Ah yes; it’s finally here.
After nearly seven months of Giants’ fans enjoying their bragging rights, the Patriots scooping up every free agent tight end imaginable, the Saints being busted and so much more, the NFL is finally back.
Every single Sunday for the next five months will consist of football. Here are my predictions for each division:
NFC East: One of the league’s best divisions will be more competitive than ever in 2012. The defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants could easily finish third or even fourth (depending how good Robert Griffin III is) in the East. The Cowboys should have won the division last year, and if it weren’t for an awful secondary they probably would have. They traded up to draft Morris Claiborne, which was a brilliant move. But if injury-prone running back DeMarco Murray gets hurt again, they will be in trouble. The Eagles were the paper champs of 2011, but finished third in the division. Acquiring tackling machine DeMeco Ryans was a great pickup for the Eagles, and LeSean McCoy is the best running back in the league, but I still can’t see Michael Vick staying healthy all year, or DeSean Jackson AND Jeremy Maclin playing consistently. The Redskins could finally break out with new quarterback Robert Griffin III and wide receiver acquisition Pierre Garcon. But with Eli Manning a year more experienced, that defensive line well intact, the Giants should have enough to make a strong case for division champs again. Their schedule scares me, however. Giants win division at 10-6.
NFC South: I think this is finally the year that the Atlanta Falcons do something in the playoffs. Matt Ryan will step it up this year, considering he’s throwing to two of the best receivers in the game in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Michael Turner is a year older, but has been quietly consistent the last few years. The Buccaneers will surely be better than their 4-12 record last season, but are still hard pressed to break .500. The season ending injury to Davin Joseph was a crushing blow. Will the Saints be able to repeat their 13-3 season after all of their sanctions? Probably not. Even without Jonathan Vilma and the offensive genius himself, Sean Payton, they still have Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and so many other offensive weapons. The Panthers are an up and coming team, but I think they will battle the Buccaneers for third place as defenses start to adjust to Cam Newton. Falcons win division at 12-4.
NFC North: Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder should improve, and if Adrian Peterson is healthy we all know what he is capable of, but the Vikings’ secondary isn’t good enough in a league that has to play against Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and Jay Cutler (who is reunited with Brandon Marshall) six times. The Bears are an intriguing team this year. I’m very interested to see if Cutler and Marshall can reciprocate the magic they made in 2009. If Matt Forte can stay healthy, the Bears have a great shot at a wild-card spot. The Detroit Lions finally made the playoffs in 2011, and they should be in the running for another spot this season, but their lack of a consistent run game will hurt them. The Green Bay Packers are just too good. If Jermichael Finley actually holds on to the ball this year, I expect him to have a huge season. Packers win division at 12-4.
NFC West: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson beat out free agent acquisition Matt Flynn, exciting some folks in Seattle. Yes, it’s true, people do in fact get excited about things in Seattle. The Seahawks went 4-0 in the preseason, and with a reasonable schedule, the team has a chance to challenge the 49ers for the NFC West crown. Alex Smith is back in San Francisco, but it’s nearly impossible that the 49ers will be able to duplicate the kind of defensive season they had last year. Sam Bradford had a bad sophomore slump last season, throwing just six touchdown passes in six games. Brian Quick is a raw rookie receiver that should be a nice target for Bradford this year. The Cardinals still can’t be taken seriously with their quarterback situation. 49ers win division at 11-5.
NFC Wild Card Spots: New Orleans, Dallas
AFC East: All the hype surrounding Tim Tebow is irrelevant because Mark Sanchez is not the reason the Jets are a bad team. The team simply doesn’t have any explosive players at running back or receiver, and they don’t block. Dustin Keller is a decent tight end, but that’s about it. The Patriots locked up both Gronk and Hernandez for multi-year deals and acquiring Brandon Lloyd gives Tom Brady a lethal vertical threat. It might be running back by committee in New England, but they won’t have any problem putting points on the board. Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick slowed as the season progressed last year, but it was due to injury. He will get the Bills into second place in the division this year. Ryan Tannehill will struggle in Miami, mainly due to lack of weapons. I’m doubtful that Reggie Bush can stay healthy all year and rush for over 1000 yards again. Patriots win division at 12-4.
AFC South: A healthy Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster equals a very successful 2012 season for the Texans. If they stay healthy, the Texans are my pick for Super Bowl Champs this year. They are the most complete team in the NFL. I think Andrew Luck will have a pretty good rookie season; he’ll throw his fair share of picks, but I think he’ll develop. Reggie Wayne and Coby Fleener will be targeted a lot. The Jaguars are just disastrous. They will probably be better than last year, but win no more than six games. The Titans should get second place in the division behind a strong year from Chris Johnson. Texans win division at 13-3.
AFC North: Along with the NFC East and maybe the NFC North, this is the most competitive and the most intriguing division in the league. Will three teams from the division all go to the playoffs again? Probably not. I really like the Bengals’ chances to win the division this year with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green building more chemistry and BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing the ball. I think the Ravens will compete for the division title, but fall just short because of Terrell Suggs’ absence and older legs on that defense. The Steelers should have another solid year, but until they get back to the smash mouth team that won them multiple Super Bowls, they are not a true threat to go deep into the post season. Trent Richardson should be efficient, but the Browns are still the Browns. Bengals win division at 11-5.
AFC West: This is a very hard one to predict. I love the Chiefs’ defensive front, and that they held on to Romeo Crennel as head coach. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy, I think Carson Palmer is going to have a big year. Peyton Manning could make Eric Decker very rich and famous, and send the most complete team in the division to the playoffs. However, I think Phillip Rivers is going to bounce back from a disappointing campaign last year and lead the Chargers to the playoffs, assuming Ryan Mathews can stay healthy. If he gets hurt, it’s the Broncos heading into January football. Chargers win division at 10-6.
AFC Wild Card Spots: Denver, Baltimore
John Hilsenroth Jr. can be reached at email@example.com