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2012 NFL Mega-Preview

The NFC looks to lead the AFC for a second straight year.

When I first started writing about the NFL in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the AFC was the unfathomably superior conference.  The gap has been closing for a while now, but then last year the tables flipped when the NFC’s 4th seeded Giants beat the AFC’s 1st seeded Patriots for the second time in five seasons in the Super Bowl.  The first time it happened, the results were shocking as the AFC was thought — perhaps known — to be superior.  The game last February just felt a bit inevitable (though I picked the Pats if I remember correctly) on the results end.

It’s more than possible now that of the 12 best teams in football, maybe as many as 9 of them play in the NFC.  That means we’re in for a second straight year.  As it looks in these predictions, the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers, and world champion New York Giants all may find themselves on the outside looking in during the NFC playoffs.  And yet, every one of those teams would walk into the AFC field, which would appear to be the three mainstays (Steelers, Patriots, Ravens), and pretty much a random draw of every other team.  For the teams sporting the longest playoff droughts in the AFC (Bills, 12 seasons; Raiders and Browns, 9 seasons), this is a welcome sight.

We’ll get started in the NFL’s most competitive division, which is pretty much the same every year.  But this year, things are going to change.

NFC East

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
  2. Washington Redskins (9-7)
  3. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
  4. New York Giants (9-7)

If you only look at the records and not the positioning of the teams, this probably isn’t too different than you are expecting the NFC East to fall.  The big deal is going to be inter-divisional play.  Last year, you probably heard a whole bunch that the Redskins beat the Giants both times the teams played last season.  That specific event is unlikely to happen again, but if you account for the Redskins sweeping someone in this division, you’re looking at the division being really tightly packed at the end.  In reality, the Redskins will come likely one road win (Cleveland, Week 15) and one home win (Atlanta, Week 6) short of winning the NFC East and making the postseason.  Last year, after all the Eagles won the most divisional games after managing to be 5-1 against the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins last year.

The Cowboys might actually be the most talented team in the division, but they were swept by both the Giants and the Eagles last year, and with the Redskins on the rise, they’ll have to change that to manage anything this year.

The Eagles are going to have all sorts of problems with their offense, but with the exception of a similar year to 2011 on defense, that’s the unit that will keep them in games and allow them to beat up on teams in the 4th quarter.

NFC North

  1. Chicago Bears (11-5)
  2. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
  3. Detroit Lions (7-9)
  4. Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

It’s easy to pick the Packers to win the division: they are, in fact, one of the best teams in football.  But they had all sorts of long term problems last season.  Of their three best interior defensive players heading into last season, none enter this season without questions. B.J. Raji must rebound after a very mediocre year in the middle of the Green Bay defense.  Desmond Bishop is likely to miss the entire year after being hurt in week one.  And the injured Nick Collins was released by the team, signaling perhaps a premature end to his career.  Now the Packers are incredibly weak up the middle.

And for as good as the Packer wideouts have been lately, teams had no problem going up and shutting them down at the end of last year, forcing Aaron Rodgers to make impulse decisions with the football.  There’s only a handful of teams who have a guy who can cover Greg Jennings and another that can cover Jordy Nelson, but those who can cover both are forcing Aaron Rodgers to work to players he doesn’t necessarily have.  The Bears might actually be stronger in the passing game, independent of the quarterbacks.  And while the Bears (and Lions) have their own unique issues on defense, they’re both stronger than the Packers can hope to be there.

On top of it all, the Vikings are not going to be the disaster people expect.  They are going to lack in explosive offensive plays for much of the season, but this is a team that can move the chains and prevent the other team from doing so.  Only in the NFC North this year are the Vikings likely to have a losing record, but they’re capable of knocking off the Packers, Lions, and Bears every time they play.  All of these factors are going to prevent the Packers from running away with the NFC North, and given a fair shot, I think the Bears can win it.

NFC South

  1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
  2. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
  3. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

Josh Freeman is going to have it a bit difficult this year as the rest of the division pulls away from his underwhelming Bucs team.  The Saints are probably the team to beat still, as Drew Brees should push the Saints in the direction of another 10 win season, but the defense is the main issue.  Brees can pretty much emulate Sean Payton’s results on the offensive side of the ball, and should easily toss around another 4,500 yard season with some offensive balance from the rushing attack.  But when push comes to shove, it’s the Falcons defense and special teams that should take the big step forward in 2012.  Too long, those units have been lacking in Atlanta and its those units that must come through in order for the Falcons to take the next step.

The Carolina Panthers, however, are going to get scary close to the playoffs this season, pulling away from Freeman’s Bucs by sweeping them for the second straight year.  The Bucs should handle their business outside of the NFC South, but inside it, it’s going to be a long year.  At the end, Brees may come up just a game short of a second straight NFC South title, as Ryan and the Falcons are the only double digit win team out of this division.

NFC West

  1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)
  3. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
  4. St. Louis Rams (3-13)

With a clean sweep within the division, the 49ers roll to their second straight division title.  It’s not going to go well outside the divison, however, as the 49ers are lacking in a number of key categories primed for regression.  They’ll need some division wins in December to lock the NFC West up this time.

AFC East

  1. New England Patriots (10-6)
  2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
  3. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
  4. New York Jets (6-10)

The Patriots get it done again, barely.  And it’s Ryan Tannehill (!), not Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III who is the first member of the 2012 draft class to 10 wins.  The Buffalo Bills should win a game for every one they lose.  And the Jets should get off to a half-decent start with a strong defense and special teams, but their offensive woes will finally catch up to them in December, when Tebow time is unable to save the Jets.

AFC North

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
  2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
  3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
  4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Of all the NFC North teams, only the Baltimore Ravens will fail to maintain their gains from a year before.  Joe Flacco is going to prove he belongs this year, and earn his extension, but without Terrell Suggs and with an aging Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, plus some inconsistent draft results, the Ravens defense is unable to pick up its end of the bargain.  The Cincinnati defense ends up giving Andy Dalton and A.J. Green a lot more to work with, and the results are better within the division, but critical conference losses to Oakland, Kansas City, Miami, and Jacksonville, along with the losses to Pittsburgh (twice) keep them from taking the step forward.  Cleveland is doomed by a lacking passing offense and a desire to protect Trent Richardson’s legs long-term.  Pittsburgh ends up cruising in an overrated division.

AFC South

  1. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
  3. Houston Texans (7-9)
  4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

The Titans aren’t a bad team, but between Kenny Britt’s inability to stay on the field, and the inconsistencies of Chris Johnson and Jake Locker, there is a lot of potential in this offense that is bound to stay untapped, which is going to expose the defense over time.  Its going to be impossible for them to get back to the height of the Jeff Fisher era on defense.  Meanwhile, the Andrew Luck Colts will combine a strong, consistent offense with a periodically leaky secondary.  The Texans have never won more than 10 games in franchise history, and lacking depth this year are likely to trend back in the other direction.  And the Jaguars should maintain their gains on defense, allowing them to be in the playoff race to the very last week.

AFC West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
  2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)
  3. Denver Broncos (8-8)
  4. San Diego Chargers (6-10)

The Chargers have bottomed out in terms of talent, and while Philip Rivers’ inexplicable issues with the interception last year should be mended, he’s very much alone as the one pro-bowl level talent on the Chargers with Vincent Jackson departed and Antonio Gates aging.  The Raiders and Chiefs will conspire to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos out of the playoffs.

NFC Playoffs

6. Washington Redskins (9-7) at 3. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
5. Green Bay Packers (11-5) at 4. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

3. Atlanta Falcons (11-6) at 2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
5. Green Bay Packers (12-5) at 1. Chicago Bears (11-5)

3. Atlanta Falcons (12-6) at 1. Chicago Bears (12-5)

AFC Playoffs

6. Oakland Raiders (10-6) at 3. New England Patriots (10-6)
5. Miami Dolphins (10-6) at 4. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

4. Indianapolis Colts (10-7) at 1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
3. New England Patriots (11-6) at 2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6) at 1. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)

Super Bowl XLVII

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) vs 1. Chicago Bears (13-5)

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