Tonight sees the start of the 2012 NFL season, as the reigning champion New York Giants host their division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Eli Manning proved that he should be considered one of the elite Quarterbacks in the NFL, by leading his team to six straight victories to end the season, including an impressive road playoff win in Lambeau Field over the 15-1 Packers, and a second Superbowl defeat of the New England Patriots in five years. This season, Peyton Manning returns after four neck surgeries, but with the Broncos not the Colts; his replacement in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, and Washington’s Robert Griffin III will be the QB rookies to look out for; Tom Brady will be determined to get back to the big game in February, as at 36 he will not have many more chances to add to his 2 titles; and the New Orleans Saints will hope to be the first team to play in a “home Superbowl”, but have to contend with all the suspensions that came out of “Bountygate“.
In my (brief) pre-season preview last year, I correctly guessed just four of the eight division winners and two of the four Wild Card teams. I did have the Patriots in the Superbowl, but losing to my own Green Bay Packers. No matter what my confidence level in the Packers this year, I am not picking them to win it all again; partly because they have been a common pick by experts on ESPN and Sports Illustrated, but also because I do not want to jinx them again this year. So here is my (much longer) preview for the forthcoming campaign, broken down by Conference and Division, as well as my predictions for how each team will fare this season.
As the team I support, the Green Bay Packers are the most obvious place for me to start. Last season, they were the best regular season team, securing a 15-1 record with the sole loss being a game against the Chiefs in Kansas City. However, in their first playoff game against the New York Giants, the Packers defense was exposed and they fell to a 37-20 defeat, meaning they headed to the offseason much sooner than they had expected. With Aaron Rodgers as Quarterback, Green Bay should be confident in their ability to outscore the majority of teams up until January, but their selection of six defensive players in their first half-dozen picks in this year’s draft showed that they know which area they need to improve upon if they are to play into February this time around.
Competing with the Packers for the NFC North title will be the Detroit Lions, who made the playoffs via the Wild Card last season, and the Chicago Bears, whose campaign was de-railed when their QB, Jay Cutler, was ruled out for the rest of the year after breaking a thumb against the Chargers in Week 11. After Cutler was gone, the Bears closed out the season on a 1-5 run and missed the playoffs but, if he can stay healthy, he will have two big wide receivers to throw to in Brandon Marshall (acquired from Miami) and Alshon Jeffrey (whom Chicago drafted in the second round). Detroit have one of the best receivers in the game in the form of Calvin Johnson and, if Matt Stafford can avoid injuries once again, their offense should be a formidable force. However, they have a weak secondary and poor run defense so any hopes they have of taking another step up may have to wait another season.
The other team in the division are the Minnesota Vikings, who are still very much in rebuilding mode. They will be starting second-year QB Christian Ponder in preference to Joe Webb, who looked impressive when he came into games in 2011. Their star running-back, Adrian Peterson, is supposedly going to be ready for their first fixture, but he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee last season and it remains to be seen how much of a force he will be in the first few weeks. The Vikings should be a tougher team to play in 2012 compared with a year ago, but they are in a tough division and wins will be very hard to come by.
Predicted Standings: 1. Packers 13-3; 2. Bears 10-6; 3. Lions 9-7; 4. Vikings 3-13
As mentioned above, the New York Giants won their final six games to improve from 7-7 to Superbowl Champions in 2011, primarily due to outstanding play from Eli Manning and a pass rush that is probably the best in the league. A lot depends on the form of Manning – he has a tendency to scramble and throws off the back-foot in order to avoid being sacked, which has resulted in him throwing 41 interceptions in the last two years (compared with just 17 by Aaron Rodgers in the same time). The only reason that the Giants even made the playoffs in 2011 was because of the Dallas Cowboys inability to put games away – they gave up five 4th quarter leads, including 3 games in which they were ahead by double digits. If RB DeMarco Murray can play all 16 fixtures, then not only will he have a chance of the rushing titles, but he should help the Cowboys control the ball late on and avoid being the victims of further comebacks.
After they had made big free-agent signings last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were dubbed the dream-team and they were expected to go all the way to the Superbowl, but a 4-8 start resulted in them missing the postseason altogether, despite winning their final four contests. Asomugha at Corner Back did not look comfortable when he was asked to cover inside for Philadelphia, but with the departure of Asante Samuel to the Falcons, he should be able to work the touch-line more this year and return to the form he previously showed with the Raiders. With an offense led by Michael Vick, as well as the threats of DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles have the squad to challenge once again, but whether they can fulfill this promise remains to be seen.
The Washington Redskins traded up to second place in the draft in April to secure the services of promising young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and he will be their starter from Week 1, so they have a lot riding on him performing well. Griffin is similar to Michael Vick, as he can use his legs as well as his arms to advance a play, but the Redskins are building towards a team that can compete in the next few years, rather than straight away. There will be pressure on Fred Davis at tight end, as he replaces Chris Cooley, who was a fan-favourite in Washington before he was released in the offseason. One trend to look out for, Washington has beaten the last two Superbowl champs in the regular season (GB in 2010 and the Giants twice in 2011), and they do play my pick for the title (to be announced later on) this year on December 9th…
Predicted Standings: 1. Cowboys 12-4; 2. Giants 10-6; 3. Eagles 9-7; 4. Redskins 8-8.
When details of the bounty system the New Orleans Saints had employed over the last few years – giving financial rewards to defensive players who injured opponents – came out earlier this year, there was always going to be a cloud hanging over their season. That has come in the form of suspensions, most notably an entire season away for their head coach, Sean Payton. QB Drew Brees is the leader
on the field, however, and he set the all-time record for passing yards in 2011. The Saints have overcome adversity before, surviving in New Orleans even after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – not to mention feeling obliged to watch the incredibly slow-moving Treme as a matter of local pride – but even if they survive the loss of Payton and are not overwhelmed by the prospect of being the first team to play a Superbowl at home, they still have to try to win in the playoffs with a shaky defense.
The main team that will hope to capitalise on the Saints misfortune is the Atlanta Falcons. Since they drafted Matt Ryan and made him their starting quarterback four years ago, Atlanta has the second-best regular season record in the NFL, but they are 0-3 in the playoffs during that time. Their campaign ended with a lopsided 24-2 defeat to the Giants in January and they will be hoping that the addition of Samuel at CB from Philadelphia, as well as the development of Julio Jones as a deep threat at wide receiver, will be key components to them finally winning a postseason game in the Matt Ryan era.
Carolina Panthers rookie QB, Cam Newton, had an incredible start to his first year in the NFL in 2011 and ended up recording more than 4,000 passing yards and over 500 rushing – a combination that had not been achieved before. Newton will need to improve on protecting the ball more this time around – he threw 17 interceptions last season and was sacked 35 times – but if Carolina are going to be contenders, they also need their defense to step up significantly, after being ranked 28th in the league. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now being led by Greg Schiano as head coach, who has a much more discipline-focus approach than the departed Raheem Morris. QB Josh Freeman has lost 25 pounds during the offseason and if he recovers his form from 2010, could lead the Buccaneers to an unexpected Wild Card berth.
Predicted Standings: 1. Falcons 11-5; 2. Saints 9-7; 3. Buccaneers 7-9; 4. Panthers 4-12.
One of the most surprising teams in 2011 were the San Francisco 49ers, who improved so far under Jim Harbaugh in his first season that they were just two botched punt returns away from a trip to the Superbowl. One of their biggest problems in the NFC Championship game was actually on the receiving end – their wideouts recorded just one catch for a total of 3 yards against the Giants – but they have addressed that with the addition of Randy Moss (last seen caring in 2007) and Mario Manningham, who made the crucial sideline catch for New York in the title-winning drive. Frank Gore at running back and tight end, Vernon Davis, are quality players, but much depends on whether or not QB Alex Smith can play at the same level he did last season – the best of his career.
The biggest advantage the 49ers had in 2011 was the weakness of the other teams in their division, but they could be caught this time around. The Seattle Seahawks have historically enjoyed a good home field advantage, with their fans making plenty of noise, but they will need rookie Russell Wilson – who has been selected as their starting quarterback over former Green Bay backup, Marry Flynn – to adapt to the NFL quickly if they are to be challengers in 2012. In Larry Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals have a premier wide receiver in their squad, but with either John Skelton or Kevin Kolb throwing the ball to him, he will not have much of a chance to display his skills. Arizona’s defense allowed 23 points or fewer in their final 9 contests last season, but the team also failed to win any games by more than a touchdown, suggesting they could be in for a big fall this time out. Despite the inadequacies of the Seahawks and the Cardinals last season, they were much better than the St. Louis Rams, who ended up with a 2-14 record. QB Sam Bradford missed the final six games through injury and this year he will have Superbowl winning center, Scott Wells, protecting him, after he was signed in free agency from Green Bay. Steven Jackson is a good running back, but it is hard to see the Rams improving by more than just a few wins on their performance last season.
Predicted Standings: 1. Seahawks 10-6; 2. 49ers 9-7; 3. Rams 4-12; 4. Cardinals 2-14
If the AFC Championship game last January, the Baltimore Ravens had a chance to clinch a place in the Superbowl with their final drive, when QB Joe Flacco drove them towards the end zone, only to see two potential winning touchdowns dropped, then a chip-shot field gold to force overtime missed, as time expired. The Ravens are primarily known as a strong defensive team, but during the offseason they lost Jarret Johnson to the Chargers in free agency, Terrell Suggs to injury, and their defensive coordinator, Chug Pagano, left to take the head coach job in Indianapolis. If Baltimore manages to go one stage further than in 2011, Joe Flacco will be the main reason they make it.
Their main rivals for the division will once again be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost in the Wild Card round to Tim Tebow’s Broncos last season. Pittsburgh has the chance to avenge that loss on the first week of the regular season when they return to Denver, though this time they will be facing Peyton Manning and his surgically repaired neck. One of the main problems the Steelers have faced in recent years has been an aging and oft-injured offensive line, but they drafted to fix that problem and should be contenders for a playoff spot once again. There will be close attention paid to the relationship between QB Ben Rotehlisberger and new offensive co-ordinator, Todd Haley, who is not afraid to shout at his players on the sideline.
Ohio’s two teams make up the rest of the AFC North and neither the Cincinnati Bengals nor the Cleveland Browns are likely to trouble the Ravens or Steelers in the divisional race. In 2011, the Bengals secured the second wild-card spot mostly due to the relationship between the rookie QB, Andy Dalton, and his fellow first-year wide receiver, A.J. Green. Cincinnati also improved their running game with the addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis from New England, but a return to the post-season with a tough schedule looks very unlikely. Cleveland will also struggle to make an impact this year, as they will be starting a 29 year-old rookie quarterback, Brandon Weeden, who spent a few years as a minor league pitcher. Weeden’s gunslinger approach might help the Browns open some games up, especially if their highly touted new running back, Trent Richardson, lives up to the hype.
Predicted Standings: 1. Ravens 12-4; 2. Steelers 11-5; 3. Bengals 5-11; 4. Browns 3-13
The New England Patriots will be determined to return strongly after their disappointment of losing to the New York Giants in the Superbowl for the second time in five years. With Tom Brady under center for them, they should once again have a great offense that will win most games for them, even if their defense is as bad as last year, when they ranked 31st in the league (ahead of only Green Bay). In Brandon Lloyd they now have a legitimate deep threat for their passing game, to compliment the slot receiver, Wes Welker, and the two impressive tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It was the New York Jets who ended the Patriots’ season in the playoffs two years ago and once again they will be strong on the defensive end, while questions remain on the offense. The Jets added Tim Tebow in the offseason, as a backup for Mark Sanchez at QB, but while Tebow showed some magic late in games to carry the Broncos to the postseason in 2011, neither he nor Sanchez have looked capable of regularly leading their team to score more than 20 points. New York’s head coach, Rex Ryan, will need his defense can repeat their top five league ranking they have achieved in each of the last three seasons if they are to have any chance of playing into January.
The Buffalo Bills started off strongly last year and it appeared that Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to be the quarterback who could lead them back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. However, half way through the season his form dropped, either because he relaxed after signing a huge contract extension, or because he was playing through an injury. If it was the latter and Fitzpatrick can stay healthy this year, then the Bills could sneak into Wild Card contention, particularly as they have added Mario Williams on the other side of the ball to improve their pass rush. In 2012, Buffalo has four home games in December (although the fixture against Seattle will be played in Toronto) when the weather could be very cold and snowy, making the outcomes hard to predict. One of the teams that makes the trip to Northern New York State for one of those matchups is the warm-weather Miami Dolphins. As the franchise that has been the focus of this season’s Hard Knocks on HBO, the Dolphins might have cursed themselves from reaching the Superbowl – no team on the show has made it to the big game the same year – were it not for the fact that they have no chance anyway. Matt Moore looked impressive in the second-half of 2011 as their quarterback, but this year Miami has opted to name the rookie, Ryan Tannehill, as their starter.
Predicted Standings: 1. Patriots 13-3; 2. Bills 10-6; 3. Jets 8-8; 4. Dolphins 3-13.
Before the 2011 season, there was much uncertainty about who would win the AFC South, as it was not clear if and when Peyton
Manning would be able to play for the Indianapolis Colts. As it turned out, he missed the entire year and the Colts fell to a 2-14 record, which did at least secure them the number 1 pick in the draft – highly touted QB Andrew Luck. The Stanford man will only be able to have an influence on one side of the ball and Indianapolis needs a better performance from their defense, which was ranked 20th in the league last year. Luck will provide them with great focus and his determination to succeed should see them improve dramatically in 2012, but they are still some way off a return to the playoffs.
The division now looks like it should be a formality for the Houston Texans, especially if their first-choice quarterback, Matt Schaub, stays healthy for the whole year. Last season, they lost both him and Matt Leinart to injury, resulting in their third-string QB, T.J. Yates starting in the final few weeks and the playoffs. Schaub is in a contract year and will be determined to prove his worth to the franchise, who have just committed a lot of their future payroll to their star running-back, Arian Foster. Should Foster live up to that contract extension, Schaub play all 16 games, and Andre Johnson continue to be a threat at wide-receiver, then Houston should not have any difficulties in winning the division for the second season in a row.
With a strong offensive-line, good platoon of receivers and Chris Johnson at running back, the Tennessee Titans have the makings of a team that could challenge the Texans for the division crown. However, they will be starting Jake Locker at QB, whom they picked as the 8th pick in the 2011 draft, and it is unclear if he is ready to perform in the NFL. His fellow second-year quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, had a terrible first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and will need to show a significant improvement if he is to maintain his starting role. Now that Maurice Jones-Drew has ended his contract hold-out and reported to camp, and Rashard Jennings has returned from missing all of 2011 through injury, the Jaguars should have a strong running game that could be enough to win close games, if their defense performs as well as it did for much of 2011.
Predicted Standings: 1. Texans 11-5; 2. Titans 6-10; 3. Colts 5-11; 4. Jaguars 4-12
In 2011, the Denver Broncos managed to win the AFC West with a 9-7 record, mostly thanks to late game heroics from Tim Tebow in the second half of the season. Now Tebow has gone and has been replaced by Peyton Manning, who is recovering from missing the whole of last year after undergoing four neck surgeries. It is a big gamble for Denver, but if they get the Manning of old, then he should be able to put teams away and relieve pressure on the Broncos defense and take them back to the playoffs. However, it is unclear if he will be able to stay healthy and, even if he does, whether he will be able to return to the same level he displayed in Indianapolis prior to 2010.
Should Manning not magically rediscover his 2005 form, then the division will be wide open for any of the teams to challenge for once again. Last year was a poor season for Phillip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, but the 20 interceptions he threw were a career high, plus he was reportedly playing through injuries for much of the year. San Diego are notorious for having a slow start, before coming alive later in the season, but they will need their defense to perform better on third down – in 2011 they allowed opponents to convert on nearly 50% of such plays. The Oakland Raiders will be hoping that the number 1 pick of the 2003 draft, Carson Palmer, can finally live up to the promise he once showed and reduce the number of interceptions he throws (16 in 10 games last year). If Palmer can perform adequately, then the Raiders overall have a team that could challenge for a playoff spot, but they will need Darren McFadden – their top running back – to stay healthy for all 17 weeks. The Kansas City Chiefs were particularly unlucky with injuries in 2011, but still went into the final round of fixtures with the opportunity to win the division. With Matt Cassell returning at quarterback, as well as RB Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry, and tight-end Tom Moeaki all due to return, the Chiefs should improve on last season, if they can all remain healthy.
Predicted Standings 1. Chargers 11-5; 2. Raiders 10-6; 3. Chiefs 8-8; 4. Broncos 6-10.
Following through on my regular season picks, my stab in the dark on how the playoffs would turn out:
AFC Seeds: 1. Patriots; 2. Ravens; 3. Chargers; 4. Texans; 5. Steelers; 6. Bills
NFC Seeds: 1. Packers; 2. Cowboys; 3. Falcons; 4. Seahawks; 5. Giants; 6. Bears
Wild Card Round (home teams in bold) : Chargers over Bills; Steelers over Texans; Falcons over Bears; Seahawks over Giants
Divisional Round: Ravens over Chargers; Steelers over Patriots; Packers over Seahawks; Cowboys over Falcons
Championship Round: Ravens over Steelers; Cowboys over Packers
Superbowl Winner: Baltimore Ravens (after losing to the Redskins in Week 14)
Week 1 Predictions
Each week I will be picking all of the games against the spread – as laid out by ESPN’s Pickskin Pick’em. For an explanation of how the point spread work – see my first post from last year here. Last year’s record: Regular season 134-122; Playoffs 6-5
Home teams in bold
Cowboys + 3.5 over Giants
Bears -10.5 over Colts
Browns + 8.5 over Eagles
Lions -8.5 over Rams
Patriots -6.5 over Titans
Falcons -0.5 over Chiefs
Jaguars +4.5 over Vikings
Redskins +9.5 over Saints
Bills + 3.5 over Jets
Texans -7.5 over Dolphins
Packers -6.5 over 49ers
Seahawks +1.5 over Cardinals
Buccaneers +2.5 over Panthers
Steelers +1.5 over Broncos
Ravens -6.5 over Bengals
Chargers -1.5 over Raiders