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Editor’s Predictions for the 2012-2013 NFL Season

NFC East

Philadelphia        10-6
Dallas*                10-6
NY Giants            9-7
Washington         6-10

NFC North

Green Bay           11-5
Chicago*             11-5
Detroit                  9-7
Minnesota            6-10

NFC South

Carolina             9-7
New Orleans      8-8
Atlanta               8-8
Tampa Bay        6-10

NFC West

San Francisco   12-4
St. Louis            7-9
Seattle               6-10
Arizona              4-12

AFC East

New England   12-4
Buffalo*             9-7
Miami                5-11
NY Jets             4-12

AFC North

Pittsburgh        9-7
Baltimore         9-7
Cincinnati        7-9
Cleveland        5-11

AFC South

Houston          10-6
Tennessee       8-8
Indianapolis     7-9
Jacksonville     5-11

AFC West

Denver            11-5
Kansas City*    9-7
Oakland          7-9
San Diego       7-9

* Wild Card teams

Wild Card Round

Philadelphia over Dallas
Chicago over Carolina

Buffalo over Pittsburgh
Houston over Kansas City

Divisional Playoffs

Green Bay over Philadelphia
San Francisco over Chicago

New England over Buffalo
Denver over Houston

Conference Championships

San Francisco over Green Bay
Denver over New England

Super Bowl

San Francisco vs. Denver

Predictive Thoughts, Musings, and Ramblings for the 2012 Season:

1. The Redskins will finish 6-10: I can’t see a realistic scenario where the Redskins win more than six games this year. I love Robert Griffin III, but i’m trying to be as brutally realistic – perhaps even to a fault – with this team as possible. The offensive line can be described as nothing more than a hot mess, serving as the Achilles heel for this team all season long. I’m not impressed with any of the running backs, which is worrisome, considering Griffin may not have a solid running game to rely upon.

You also have to take a look at the division in which the Redskins are playing. Top to bottom, this is the most talented and difficult-to-play-in division in the entire NFL. The Eagles are absolutely loaded with talent, the Cowboys have an almost comical level of talent assembled on that team (I still maintain that if they ever learned to run the football consistently, they’d be the be best team in the NFC, if not the entire league), and the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions. I’d call it a damn successful season if the Redskins win three of their six divisional games, but i’m not holding my breath.

2. The 49ers will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl: One year after being embarrassingly wrong about the 49ers (I picked them to finish with the worst record in the NFL, thereby winning the Andrew Luck sweepstakes), I’m swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. Alex Smith is just good enough to manage all the talent the 49ers have assembled on offense without detrimentally getting in it’s way. He’ll be able to throw the ball to Randy Moss (who I think has one more very good season left), Michael Crabtree (who I think will have a breakout 1k+ yard season), Mario Manningham (a damn fine 3rd receiver — just ask Eli Manning), and Vernon Davis at tight end. At running back, he’s got Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter (a nice complimentary back), and LaMichael James, who has the speed and play-making ability unmatched by anyone on that offense (he was one of my favorite players in this year’s draft). The offensive line is very underrated, getting lost among all the hype and big names surrounded with this team; the left side of the line is as good as any in the NFL. We haven’t even mentioned the eleven returning starters, who happened to make up one of the best defenses in the NFL last year.

The Giants and Packers proved one key fact in their past two title runs: if you can rush the passer in the postseason, you can go far. They had three guys who finished with seven or more sacks, including Aldon Smith who finished with 14 last year (tied for 5th in the NFL). Perhaps even more importantly, they were brutally efficient in stopping the run; they only allowed three rushing touchdowns all year, and giving up an NFL-best 3.5 yards per carry to opposing ball-carriers.

If you can’t tell, I’m fine with eating ample crow about last year’s prediction, and saying that I like the way this team is put together. Usually, I try not to go with what the talking heads on the various major networks are predicting, but I think there’s good reason to believe the 49ers can make a serious Super Bowl run in 2012.

3. The Broncos will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl: Forgive the vintage late 80’s/early 90’s Super Bowl prediction, but I like the 49ers to match up against the Denver Broncos, with their new quarterback you may have heard of: Peyton Manning.

Because the mass media spent the majority of the season relentlessly cramming it down your throat, the first thing you think of when referencing the 2011 Denver Broncos is, of course, Tim Tebow. But let’s not forget that while Tebow admittedly played really well in the fourth quarter of many Broncos wins (after absolutely stinking it up for the first three quarters), it was the team’s defense and running game that actually kept the Broncos in those games for Tebow to pull out the win in the 4th quarter. So, think about what could (and will) happen when you upgrade from Tebow to Manning. It’s like upgrading from a lawn mower to a Ferrari.

Even Manning playing at 85% of his “former self,” which is a very reasonable expectation for him, is still one of the top three quarterbacks in the AFC. For any injury-related shortcomings he might have, he’ll be able to cover them up with two big, athletically gifted receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Erick Decker, and two old reliable friends in receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme. I’m not quite as bullish on last season’s running attack, though. I have a feeling that we may have seen the last good season from Willis McGahee, as he’s getting up there in age, but rookie Ronnie Hillman is a sleeper that everyone should really keep an eye on; he reminds me of an old Manning favorite, Joseph Addai. Regardless, Manning’s passing ability should easily loosen up a defense just enough for the Broncos to be effective on the ground.

Once again, teams that can rush the opposing team’s passer in the playoffs tend to be able to go further, and linebackers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are both blue chip pass rushers (both finished in the top 20 last year in sacks, helping the Broncos finish 10th in the NFL in quarterback sacks). Despite what the media might tell you, the Broncos defense was a big contributor in winning seven of eight games last fall when Tim Tebow took over at quarterback. Now, just imagine what they might be able to do when they’re actually playing with a lead at some point in the first three quarters, as opposed to having to hold the fort ’til the 4th.

I get the fact that Manning isn’t the same quarterback when he plays outdoors as he is in a dome (who is?), but by now, everyone has to see the fact that Manning may be the single most valuable player to his respective team in the NFL. The Broncos were a playoff team with a wishbone, single-wing-type quarterback under center; just imagine the upgrade that Manning provides.

Plus, it’s just way too delicious of a storyline to have Peyton Manning return to Foxboro for the AFC Title game, after all the epic battles they’ve had playing against the Patriots when he was a member of the Colts. In a relatively thin-at-the-top AFC this season, I can see the Broncos making a really deep run. I love the idea of Manning taking the Broncos deep into the playoffs (like Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs), only this time prevailing.

4. The Eagles will flame out of the playoffs yet again: For those that may not know: I’m a Virginia Tech alumnus. But, I’m not one of those alumni who blindly roots for a player just because they happened to have graduated from the same school, or played collegiate football at the same time I was there. Both of which happen to be the case with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.

So, even with a bit of a Hokie bias that sometimes gets the better of me, I truly believe that Michael Vick is someone who can get you 10 to 12 wins in the regular season, and maybe a postseason victory, but nothing more. Or, more succinctly: Vick is not a quarterback with which an NFL team can win a Super Bowl. And I think that trend will continue this season.

Vick has a grand total of one playoff victory in his career, and that took place six years ago. For all the rhetoric about his “growth” as a more complete quarterback and a more mature professional, he hasn’t proven that he’s truly good enough as a passer to lead his team deep into the postseason. He still relies on his athletic gifts (a rocket arm, the fastest release in the NFL, and almost unmatched elusiveness) more than his mind (processing what the defense is giving him and making the right decision based on that information). Any Eagle fan worth their salt will tell you that Vick is the type of guy whom you’d give 50/50 odds between making a breathtaking pass that will be featured on Sportscenter all week, and making a boneheaded throw into coverage that results in an interception.

This season will absolutely be the make-or-break year for Vick’s career, and quite frankly, if he doesn’t show that he can win it all with a ridiculously loaded Eagles team this year, he’ll never do it. He simply has no excuse. He’s been in the same offense, with the same coordinators, for his entire career in Philadelphia. He got his huge contract, and doesn’t have to look over his shoulder at a backup vying for his job. He has two legitimate #1-caliber thousand yard receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (one of my big fantasy football breakout guys this year), one of the better yet underrated tight ends in all of football in Brent Celek, and perhaps one of the three most complete all-around running backs in all the league in LeSean McCoy (who i’m convinced is the reincarnation of Brian Westbrook, sent to the Eagles to terrorize the Redskins for the next decade; there isn’t another player in the NFC East that I fear more than McCoy). The defense is loaded with talent, in a scheme designed to do one thing: pressure the opposing quarterback and force them to throw to a receiver that’s being blanketed by one of two Pro Bowl caliber corners.

With all of that in place, I think the Eagles will win the insanely difficult NFC East — they have way too much talent not to do so, in spite of Vick’s up-and-down play and Reid’s sometimes mind-numbingly boneheaded coaching decisions — but for yet another season, they’ll get bounced in the playoffs, well before they had hoped to be. And Vick and Reid will be the ones held responsible for that.

5. The Saints will miss the playoffs: It’s the trend to refer to any sporting (or otherwise) scandal that occurs as [scandal]-gate, but I think the whole Saints “bountygate” (yes, I cringed a little bit as I wrote that) is going to linger over them all season like a stale fart in a car during a long road trip. It’s been proven time and time again that teams that have bad juju going into training camp usually can’t get rid of it. It’s really hard to accurately gauge just how much Sean Payton means to that offense (as a play-caller) and to the team in general (as their leader), but it’s really hard to believe that they’ll be the same old Saints juggernaut without Payton, even if Drew Brees is their quarterback. I still think Brees will have great numbers, because I’d never bet against Drew Brees as a quarterback, but it’s going to be a very healthy drop-off from his 5,000 yards and 35-40+ touchdown season(s) that we’ve become accustomed to. Given that, I don’t see the Saints making it out of a deceptively competitive NFC South with a playoff spot. Atlanta is the type of team that can beat anyone and lose to anyone on a given week. Tampa Bay has enough youth and speed to pull off a few key upsets, though I don’t see the proper parts in place (especially on the coaching staff) to really be competitive. With Cam Newton being the new sheriff in Carolina, he alone might give the Panthers just enough chutzpah to stand up to New Orleans; there is only a select few players in the NFL who can single-handedly take over a game and will his team to victory, but Newton may be one of them. His ability to throw the football (it’s a thing of beauty to watch him do so) combined with his size and strength make him a lethal combination. With all of that in place, I see the Saints missing the playoffs in 2012, and licking their wounds from the ramifications of this insufferable bountygate heading into 2013.

6. The Steelers will win the AFC North, and nothing more: In an era where passing reigns supreme in the NFL, on a team with a gifted passer, Ben Roethlisberger, and three dangerously speedy receivers in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, you’re firing an offensive coordinator who didn’t run the football enough? And more importantly, replacing him with one who (1) almost begrudgingly runs the football, and (2) is as reviled by his players as any coach in the last decade? I fail to see how this makes sense. The Steelers lost their ‘bell cow’ running back in Rashard Mendenhall to a gruesome injury. While I think Isaac Redman is a nice and competent enough replacement, why are you suddenly going to hitch your wagon to an aspect of your offense that is lacking its best player and is the opposite of how things in the league are moving?

And on top of all of that, you’ve brought in a coach to help you implement this new scheme, whom your quarterback already doesn’t get along with? Read between the lines of everything you’ve heard out of Pittsburgh. You have a quarterback who’s done it a certain way — successfully — for the better part of a decade, and you’re now forcing him to work with a hasn’t-won-anything coordinator that’s known for rigid boorishness and a personality that wears thin on his players? There may not be a coach in the NFL right now that’s as disliked, or with the innate ability to alienate himself from his players, than Haley.

The Steelers have enough talent on both sides of the football to win nine games and squeak into the playoffs, but these aren’t the Steelers we’ve been accustomed to for the past five to ten years. The defense (especially Troy Polamalu) is older and may have lost a step. I can also see the mounting tensions between Haley and his players really coming into full view when the Steelers take on a fiesty team that’s not afraid of them — in my scenario, that would be the Buffalo Bills — helping them to an early playoff exit.

7. The Cardinals and Jets will compete… for the worst record in the NFL: I think the Arizona Cardinals will finish with the worst record in the league. Kevin Kolb has proven — repeatedly — that he’s not the answer at quarterback, and I don’t believe John Skelton is either. Their offensive line is a mess, their defense isn’t discernibly better than the middle-of-the-pack group from last year, and the teams in the NFC West will be improved. The upside for the Cardinals? They’ll set themselves up to take quarterback Matt Barkley from USC with the #1 overall pick.

The team that finishes with the #2 overall pick? I say it’ll be the New York Jets, after which head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum will both lose their jobs. Rightfully so, I might add; the decision by the Jets to add Tim Tebow to an already unsettled quarterback situation, in a city where no spotlight shines brighter, was shortsighted and foolish at best. Or, as I like to think of it: stupid and moronic. I think another regime will come into New York, see that Mark Sanchez (and Tebow) is/are not the answer at quarterback, and take another one — maybe Landry Jones from Oklahoma or Logan Thomas from Virginia Tech — with the #2 overall pick in the draft.

8. Coach Firings: I alluded to it above, but I think the Jets will clean house after the season is over, giving head coach Rex Ryan and GM Ryan Tannebaum their pink slips; I think Wisenhut will be shown the exit, as well. With another season of missing the playoffs, Norv Turner will have sufficiently worn out his welcome in yet another city and get the axe in San Diego. I don’t know if Leslie Frazier in Minnesota can survive another losing season; Adrian Peterson’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for him, and they just don’t have the talent to compete in an ultra-stacked NFC North. With the powers that be in Philadelphia demanding great success from the expensive roster assembled, assuming the Eagles flame out in the conference semifinals (as predicted above), the Andy Reid era — the longest current coaching tenure in the NFL — will also come to an end in Philadelphia

9. Teams Up, Teams Down: Some quick hitters on teams that I’m bullish and bearish on in 2012. I love the Bears offense, including Matt Forte and the addition of Brandon Marshall, and think they’re going to give the Packers everything in the race to win the NFC North. I’m a big fan of the aforementioned Bills in 2012; Ryan Fitzpatrick was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL through midseason last year, before a nagging rib injury derailed his season. They play a wide open style of offense, but can still run the football with Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, and their defensive line will be as nasty as any in the league after adding Mario Williams. I like Kansas City, especially with the 1-2 punch of Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis (my pick for comeback player of the year) at running back and Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin at receiver. They’ve got a lot of young talent on the defense as well, though I just don’t know if Matt Cassell is the quarterback who can take them where they need to go. I think Jeff Fisher and company will get St. Louis moving in the right direction, out of the NFL and NFC West’s cellar, and Andrew Luck will almost single-handedly will the Colts to a .500 record (with a big assist from running back Donald Brown, one of my favorite breakout picks for 2012). On the flipside, I don’t like what’s going on in Miami at all. I know Ryan Tannehill looks impressive for a rookie, but I truly believe he would’ve been better served long-term with a red shirt season this year, while someone like Matt Moore and/or David Garrard took the lumps in an offense that badly lacks any play-makers at wide receiver. Plus, if the front office keeps shipping out players that were well received in the locker room (yes, that means Chad Johnson, and also Vontae Davis), that’s not going to do a lot for team morale. Yet again, I think Pete Carroll is doing nothing but creating a mess with the Seahawks; you can’t trust Marshawn Lynch enough to build an offense around him, his/their plan for getting Matt Flynn as their starting quarterback backfired when Russell Wilson — an undersized rookie third round pick — out played him, and they’re trotting out a hodgepodge of underachieving draft picks and castoffs. I’m a huge fan of Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, among many others, in Detroit, but their running backs leave a lot to be desired — you can’t trust Kevin Smith or Jahvid Best to not get injured, and you can’t trust Mikel LeShoure to not get arrested — and their secondary is terrible (to put it politely). The Lions will still be a handful for teams to play against, but I think they’ll miss the playoffs this year.

10. Individual Awards:

MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England
Offensive Player of the Year: LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia
Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller, LB, Denver
Coach of the Year: Romeo Crennel, Kansas City

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chandler Jones, LB, New England

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