Predicting the division winners, the wild cards, the champs, the stars, and 2012’s season surprises.
Labor Day, like a blindside pass rusher, is behind us. The heat of summer is slowly giving way to the crisp air of fall. And 32 teams will line the tunnels of stadiums in the weeks to come, standing beneath waves of screaming fans.
This means one thing, and one thing only; it’s time. It’s time for football season.
The NFL’s opening week marks that beautiful moment when all of the teams stand on equal footing –when all teams are 0-0, all possibilities are endless, and all fans are still clinging to that storied sports hope: Maybe this time is our time. It’s the moment when we have so many questions and zero answers. It’s the moment when the story we’re all craving for is still unwritten, and the final chapter won’t hit the shelves until February. It’s too much.
So we write the story ourselves.
We prognosticate, we predict, we attempt to make possible the impossible –to see the future of football, the most unpredictable of sports. So I offer my preseason picks and winners with a single caveat: some of these are sure to go awry. But isn’t that one of the things we love about football? Like a blindside pass rusher, it has a way of hitting us with something we never saw coming –with something extraordinary.
THE DIVISION WINNERS:
NFC West: This is supposed to be one of the easy picks. Just a year ago, football fans witnessed the second coming of the San Francisco 49ers as they dominated the division and surprised a nation of non-believers in the process. The Bay Area’s most successful team, a quarterback bust (Alex Smith), and a lousy division were resurrected. So, naturally, they’ll do it again, right?
Not so fast.
The 49ers’ 2012 schedule will not allow them to go 13-3 this season. This year, they’ll travel to the houses of the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and New England Patriots –all very tough road venues. They also play the Bills, Giants, Bears, and Lions in their non-divisional games. A tough start (including playing three of first four games on road) could deflate the hype and promise surrounding this team. Ask the Eagles, Cowboys, and Jets; expectations are dangerous things. Never count on them.
Not to mention, every season has that team that makes the huge jump from a non-contender to a division winner. It’s the NFL parity at work. This year, why couldn’t that team be the Seattle Seahawks?
The Seahawks have the luxury of playing some of their toughest opponents (such as Green Bay, New England, and Dallas) in their home stadium –the single most significant home-field advantage in football. But more importantly, this isn’t a team that was far from success last season. The defense ranked fifth in the NFL in turnovers, and seventh in points allowed; they’re young, promising, and skilled. And that was all with Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at the helm. Mark my words: Russell Wilson will be an efficient quarterback, and with Marshawn Lynch running, and Wilson protecting the ball, this team has a good chance to win handily battles of turnovers and time of possession. Often, those are the differences in the game.
Team in the rearview: Obviously, the 49ers are the biggest threat. Their 2011 season is well-chronicled and highlights a team that wasn’t a fluke, but simply good. The defense is elite, the offense has added weaponry, and they were a muffed punt from making the Super Bowl. But with added downfield threats come added responsibility for Alex Smith. Chances for turnovers will increase. It will be interesting to see if he can handle the added pressure. Against the Saints, in a single postseason game, he passed that test. If he can do it for an entire season, it will be hard for any team to knock the 49ers from the NFC West throne.
Pick: Seattle Seahawks, 11-5
NFC East: With Tim Tebow in town, the Yankees losing their lead to the Orioles, and Rex Ryan providing more journalistic material than a printing press, everyone has forgotten about the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Well, guess what? I haven’t.
It’s sexier to pick the Eagles or Cowboys, but once again, expectations don’t equal results. On paper, they appear to be two of the most talented, well-assembled teams in the league. On the field, they’ve tended to be two of the most disappointing teams in the league over the past few seasons. And the reason why might be simple. Tom Coughlin might not be as beloved as Andy Reid. Eli Manning might not look as good in a backwards hat than Tony Romo, or run as fast as Michael Vick. But when the games matter, I know who I’m choosing.
In close games (within 7 or less), when hearts are pounding and stadiums stand on edge, Eli Manning (alongside Coughlin) is a career 28-19. Vick is 27-24-1; Romo is 22-25. I’m giving this one to little brother.
In the playoffs, when it’s win or go home, Eli Manning is 8-3, has a completion percentage of 61.5%, and a quarterback rating of 89.3. Vick, in the postseason, is 2-4, completing 56% of his passes, and posting a rating of 77.6. Romo, to the chagrin of Jerry Jones, is 1-3 in those games, with a rating of 80.8 and a completion percentage of 59.3%. That’s another point for the best quarterback in New York City.
With the expectations these three teams face this year, every game matters. And when it matters, I don’t need to see more than these numbers; Romo and Vick are more exciting, but Eli is the surer bet.
The key to success for the Giants will actually be to abandon the formula that led to their two Super Bowls. They can’t afford to wait until the last weeks of the season to get hot. Four of their last five games are against the Packers, Saints, Falcons, and Ravens. If they’re counting on a five-game winning streak, they shouldn’t. This season is about the strong start; if things go right, they could easily be 8-2 by their bye-week.
Team in the rearview: The Eagles are loaded with talent, and it seems they might be closer to using it correctly. Asomugha, for example, will be back in the natural position that he dominated for years on defense, guarding the sidelines. If Vick stays healthy, the defense improves, and this team coincides with destiny and motivation in playing for their coach (who recently lost his son and got a word of warning from his owner), they might finally reach the expectations that have burdened their backs for so long.
Pick: Giants, 11-5
NFC North: The Green Bay Packers defense ranked last in yards allowed, 27th in passing touchdowns allowed, 26th in rush yards allowed, and 19th in points allowed. In short, they couldn’t seem to stop a leaky faucet, much less a high-powered NFL offense. And yet, the team went 15-1, still had a turnover difference of +24, and still outscored opponents by over 200 points. Wow.
Those facts reveal two things. One, the offense was absolutely incredible. Two, there is no way that legendary defensive coordinator Dom Capers will let this happen again. Nick Collins will be back, Clay Matthews will be healthy, and Charles Woodson should have fresher legs. Not to mention, the Packers used their first six draft picks to address the defensive side of the ball. To summarize: the team that posted the best record in football may have plugged the holes they had. If this defense resurges, and new running back Cedric Benson can simply be the workhorse he’s always been, finding a weakness in Green Bay will be difficult.
That’s a scary thought. And that’s why no one is touching the NFC North championship belt that Rodgers so famously wears around his waist.
Team in the rearview: Don’t let the relative quiet of Lovie Smith fool you; the Bears are ready to pounce. In 2010, they were 11-5. Last year, they were 7-3 before Cutler fell to injury. And that was before they had any significant targets to throw to on their offense. Now, Cutler and Brandon Marshall are reunited, and the backfield includes Matt Forte and Michael Bush. The defense in Chicago can always be counted on. Now, they’re ready to score.
Pick: Packers, 13-3
NFC South: With turmoil brewing in New Orleans and the head coach position revolving like a game of musical chairs, the door is open for this division to meet its new master. Look no further than the Atlanta Falcons. If any team is going to open this season 6-0 and start to distance themselves from the pack, it’s Atlanta. Their first six games pit them against Kansas City, Denver, San Diego, Carolina, Washington, and Oakland. I think even last year’s Falcons could’ve taken all of these teams.
But this isn’t last year’s Atlanta Falcons. Things are changing, and they’re changing for the better. Opponents should beware of the new offensive schemes coming out of the ATL, because early indications are that Matt Ryan is about to be unleashed.
He’s already been a solid franchise quarterback. He already has the best 1-2 punch in the NFL with Roddy White and Julio Jones at wide receiver. And now, they’re letting him lose. They’re letting him wear the big-boy pants. Most preseason numbers don’t matter, but this seems significant: Ryan got to throw the ball –a lot. No longer did the offense run through Michael Turner’s ageless legs. Instead, Ryan simply threw 45-60 (75% !!), for 549 yards and three touchdowns in the limited time given to starters.
With White, Jones, and Tony Gonzalez infiltrating defensive backfields, and Matt Ryan looking like the next quarterback to challenge elite status, the Falcons could quickly rise as the team to beat in an already tough NFC.
Team in the rearview: It’s 2006. Katrina devastates the city. Nobody else believes in Brees. San Diego cuts ties, other teams lose interest, he signs.
Then he does this: 64.3% completion, 4418 yards, 26 TD/11 INT.
That should’ve been impossible. Then, he got better, surpassing thresholds of 70% completion, 5000 yards, and 40 touchdowns. Brees answered the critics. Then, he reached his potential.
2012 opponents should be terrified. The world handed Brees 2.0 with 2006 2.0 (Obviously, nothing compares to the severity of Katrina, but there are similarities between the two seasons).
- People doubt Brees can sustain without Sean Payton.
- The Saints balked on his contract.
- The city needs a lift after Goodell’s punishment.
Cool reason, be damned. Brees has people to prove wrong. He might just escape the shadows of doubt once more. If he does, the Saints will inexplicably be knocking on the postseason door.
Pick: Falcons, 13-3
NFC Wild Cards: 49ers (11-5, losing tiebreaker), Bears (12-4). Last team out: Saints.
AFC East: This one’s easy. The Patriots have likely been dealt the nicest hand of cards of any of the 32 NFL teams sitting at the table. Their schedule includes Jake Locker’s debut as a starter in Tennessee, the Cardinals, the Rams, and rebuilding teams like the Jaguars, Colts, and Dolphins (who they play twice).
If that’s not enough, here’s a list of some of the weaponry at Tom Brady’s disposal: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, and Visanthe Shiancoe.
Here’s a list of those weapons’ best seasons: (1327 yards, 17 TD), (910 yards, 7 TD), (1448 yards, 11 TD), (566 yards, 11 TD), (1569 yards, 9 TD). And other than Shiancoe, those all came in the last two seasons.
Those numbers (which doesn’t include the potential of the rest of the Patriots’ arsenal) add up to 5,820 yards and 55 touchdowns. While it’s unlikely that all of these receivers reach their ceiling, you can see why it looks like Tom Brady is poised to have a fantasy season like no other. With Josh McDaniels controlling the offense and Brady given free rein to avenge their Super Bowl loss, expect lots of points…and lots of wins.
Team in the rearview: The Bills were last season’s early darlings, starting 5-2 including wins over the Patriots and Eagles. After this, the wheels fell off. And not because the Bills were a bad team, but instead, because the Bills were no longer the same team. After those first seven games, 21 players on the opening day roster missed multiple games, including Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams. Even Ryan Fitzpatrick, at QB, played with multiple maladies. Now, the Bills are healthy again, and addressed their pass-rushing problems by signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. This isn’t a sleeper pick. People know the Bills are for real.
Pick: Patriots, 13-3
AFC West: Last year’s division champion Denver Broncos have difficulties facing their chances to repeat. The 2012 schedule is much tougher. The rest of the division’s teams are all showing signs of promise. And 8-8 might not be good enough this year. But I don’t care.
I don’t care because the Broncos, at the most important position, did what the car industry might call trading up. Peyton Manning, no matter how you slice it, is a much better quarterback than either Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. If his neck stays healthy, Broncos fans will immediately see that for themselves.
In the Broncos nine losses last season (including the playoffs), quarterback-induced turnovers proved very costly, putting their defense in impossible positions and limiting their ability to score. In those nine losses, Tebow fumbled four times and threw five interceptions. Orton fumbled once and threw seven interceptions. Combined, that’s a nine-game period in which Denver quarterbacks threw 12 picks and coughed up the rock five times.
That’s not going to happen with Peyton Manning. He’s thrown 12 or less interceptions in five entire seasons. He’s fumbled five times…in his last 32 games.
And when Tebow wasn’t losing the ball, he was losing copious amounts of yards and field position getting sacked. Last season, he was sacked 33 times –once for every four completions he made throwing the ball.
Not so with Peyton Manning. In his career, he’s been sacked once for every 20 completions. And in his last full-season of play (2010), he was sacked once for every 28 completions. That’s an extremely significant difference in lost possessions and lost yards.
Offense, defense, and special teams will benefit from Peyton’s efficiency, even if he’s lost a little zip on the ball. If this team, with Orton and Tebow, made the playoffs, I have to believe that this team with Manning will do the same.
Team in the rearview: The perennially disappointing Chargers are on their last legs. Finally, Norv Turner has one more chance. Everything is on the line. If they don’t win this time, San Diego might have a fire sale.
But there’s hope. Philip Rivers resurged after horridly inconsistent play in 2011 and the Chargers finished the season on a 4-1 run. Antonio Gates is healthy, reportedly in the best shape of his career. The team added depth in multiple positions. And draft pick Melvin Ingram is poised to immediately bolster a defense that fell somewhat last season. Don’t sleep on the Chargers. The Bolts just need lightning to strike once.
Pick: Broncos, 10-6
AFC North: The Pittsburgh Steelers boasted the best ranked defense of 2011 despite ranking absolute last in turnovers (at just 15). Don’t expect that to happen again. Steelers ball-hawks Troy Polamalu and James Harrison won’t stand for it. The best defense in the league could easily be even more vicious than they were a season ago.
So it should please the rest of the AFC North to see that the Steelers also seem poised to improve on offense. Assuming Ben Roethlisberger stays upright behind a shaky offensive line (and we all know he’s an escape artist), his weapons are frightening. Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace both show signs of being star receivers, and their speed couples nicely with Ben’s big arm. With defenses having to react to those speedsters, Todd Haley’s run-centric offense will surely thrive with the young legs of Redman, Dwyer, Moore, and Mendenhall when he returns. Put simply, Ben’s escapism, big arm, and shiny weapons, on top of Haley’s proven methods, may transform the Steelers from a defensive-centered team to a team that’s scary on both sides of scrimmage.
They also have the fewest question marks. The Ravens are without Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. The Bengals are without a secondary target for young quarterback Andy Dalton after AJ Green. And the Browns are clearly rebuilding (as usual), starting another young, inexperienced quarterback and throwing him to the wolves. Against all of this, all the Steelers seem to be worried about is whether Roethlisberger and Todd Haley become buddies. Somehow, I think the wins will quickly solve that problem.
Team in the rearview: If the Ravens can avoid the silly notion that Flacco needs to take a step into elite status and throw more, they’ll be a scary team. But that formula is vital. Ray Rice has to be this offense.
In their losses last season, the Ravens averaged 71.8 yards rushing and Rice averaged a meek 11.4 rushing attempts. In their wins, the Ravens averaged 141.5 rushing yards, and Rice ran the ball an average of 21.23 times. It’s that simple. And yet, I’m not confident that the Ravens, or Joe Flacco, see it that way.
Pick: Steelers, 12-4
AFC South: Houston, we don’t have a problem. The Houston Texans are here to stay. While the rest of their division is experimenting with young arms, new coaches, and unknown commodities, the Texans are realizing exactly who they are: a team that can beat you on every side of the ball.
They face a 2012 schedule that very much plays to their strengths. The Texans twice play Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, and also play against Miami and Minnesota. That’s eight games against quarterbacks in their rookie or sophomore season. That’s eight games where a top 5 2011 defense that finished 2nd against the pass and amassed 44 sacks gets to prey on quarterbacks going through growing pains. Don’t simply expect wins. Expect bloodbaths.
It doesn’t hurt that Matt Schaub is back and Andre Johnson’s hamstrings are healed.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Texans have Arian Foster, perhaps poised to make the next jump in his already impressive young career.
From Foster’s poem “Where We Dwell”:
“Navigate our thoughts and sever our tongues, unbound by men, forever we run. “
Nothing’s more poetic than repetition, than making the improbable happen. That goes beyond the written word. Foster could do it on the field.
Foster enters his third full season, a time in which many stories climax.
With other Texas pros:
Emmitt Smith, 1992: 373 attempts, 1713 yards, 18 TD, 107.0 yards/game.
Earl Campbell, 1980: 373 attempts, 1934 yards, 13 TD, 128.9 yards/game.
And fellow Volunteers:
Jamal Lewis, 2003: 387 attempts, 2066 yards, 14 TD, 129.1 yards/game.
Foster’s a poet. Don’t expect him to miss this chance to rhyme the rhythms of history. If he does, the Texans will likely face a storybook ending.
Team in the rearview: There’s a chance that the answer to this question is no one. But it could also be the Tennessee Titans. Jake Locker, despite his accuracy issues, is a sparkplug and energizing force. In limited action last season, he came in and threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions on just 34 completions, good for a rating of 99.4. If Chris Johnson can return to levels closer to CJ2K, and Locker finds chemistry with his plethora of targets (Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Jared Cook), this 21st ranked offense from 2011 is sure to improve. And this team already went 9-7 last season. They’re a force to be considered.
Pick: Texans, 12-4
AFC Wild Cards: Ravens (11-5), Bills (10-6). Last team out: Chargers
Super Bowl Matchup: Falcons versus Texans
MVP: Matt Ryan
This one deserves a small explanation. In a recent fantasy draft, I laughed when a friend chose Matt Ryan, because I knew he could’ve waited three (at least) more rounds to take him off the board. But it wasn’t because Matt Ryan isn’t going to have one hell of a season. I think he is.
In the last two seasons, his team is 23-9, he’s completed 61.9% of his passes, thrown 57 touchdowns versus 21 interceptions, and engineered 8 fourth-quarter comebacks and 9 game-winning drives. That’s impressive. Dare I say it; it’s already near elite. With his new offensive coordinator unleashing him on the NFL and Roddy White/Julio Jones running the sidelines, the possibilities for Ryan’s next step may be endless. If this team cruises to the playoffs and beyond, he’s your MVP. And that laugh will haunt me forever.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Russell Wilson (QB, Seahawks)
If he leads the Seahawks to the playoffs, the award is his. The story is too great. Everyone expected Andrew Luck and RGIII to shine. The guys that were behind Russell Wilson, for a while: Me and freaking John Gruden.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly (LB, Panthers)
He legitimately has a chance to immediately improve a defense that ranked 27th last season. I also think he will be the defensive face of the franchise going forward –the face that accompanies Cam Newton on the banners of hope in years to come.
Fantasy Football Sleeper: Reggie Bush (RB, Dolphins)
Bush found a renaissance in Miami.
Then the worst happened: His offense gave up its best weapon and gained an inexperienced rookie quarterback.
This is why you should draft Reggie Bush.
Sound familiar?: A bad team in Florida, starting rookie quarterback, nameless receiving targets.
Meet the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars, led by Blaine Gabbert, throwing to Mercedes Lewis and Mike Thomas.
Maurice Jones-Drew flourished.
Or replace one swing state with another.
It’s 2010, Cleveland. Colt McCoy throws to Ben Watson and Mohamed Massaquoi. The Browns do nothing special.
Peyton Hillis becomes the fantasy darling.
The 2012 Dolphins follow the pattern: rookie Ryan Tannehill, an offense sans Brandon Marshall, and a running back ready for the check-downs, the touches, the chance.
But perhaps I’ll save my best prediction for last: That, no matter how hard I researched these picks, I will look at this list of prognostications at the end of the 2012-2013 season, and simply shake my head. I’ll pull myself off the ground, wipe the grass off my pants, and tip my helmet to the blindsides I never saw coming.
Because it’s football. And that’s its beauty.