NFL Season Preview

Editor’s Note: As I said in yesterday’s column, predicting just a single season for a single team presents a seriously thin margin for error. So now just multiply that by 32 and add in all of my award and playoff predictions and that’s what you’re getting today. If even half of these turn out to be “sort of” correct, I will consider today’s deal a success.

Well the football year officially begins in just one day, and I think all of the the lockout business during the summer only hyped it up even more. And as is always the case with the NFL, there is no shortage of storylines. When will Peyton Manning return to the field and return to form? Will Philadelphia be able to live up to the high expectations this year? Can Green Bay defend their championship? How will all of the coaches on the hot seat respond this year? And I would be remiss to not include Cam Newton’s name as well.

Concerning gameplay, I think the most important thing for teams looking to win is continuity from the previous season. That is always important no matter the situation, but this year more than others for the simple fact that there were basically no football activities, practices, etc. for the entire summer. Teams that had low personnel turnover, like Green Bay and Pittsburgh, or the ones that got together for an unusually high amount of player organized workouts, like New Orleans, will benefit the most. Thats not to say it is the end-all-be-all for teams who think they can win now, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

As far as the win-loss predictions go, I went through every team’s schedule, and went with a pretty quick call on every single game that was played. And to ensure accuracy with records, I didn’t forget to carry games over. To explain, when going through Chicago’s slate of games for example, I put them as Week 9 losers at Philadelphia. When I was finished there, I made sure to go to Philadelphia’s schedule and put them as Week 9 winners against Chicago and so on and so forth for every team. So, without further ado, here are my regular season/playoff/awards thoughts on the 2011-2012 football season.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys 11-5 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 3 Seed)

Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 (2-4) (Wildcard, No. 6 Seed)

New York Football Giants 8-8 (3-3)

Washington Redskins 5-11 (3-3)

Analysis: I am going all in on the Cowboys this year (as you will see below in the awards section and my playoff predictions) and I don’t think they will disappoint. Jason Garrett is going to prove himself as one of the top play callers in the game, Felix Jones will establish himself as a feature back, and Tony Romo will re-ascend into the top tier level of quarterbacks in the game. The only questions are how fast will the defense be able to adjust to Rob Ryan’s new scheme and how capable this very young and inexperienced offensive line will prove itself to be. The Cowboys could start off a little sluggish given these issues, but I think they will peak at the right time…The Eagles made headlines almost every day after the lockout was lifted, it seemed, with the players they acquired. This team certainly has a lot of talent, but the offensive line is a huge question mark (not to mention, what the hell is/was wrong with Jeremy Maclin?). Pair a possibly shaky line with Michael Vick’s probability of injury, and that is not a recipe for championship level success. The Eagles have a lot of the tools and the talent, and they are getting closer, but this is not their year…The New York Giants could easily win 10 games this year. But with a lot of new faces on the offensive line and an unlucky hoard of season ending injuries to a talented secondary, the Giants just won’t quite have the chops to compete with the big boys this season. The front office should be commended though, on how they have replenished their corps of receivers in the post-Plaxico era. Manningham and Nicks are studs…And Washington is just bad, plain and simple. Rex Grossman is their quarterback. Need I say more?

NFC North

Green Bay Packers 13-3 (6-0) (Division Champion, No.2 Seed)

Detroit Lions 8-8 (2-4)*

Chicago Bears 8-8 (2-4)*

Minnesota Vikings 7-9 (2-4)

*For the tiebreak, the first four steps (head to head, divisional record, win percentage in common games, win percentage in conference games) were unable to determine a winner. The next step was strength of victory, where the Lions edged out the Bears to win 2nd place in the division.

Analysis: Green Bay will run away with what should be a pretty competitive division in spots 2-4. Not to mention they will be even better thanks to getting Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back after early, season ending injuries from the season before. Not much more needs to be said about the cheeseheads…Detroit is making improvements every season, but their future depends on how healthy Matt Stafford can stay. If he can, I think he’s capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl at some point in his career. I really believe it. This kid has all of the tools and the intangibles…With Julius Peppers, Chicago’s defense became one of the elite units in the game last season. On the other hand, I really don’t like their offensive line or receivers or Mike Martz in general. They just haven’t put the right guys around Jay Cutler, and it will show this year…Minnesota has some really good players, but Donovan McNabb is surely on the downside of his career. Maybe he proves that last season’s fiasco in Washington was only an apparition, but I’m not betting on it. Where he goes this season, so goes Minny.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints 13-3 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 1 Seed by virtue of Week 1 victory over Green Bay)

Atlanta Falcons 11-5 (5-1) (Wildcard, No. 5 Seed)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7 (3-3)

Carolina Panthers 2-14 (0-6)

Analysis: After last season’s embarrassment to Seattle in the divisional round, I think the Saints, and especially Drew Brees, will come out this season firing on all cylinders (or as Bill Simmons termed it, “Efff you” mode). They will remind all of the people who seemed to forget them that this is one of the truly elite teams in the league. Brees will take this “Efff you” mentality to a whole new level as he plays his way into an MVP award (I think in the same way Tom Brady Efff you’d his way to the honor last year). After that loss to Seattle, and all of the uncharacteristic picks he threw during the season, Brees will want to win badly this year. And we already got a glimpse of that with the passion he exhibited in organzing all of his team’s workouts during the lockout…Atlanta’s record may look worse compared to last year’s, but I think it’ll be more a result from New Orleans’ elevation of play rather than a dropoff in their own. The Falcons are still a no-doubter as one of the best teams in the NFC, you just can’t win 13 games every year. That’s not the way the NFL works…The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the most promising up-and-comers the league has to offer. Josh Freeman made unexpectedly huge strides in his development and added himself to an incredibly promising crop of young quarterbacks to take the mantle after the Manning’s/Brady’s/Brees’s of the world are gone. Unfortunately Raheem Morris and the Buc’s are caught in a division with two powerhouses. They will be competitive this year, but will not be able to find a way into the playoffs until the Saints drop off…Cam Newton will be starting this season at quarterback for Carolina. Thats all you really need to know. I’m putting the over/under for his completion percentage on the season at 45.

NFC West

St. Louis Rams 9-7 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 4 Seed)

Arizona Cardinals 7-9 (4-2)

Seattle Seahawks 6-10 (3-3)

San Francisco 49ers 4-12 (1-5)

Analysis: A true abomination of a division. St. Louis will be the team to take advantage of its situation and secure a playoff spot by finishing with a winning record. Sam Bradford is a future superstar and the defense is making strides. The front office needs to prioritize the continued building of the offensive line and receiving corps though…Arizona’s season hinges completely on Kevin Kolb. I think he will be decent enough this year (better down the road) but it won’t be enough to top St. Louis for the division crown. At the same time though, this is a team that could sneak up on some people, especially if Kolb can exceed expectations and Chris (I refuse to call him Beanie) Wells can stay healthy…Seattle’s is coached by Pete Carroll and is quarterbacked by Tarvaris Jackson. That combination has no chance at making the playoffs, which is a shame because their is some intriguing talent at other spots on that roster…College coaches being successful in the NFL is, by general rule of thumb, something that just doesn’t happen. I’ve never believed in it before, but Jim Harbaugh made me think twice. He’s got a shot to become one of the best coaches in the NFL. Unfortunately, it just won’t be this year. Michael Crabtree has been disappointing as a teammate, and Alex Smith is not capable of leading a team to the playoffs. Down the road, this could be a team to watch though. Pat Willis is an absolute monster at linebacker.

NFC Playoffs

Wildcard Round

(5) Falcons def. (4) Rams

(3) Cowboys def. Eagles (6)

Divisional Round

(1) Saints def. (5) Falcons

(3) Cowboys def. (2) Packers

Conference Championship

(3) Cowboys def. (1) Saints

As I said before, I am all in on this Cowboys team. Many people have believed they could break through in the playoffs before and they’ve faltered, but I really like the talent and personnel this team has, and I believe in Tony Romo and Jason Garrett. This could easily blow up in my face, but for now, I’ll see you in Indy Cowboys.

AFC East

New England Patriots 14-2 (5-1) (Division Champion, No. 1 Seed by virture of Week 8 victory over Pittsburgh)

New York Jets 11-5 (5-1) (Wildcard, No. 5 Seed by virture of Week 4 victory over Baltimore)

Buffalo Bills 5-11 (1-5)*

Miami Dolphins 5-11 (1-5)*

*Tiebreak also settled on strength of victory this time around. The fact that the two tiebreaks had to go through so many steps was probably one of the resulting flaws of the way I organized these standings.

Analysis: I think the Patriots are not nearly ready yet to be dethroned from their seat atop the AFC East. This team is just too good and too prepared every week to not win this thing…New York is coming on fast, but until Mark Sanchez can establish himself as a top ten quarterback or Tom Brady gets seriously hurt, this division is all about New England. Despite the circus atmostphere Rex Ryan brought to New York, what he has done to that team with very average quarterback play has been a lot of fun to watch…Chan Gailey does not deserve to be a head coach in the NFL, but one nice thing I can say about him is that he is unusually good at getting points out of mediocre offenses (just look at what he did with Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City). This team has some solid pieces in place, and I think they’ve actually made strides the past year or so, but they still have a long way to go and play in a division with New England and New York. Marcell Dareus is an all-pro waiting to happen though…Miami has a chance to be a train wreck this season. I don’t like any of their running backs, or that offense in general. I haven’t completely lost faith in Chad Henne, but I’m pretty close. I just feel bad for Tony Sparano and the lack of class he was treated with concerning his job status this previous offseason. I think this guy can coach, just not in Miami. He’ll be gone after the season. Probably a good thing though, because this is not a very well run team.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 13-3 (6-0) (Division Champion, No. 2 Seed)

Baltimore Ravens 11-5 (4-2) (Wildcard, No. 6 Seed)

Cleveland Browns 5-11 (1-5)

Cincinnati Bengals 3-13 (1-5)

Analysis: Similar division make up as the AFC East. Two REALLY good teams, one mediocre team, and a really bad one. The only difference between the Ravens and Steelers this year in the standings will come from their head to head matchups where I have the Pittsburgh sweeping the season series.* Baltimore might have Ray Lewis, but Pittsburgh has the best/most balanced collection of linebackers I have seen in my lifetime (not an exaggeration). You can put Timmons, Farrior, Harrison, and Woodley all as starters on the all-pro team this year and I don’t think you would hear complaints from anyone. Pittsburgh will be one of the favorites to win the AFC championship this year and with that coaching staff and defense (not to mention a VERY underrated offense), its not difficult to see why…Baltimore is a team I’ve always pulled for, but you have to wonder if Joe Flacco can become the man at quarterback the team so desperately needs to win one last Super Bowl for Ray Lewis. You do have to give him credit for all of the road playoff victories he’s pulled off, but Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl always seems to be going through Pittsburgh. And until they can find a way to beat that team when it really matters, they will never play for the big prize…I like what Cleveland has been doing the last few years as far as completely rebuilding this team can go. These things just take some time, but it appears they may have found a guy in Colt McCoy… Marvin Lewis says that the Bengals will be even better than they were last year. But I’m not sure how that is possible when they are having to replace Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco (even if they are both over the hill) with two rookies. Not to mention they lost their shutdown corner in Jonathan Joseph to Houston. This team will be tough to watch.

*In my opinion, these games have become easily the most fun to watch every year. I love an Indianapolis v. New England game as much as anyone, but now that the Colts are trending downward, Baltimore v. Pittsburgh has become easily the most competitive, brutal game you can possibly find. There is something about seeing guys like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger beat on each other for 3.5 hours that you can’t find anywhere else. The teams have a pretty mutual dislike for one another, and there are hard hits, big plays, and close outcomes every time. Unfortunately, people who like to see 60 points a game should probably stay away. This is old school football at its absolute finest.

Mike Tomlin is just all sorts of awesome

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts 10-6 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 4 Seed)*

*Gonna hedge again here, but this pick is obviously completely contingent on Peyton Manning playing at the very least 13 or 14 games. Anything less than that and my pick would be Houston to take the division at 9-7 or 10-6.

Houston Texans 9-7 (3-3)

Tennessee Titans 7-9 (2-4)

Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11 (3-3)

Analysis: I am rooting hard for the Texans to finally pull the rug out from under the Colts this season but I just don’t see it happening. I loved the Wade Phillips hire as defensive coordinator, and getting Jonathan Joseph (along with the improvement of 2010 first round pick Kareem Jackson) can really shore up that secondary. But switching from a 4-3 to a base 3-4 defense doesn’t work overnight. Its a process, especially if the guys you’re working with have played in a 4-3 their whole lives (Mario Williams could have a tough time shifting to outside linebacker). Houston is lucky they get Indy week one with Peyton on the sidelines. But the game I am really watching for is Week 16 when the Texans have to play at the Colts. The division, and a playoff spot, could be riding on it. Houston is agonizingly close to putting it together, but until I see a Peyton Manning led team not win a division championship, I am putting my money on him every year. Bank on Gary Kubiak (as well as Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio) losing his job after the season…I like what Tennessee did in getting Matt Hasselbeck, and they may have found a stud in tight end Jared Cook, but I think this team just lacks the overall talent to compete on a weekly basis. Look for them to give a few contenders a run for their money though…Jacksonville’s starter this season is Luke McCown which means game over. Its as easy as that. Although, I think their defense could be sneaky good this year and keep them in a few games. 

AFC West

San Diego Chargers 11-5 (4-2) (Division Champion, No. 3 Seed)

Kansas City Chiefs 8-8 (5-1)

Denver Broncos 5-11 (2-4)

Oakland Raiders 3-13 (1-5)

Analysis: Having the Chargers winning the AFC West was not a difficult call. Despite the Raiders and Broncos are quietly and slowly getting better (despite the five game regression in Oakland I have this year), and the Chiefs developing into a down-the-road contender, this will still be San Diego’s division for the season, and probably the one after it as well. Philip Rivers is one of the best in the business at quarterback, and I think Norv Turner is a little underrated. Chargers take the the division easily…You’ve already heard me talk about Kansas City enough so I’ll stay away from that one…Losing Asomugha obviously hurts Oakland a lot. And the exit of Zach Miller along with Robert Gallery to Seattle doesn’t help things either. Even with all of that, there is some talent that the Raiders can build on. I’m just not sure if I can see this team being competitive until Al Davis cedes control over major personnel decisions (he really does struggle)…After the Josh McDaniels debacle of the last two seasons, I don’t think Denver could have made a better hire than John Fox, one of my favorite coaches in the league. I actually trust John Elway (never thought I would say that in my lifetime) to make some good decisions and he already got off to a good start with their newest draftee, Von Miller (who has been garnering comparisons to Derrick Thomas). Denver doesn’t have a franchise quarterback (sorry Tebow fans but that’s the reality), and they are still 4-5 years away, but things are actually looking up. 4-5 years is kind of a long time though.

AFC Playoffs

Wildcard Round

(6) Ravens def. (3) Chargers

(4) Colts def. (5) Jets

Same matchup as last year (again contingent on a healthy Manning). I know you’re saying, “Well, didn’t New York come in there and win last year? And haven’t the Colts gotten worse and the Jets better since then?” You are right on all accounts. I just don’t see Manning losing again in the manner he did last year. He’s too good and too smart for that. I’m pretty sure at least.

Divisional Round

(2) Steelers def. (6) Ravens

(1) Patriots smoke (4) Colts

For the 3rd time this season, the Ravens cannot overcome Mike Tomlin’s Steel Curtain 2.0. And the Patriots, after last season’s home playoff embarrassment, go into a postseason “Efff you” mode. They are PISSED.

Conference Championship

(1) Patriots smoke (2) Steelers

For some reason, Tom Brady is the only guy in the league who has been able to legitimately figure out that “Stiller” defense over the last few years. It’ll show again here as the Patriots march to another Super Bowl appearance.

Awards

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Ingram (RB) New Orleans Saints

Defensive Rookie of the Year: 1a. Von Miller (LB) Denver Broncos

1b. Marcell Dareus (DL) Buffalo Bills

Comeback Player of the Year: Tony Romo (QB) Dallas Cowboys*

*He may not even be eligible, but what the hell.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ray Rice (RB) Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware (LB) Dallas Cowboys

Coach of the Year: Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

MVP: Drew Brees (QB) New Orleans Saints

SUPER BOWL

(1) New England Patriots def. (3) Dallas Cowboys

Its hard to believe that when the big game rolls around next February, it will have been 8 years since the Patriots have last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. That is a shockingly long time for me and I think it stops this season. It’s just been too long for this team and they have suffered too many playoff losses in past years (seriously, how have they not won a Super bowl since 2004?!). Belichick and Brady light a collective fire under the team’s ass, they roll through the regular season, the playoffs, and outclass a feel good story in Dallas for an NFL championship. Brady wins his fourth ring and ends the Manning/Brady discussion for good. (Sorry for the jinx Pats fans…and the word count).

Now who’s ready for some football?

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