Happy days are here again. The NFL will finally kick off its 92nd season after an offseason that just seemed like it took forever. The offseason wasn’t dull however. Bounty gate, Peyton Manning going to Denver, Tim Tebow taking his sideshow (and Skip Bayless) to the New York Jets, the Detroit Lions piling up DUIs. But now the action will take place on the field. Here are my picks for the 2012 NFL season.
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots are still the Patriots. They are still the team to beat in the AFC East. But there is pressure on the Pats. After a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, Bill Belichick and company are well aware of this and know that it is Super Bowl or bust for the Patriots. Belichick also knows the defence has to be much better in 2012. The Pats ranked 31st in yards allowed, surrendering an average of 411.1 yards per game. While they only gave up 21.4 points per game, the defence was on the field for too long during games. The defence needs to tighten up, so they can let the offence do their thing. Tom Brady will put up points. The Patriots averaged 32.1 points per game which was third highest in the NFL. If the defence improves, the Patriots have another chance to hoist the Lombardi trophy. The uncertainty is that there is no guarantee the defence will improve.
2. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are hoping for a breakthrough in 2012. To do that, the defence has to be much better. Buffalo was 30th in points allowed, conceding 27.1 points per game. The Bills addressed the need on defence, by signing defensive end Mario Williams to a 6 year $100 million contract. Williams only played 5 games for the Houston Texans last season, but when healthy, he is a ferocious pass rusher. The offence is solid but could have a quarterback controversy brewing. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the incumbent, but his 23 interceptions last season are a cause for concern. If Fitzpatrick can’t reduce the picks, then Tavaris Jackson will call the signals behind centre. Jackson was acquired in a trade with Seattle to push Fitzpatrick into playing smarter football. Buffalo can improve this year, but they could slip as well. I’ll take my chances and say they will be better.
3. New York Jets
The soap opera that is the New York Jets. Whether it is Tim Tebow running shirtless in training camp. Or Rex Ryan shooting off his big mouth again. Or Mark Sanchez complaining about the lack of attention going his way. Don’t forget ESPN attention whore Skip Bayless spewing out his unadulterated love for Tebow. The New York media has eaten this all up and this will come back to bite the Jets. The distractions, the drama, the pressure. All of this will be too much for a Jets team that just isn’t good enough to live up to the hype. I expect them to be the most disappointing team in the NFL.
4. Miami Dolphins
The most exciting thing the Dolphins will do all season will be appearing on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this season. The rest is all downhill from there. First round pick Ryan Tannehill is listed first on the depth chart, which means he is penciled as the starting quarterback this season. The rookie out of Texas A&M will need all the help he can get, as he learns a new offence. Reggie Bush had a decent season for Miami in 2011, rushing for 1,086 yards and 6 touchdowns. Bush hasn’t quite captured the magic he had in his first few seasons in New Orleans, but will be counted on to shoulder a heavier burden in the Miami offence. Defensively, the Dolphins will need to give Cameron Wake some support. The former CFL all-star led the team with 8.5 sacks but saw constant double teams, thus lessening his impact. Wake will need some help from his teammates to give him some space and more options to rush the quarterback. It is a transition period in Miami and changes take a while to make their impact.
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have always been known for a great defence, but now is the time for the offence to take the next step. The Ravens do have the tools on offence but now they need to execute when it matters Joe Flacco has to make the throws. Ray Rice needs to supply the pounding ground game. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith need to make the big catch. No more excuses from the Ravens. They can’t blame kicker Billy Cundiff anymore, as he was released by the Ravens during the preseason. Cundiff missed a game tying field goal in the AFC Championship game against New England, breaking the hearts of every Ravens fan. The defence will be there as always even without Terrell Suggs. T-Sizzle led the Ravens with 14 sacks in 2011, but will miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season due to an achilles injury. Ray Lewis will continue to anchor the defence, although he is showing signs of slowing down. With that in mind, the Ravens used their first pick in the draft to select Courtney Upshaw from Alabama. While not quite ready for the NFL yet, Upshaw has plenty of upside and will learn from some of the best to ever play the game. Ed Reed desperately wants to win a Super Bowl and this may be the year to do it. No more excuses in Baltimore. Win or else.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals surprised many experts by making the playoffs last season. The rookie passing combo of Andy Dalton and AJ Green lit up the NFL last season and Bengal fans are hoping they can progress into even greater stature. Dalton had a terrific rookie season in 2011, throwing for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Very impressive for a freshman quarterback. Green was a standout receiver at Georgia, and he proved he could excel in the NFL. Green had 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Bengals are hoping the acquisition of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis can supply some balance to the attack. Green-Ellis comes over from the New England Patriots, bringing with him a winning attitude and some much-needed help with the ground game. The Bengals defence was solid, giving up only 20.2 points per game which was 8th best in the NFL. They are hoping that first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick can solidify a shaky secondary but so far, he has been a disappointment in camp. The Bengals will be a tough team to contend with, but are in a very competitive division. Look for them to be in the hunt for a wildcard spot.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Is this the year the Steelers take a step back? Many people think so and they could be right. The Steelers lost in the wildcard round to Denver last season and with Baltimore and Cincinnati looking very solid, the Steelers will be in very tough in the AFC North. Ben Roethlisberger did have a fine season in 2011, throwing for 4,077 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. However, his late game heroics for which he is famous for, were lacking in critical games last year. Receiver Mike Wallace emerged as a big time threat down the field. The speedster from Ole Miss caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards and 8 touchdowns. Wallace averaged 16.6 yards per catch and his speed forced defenders to stretch their coverages, leaving gaps in the middle of the field. The problem is, Wallace is holding out for more money. The Steelers better solve this issue and fast. The Steelers did struggle in the running game, ranking 14th in the NFL on the ground averaging 118.9 yards per game. While most teams will take that, the Steelers have much higher expectations for the running game and they will need to improve on that statistic. The defence was still ranked number 1 in the NFL, allowing the fewest yards in the league. However, the Steelers were susceptible to the big play as Tim Tebow showed in overtime of the playoff game. Veterans such as LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are still great players but how many more years do they have left. This is a dangerous time for Pittsburgh and this may not be the easiest season for the Steelers.
4. Cleveland Browns
Until proven otherwise, the Cleveland Browns will be an awful team. That doesn’t mean Cleveland has no good players. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was second in the NFL with 158 tackles in 2011. Joshua Cribbs is one of, if not, the most dangerous kick returner in the league. Left tackle Joe Thomas is one of the premier linemen in the NFL. But the rest of the cupboard looks pretty bare for the ‘Dawg Pound.’ The Browns are hoping first round pick Trent Richardson can beef up the running game. Richardson will need to provide a spark as the quarterback situation is very up in the air. Colt McCoy struggled last season, which prompted the Browns to select Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden with their second first round pick. As of this moment, Weeden is ahead in the depth chart, but is very unproven in the NFL. McCoy may ask for a trade so this could get ugly in Cleveland. Some things never change.
1. Houston Texans
If the Houston Texans can stay healthy, they are a legitimate Super Bowl threat. That is a big if. Quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson all missed games due to various injuries. All three need to stay healthy this season. Schaub missed six games but still managed to put up solid numbers, throwing for 2,479 yards, 15 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. Foster missed three games but rushed for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns. Johnson played in only 7 games last season, catching 33 passes for 492 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite that, Houston won the AFC South and won its first playoff game in franchise history, a 31-10 pasting over Cincinnati. The defence did lose a big star has Mario Williams signed with Buffalo but it is a solid unit. Defensive end J.J. Watt is an emerging star, as he enters his third season. Linebacker Brian Cushing might be the most underrated linebacker in all of football. The secondary did lose Jason Allen to Cincinnati but Jonathan Joseph is an excellent corner who made 4 interceptions last season. The only question is health. Houston needs to avoid the medical room and play on the field the whole season.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
It all rests with the young guys. Second year quarterback Blaine Gabbert will be handed the keys to the offence, as he hopes to drive the offence in the right direction. Rookie receiver Justin Blackmon will be the playmaker on the outside. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year, gaining 1,606 yards in 2011. There are rumours swirling that Jones-Drew wants out of Jacksonville, but the UCLA product has denied those speculations. The defence was decent last year ranking 10th in points allowed and 6th in yards allowed. The one major issue for Jaguars is the never-ending stories of the franchise relocating to Los Angeles. New owner Shahid Khan has said he’s committed to keeping the team in northern Florida, but will a new stadium in the nation’s second biggest market lure him out west? Stay tuned.
3. Tennessee Titans
The Titans made the decision during training camp to name Jake Locker the starting quarterback. We will see in a few weeks whether it was the right decision. Locker beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck for the job in training camp and is hoping to reward the coach’s faith in him. It would help Locker if running back Chris Johnson can regain his 2009 form, when he rushed for 2,006 yards. Johnson held out last season, and rushed for 1,047 yards in 2011. With Kenny Britt having legal issues, Nate Washington will have to continue his fine play from last season. Washington caught 74 passes for 1,023 yards and 7 touchdowns. These were career numbers for Washington and he may have to surpass those lofty stats for the Titans to be successful. The defence was inconsistent last season and with the retirement of middle linebacker Keith Bullock, the Titans are hard pressed to find a new leader in the defence. The Titans did pick up defensive end Kamerion Wimbley from the Oakland Raiders to help solidify the front four. Wimbley recorded 7 sacks last season and will be called upon to put pressure on the quarterback. Tennessee just have too many questions this year, which will have them falling short of a playoff berth.
4. Indianapolis Colts
As one era ends, another one begins. Peyton Manning’s era in Indianapolis is over thanks to his moving on to Denver. With that, the Andrew Luck era begins. The first overall pick in this year’s draft, Luck was a standout at Stanford but now will have to face the realities of pro football. Luck has looked good in preseason but once the games count, can he withstand the pressure of being the franchise quarterback. After Luck though, the Colts don’t have very much. Receiver Reggie Wayne is on the downside of his career. Tight end Austin Collie is injury prone. And the running game is virtually non-existent. The one big change on defence is that Dwight Freeney has been moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. The Colts will utilize a 3-4 formation this year in hoping to improve a lacklustre defence. Luck brings hope for the future, but the present won’t be pretty in Indianapolis.
1. Denver Broncos
Goodbye Tim Tebow. Hello Peyton Manning. That is the big story in the Rocky Mountains in 2012. The arrival of the future Hall of Famer, quickly made Bronco fans think Super Bowl. However, Manning is coming off neck surgery which sidelined him for the entire 2011 season. The questions remain. Can Peyton stay healthy? Can he run a new offence? Do the Broncos have enough depth? If the preseason means anything, Manning’s favourite target might be Eric Decker who has had a solid preseason for Denver. Decker might not be Marvin Harrison, but does have decent hands and decent speed. The other key for Denver’s offence will be their running game. Willis McGahee had a terrific season for the Broncos, rushing for 1,199 yards and 4 touchdowns. McGahee will be asked to bring balance to an offence that will pass more, thanks to Peyton. The defence could be a great unit, if they don’t play New England ever again. The Patriots torched the Broncos defence in their two meetings last season, otherwise Denver would have had a great season on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil led the Broncos with 9.5 sacks. Linebacker Von Miller is a budding superstar. Cornerback Champ Bailey will be in Canton someday, and is still an outstanding corner. If Peyton stays healthy, the Broncos will win the AFC West.
2. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are another one of those Super Bowl or bust teams. Chances are, they will most likely go bust. Head coach Norv Turner has never proven himself that he can win the big game, and if the Chargers don’t reverse that trend, Turner will be on the unemployment line in 2013. Quarterback Phillip Rivers has to cut down his 20 interceptions he threw last season. Those are too many for a quarterback who is looking to lead his team to the promised land. Running back Ryan Matthews had a solid season, rushing 1,091 yards and 6 touchdowns in just 14 games. Matthews will have Ronnie Brown has his backup as the Auburn standout comes over from Philadelphia via free agency. With Vincent Jackson now gone, the Chargers are hoping Robert Meachem can be an adequate replacement. Meachem comes over from New Orleans, bringing championship experience as he won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009. Antonio Gates remains the best receiving option for the Chargers in the tight end position. The defence was shaky last season, and it will need to improve if the Chargers have any hope of the playoffs. Linebacker Shaun Phillips only had 3.5 sacks last year after recording 11 sacks in 2010. The Chargers look like a decent team. But not quite good enough.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs took a step back in 2011, after winning the division in 2010. Kansas City were a disappointment last year and are hoping to reverse that trend this season. Quarterback Matt Cassel only played in 9 games last year before succumbing to a hand injury. Cassel was just starting to pick up his game after a slow start, before the injury occurred. The Chiefs are hoping Cassel can regain the form he had prior to the injury. Running back Jamaal Charles tore out his knee in Week 2, and the Chiefs dearly missed his speed and gamebreaking ability. Diminutive Dexter McCluster could see more time this year, but he’s not an every down back. Receiver Dwayne Bowe might be the most underrated receiver in football. The sixth year veteran from LSU caught 81 passes for 1,159 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011. Bowe did holdout for a brief period, but returned for the final preseason game. The defence has improved steadily and the group is hoping for a breakout season. Linebacker Tamba Hall led the team with 12 sacks and is a bona fide star on this defence. Safety Eric Berry tore his ACL in the opening game in 2011, and is hoping for a comeback season. If Berry can return to full strength, he has potential to be a fixture at safety for many years. The Chiefs are getting there. But they aren’t quite ready to take over the division as of yet.
4. Oakland Raiders
It was a sad day when Al Davis died. No matter what you thought of the man, there is no denying his impact on the game of football. That being said, his beloved Raiders could be in trouble in 2012. Quarterback Carson Palmer came over in a midseason trade with Cincinnati in hopes of leading the Raiders to the playoffs. Instead, he confounded the Raider faithful with his inconsistent play. In 10 games, Palmer threw for 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Palmer must stop his generosity to his opponents if the Raiders have any chance. If Palmer continues his erroneous ways, the Raiders may use either Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Leinart comes over from Houston after battling injury issues. Pryor was a risky draft pick, after scandal and personal issues plagued him at Ohio State. Darren McFadden is a great running back and should ease the load on offence. The Arkansas product only played in 7 games last season as he suffered a season ending foot injury. McFadden has battled injuries throughout his career and needs to stay healthy if Oakland has any chance of success. Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had a breakout 2011 campaign, catching 64 passes for 975 yards and 4 touchdowns. Heyward-Bey still needs to work on consistency but has potential to be an excellent receiver. Jacoby Ford is a threat in the return game, but a foot injury has slowed him down in preseason. Ford is hoping to be ready for the opening week. The defence was atrocious last year, which was ultimately the Raiders demise in 2011. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour showed signs of aging as he recorded 6 sacks in 2011. Seymour faded down the stretch and one wonders how much time he has left. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain has the potential to be a great one, but needs to be more disciplined. McClain recorded 5 sacks and 99 tackles for Oakland in 2011. It could be a long season for Raider Nation in 2012.
1. New York Giants
The defending Super Bowl champions are a tad upset that they aren’t getting the respect they feel they deserve. That could spell trouble for the opposition. The Giants always seem to play better with a chip on their shoulder and this could be that proverbial chip. The Giants still have everything in place to make a Super Bowl run. Eli Manning is a proven winner. His 2 Super Bowl rings means he has bragging rights over his much celebrated brother. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are receivers on the precipice of stardom. Ahmad Bradshaw should see the ball more, as he will be the featured back in the Giants offence. The defence is the strength of the team. Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck are two of the finest bookends in the NFL along the front four. With Osi Umenyiroa fully recovered from knee surgery, the Giants possess the most ferocious pass rush in the NFL. One player to keep an eye on is second year corner Prince Amukamara. The Nebraska product struggled at times in his rookie season, but has all the tools to be a future All-Pro on the outside. The Giants will be very difficult to beat, but it is very difficult to repeat. Stay tuned.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The “Dream Team” became a nightmare for the Eagles in 2011. Most prognosticators picked Philadelphia to win the Super Bowl last season. Instead, the Eagles stumbled out of the gate, and missed the playoffs. With the “Dream Team” tag officially gone, the Eagles are hoping that this year will be the year. The biggest key for the Eagles is to keep Michael Vick healthy. Vick can be a game changer when 100% but he takes too many huge shots which leaves him vulnerable to injury. What would help Vick is if coach Andy Reid used the running game more effectively. LeSean McCoy is a terrific back, when he’s utilized. Reid is much too stubborn when it comes to play calling, relying on the passing game, when the running game is a better call. DeSean Jackson is a playmaker at receiver, but his attitude leaves a lot to be desired. Brent Celek is emerging as a top-notch tight end. The defence has big names, but didn’t play big time defence in 2011. That needs to change. Jason Babin is a great player, but a calf injury has limited him in preseason. Babin is hoping to be ready for opening day. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is a supreme shut down corner, whose 3 interceptions led the club. The Eagles do have the personnel. But do they have the intangibles?
3. Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones is at it again. The outspoken owner has said he expects a Super Bowl from this team. He should worry about getting out of the NFC East first. The Cowboys do have a good team, but they are stuck in a very tough division. If the Cowboys are to make a move, Tony Romo must step up in big games. Romo has all the talent in the world, but is known to choke under pressure situations. Romo needs to forego his gunslinger attitude his hero Brett Favre possesses and play smarter in critical situations. DeMarco Murray emerged as a top running threat for the Cowboys in 2011, rushing for 897 yards and 2 touchdowns in 13 games for Dallas. Felix Jones provides speed in the backfield, but a lack of durability is a question mark for the slight back. Dez Bryant is a big time playmaker, but a big time headache as well. Bryant was arrested for assaulting his mother following an argument. Jones gave strict rules to Bryant, giving him a curfew and allowing him in certain night clubs approved by the team. Bryant has a history of off-field issues and this will provide another distraction, to a team that doesn’t need anymore distractions. The defence has a megastar in DeMarcus Ware. The seventh year pass rusher from Troy, was second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2011. There is no doubt Ware is one of the truly great players in the NFL. The secondary however, struggled mightily in 2011. The Cowboys addressed the need in that area in the draft, drafting highly touted cornerback Morris Claiborne from LSU in the first round. The Cowboys are talented, but distracted. And with Jones middling at the worst time, the Cowboys might miss the playoffs again.
4. Washington Redskins
The beginning of the Robert Griffin III era. RG3 is the new franchise quarterback for the Redskins, after being taken second overall at the draft. After a brilliant college career at Baylor, RG3 is expected to lead the Redskins to the promised land. It won’t happen this year. The running game is an issue in DC. Tim Hightower was released, so the Redskins will be relying on second year man Evan Royster. The Penn State alum is unproven as a featured back, so this is a huge risk by Washington. The receiving corps got a boost when Pierre Garcon came over from Indianapolis in the offseason. Garcon caught 70 passes for 947 yards and 6 touchdowns for the woeful Colts in 2011, and is expected to create more room for speedster Santana Moss on the other side. Moss had an off-year in 2011, hauling in only 46 passes for 584 yards and 4 touchdowns. Moss should be motivated in 2012, now that RG3 is behind centre. Veteran linebacker London Fletcher anchored the defence last year, leading the NFL with 166 tackles. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall had a solid season, picking off 3 passes while providing excellent coverage down the field. Washington will be better, but still have some work to do.
1. Chicago Bears
Another team with Super Bowl or bust expectations. The Bears have loaded up on offence in hopes their aging defence can hang on for one more season. The Bears acquired receiver Brandon Marshall for Miami in hopes that he can be the big play threat, Jay Cutler desperately craves. Cutler had a good season for Chicago, before missing the final 6 games of the season with a finger injury. The Vanderbilt grad threw for 2,319 yards, 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 10 games for the Bears. Running back Matt Forte is the straw that stirs the drink in the Bear offence. In 12 games, Forte rushed for 997 yards and 3 touchdowns before going down to a knee injury. The veteran defence is hoping time doesn’t catch up to them. 32-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers led the Bears with 11 sacks and is still a fierce pass rusher. 34-year-old middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is still the leader of the defence, recording 84 tackles and 3 interceptions. 31-year-old outside linebacker Lance Briggs had 86 tackles for the Bears but no sacks which was hurtful for Chicago. If the Bears don’t win this year, heads will roll in the Windy City.
2. Green Bay Packers
The Packers finished the regular season with a league best 15-1 record in 2011. However when it came to the playoffs, the Packers were whipped 37-20 by the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoff round. If the Packers are to go further in 2012, the defence needs to be better than atrocious like it was in 2011. The Packers were dead last in yards allowed, surrendering 411.6 yards per game. What saved the Packers was that they led the league with 31 interceptions, but they can’t rely on a bend but don’t break style. Eventually, you break. Linebacker Clay Matthews had his worst season in his short career, recording 37 tackles, 6 sacks and 3 interceptions. Matthews was too concerned about the quality of his hair, and not focused on the action on the field. The one big change in the Packers secondary is Charles Woodson moving from corner to strong safety. Woodson shared the league lead in interceptions with 7 and the Packers are hoping his smarts, and big play ability shores up the middle of the field for Green Bay. The offence is just fine, thank you very much. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a superb season for Green Bay, throwing for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. Rodgers made many cheeseheads forget about Brett Favre with his superlative performance in 2012. The running game struggled for Green Bay, so the Packers went into free agency and plucked Cedric Benson from Cincinnati. Benson is hoping to revive his career in Wisconsin after an up and down time with the Bengals. Rodgers is benefitted by an excellent receiving corps. Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are solid receivers who know the tendencies of Rodgers, and can read the play very well. The offence will put up points, but the defence will give up points. A risky proposition for Green Bay.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions have all the talent in the world. The problem is, they have a hard time staying off the police blotter sheet. Six players were arrested for various misdemeanours during the offseason, which bristled head coach Jim Schwartz. Cornerback Aaron Berry was arrested twice and thus released by the team following the second arrest. The Lions need to be focused and in control if they want to contend in the very tough NFC North. The offence is a high-powered machine when firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was third in passing yardage, throwing for 5,038 yards to go with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Stafford lived up to his first overall selection in 2009, staying healthy for the first time in his pro career, and leading the Lions to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Calvin Johnson aka Megatron, is simply the best receiver in football today. Megatron caught 96 passes for a league best 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. Megatron is a freak of nature who is impossible to cover one-on-one. The running game struggled mightily for Detroit, as they have never replaced the legendary Barry Sanders in the backfield. Jahvid Best will miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season due to post concussion syndrome and the Lions are in need to shore up the backfield. The Lions are hoping Mikel Leshoure can be the answer in the backfield. The Illinois product missed the 2011 season due to a knee injury and has had off-field issues as well. Leshoure has shown glimpses of promise in the preseason, but will need to step up in the regular season. The defence was a disappointment last year in the Motor City. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh battled discipline issues both on and off the field in 2011. Suh recorded just 4 sacks, after having 10 sacks in 2010. Suh needs to settle down and just focus on football, instead of trying to be the toughest man in football. Cliff Avril had a solid season, notching 11 sacks for the Lions. The Purdue product did hold out for a better contract, but returned, accepting a lesser deal in hoping for a big payoff in the future. The secondary is a mess, and the Lions aren’t sure what to make of it. It would help if safety Louis Delmas can get healthy soon. Delmas has missed most of the preseason with a knee injury and may not be ready for the opener. The Lions will be very good in a year or two. But expect a step back this year.
4. Minnesota Vikings
One word to describe the Vikings in 2012, HELP! Star running back Adrian Peterson tore up his knee in the season finale and is trying to get ready for opening day. Peterson is practicing with the team, taking light contact, but is unsure whether he will be ready in time for the season opener. Even if he is ready, Peterson may never regain the form he had in 2oo8 when he rushed for 1,760 yards. Quarterback Christian Ponder hasn’t broken through as an elite quarterback and will need to elevate his game if the Vikings are to improve their woeful 4-12 record from 2011. Ponder threw for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 11 games. Receiver Percy Harvin did have a quality season for the Vikings, catching 87 passes for 967 yards and 6 touchdowns. The defence has 3 great players, and not much else. Defensive end Jared Allen continues to terrorize quarterbacks, despite seeing double and triple teams on occasion. Allen led the NFL with 22 sacks and is a beast on the weak side. Linebacker Chad Greenway led the Vikings with 89 tackles and is the anchor of the Vikings defence. Cornerback Antoine Winfield is entering his 14th season in the NFL and is starting to show signs of slowing down. The Ohio State product appeared in only 5 games for Minnesota and this could be his last season in the NFL. I don’t see much good from Minnesota this season.
1. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have been very good, going 23-9 in the last two regular seasons. The playoffs have been a different story, as the Falcons haven’t won a playoff game since 2004 when Michael Vick was their quarterback. They hope to find some success in the postseason in 2012. The offence is a terrific unit, led by Matt Ryan. The fifth year quarterback from Boston College threw for 4,177 yards, 29 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in 2011. Ryan has established himself as an excellent starting quarterback, but needs to climb that playoff hurdle, in order to join elite status. Bruising running back Michael Turner bullied his way to 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, but just how long his punishing style can he handle before wearing down remains to be seen. Receiver Roddy White had a fantastic season, catching 100 passes for 1,296 yards and 8 touchdowns. White was aided by speedster Julio Jones on the other side. The rookie from Alabama caught 54 passes for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns for the Falcons. Tight end Tony Gonzalez desperately wants to win a Super Bowl before he retires and this might be his best shot. The 16 year veteran caught 80 passes for 875 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2011. The defence struggled last season, and suffered a blow in the offseason when linebacker Curtis Lofton joined hated rivals New Orleans in the offseason. Sean Weatherspoon will be called upon to shoulder the load on defence for Atlanta. The Missouri product had 82 tackles and 4 sacks in 2011, and he will be asked to do more in 2012. John Abraham led the Falcons with 9.5 sacks and the Falcons are hoping he has more juice in the tank. The Falcons have a very good team. And with the Saints in upheaval, Atlanta could very well steal the NFC South in 2012.
2. New Orleans Saints
Bountygate. The one word that described the New Orleans Saints offseason. That word also got head coach Sean Payton suspended for one year, along with linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Vilma is appealing his suspension. Also suspended were general manager Mickey Loomis, (8 games) interim head coach Joe Vitt, (6 games) and defensive end Will Smith. (4 games) Two other players were suspended but are no longer with the Saints. What does this mean for New Orleans? Everyday they will have to face the questions from the media about bountygate, which will be a distraction to what is happening on the field. The Saints better be prepared to endless questions about their conduct, and any perceived dirty play will be questioned. This will hurt the Saints who have loads of talent on the offensive side of the football. Drew Brees led the NFL in passing, throwing for 5,476 yards, 46 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions. Brees will need to continue his amazing play for the Saints to stay in Super Bowl contention. The Saints go 3 deep at tailback, with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. The receivers are fantastic as Marques Colston, Devrey Henderson and tight end Jimmy Graham are all excellent targets for Brees. With Vilma suspended, the Saints dove into the free agency market to grab Curtis Lofton away from division rival Atlanta. Lofton is an underrated, yet outstanding linebacker who will bring physicality and speed in the middle of the field. If the Saints can fight off the distractions, they will be in the Super Bowl mix. If not, things could get hairy in the Big Easy.
3. Carolina Panthers
Many experts have the Panthers as a team on the rise, and I am inclined to agree with them. Starting with Cam Newton, the franchise quarterback for the Panthers. The first overall pick from the 2011 draft, Newton overcame some early struggles rookies usually have, and had a fine season, throwing for 4,051 yards, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Newton also rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. With his ability to both pass and run, Newton is extremely difficult to defend against and will only get better. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are a solid two-man punch in the backfield. Receiver Steve Smith will be going to the Hall of Fame, as he produced another marvellous season in 2011. Smith caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards and 7 touchdowns last season for Carolina. However, if the Panthers are to move up in the standings, the defence must be better. Carolina ranked 28th in defence, surrendering 26.8 points per game while opponents chewed up an average of 377.6 yards per game. The Panthers are hoping rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly can help solve the defensive woes. The first round pick from Boston College, Kuechly brings speed on the outside to help out in coverage, or blitz in certain packages. The Panthers are getting there, but aren’t quite ready for the big step yet.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers got off to a promising start in 2011, only to crash and burn in the second half of the season. The Bucs went 4-2 in their first six games, and fans were thinking division title. Then the roof caved in as Tampa lost their last 10 games to finish 4-12. The defence, which for years was a strength in Tampa, was putrid, giving up an average of 30.7 points per game, the most in the NFL. It would help if defensive tackle Gerald Mccoy can stay healthy all season. The third year pro from Oklahoma only played in 6 games before a bicep injury ended his season. McCoy is the anchor of the front four, and the Bucs are counting on him to be a terror in the opposition’s backfield. The Bucs picked up cornerback Eric Wright from Detroit in the offseason. Wright has his moments, but is inconsistent. If he can stay sharp on every down, this is a solid pickup for Tampa. On offence, the Bucs are staying loyal to Josh Freeman. The Kansas State grad took a huge step back last season, and some people in Tampa are now questioning his future. Freeman threw for 3,592 yards, 16 touchdowns but 22 interceptions. This could be a make or break year for Freeman as Tampa may start anew if Freeman struggles this season. Running back LeGarrette Blount has a world of talent, but an attitude that is poisonous. Blount rushed for 781 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games, but is considered a cancer in the locker room. The Bucs have Blount second on their depth chart at running back behind rookie Doug Martin, who is coming off a great college career at Boise State. The receiving corps got a boost in the offseason as Vincent Jackson comes over from San Diego. The 8th year veteran caught 60 passes for 1,106 yards and 9 touchdowns for the Chargers last season. His 6’5, 230 lb frame is advantageous against smaller corners. Mike Williams is a solid receiving threat for the Bucs as well. The third year veteran from Syracuse, caught 65 passes for 771 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2011. The Bucs are gambling that newly acquired tight end Dallas Clark can stay healthy all season. The former Indianapolis Colt, appeared in 11 games last season, catching 34 passes for 352 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Bucs can and should be better this year, but too many questions on defence, plus a very tough division, places Tampa Bay at the bottom of the NFC South.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers were perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2011 season. After years of mediocrity, the 49ers finished atop of the NFC West, with a 13-3 record, and came within an eyelash of reaching the Super Bowl. The 49ers were led by a hard-hitting defence that smashed and smothered their opponents all season. Linebacker Patrick Willis is the leader of the defence. The sixth year pro from Ole Miss provided 97 tackles, and was a force in the middle of the field. Willis is equally adept at stopping the run, or thwarting the pass. NaVorro Bowman led the team with 143 tackles and was a force on the outside. Aidon Smith led the team with 14 sacks. The secondary is also very strong, with Dashon Goldson’s 6 interceptions placing him in a tie for second in the NFL in that category. Alex Smith finally started to look the number one overall pick that he was in 2005. The eighth year pro threw for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns, and only 5 interceptions. The running game gave Smith a balanced attack. Frank Gore rushed for 1,211 yards and 8 touchdowns in a bounce back 2012 campaign. The receivers were good but not great. Michael Crabtree has potential and did catch 72 passes for 874 yards and 4 touchdowns. But Crabtree needs to limit his drops in 2012 for the 49ers to take the next step. Tight end Vernon Davis did have a terrific season, catching 67 passes for 792 yards and 6 touchdowns. Davis seemed to have cured his attitude ailments that have plagued him earlier in his career. The 49ers should win the NFC West. But don’t be surprised if they take a small step back in 2012.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are going with some new blood at quarterback. After the failed Tavaris Jackson experiment, and his subsequent trade to Buffalo, the Seahawks are going with rookie Russell Wilson behind centre. The Wisconsin alum had a terrific preseason, and is looking to carry over that success into the regular season. Wilson’s main targets to throw to will be Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. Rice only played in 9 games last season as concussion issues slowed him down. Rice has been medically cleared to play and if he stays healthy, he can be a threat down the field. Tate has been a disappointment so far in his pro career, but the Seahawks are hoping that Wilson can find chemistry with the Notre Dame grad. Marshawn Lynch had a solid season for the Seahawks, rushing for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. However, Lynch has been battling a back problem throughout training camp. Lynch is expected to play in Week 1 but nervous Seahawk fans will be watching Lynch very closely. The defence played much better as the season wore on. Three players stood out for the Seahawks on the defensive side. Rookie linebacker K.J. Wright started the last 12 games of the season and impressed the coaches and fans. While his numbers weren’t gaudy, the Mississippi State product was a disruptive force and should put up some solid numbers in his second season. Free safety Earl Thomas is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. The Texas product made the All Pro team in 2011, and bigger things are expected for the third year safety. Cornerback Brandon Browner came over from the CFL, and quickly made an impact. The former Calgary Stampeder led the Seahawks with 6 interceptions, returning 2 of those into touchdowns. Browner does like to gamble, but in many cases, it paid off. Seattle could sneak up on some teams this season. A dangerous club no one wants to play.
3. Arizona Cardinals
A quarterback quandary is the major issue in the desert in 2012. The Cardinals went into training camp with John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, battling for the starting job. In the end, Skelton won the job. For now. This will be an ongoing story in Arizona, if neither quarterback performs up to expectations. Running back Beanie Wells will be asked to ease the burden of the quarterbacks. The fourth year back from Ohio State, had a solid 2o11, rushing for a career best 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns. One problem the Cardinal quarterbacks won’t have is who to throw too. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best in the game and shows no signs of slowing down. Fitzgerald had another Pro Bowl season in 2011, catching 80 passes for 1,411 yards and 8 touchdowns. The defence improved as the season wore on, and improvement is expected in 2012. Undersized defensive tackle Darnell Dockett is looking to make his fourth Pro Bowl appearance. While Dockett isn’t a stats machine, he can disrupt offences with his speed and smarts. The secondary is the strength of the defence. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is a budding superstar and has already shown a penchant for big plays. The second year LSU alum had 2 interceptions, returning one of those for a touchdown. Peterson is also a spectacular punt returner, as he turned 4 punt returns to touchdowns, the most in the NFL. Strong safety Adrian Wilson is making a strong case to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame. The 12th year veteran from North Carolina State, is the leader of the defence, and can still scare the daylights out of receivers with his earth-shattering hits. The Cardinals aren’t terrible. But if they don’t solve their quarterback issues, it could be a long season in the desert.
4. St. Louis Rams
The Rams have Sam Bradford, Stephen Jackson and not much else. OK that’s not necessarily true, but the Rams will be relying heavily on the two offensive studs. Bradford did miss 6 games in 2011, due to an ankle injury. Before the injury, the Oklahoma grad threw for 2,164 yards, 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Jackson had another solid season running the football, rushing for 1,145 yards and 5 touchdowns. While Jackson does have a history of health issues, he remained injury free in 2011, and is hoping that trend continues in 2012. The weakness in the Rams offence is at receiver. Bradford doesn’t have a primary target he can rely on. Surprisingly, the Rams did not take Justin Blackmon in the first round, a decision that could come back to haunt them. The defence was somewhat shaky for the Rams but they do have some talent. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitas is the leader of the defence. ‘Baby Animal’ as he’s known, (he is the son of wrestling star Road Warrior Animal) led the Rams with 142 tackles and is an excellent run stopper. The Rams did use their first round pick to select defensive tackle Michael Brockers from LSU. Brockers specializes in stopping the run, and is expected to fix a problem the Rams have had for years. The Rams dipped into free agency to nab cornerback Cortland Finnegan from Tennessee. Finnegan is a solid corner, who has the ability to get under the skin of opposing receivers. Finnegan is considered one of the dirtiest players in the game, and the Rams welcome his nastiness. The Rams have starting points, but don’t expect much in 2012.
AFC: Cincinnati, San Diego
NFC: Green Bay, Philadelphia
AFC Championship: Baltimore over Houston
NFC Championship: Chicago over Atlanta
Super Bowl: Baltimore over Chicago
Worst Team: Minnesota
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