons.

    According to an article in the Atlanta Constitution, the Falcons are faced with trying to decide which players to bring back, as they are $28 million under the salary cap, but have a whopping total of 17 unrestricted free agents that will be hitting the market if they can't reach a new deal with them. For now, it appear the main priorities are Curtis Lofton and Brent Grimes, followed by more key decisions on John Abraham and Harry Douglas.

    With so many free agents, it is inevitable that the Falcons will be losing some key players that will be hard to replace. As a result, the Falcons will also be losing some of their current depth. Add in the fact that the Falcons traded away their first-round draft pick for Julio Jones, and this is adding up to an offseason that leads to the Falcons taking a step backwards in 2012.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 8-8. The Falcons finish second place in the NFC South and with a .500 record fail to qualify for the playoffs.

14. New York Giants

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: pass offense and sacks.

    Bottom-five ranks: rush offense and pass defense.

    The New York Giants are Super Bowl XLVI champions. We all know that it is difficult for Super Bowl champion teams to repeat in the Super Bowl. Look at recent examples like the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Giants weren't that special of a team for the majority of the regular season. They were only 7-7, a mere .500 team with two weeks left to go. They had to win their final two games to make it in.

    Teams will be gunning for them and there is the prospect that the Giants could trade some of their veterans (Osi Umenyiora comes to mind) or lose some of their depth in free agency (Mario Manningham). As a result, I just don't see the Giants having a great season, repeating at 9-7, but this time that is not good enough to win the NFC East and they miss the playoffs.

    But at least Giants fans can be happy that they have another Super Bowl title to add to their team total.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 9-7 and third place in the NFC East. The Giants do not qualify for the playoffs in 2012.

13. Oakland Raiders

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: sacks allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall defense and average points allowed.

    It made sense that the Raiders hired a new head coach in Dennis Allen that is defensive-minded, because the Raiders were just not very good in any phase of their defense. Both the pass defense and the rush defense were ranked No. 27 in the NFL and the overall defense was ranked No. 29. Put that together with allowing an average of 27 points per game, and you are just asking for trouble.

    So what steps can Allen take to improve the defense? Well, there won't be much help from the draft, because the Raiders have already traded away their top picks. By the middle rounds you have less of a guarantee and start drafting players that are something of a reach.

    Not exactly how you want to try to fix your defense.

    That means that the Raiders will have to rely on free agency and being creative and aggressive with the salary cap to bring in some new talent and upgrade where they can.

    Provided that Darren McFadden comes back healthy, Carson Palmer will have plenty of weapons to turn to on offense for new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. But if the defense is going to ask the offense to score 30 points or more week in and week out, it will be a long year for the Raiders.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 10-6 and second place in the AFC West. The Raiders tie Pittsburgh and Buffalo at 10-6, but lose out in the tiebreakers, missing out on the playoffs.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall defense, pass defense, third-down conversion percentage and average points allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: turnover ratio.

    When you look at the list above, the Steelers were a top-five NFL team in quite a number of categories, but the one negative area, turnover margin, really came back to haunt them.

    Some of the luster of the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams is starting to slowly but surely fade away. The defense, which was already thought to be old, just got another year older. The Steelers were swept by the Baltimore Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger had his offensive coordinator Bruce Arians removed by the Rooneys. Hines Ward has been reduced to a bit player and won't be back unless he takes a big pay cut. The Steelers had a minus-13 turnover margin, which was the worst among all AFC teams.

    Big Ben Roethlisberger is looking more and more mortal with every passing year. The injuries seem to be coming faster, and as limited as he is in trying to play through them, the Steelers continue to trot him out there. Then there is the defensive play calling of Dick LeBeau in the playoff game against the Broncos, where he left the deep secondary wide open and ended the Steelers' run in the playoffs.

    I have the Steelers qualifying for the final playoff spot in the AFC in 2012, so this might be the last hurrah for a while, as the defense will need to identify some new talent and replace the aging core of veterans.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 10-6 and second place in the AFC North. The Steelers will land the final Wild Card slot for the AFC and have the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs.

11. Dallas Cowboys

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: none.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    Surprisingly the Cowboys were one of the few teams that didn't have a top-five or bottom-five finish in any category. Guess that could be viewed as either good, bad or just middle of the road, depending on your perspective.

    Bill Callahan was brought over from the New York Jets to help head coach Jason Garrett run the offense and to take some of the duties off the full plate of Garrett, who had been serving as both head coach and offensive coordinator. That is a move that should benefit all parties concerned.

    The Cowboys offense seemed to take off (as did the team) when DeMarco Murray was inserted into the starting lineup. The rookie running back made the entire offense hum, and if Murray didn't get injured down the stretch, who knows how the 2011 season would have turned out, but it is very likely that the New York Giants wouldn't have even made the playoffs. 

    When Murray was the starter the Cowboys went on a 5-1 run. As soon as he got hurt, the Cowboys went 1-4 down the stretch. I don't consider that to be a coincidence. Murray appears to be a nightmare for defenses and he opens up the entire field for Tony Romo and his wide receivers. The Cowboys are primed for a good year if they can keep Murray healthy.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 10-6 and finishing second in the NFC East. The Cowboys will take the final NFC Wild Card slot and have the No. 6 seed in the NFC. The Packers did pretty well from the No. 6 seed two years ago.

10. Buffalo Bills

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: quarterback sacks allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: rush defense, third-down conversion percentage, sacks and points allowed average.

    One of my surprise picks for the 2012 season, the Buffalo Bills own the longest streak of not being in the playoffs, and that streak comes to an end in 2012. The Bills are entering the third year of Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix's rebuilding effort, and the third year is the year that you expect to see results.

    The Bills were headed in the right direction in 2011 with a 5-2 start, and they owned wins over the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. The Bills took the Giants deep into the fourth quarter and shut out the Washington Redskins. But in Week 8 Ryan Fitzpatrick cracked two ribs against Washington and he played hurt the rest of the year. Then the toll of all of their injuries started impacting the team, and they frankly never recovered.

    The Bills have fired defensive coordinator George Edwards and promoted assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator. They have switched back to the 4-3 defense and already have two great tackles to form the heart of that defense in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.

    The Bills are expecting to have four key injured players return in Shawne Merriman, Kyle Williams, Eric Wood and Fred Jackson. Other injured veterans like Roscoe Parrish and Terrence McGee may not be brought back due to their extensive injury history.

    The Bills also would like to see Marcus Easley return to health to stretch the field on offense. Easley will be entering his third year in the league, but has yet to play in a game. The Bills plan to bring back Steve Johnson, as he is vital to the Bills offense. The Bills are going to address their pass rush and need for another wide receiver in the draft and in free agency. They own the 10th overall draft pick and will probably use that on a player like Courtney Upshaw, Quinton Coples or Nick Perry.

    The Bills will have a full summer camp to work in Brad Smith to the offense and figure out how to incorporate both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller into the offense at the same time. Jackson was in the race to win the NFL rushing title and he had a breakout year in 2011. The future is looking up in Buffalo and 2012 should be the year that they see it all start coming together.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 10-6 and second place in the AFC East. The Bills will be the AFC first Wild Card team, and have the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs.

9. San Francisco 49ers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall defense, rush defense, average points allowed and turnover ratio.

    Bottom-five ranks: pass offense, third-down conversions percentage and red-zone conversion percentage.

    The San Francisco 49ers had a wild and wonderful 2011 season. They totally obliterated the 2010 image of what the 49ers team was all about, by playing a tough, tenacious defense that basically took away the run game from every opponent. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, the AP NFL Coach of the Year, brought his unique brand of enthusiasm and confidence to the 49ers, and they just took off from there. He really was the perfect hire for the team.

    Alex Smith benefited from Harbaugh more than anybody else. As well as Smith stepped up his game in 2011, you can see from the offensive rankings in the bottom five that this is an offense that is in dire need of adding more weapons.

    As you watch Tom Brady and Eli Manning throw one pass after another to their wide receivers in Super Bowl XLVI, just remember that Alex Smith completed just one pass to a wide receiver in the NFC Championship Game. That is hard to believe but true.

    Smith completed passes to only four receivers for the entire game. That, combined with completing less than 50 percent of his passes (12 of 26), quickly paints a story of why the 49ers put too much stress on their defense and didn't do enough on offense to win. That focus has to see the scales tipped more toward both units carrying their fair share of the burden if the 49ers are going to advance further in 2012.

    Harbaugh is keeping his coordinators intact, so that should bode well for continued success in 2012, provided that they add some firepower to the offense.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 11-5 and first place in the NFC West. The 49ers will have the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs in 2012.

8. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall offense, rush offense and sacks.

    Bottom-five ranks: turnover ratio.

    I have the Eagles finishing in the top 10 of the NFL standings in 2012, so that doesn't mean that they are a Dream Team, but not that far off from one either. In the second year of bringing in the new wave of talent that the Eagles landed in the 2011 free-agency period, they now have a full year to bring it all together and build a cohesive team.

    The Eagles started turning things around in the last month of 2011 and that momentum serves them well in 2012. Head coach Andy Reid is bringing back Juan Castillo to run the defensive unit again, and even though Marty Mornhinweg interviewed for head coaching jobs, he will be back to run the offense for Reid.

    The Eagles landed so much free-agent talent in 2011, that it will be interesting to see where they are with respect to flexibility with the salary cap. They have to decide if they want to bring DeSean Jackson back, or perhaps they will decide that he is more trouble than he is worth. Either way, the Eagles have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, and the way that they were playing down the stretch in 2011, I think they are a team that can be a serious contender in 2012.

    The key for the Eagles' success in 2012 is that Michael Vick has learned some valuable lessons from 2011 and winds up taking better care of the football in 2012. As a result, that impacts the Eagles' win versus loss totals in a significant way.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 11-5 and first place in NFC East. The Eagles will have the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

7. New England Patriots

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall offense, passing offense, third-down percentage conversions, average points scored, turnover ratio and red-zone conversion percentage.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall defense and pass defense.

    If it was driving you crazy how the New England Patriots could possibly advance to the Super Bowl with such a bad defense, just look at all of the categories that they placed in the top five in 2011. There is your answer. They are just a very complete dynamic offense.

    Expect more of the same in 2012. I am still not convinced that the defense will see a marked improvement, and it would also not surprise me to see Tom Brady being harassed more in 2012 based on what teams saw the Giants do in the Super Bowl.

    New England still has a wealth of draft picks to either invest or trade away, and Bill Belichick will do a good job of trying to add depth and have ready-made replacements for his veteran players who are starting to get long in the tooth. 

    I think that Wes Welker will sign on to play another three-year deal to stay in New England, and that assures that the Patriots offense will be humming on all cylinders.

    Playing in Super Bowl XLVI validates a great year, but I just don't think the Patriots will get back there for Super Bowl XLVII. We have plenty of evidence that it is getting harder for teams to repeat.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 12-4 and first place in AFC East. Due to being tied with San Diego and Baltimore, New England winds up losing in tiebreakers, and gets the No. 4 seed in AFC playoffs in 2012.

6. San Diego Chargers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: third-down conversion percentage and average points scored.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    The San Diego Chargers had a strange year in 2011. Philip Rivers went into a funk that we really haven't witnessed before, and the more that he did his best to assure everyone that he wasn't injured, the more concerned everybody became.

    Norv Turner somehow held on to his job for at least one more year, so we will see what the reprieve does for Turner and the Chargers' fortunes. It will be interesting to see if the team can finally work out a long-term deal with Vincent Jackson, or does he ultimately bolt for another team in free agency?

    A report from the North County Times suggests that Kris Dielman isn't sure if he will continue to play or not. He has been suffering from concussions, so there is no official word yet if he will keep playing or retire.

    What will be interesting to see is how the Chargers respond to playing under Turner, recognizing that there is a new offensive coordinator (Hal Hunter) and new defensive coordinator (John Pagano) that the team has to adjust to. There will have to be some loss in continuity and communication, but that should all be resolved by mid-season.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 12-4, and first place in AFC West. Chargers win the tiebreaker over the New England Patriots and have the No. 3 seed in AFC.

5. Detroit Lions

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall offense, pass offense, average points scored, red-zone conversion percentage and turnover ratio.

    Bottom-five ranks: rush offense.

    When you see how many categories the Lions ranked in the top five in the NFL in 2011, it is easy to see how they are becoming a true contender. They had some injuries in their running game and will need to shore that area up in 2012, along with some issues on defense. But overall, Jim Schwartz has this team headed in the right direction and some positive things seem to await them.

    Over the past three seasons, Schwartz has led the Lions to a record of 2-14, 6-10 and then 10-6. As the Lions continue to take a step in the right direction every passing year, their ability to learn how to win as a team goes up, along with their level of confidence.

    One of the biggest stories of the year for the Lions was that Matthew Stafford, the AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year winner, was able to actually able to play for an entire season. That has to be a major development not only for Stafford, but for the Lions organization and the offense in general. One solid full year under his belt, and he will only continue to improve and perform better in the offense.

    The Lions have some key free agents coming up in Cliff Avril and Stephen Tulloch. Of the two, Avril is the priority, but he would not be happy if the Lions decided to franchise tag him. He is looking for a long-term deal.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 12-4, second place to Green Bay in the NFC North. Detroit goes in again to playoffs as a Wild Card team, with the No. 5 seed in the NFC.

4. Baltimore Ravens

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall defense, pass defense, rush defense, sacks and average points allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    The Baltimore Ravens came so close in 2011. If Lee Evans holds on to the pass in the end zone. If Billy Cundiff makes that field goal. No matter how you slice it, the Ravens played a strong game against the New England Patriots and probably deserved a better fate. 

    But the will to win and have one more shot at trying to win the Super Bowl is going to spur Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to come back again in 2012 and push themselves just as hard as they did in 2011. Not sure if 2012 season will be the swan song for Lewis, but he is not getting any younger. The end may be coming soon.

    One thing the Ravens have to do for sure is improve their wide receivers. It's doubtful that Lee Evans will be back, but if he is and can be healthy, he can surely catch many more passes than what he demonstrated in 2011.

    The Ravens lost their defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and replaced him with Dean Pees. Since Pees was already on the defensive staff, there shouldn't be too much of a change in production or in communication.

    Perhaps 2012 that the NFL will fully embrace Joe Flacco the way that Eli Manning was embraced. Of course it would help Flacco's public perception if the Ravens won the Super Bowl to get the monkey off of his back.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 12-4, first place in AFC North. I have Baltimore in a three-way tie with New England and San Diego at 12-4, but Baltimore wins the tiebreaker and is No. 2 seed in AFC.

3. New Orleans Saints

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall offense, pass offense, third-down percentage conversion, sacks allowed and average points scored.

    Bottom-five ranks: pass defense.

    Head coach Sean Payton lost his defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to St. Louis, so he filled the defensive coordinator with ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was in demand after the Rams let him go. Williams was hell-bent on blitzing at all costs, but Spagnuolo will try to reel things in without giving up as many big plays.

    Drew Brees and the Saints offense had a predictably strong year in 2011. Brees was the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and deservedly so. The Saints have a number of key free-agent decisions ahead of them, and paramount of them all is bringing back Brees, easily the face of the franchise.

    Besides Brees, the Saints would like to bring back Carl Nicks, and then there are other key free agents like Marques Colston and Roman Harper to figure out if they can afford to bring all them back. It is likely that the Saints will lose one or two free agents because they have players in demand and the salary cap will prevent them from nailing down everybody.

    But the Saints offense is so solid, and there are still enough weapons on hand, that Brees should have no problem in keeping the Saints close to the top of the NFC standings.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 13-3 and first place in NFC South. Saints lose out on tiebreaker to Green Bay and wind up with No. 2 seed in NFC playoffs.

2. Houston Texans

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: rush offense, overall defense, pass defense, rush defense and average points allowed.

    Bottom-five ranks: none.

    The Houston Texans have finally arrived—and how. The Texans look like they are primed to be an annual AFC contender for years to come, based on their current mix of talent on both sides of the ball. The Texans now have a dominating defense, which is a tribute to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Not only do the Texans have a very solid defense, their offense boasts a number of stars, from Arian Foster and Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson and Ben Tate.

    Going into 2012, this team should be brimming with confidence. Having a healthy Schaub back will be a huge boost to the team. It should give the Texans a degree of confidence in knowing that rookie quarterback T.J. Yates is clearly capable of stepping in whenever needed in a pinch.

    Do the Texans decide to pay the going rate (very expensive) to retain Mario Williams, or are they going to let Mario walk and hope that they get an extra draft pick in the compensatory round? He still can play, but if you sign him to a big deal, do you have to cut a player or two to create the cap space to fit him in?

    Gary Kubiak has all of his coordinators back for 2012, and I am expecting that the Texans will take their momentum from 2011 and use that to propel themselves to a great start in 2012.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 13-3, first place in AFC South. Project Texans to have the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

1. Green Bay Packers

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    Top-five 2011 ranks: overall offense, pass offense, third-down conversion percentage, average points scored, turnover ratio and red-zone conversion percentage.

    Bottom-five ranks: overall defense, pass defense and sacks. 

    I wrote an article last week on NFL Head Coach of the Year odds, wondering how Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy could take his team on a stretch run of winning 22 out of 23 games and not be voted NFL Coach of the Year. But that is the way that the voting came out. Unfair? Probably. Inconceivable? Yes, that as well.

    McCarthy will have his work cut out for him in getting his team fired up to repeat what they did in the regular season in 2012, but still be poised enough to play a better brand of football in the playoffs. At least better football than they played against the New York Giants.

    Aaron Rodgers won the NFL MVP award Saturday night, and I expect him to have a spectacular 2012 season, despite the loss of coach Joe Philbin, who is now the head coach at the Miami Dolphins. Tom Clements is now the offensive coordinator, and since he was already in-house as the quarterback coach, the Packers shouldn't really miss a beat on offense. 

    The other issue is what free agents the Packers decide to bring back. There is Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Matt Flynn. Flynn is probably as good as gone, as he is looking to become a starter somewhere else. But Grant and Finley could be brought back if the price is right.

    I expect the Packers to have a very solid 2012 campaign, and would not be surprised if they make it to the Super Bowl again.

    Projected 2012 Finish: 13-3, first place in NFC North and is No. 1 seed in NFC in playoffs.

Projected 2012 NFL Final Standings

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    Final Projected 2012 Standings

    AFC East: New England (12-4), Buffalo (10-6), New York Jets (7-9) and Miami (5-11)

    AFC North: Baltimore (12-4), Pittsburgh (10-6), Cincinnati (8-8) and Cleveland (4-12)

    AFC South: Houston (13-3), Tennessee (7-9), Jacksonville (4-12) and Indianapolis (3-13)

    AFC West: San Diego (12-4), Oakland (10-6), Kansas City (6-10) and Denver (5-11)

    AFC playoff teams: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston and San Diego.

    NFC East: Philadelphia (11-5), Dallas (10-6), New York Giants (9-7) and Washington (5-11)

    NFC North: Green Bay (13-3), Detroit (12-4), Chicago (7-9) and Minnesota (4-12)

    NFC South: New Orleans (13-3), Atlanta (8-8), Carolina (6-10) and Tampa Bay (3-13)

    NFC West: San Francisco (11-5), Seattle (6-10), Arizona (5-11) and St. Louis (5-11)

    NFC playoff teams: Philadelphia, Dallas, Green Bay, Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco

    Super Bowl XLVII: Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers