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Try, try again: 2012 NFL season predictions

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It's time once again for a feeble attempt at predicting the 2012 NFL season. My less-than-stellar track record with sports prognostication has become a bit of a running joke in these parts, but I refuse to be beaten. I am knowledgeable enough about the NFL that one of these years, I'm bound to nail it.

Will it be this year? Probably not.

Come then! Poor pigskin prognostication awaits!

*Denotes playoff pick

AFC East
  • New England Patriots*
  • New York Jets
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Miami Dolphins

One of the safest predictions anyone could make regarding the 2012 NFL season is this: The New England Patriots will win the AFC East. They were conference champions last year and return almost all of the important parts of last year's unstoppable offense; QB Tom Brady, receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez represent an embarrassment of riches. How long it takes to clinch will largely come down to defense particularly newcomers Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower. After that, it's essentially a coin flip for second and third places. The Jets seem to be in disarray, with limited talent at the skill positions and a controversy waiting to happen with erstwhile QB Tim Tebow. Still, they've got attitude and an opportunistic defense in their favor. Coach Rex Ryan will have them playing hard if nothing else. Buffalo really looks to be a team on the rise, but they're likely a year away. They're a far cry from the abysmal Bills teams of recent years, however. They've got real talent and won't be any fun to play; free agent acquisition Mario Williams in particular should scare division foes. If QB Ryan Fitzpatrick can justify his big contract, the Bills will make some noise. And then there's Miami. They've got a new coach, a running game with a lot of questions and a rookie quarterback with no one to throw to. They've got an above-average defense, but you still need to score points to win. They are securely in the basement; Dolphins fans should anticipate a long season.

AFC North
  • Cincinnati Bengals*
  • Baltimore Ravens*
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Cleveland Browns

This is a tough one. The Bengals have had two straight years of outstanding drafts after a decade-plus of poor choices. Quarterback Andy Dalton, wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham are all a year older and a year wiser; expect a corresponding jump in performance. Add to that a surprisingly aggressive defense and the surprise playoff team of 2011 won't be surprising anyone this time around. Baltimore is reliant as always on the strength of their defense. Is this the year that stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed finally show their age? Pass rusher extraordinaire Terrell Suggs is already most likely gone for the year. Can QB Joe Flacco step up and give workhorse back Ray Rice some offensive help and take the load off the defense? Perhaps. It seems odd putting the Steelers so low in the rankings, but this team just doesn't wow you. Pittsburgh still has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but with feature back Rashard Mendenhall out for a significant portion of the season, the team will be relying on the QB to carry them. Luckily, holdout wide receiver Mike Wallace finally seems ready to join the team. Even so, this is the most 'meh' Steelers squad in a long time. Last and least, we have the Cleveland Browns. Rookies like running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden are nice and all the offense will at least be interesting to watch but the simple truth is that the Browns don't look like they can stop anybody. For the Browns, the rebuilding continues.

AFC South
  • Houston Texans*
  • Tennessee Titans
  • Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Indianapolis Colts

If the Texans stay healthy, they should win their division comfortably. They've got some outstanding talent on the offensive side; running back Arian Foster is one of the best in the game right now, as is receiver Andre Johnson. QB Matt Schaub is no slouch either. Their defense bordered on dominating last season, and while they lost linchpin lineman Mario Williams, they still have a solid group. The Tennessee Titans are a bit of an enigma. If the pieces fall into place young QB Jake Locker steps it up, RB Chris Johnson bounces back from a sub-par year, WR Kenny Britt stops getting hurt and driving drunk they could have a very good year. Their defense isn't anything special, so it's on the offense to get the Titans some wins. Jacksonville has one of the league's most electrifying players in running back Maurice Jones-Drew assuming he ends his contract holdout in time for the regular season. After the unfortunate season put up by Titans RB Johnson following a similar holdout last year, Jones-Drew might not be the dynamic force of years past. The Jaguars don't have much else on the offensive side. If the defense can get after the passer and force turnovers like they did last year, they'll win a few games. More than the Colts, anyway; Indy fell off the cliff last season after a dominant decade-plus. Rookie QB Andrew Luck is going to be a good one, but right now, the team's got a decent pass rush and that's about it. They'll surpass 2011's total of two wins, but not by much.

AFC West
  • Kansas City Chiefs*
  • Denver Broncos*
  • San Diego Chargers
  • Oakland Raiders

This division saw three 8-8 teams and one 7-9 squad last year. It'll be a wider spread this year, though not by much. The Chiefs might be the team to beat in this division. The injuries of last season are a thing of the past; safety Eric Berry, back Jamaal Charles and QB Matt Cassel are all back and at full strength, plus star wide receiver Dwayne Bowe ended his holdout. If the defense figures out how to shut down the run, there'll be a division crown in KC's future. The story with the Broncos is the return of Peyton Manning. Can the ex-Colts quarterback still play at an elite level after his devastating neck injury and one-year absence from the league? If anyone can do it, it's Manning. They've got an excellent pass rush with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. If the offensive line can open a few holes for running backs and keep Manning upright, they'll win some games. San Diego is the very picture of a team on the way down. QB Philip Rivers hasn't got much in the way of receiving help; this less-potent offense isn't enough to carry the below-average defense anymore. The Raiders are a team in transition, with a new head coach and new general manager. There's not a lot of standout talent on either side of the ball, with running back Darren McFadden the only real star (so long as he's healthy). Quarterback Carson Palmer is a few years removed from his last excellent season; his time may have passed. If the defense makes an improvement and the offense stays healthy, they'll win a few games but just a few.

NFC East
  • New York Giants*
  • Philadelphia Eagles*
  • Dallas Cowboys
  • Washington Redskins

It's tough to pick against the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Giants aren't a particularly flashy team, but you can't argue with the results. We've reached the point where we have to consider Eli Manning one of the league's elite quarterbacks, and with guys like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to throw to, we can expect another good year from the younger Manning. Guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora anchor the defensive line. The Eagles have a good team with some real question marks. First and foremost: quarterback Michael Vick's health. When he's on the field, he's an unmatched offensive force. Unfortunately, he's fragile. However, running back LeSean McCoy is a top-tier talent his rushing will take some of the heat off Vick. If the defense can produce at the same level as its potential and Vick plays all 16 games, they could well leapfrog New York. The Cowboys are in a bit of a funk, unable to produce the winning football that owner Jerry Jones demands. Tony Romo is still one of the better QBs in the league. If WR Dez Bryant can get his act together and TE Jason Witten can keep producing, the offense will be fine. DeMarcus Ware will get to the quarterback and anchor the defense. They'll be good just not playoffs-good. Washington won't even have that; the Redskins are in full-blown rebuilding mode. Rookie QB Robert Griffin III will be exciting to watch and will help the team to a few victories, but the DC talent cupboard is pretty bare. They'll eke out a few, but this is very much a fourth-place team.

NFC North
  • Green Bay Packers*
  • Detroit Lions*
  • Chicago Bears
  • Minnesota Vikings

Another easy pick. The Green Bay Packers are flat-out stacked. They have a top-three quarterback in Aaron Rodgers; he put up massive numbers last year and there's no reason to think that that is going to change. They don't have much of a running game to speak of, but who cares when your QB is throwing for 300 yards and four scores? Add to that a physically dominating defense led by Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and you've got a Super Bowl contender. Detroit has a long losing history, but they've got the horses to change that. QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson represent one of the most potentially productive connections in the NFL. Even without an elite runner, they'll move the chains. The young defense is talented is due for improvement as well. The Lions are going to the playoffs. The Bears, however, are not. They won't be bad their defense is led by solid pros like Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher; they'll keep Chicago in games. However, other than back Matt Forte (who's a real injury risk), there's not a lot of elite talent on the offensive side. They'll likely struggle to put up points and lose a number of fairly close games. Minnesota is due for a tough time this season. All-world running back Adrian Peterson is hobbled by injury and the Vikings don't have much else beyond mercurial receiver Percy Harvin. Their QB is inexperienced and their defense is below-average; don't expect much noise from the Metrodome this season.

NFC South
  • New Orleans Saints*
  • Atlanta Falcons
  • Carolina Panthers
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It feels a bit like going out on a limb, what with the Saints dealing with the aftermath of the bounty scandal (including the suspension of their head coach), but the truth is that this New Orleans team is good enough to overcome. Quarterback Drew Brees set the single-season mark for passing yardage last year; look for more gunslinging this season. He's also got some talented runners in Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. The defense put up decent numbers, but it was hit harder by Bountygate. If they can stop people even a little, the Saints will win in double-digits. The Falcons are ready to pounce, though, with offensive talents such as receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, running back Michael Turner and QB Matt Ryan. Their defense lacks star power, but is stout nonetheless. If the Saints stumble, Atlanta will be right there. Carolina is tough to predict; QB Cam Newton was dominant in his rookie year, but we can expect some regression. Still, even with regression, Newton is a force to be reckoned with. Wideout Steve Smith and backs Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert are all very good players. Their defense is suspect, however. They'll be lucky to settle in at or around .500. Tampa Bay isn't likely to be very good. They don't have any real star playmakers, although they have high hopes for rookie running back Doug Martin; their talent on both the offensive and defensive sides is mediocre across the board. The Buccaneers will be lucky to put up five wins in 2012.

NFC West
  • San Francisco 49ers*
  • St. Louis Rams
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • Arizona Cardinals

You almost wonder why you should even bother when it comes to predicting the NFC West. It's even more of a crapshoot than the rest of this stuff. San Francisco gets the nod as division winner. They've got an excellent workhorse back in Frank Gore, a couple of decent wideouts on the rise and a quarterback in Alex Smith who looks like he might finally have figured it out. There's no way their defensive unit can be as dominant as it was last season, but if they're even in the ballpark, the 49ers win the division going away. If St. Louis can keep injury-prone QB Sam Bradford on the field and get another solid season out of RB Stephen Jackson, they've got a good chance to win half their games. They need the receivers to develop and the defense to step it up; if that happens, the Rams will be competitive. The Seahawks could surprise everyone even me if a couple of things fall just right. If rookie QB Russell Wilson is as good as advertised and running back Marshawn Lynch can follow up his solid 2011, the offense will be there. The defense has underachieved; if they step up, the Seahawks will be absolutely no fun to play. And finally, the poor Arizona Cardinals. Was it just 2009 when this team played in the Super Bowl? Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best at his position, but other than that, you're looking at average or below-average talent. The dry spell in the desert shall continue.

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