28 August 2012

2012 NFL Predictions

The Super Bowl has been won by three straight teams from the National Football Conference, with the New York Giants taking the crown most recently in a thriller against the New England Patriots, four years after doing the very same. Can the Giants repeat? Could this be the first time since 2008 that the championship is won by an AFC club? How will Peyton Manning do in Denver? How will New Orleans do in the wake of "bountygate"? Here is the one and only B-FLO 360 NFL predictions.

*Wild Card
1. New England Patriots
When you talk New England football, everybody conversation starts and ends with Tom Brady and we all know why. And he must be giddy when Josh McDaniels returned as playcaller who then brought in Brandon Lloyd, who was brilliant the last time he played for McDaniels in Denver. Lloyd will team up with Wes Welker and the two talented tight ends, the awesome Rob Gronkowski and the very skilled Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots really like Stevan Ridley at running back and he showed flashes but he also regressed in the postseason and was benched in the Super Bowl. The line is pretty good but there are a lot of questions at left tackle, with Nate Solder, who was hot and cold as a rookie, replacing the retired Matt Light.
The defense really struggled last season and a lot of upgrades were needed. The Patriots were aggressive in the draft, trading up for both talented pass rusher Chandler Jones as well as physical linebacker Don'a Hightower. Vince Wilfork is still one of the elite nose tackles but the Patriots will need Jones and former Raider Trevor Scott to contribute right away to replace the productive Andre Carter-Mark Anderson pairing. Hightower should make for a good linebacking corps with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Corner Kyle Arrington was either picking off passes or giving up touchdowns so the hope that he provides more of the former. Devin McCourty should improve as he is healthy this year.
Record: 12-4

2. Buffalo Bills*
The Bills are a hot team for folks to project making the playoffs and count me in for drinking the Flavor Aid. Buffalo was on a hot start last season until everyone got injured, most notably top back Fred Jackson, who was having a great season last year before fracturing his right fibula. C.J. Spiller is, in my opinion, going to really breakout this season and emerge as a really explosive weapon. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a solid quarterback, not a great one by any means, but give him a good surrounding cast and he will do well. He will need Steve Johnson to stay healthy for the full season and Johnson can be even better if he could actually catch the ball and stop doing stupid touchdown celebrations. Barring a surprising breakout, he is the only real weapon at wideout as David Nelson and Donald Jones are nothing special. Buffalo will be relying on rookie Cordy Glenn to protect Fitzpatrick's blindside as the replacement for Demetress Bell and possibly fifth-rounder Zebrie Sanders on the other flank but their line interior is really good. I particularly love Eric Wood at center.
The big headlines were generated by the huge money spent on defensive end Mario Williams and he will team with fellow pickup Mark Anderson and make a really good end pairing, providing both pan out. The line will be completed by a very solid tackle tandem of Marcell Dareus, who was very good as a rookie, and the underrated Kyle Williams. The Bills will need an improved pass rush to help upgrade an anemic pass defense, as well as first rounder Stephon Gilmore contributing right away and Terrence McGee to come back from injury. Fortunately, Jairus Byrd is a stud ballhawker. The Bills' triumvirate at linebacker is pretty solid.
Record: 9-7

3. New York Jets
The Jets offense has been a mess in the preseason and quite frankly I am not expecting much better this season. Mark Sanchez really needs to step up this season and a very inconsistent 2011 in which he made too many mental errors and with that guy backing him up, he could be looking over his shoulder when he screws up. There is going to be a lot of focus on the rushing game as the Jets' receiving unit is not great, with a lot of pressure on rookie wideout Stephen Hill, and Shonn Greene will have to have a better year as he did not show much burst a season ago. Tim Tebow will help their short rushing game, which was lacking a year ago. The offensive line is one of the best in the league, with that notable gap at right tackle as Wayne Hunter was finally benched and somebody named Austin Howard replacing him, who has been all right in the preseason. The Jets also look to be making a move for Rams' tackle Jason Smith.
The Jets could potentially have a very good defensive line but both Muhammed Wilkerson and rookie Quinton Coples need to ramp up the pass rush around the stout Sione Pouha on the nose because there is not a whole lot to love at rush linebacker, where they really need Aaron Maybin to be a solid pass rusher all season long. The inside linebacking pair of Bart Scott, who is getting old but is a great run stuffer, and David Harris is really good. The stars of this unit are the corners with Darrelle Revis, who is the best defensive player in the league, and Antonio Cromartie, who did give up too many touchdowns but quarterbacks only completed 46% of passes against him. The safeties will struggle against the pass all season long.
Record: 7-9

4. Miami Dolphins
The future is coming early for the Dolphins this season as it appears that first rounder Ryan Tannehill will be the starter, which is a mistake. He is too raw to start from the get-go and his supporting cast is pretty terrible. It would make much more sense having Matt Moore start but it's not my decision. When your best receiver is probably Davone Bess, that is not a good sign. They'll need rookie tight end Michael Egnew to step up right away. Reggie Bush was really good last season and rushed for over 1,000 yards but can he do it again? Look for Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller to get a fair amount of the rushing load. The offensive line is pretty good and upgraded a lot at right tackle with rookie Jonathan Martin, at least on paper.
The defense will have to carry the 'Phins this season as they are much stronger than the offense, even as they convert to a 4-3. They have a couple of good tackles in Randy Starks and Paul Soliai but they need Jared Odrick to step up rushing the passer opposite the great Cameron Wake. Miami just traded their best corner, Vontae Davis, to Indianapolis but they have Richard Marshall, who signed from Carolina, to replace him. Sean Smith has to step up this season. The linebacking unit is very good, led by Karlos Dansby.
Record: 4-12

1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger was not happy at first with the hiring of Todd Haley as offensive coordinator but Haley has had great success of a playcaller and Big Ben is a good fit thanks to his big arm and the tremendous wideout tandem of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. The keys for the offense will be how well the team can run the ball with Rashard Mendenhall out thanks to his torn ACL, they have high hopes for Issac Redman, and whether the offensive line has improved. Notoriously mediocre, high picks were spent on David DeCastro, who unfortunately suffered a "potentially severe" injury to his right knee in Mike Tomlin's words, and Mike Adams. Maurkice Pouncey is a great center but the rest of the line is questionable.
The Steelers were very good statistically on defense but they struggled with injuries, had an uncharacteristically low sack total and did get scorched by Tim Tebow in the playoffs. They need nose tackle Casey Hampton and end Brett Keisel to return healthy. In terms of the linebackers, LaMarr Woodley needs to come back fully healthy this season to make that excellent pairing with James Harrison, who is 34. Expect more playing time from James Worilds, who has played well in limited playing time. Lawrence Timmons returns in the middle along with the aging Larry Foote, who replaced the aging James Farrior. The secondary had a strong 2011 and are led, as always, by Troy Polamalu. However, safety Ryan Clark and corner Ike Taylor are aging.
Record: 11-5

2. Baltimore Ravens*
It is clear that the Ravens' window to win the Super Bowl is starting to run out a little. That is what makes Lee Evans' near catch in the AFC Championship Game all the more painful. Now the team has a tough schedule, even though I still expect the team to make the postseason. To go deep again in January, Joe Flacco to take another step forward and the receiving corps has to improve. There is promise with Torrey Smith after a solid rookie campaign and while Anquan Boldin is getting old, he ended the season hot. Fortunately the team was able to sign Ray Rice long-term as he is as good as it gets as he is a great runner and a very good receiver and plays a key role as Flacco's safety valve. The offensive line has some question marks and really needs Michael Oher to rebound at left tackle after a disappointing 2011.
Baltimore's defense was again fantastic last season and it resulted in coordinator Chuck Pagano getting the Colts job but the aging crew took a big hit when Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles. He'll likely be done for the season and thus of the group of Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw needs to step up in the pass rush. Fortunately stud end Haloti Ngata is still around and fantastic, he is arguably their best defensive player. Both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are either in their late or mid thirties so while they have still been great, they could decline. The corner tandem of Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith is very good.
Record: 9-7

3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals surprised many by getting to the playoffs a season ago but when you look inside the numbers, you see that they did not beat any playoff teams at all last season. The schedule is a lot tougher this season so there will be more pressure on Andy Dalton, who had a great rookie campaign but did appear to hit the rookie wall late. He will need to have another strong season to get the Bengals back to the playoffs, considering the Bengals do not great options at running back but fortunately he has budding star A.J. Green at wideout and the solid Jermaine Greshem at tight end. Cleveland is fortunate to have a very strong offensive line that improved by signing Travelle Wharton to play left guard.
Cincinnati's defense, as well Dalton and Green, played a big part in the team's playoff appearance. The defensive line does not feature big names but have a bunch of solid contributors in tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko and ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. The linebacking corps is solid as well, although they will miss the talented yet often-injured Keith Rivers, who will be replaced by Thomas Howard. Manny Lawson and Rey Maualuga round the threesome. Leon Hall is a really good corner, when healthy, and should make a good tandem with first round selection Dre Kirkpatrick.
Record: 8-8

4. Cleveland Browns
Cleveland is hoping that Brandon Weeden will finally be the franchise quarterback that they have lacked since they returned to the NFL in 1999. He does have the skills to be a really good one but the fact that he turns 29 in October is a little worrisome. He is joined in the backfield by fellow first rounder Trent Richardson, who will pretty much be Cleveland's offense and he is the kind of player that is worth it as he is a tremendous runner as well as a quality receiver out of the backfield, something much needed since Cleveland's receiving unit is pretty subpar. Greg Little is a talent but he should also not be a top receiver for any team. Weeden does have a couple of solid tight ends in Ben Watson and Evan Moore but he does have a mediocre offensive line, save for Joe Thomas at left tackle and center Alex Mack, who are both elite.
Fortunately, the Bronwns do have a solid, but not great defense. However their pass rush is not great with a lot of pressure being on young Jabaal Sheard, who had 8.5 sacks a season ago, as well as on free agent signing Juqua Thomas-Parker. The line will also suffer a loss in talented defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who will be out for the bulk of the season with a torn pectoral. Joe Haden is the best player on the defense and he has developed into a great cornerback but there are question marks at the other cornerback spot as well as the safety positions.
Record: 5-11

1. Houston Texans
This is a club that is gearing up for a Super Bowl run, one that they might have gone on last season had they not entered the playoffs with their third string quarterback. Matt Schaub is a really good quarterback that will have Houston in the hunt, provided he stays healthy this season, and he was having a really good season before suffering a Lisfranc injury on his right foot. He is joined in the backfield by a strong running back corps led by Arian Foster, with the solid Ben Tate getting plenty of work in relief. They also feature Andre Johnson, who when healthy is one of the elite receivers in football, and a very good tight end in Owen Daniels, although they still have not developed a solid number two wideout. The Texans will miss right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel, who both signed elsewhere in the offseason, but the rest of the line is intact.
Houston let Mario Williams depart in the offseason but it really is not a huge deal as their defense did not drop off at all when Williams was hurt and that is thanks to the solid play of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, who will team up with rookie Whitney Mercilus to form a potent pass rush triumvirate. The Texans also get really good production from 3-4 ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, while they lack a solid nose tackle. Brian Cushing is a tremendous player at inside linebacker but he will have to find a new partner with DeMeco Ryans gone to Philadelphia. Houston's secondary, outside of Jonathan Joseph, is inconsistent but improving.
Record: 12-4

2. Tennessee Titans
Jake Locker will be handed the reins of the Titans' offense this season and it's a wise move, considering Matt Hasselbeck is around the end of the line. He could very well lead a playoff run but the strong schedule could dampen those dreams a little. Locker hopes to have Chris Johnson back at 100%, which he was not at last season thanks to his holdout but he should have a great season as he has worked on getting back in shape and the addition of Steve Hutchinson to a decent run blocking (but really good pass protecting) line will only help. Locker has the weapons to stretch the field in Kenny Britt, rookie wideout Kendall Wright and talented tight end Jared Cook.
The big loss for the Tennessee defense was cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who signed with the Rams, and while the Titans have some solid replacements, it is always tough to lose a player of the caliber of Finnegan. Free safety Michael Griffin was retained and he is very good. The linebacking corps is pretty solid, even as they are full of young players. Two rookies, Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy, started last season and were good while a rookie, Zach Brown, is expected to push veteran Will Witherspoon for time. The defensive line needs a lot of work as they struggled to pressure the quarterback so the expectations are high for free agent signing Kamerion Wimbley and third-year end Derrick Morgan, who needs to break out this season.
Record: 8-8

3. Jacksonville Jaguars
I will say this, Blaine Gabbert has looked much better this preseason. Heck, he even looks like an NFL quarterback a little, with the help of new coach Mike Mularkey and first round wideout Justin Blackmon. But there is a difference between the preseason and the regular season so we will see if he can improve to somewhat acceptable standards. More importantly, Maurice Jones-Drew is still holding out as the team still refuses to give him a big, long-term extension which, while I can't really blame them since he does have a lot of mileage, he was unbelievable last season. If he stays in town, he'll probably have an off year as that's what a holdout does to you. Blackmon looks pretty good but they will need the now overpaid Laurent Robinson to be a good complement to their rookie. Marcedes Lewis needs to step up as well as he slouched last season. The offensive line, the one that sucked last year, returns intact.
As usual, the Jaguars struggled to rush the passer last season, only totaling 32 sacks. Jeremy Mincey came out of nowhere to record eight sacks but was that a fluke? He will either flank rookie Andre Branch or Austen Lane. Terrance Knighton is a great run stuffer but his partner in crime Tyson Alualu, after a solid rookie season, struggled last season with injuries. Speaking of struggling with injuries, both Jaguar corners had injury issues and if Rashean Mathis or Derek Cox cannot remain healthy, former Giant Aaron Ross will help fill the void. The linebackers are the strength of the defense, particularly Daryl Smith and Paul Posluszny.
Record: 5-11

4. Indianapolis Colts
The future is undoubtedly bright for Andrew Luck and the Colts, they are not going anywhere yet as this season will be a struggle. Luck has pretty much nothing at running back and with the exception of a declining Reggie Wayne, nothing at wideout. He does have two talented rookie tight ends in college teammate Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen to work with and they could be the poor man's Gronkowski-Hernandez. The offensive line is a mess as well even though I like left tackle Anthony Costanzo and right guard Ben Ijalana when he is healthy. Luck will be a star, I'm confidant, but it will not happen overnight.
Since Tony Dungy came to Indianapolis, the Colts have run a cover-2 and it worked relatively well over the years. Well first year coach Chuck Pagano has scrapped that for the 3-4 that he ran in Baltimore. The Colts do not have very many pieces for the 3-4, even though the club did import Cory Redding to play 3-4 end. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are getting old and neither is a great fit for the defense but they need the pass rush. They don't have a nose tackle on the roster and the secondary is pretty bad.
Record: 3-13

1. Denver Broncos
Expectations are high (dare I say, mile high?) after the acquisition of Peyton Manning but while I think Manning will be very good this season, I don't think he will be the same when he was healthy in Indianapolis. He does not have a deep receiving crew but he should take a liking to Demaryious Thomas, who was awesome against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and Eric Decker, a solid, possession receiver over the middle, and he is familiar with former Colt tight end Jacob Tamme. Willis McGahee was great last season but how much success was due to Tim Tebow? McGahee is also 31, a time when backs normally begin to decline. Denver's offensive line is not as good as it was, with Ryan Clady's decline a bad sign as he is a key part of Manning's protection.
The Broncos' defense played a key part in their run to get to the postseason although I would not consider the unit to be good last season, and they particularly struggled against the run, a problem that could remain as they best run defender, Brodrick Bunkley, left for New Orleans. But their pass rush will still be very good as Von Miller, who had a great rookie campaign, teamed up with Elvis Dumervil for a great sack combo. Robert Ayers contributes as well to the pass rush. The linebackers are nothing special and neither are the safeties but the corner tandem of Champ Bailey and free agent signing Tracy Porter should be solid.
Record: 9-7

2. Kansas City Chiefs
You give the Chiefs a really good quarterback and this is a team that is going places. But their starting quarterback is Matt Cassel, who is nothing more than a decent NFL quarterback and they have a difficult schedule, at least initially. He does have a good supporting cast, particularly if Jamaal Charles comes back 100%, no guarantee as he suffered a torn ACL a season ago. Peyton Hillis was brought in to complement Charles, something he should do well. Cassel also has some solid weapons in receivers Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin plus tight end Tony Moeaki, who like Charles is coming back from a torn ACL. The offensive line was good last season and improved with the signing of right tackle Eric Winston.
This is a quality defense, one that shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, giving them their only regular season loss. The Chiefs really improved their pass rush late in the season, as Justin Houston emerged opposite Tamba Hali. The 3-4 front should get a boost if raw first round pick Dontari Poe emerges at the nose as Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson have not produced a huge amount, particularly not in the pass rush. If Poe emerges as a blocker clogger (love the sound of that), inside linebacker Derrick Johnson will be very pleased. The Chiefs have a solid corner combo in Brandon Flowers and signee Stanford Routt and get Eric Berry returning from injury.
Record: 8-8

3. San Diego Chargers
For some reason, Norv Turner is still coaching the team and A.J. Smith is still making personnel decisions. Those two alone will handicap the Chargers this season. Philip Rivers did not have his best season last season amidst whispers he was playing hurt as he threw a career high 20 picks. Top wideout Vincent Jackson signed with Tampa Bay so his top receiver is now Malcom Floyd, who is hurt often, and taking Floyd's spot is Robert Meachem, who showed flashes but never put it together in New Orleans. Fortunately Antonio Gates is 100% healthy, but for how long? Ryan Mathews will be the lead dog in the backfield but he is out for the first few weeks after breaking his collarbone and he seems to be always injured. The offensive line is a mess, save for Nick Hardwick at center and a healthy Jared Gaither at left tackle.
San Diego really needed to upgrade its pass rush, which was a key reason why they were terrible against the pass, so you know they were happy when Melvin Ingram fell into their laps at the 18th pick and he is a great fit for their 3-4. He will join a rotation of Jarret Johnson, a solid player all-around who is not a great rusher, and Shaun Philips, who had a disappointing 2011. The secondary looks it could be a potential disaster, save for free safety Eric Weddle. The 3-4 front also has to step up as Corey Liuget needs to improve from a disappointing rookie season and Luis Castillo has to stay healthy.
Record: 8-8

4. Oakland Raiders
Oakland could be a mess this season after having such a solid 2011 and new coach Dennis Allen needs Carson Palmer to look as good as he did at times late last season with the silver and black. They also need Darren McFadden, one of the most explosive backs in football, to stay healthy for a full season. The receivers broke out last season and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore are talented, downfield threats. Oakland has a strong left tackle in Jared Veldheer and a quality center in Stefen Wisniewski and picked up a solid guard in Mike Brisiel. The rest of the line are question marks.
The Raiders struggled defensively a year ago and one should expect more of the same with the losses of top pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley, top corner Stanford Routt, defensive end Trevor Scott, tackle John Henderson, who retired, and second-year linebacker Rolando McClain, who may have to serve a jail sentence at some point for being accused of threatening to kill a man and firing a gun near the guy's head. The pressure will be on ends Richard Seymour and Lamarr Houston to have another solid season getting to the quarterback, as well as on tackles Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly. The linebacking corps and the secondary are underwhelming, even as both safeties, Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch, are quality run stoppers.
Record: 6-10

1. New York Giants
The Super Bowl champs look to make another run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy this season and they could be the first team since New England in 2004 to go back-to-back. Eli Manning was tremendous last season and there is no reason to expect anything less than a repeat as his top wideouts, Hakeem Nicks and the out-of-nowhere Victor Cruz, both return. The Giants were not able to run the ball very well last season so they spent their first round selection on talented back David Wilson from Virginia Tech, who should share the load with Ahmad Bradshaw. The offensive line all returns but there are some questions marks there as guys either disappointed last season (David Diehl) or struggled with injuries (Chris Snee, William Beatty).
If there is one thing the Giants have earned a reputation for, it is getting to the quarterback as they led the league in sacks last year with 59. Ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora all are very good pass rushers. They surround a solid tackle combo of Chris Canty and Linval Joseph. The linebackers are good, despite a hole last season at middle linebacker although Chase Blackburn stepped up in the Super Bowl and with Michael Boley injured, Blackburn will start with Keith Rivers and Mathias Kiwanuka. There are questions at corner as both Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara struggled with injuries a year ago and Corey Webster was inconsistent before improving in the playoffs. Kenny Phillips is tremendous at free safety while Antrel Rolle was a disappointment opposite him.
Record: 11-5

2. Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia ended the 2011 season really hot, which disappoints those who expected great play from the whole season, not the home stretch. For the Eagles to make a deep run, they need Michael Vick to stay healthy for the entire season but he has only been able to do that once and there is not much reason to think that he can this season. He does have a great supporting cast, most notably running back LeSean McCoy, who is one of the best multpurpose backs in football. Look for backup Dion Lewis to get some more touches to keep McCoy fresh. I am a big fan of wideout Jeremy Maclin and I think he can be great this year, while I am not a fan of the overrated DeSean Jackson, who I was surprised to hear Philadelphia bring back. The Eagles' offensive line can be pretty good if center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins, both rookies a year ago, take steps forward in their sophomore campaigns.
The Eagles were pretty disappointing on defense last season until late, despite the talent that is in the unit. Nnamdi Asomugha was brilliant last season unsurprisingly but now he is paired with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who can be very good when he wants to. The safeties are underwhelming but free safety Nate Allen was pretty solid down the stretch. The defensive line is full of talent with Jason Babin, Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins all generating a lot of pressure on the quarterback, something first round selection Fletcher Cox does well as well. The linebacking play was disappointing last season but they were able to acquired DeMeco Ryans on the cheap from Houston.
Record: 9-7

3. Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo was great statistically a season ago, even in December, but he still struggled late in games during crunch time. The team has been inconsistent for far too long with too much talent and if the team does not make a run into the playoffs, not just coach Jason Garrett could be gone, but Romo as well. He does have a very talented running back in DeMarco Murray, who was awesome at times last year but he also had some injury troubles. Dez Bryant seems to be in trouble off the field a lot, which is a shame considering his huge talent, so the team has put into place some rules for him. His partner Miles Austin fought some hamstring troubles a year ago but he put them on the lockout, which is a legitimate reason. Stud tight end Jason Witten returns and he is Romo's favorite target. I like the tackles on the Cowboys' line (Tyron Smith and Doug Free) but their interior is crap.
Jerry Jones made some bold moves in the offseason to upgrade their cornerback play in signing Brandon Carr to a nice contract and trading up for Morris Claiborne, the talented corner from LSU. Both represent big upgrades, but there are questions about the secondary play. The linebackers focus on getting to the quarterback because the defensive line, with the exception of nose tackle Jay Ratliff, cannot generate pressure. DeMarcus Ware is awesome, everybody knows that, but his bookend, Anthony Spencer, needs to put more on the table. I really like the inside linebacker combo of former Panther Dan Connor and Sean Lee.
Record: 8-8

4. Washington Redskins
The Redskins finally have themselves a real franchise quarterback for the first time in years in top pick Robert Griffin III, who the team paid a ton to get but it will probably be worth it. He has all the skills that you would like from a franchise quarterback with a great arm and accuracy, high football IQ as well as exceptional athleticism. It would be crazy to expect a star showing immediately but he should make a difference right away. His receiving corps is all right as the team spent a lot of money on Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan to team with the holdovers, the aging Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson. Expect Griffin to establish a great relationship with talented tight end Fred Davis. As usual for Mike Shanahan teams, Washington ran the ball well last season as the team likes both Roy Helu and Evan Royster. The Redskins have an okay offensive line that could be good if everyone stays healthy, a big if for guys like right tackle Jammal Brown.
The defense was not very good last year but the team is fortunate to have a really good crew of linebackers. Brian Orakpo and rookie Ryan Kerrigan combined for almost 17 sacks a season ago and will be expected to do more of the same, while London Fletcher is getting better with age and Perry Riley impressed when he got on the field last season. While the pass rush was good, the secondary was awful last season as DeAngelo Hall got torched often and Josh Wilson was only decent opposite him. They added two new safeties in Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson but neither are great players.
Record: 7-9

1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers return their full arsenal of offensive weapons to light up scoreboards once again. Aaron Rodgers is probably the best quarterback in the NFL. He has a deep receiving corps with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb as well as tight end Jermichael Finley, who was disappointing last season, however. Rodgers also has a strong offensive line, although there are always some injury concerns for left tackle Chad Clifton. The one weakness was at running back but the Packers made a shrewd signing of Cedric Benson on the cheap so he should provide some power running that the team has lacked.
The pressure is on the Green Bay defense, which was the clear weakness of the club. They could not pressure the quarterback and they needed to acquire somebody to take pressure off the edge of Clay Matthews and they drafted a fellow Trojan, Nick Perry in the first round. The 3-4 front is solid stuffing the run but needed more juice in the pass rush, and thus they drafted Jerel Worthy in the second round. One of the heroes of the Green Day defense last year was inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, who was all over the field last season. He makes a solid team with A.J. Hawk, who may be losing a step. The secondary really misses Nick Collins but Charles Woodson is moving over to free safety, giving the Packers a solid centerfield defender, although it does leave a hole opposite Tramon Williams at corner.
Record: 13-3

2. Chicago Bears*
I would say that Jay Cutler was happy when he heard that the Bears acquired Brandon Marshall. Yes Marshall is certainly mercurial but he and Cutler had an awesome partnership in Denver. The Bears also drafting talented wideout Alshon Jeffery, who should make strong contributions if he is in shape. Cutler also has the benefit of a talented backfield with Matt Forte, an elite multipurpose threat, and free agent signee Michael Bush. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice thinks both could rush for 1,000 yards. Speaking of Tice, he does have his handful with an offensive line that has been subpar of late, particularly left tackle J'Marcus Webb. The rest of the line is not bad and the hopes are that Gabe Carimi, last year's first round selection, can be healthy this season.
How effective will Brian Urlacher be after having arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason after tearing his MCL and PCL in the season finale? The 34-year-old is still a key part of the Chicago defense and the team needs him to still have his fastball. He will still team with Lance Briggs, who still is going strong, and the decent Nick Roach. Julius Peppers was awesome last season, coming up with 11 sacks, but the team wants to improve the pass rush even more, hence the selection of Shea McClellin in the first round, who is not a great 4-3 fit but will spell Isreal Idonije in passing situations. The secondary is pretty good and got better when Brandon Meriweather left the team and was replaced by Chris Conte.
Record: 10-6

3. Detroit Lions*
Calvin Johnson is on the cover of Madden. Say what you want, the Madden Curse is a legitimate thing. Anyways, Johnson is the best receiver in football and he and Matt Stafford made an electric team last season as both were brilliant. This season, you may see Stafford utilizing some other weapons more as well like speedster Titus Young and talented tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The Lions' running game probably will struggle again as they have talented rushers in the background (Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith) but all seem to have injury troubles and in the case of Leshoure, marijuana troubles. The offensive line improved a lot last year but it will be interesting to see if first round selection Riley Rieff replaces either left tackle Jeff Backus or right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
Detroit's defense is centered on their defensive line where they have great pass rushers like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril, as well a solid run stuffers like Corey Williams. There are concerns about Suh's aggressiveness on the field, which leads to penalties and most notable the time stomped Packer lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving after pushing his head into the ground. He needs to learn to cool his emotions. The linebackers are solid with Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy. The secondary really needs a fully healthy Louis Delmas at free safety as there are some concerns with the corners.
Record: 9-7

4. Minnesota Vikings
The key to Minnesota's success this season will be Adrian Peterson's health after the star back tore his MCL and ACL against the Redskins late in December. I would not expect him back for the opener and there is a risk of re-injury. Tobe Gerhart is a solid replacement int he short-term but the pressure will be on second-year QB Christian Ponder to lead the offense and he showed some promise last season. He does not have a great receiving unit, led by Percy Harvin and free agent acquisition Jerome Simpson but neither are a number one, even as Harvin and Ponder worked well together down the stretch. I really like young tight end Kyle Rudolph. The line did lose Stud guard Steve Hutchinson but did draft Matt Kalil, who has the skill to be a franchise left tackle, something Ponder needs. The rest of the line is hot or cold.
Jared Allen recorded an insane 22 sacks last season. 22 sacks! His ridiculous numbers made it easier for bookend Bryan Robinson to attack the quarterback as well, as he totaled eight sacks of his own. Tackle Kevin Williams is still an excellent player but is on the decline and does not have much next to him. Chad Greenway is the star of the linebacking corps, which features Erin Henderson, who will be asked to do more, and the underwhelming Jasper Brinkley. The secondary was a mess last season as Antoine Winfield has had some injury troubles and the safeties were mediocre. The hope is that first round selection Harrison Smith can be a solid free safety.
Record: 6-10

1. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons drew a lucky hand with the "Bountygate" suspensions as they are now the favorite in the South. Matt Ryan put up big numbers a year ago and should do so again provided Julio Jones is healthy for a full season and Roddy White stays consistent. There are concerns that running back Michael Turner is starting to run out of gas and you will see more carries for Jacquizz Rodgers. The offensive line is good asides from the concerns at left tackle where Sam Baker has been inconsistent protecting Ryan's blindside.
Atlanta really needed a upgrade at cornerback in acquiring Asante Samuel from Philadelphia for a late round draft pick. Samuel should be energized that he's out of Philly and he still had a great season. His trade makes for a quality triumvirate at corner with Brent Grimes and the demoted Dunta Robinson. The defensive line is full of solid players with tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters as well as end John Abraham, who needs his counterpart, Ray Edwards, to step up after a disappointing 2011. The outside linebackers, Sean Witherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, are both very good but there is a hole at middle linebacker.
Record: 10-6

2. New Orleans Saints
What hurts the Saints this year is the suspension of Sean Payton as a result of "Bountygate." What will also hurt is the decision to make Joe Vitt the interim coach, even though he is suspended the first six games where offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the interim interim. And the players could be understandably distracted with the whole scandal. But hey, at least Drew Brees is still around and he's still great. He also has Darren Sproles, who was fantastic as a do-it-all running back who was electric every time he touched the football. Brees will find Jimmy Graham a lot as well and Graham is an elite tight end and a matchup nightmare. Marques Colston and Lance Moore both return at wideout. The line is pretty solid.
The defensive line for New Orleans has some question marks. They made a great signing in Brodrick Bunkley, a great run stuffer, but he is not good at pass rushing, making the need for Sedrick Ellis to step up critical. Cameron Jordan was a solid run stuffer at end but he could not get much pass rush going and his bookend Will Smith is suspended for the first four weeks. The linebacking unit with acquisitions Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne as well as Scott Shanle is a good unit. New Orleans' safeties have to step up and it will be key for Patrick Robinson to step into Tracy Porter's shoes.
Record: 8-8

3. Carolina Panthers
Ready or not, Cam Newton is on a star turn. He was great as a rookie last year, who expected that so early in his career? But can he build on his great rookie campaign or will he suffer a sophomore slump? For starters, he needs Steve Smith to have another great season and a contribution from fellow wideout Brandon LaFell would be nice, as well as from tight end Greg Olsen. Newton will like to throw to new fullback Mike Tolbert but he needs either Jonathan Stewart or DeAngelo Stewart to rebound and have good seasons running the football. The line has holes at left guard and right tackle but the rest of the line is solid.
The defense was a disaster last season in Charlotte and held the club back. There are problems at defensive tackle as both rookies, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, struggled. The ends are solid in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy but the tackles need to step up. I love Luke Kuechly and I think the Panthers made a great pick in the BC linebacker. He will line up with either Jon Beason or Thomas Davis and James Anderson, who was good last year. The secondary was also a mess, aside from corner Chris Gamble, and there were not many moves made back there.
Record: 7-9

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Across the team was a myriad of off the field problems and overall lack of effort. Enter Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, a known disciplinarian who will not stand for the crap that plagued the Bucs last year. Josh Freeman really regressed last season after a great 2010 and it will be key that he regains his confidence. He needs signee Vincent Jackson to do well away from Philip Rivers and needs Mike Williams to get his act together at wideout. He needs Dallas Clark to play like he did before last year. It will be key for first rounder Doug Martin, who may pass holdover LaGarette Blount who was a disappointment last year, to adapt himself to the league as he has some calling him the poor man's Ray Rice. The line disappointed last season, sense a trend here, but did get a great upgrade at guard in former Saint Carl Nicks, who is elite.
The Buccaneers were miserable on defense last season and like the offense, they disappointed. The defensive line had some bright spots in ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett. Gerald McCoy has shown flashes of talent but he just has to stay healthy. The linebackers were a mess last season and the team will probably have to start some mid-round picks. The secondary is in trouble at cornerback. Ronde Barber is getting old, Aqib Talib will probably be suspended for yet another arrest and Eric Wright sucks. I do like first round selection Mark Barron at safety.
Record: 4-12

1. San Francisco 49ers
So, I think Jim Harbaugh made a difference with this 49ers club, you would say? Did anybody see the team going 13-3 and coming damn close to getting to the Super Bowl? And how about the work he did with Alex Smith, who improved a lot last season. Now more pressure will be on Smith, and away from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter at running back, to take a bigger load of the offense as the team has acquired Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, who before you laugh has looked pretty good in training camp and in the preseason, and reached in the draft for A.J. Jenkins. The message for Smith is that he now has weapons outside of Vernon Davis and the inconsistent Michael Crabtree so he has to carry the offense more. Can he do that? It is important to note that the offensive line struggled a year ago, allowing more than 50 sacks,
San Francisco's defense was great last season and a huge reason why the team had such a great season. They are chock full of playmakers in the front seven like linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, edge rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, and linemen Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Issac Sopoaga. There are some questions in the secondary but not at corner, where Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are solid corners, but at safety, where Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are great run defenders but not so great in coverage.
Record: 10-6

2. Arizona Cardinals
It is starting to look like John Skelton will be the starting quarterback for Arizona, which makes sense considering the team played so much better with him under center than Kevin Kolb. Larry Fitzgerald performed a lot better with Skelton than Kolb and both Fitz and Skelton should improve after the drafting of Michael Floyd, a very talented deep threat who should take pressure off Fitzgerald and give Skelton another top weapon. Floyd will also help open running room for either Beanie Wells, who has injury troubles, and Ryan Williams, a rookie last season who is coming off knee surgery. The real questions for the Cardinals on offense come with the line, particularly at tackle where both positions are in flux.
Down the stretch, when the Cardinals finished 7-2 to get to .500, the defense came alive and really improved, especially the pass rush as both Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield did great work rushing the passer off the edge. The 3-4 ends, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, are also both tremendous and both do a great job at pressuring the pocket. If nose tackle Dan Williams could stay healthy, those two ends will be even better. And inside linebacker Daryl Washington is very good as well, although the team really needs last year's high priced signing of Stewart Bradley to step up. The Cardinals have two questions marks at corner and free safety but the other spots, with Patrick Peterson and Adrian Wilson, are in good hands.
Record: 8-8

3. Seattle Seahawks
Were you expecting the Seahawks to be starting a rookie quarterback? I certainly was not, I expected Matt Flynn, who the club signed in the offseason, to be the starter. Pete Carroll had other plans, as did Russell Wilson, who has ridden a strong preseason to become the starting quarterback. There are some concerns, mostly his height, but he has the arm and the legs to succeed in the NFL. He should have some help in running back Marshawn Lynch, who when he is motivated, "Beast Mode" can be unstoppable. It is important to note that he got a contract extension so the motivation will be something to watch. Wilson is going to need wideout Sidney Rice and tight end Kellen Winslow to stay healthy as well as Ben Obomanu to continue his improvement. The interior of the line is decent but there are concerns about left tackle Russel Okung's and right tackle James Carpenter's health.
There will be a lot of pressure on first round reach Bruce Irvin to provide some pass rush opposite Chris Clemons but one cannot deny the reach that Irvin was, who was a second day prospect at best and he had been arrested recently for defacing public property. Plus he is a poor fit for a 4-3. Nevertheless, Seattle drafted him 15th so now they have to hope Irvin produces great things. The tackles all do a very good job of stuffing the run and tying up blockers. Seattle will probably be starting Barrett Ruud, who has not been very good of late, next to the solid Leroy Hill and the surprising K.J. Wright at linebacker. I love Seattle's safeties (Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) but while Richard Sherman is a solid corner, Brandon Browner is a penalty machine.
Record: 7-9

4. St. Louis Rams
The Rams made a great hire in former Titans coach Jeff Fisher but while the team will improve, it won't be overnight. Sam Bradford had such a great rookie campaign but he took multiple steps backward last season. That was mostly due to throwing to scrubs as well as a brutal offensive line, which gave up a league worst 55 sacks. The line is a mess outside of center Scott Wells, who was brought in the offseason, so there has to be hope that the line gets better with experience. And the top receiver will probably be Danny Amendola, who is a poor man's Wes Welker, no top wideout material. They need rookie wideouts Brian Givens and Chris Givens to contribute immediately. More bad news, it really looks like Steven Jackson is wearing down.
This Rams defense, still without a coordinator after Gregg Williams' suspension for "Bountygate," will need to be the strength of the club and while there are some clear holes, there are some bright spots. The pass rush is one; Chris Long is an elite defensive end and second-year end Robert Quinn got better as the season went on. The tackles will be Kendall Langford, a solid pass rusher, and the raw first rounder Michael Brockers, who is a solid run defender and has the skills to be a good pass rusher as well. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis does a very good job but the linebackers around him are just not good. Cortland Finnegan is a great corner and a great signing, opposite him will likely be troubled but very talented second rounder Janoris Jenkins. The safeties, however, are not very good.
Record: 5-11

AFC Wild Card
Buffalo Bills vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 
I think the Bills have a bright future and have more playoff appearances on tap. But I have to give the edge to the veteran team, even after the Broncos upset last year. Just can't see Ryan Fitzpatrick topping Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs.
Pick: Pittsburgh

Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos 
Peyton Manning will energize the Broncos and get them to the playoffs once again but he will not be able to hide his team's flaws against the Ravens, who are hungry since their clock is ticking.
Pick: Baltimore

NFC Wild Card
Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers 
The Lions have a lot of talent but I'm still not sold on whether or not they have the discipline to make a deep playoffs run. The 49ers will be able to slow down the Lions' passing attack and the 49ers' balance offense will keep Detroit's defense at bay.
Pick: San Francisco

Chicago Bears vs. Atlanta Falcons
I got burned by the Falcons last season and while I still like them as a team, Matt Ryan, I don't think, is the guy to lead a team deep in January. I feel the opposite way about the Bears, who are just a better team in my opinion.
Pick: Chicago

AFC Divisional
Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots 
The Patriots have reloaded for another deep postseason run and I really liked what they did in the offseason. I really wonder if the aging Ravens will be completely healthy at this point in this point in the season and while they would be able to get back the Broncos, I think their juice will run out in Foxborough.
Pick: New England

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Houston Texans
Similar things for the Steelers as for the Ravens and I am really curious if they can take out a talented and balanced Texans team. I think Houston is hungry to show what they can do with Matt Schaub healthy and will take out Pittsburgh.
Pick: Houston

NFC Divisional
Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers
I think the Packers made the right moves in the offseason to get back to the Super Bowl but I'm really feeling this Bears team to pull the upset at Lambeau. The Bears are better suited to win in crappy weather and you think there will be a beautiful day in January in Lambeau?
Pick: Chicago

San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Giants
I know it is hard to pick against the Giants in the postseason, considering the runs they have made to get the Lombardi Trophy, but I really wonder about the when they are not the underdogs, not the road warriors. I think they will lack the motivation in the postseason they have had, and I think the team with the motivation will be the 49ers.
Pick: San Francisco

Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
As I have said for a while it seems now, this Texans team when fully healthy is, in my view, the elite team in the conference. I think they are hungry to prove that and I also think they will be able to pressure Tom Brady and force him into some mistakes.
Pick: Houston

Chicago Bears vs. San Francisco 49ers
Will the 49ers lose at home in the NFC Championship once again? I say yes and here is why. I must say I like Alex Smith, he has proven himself as a good NFL quarterback but is the kind of guy that can lead a Super Bowl team? I still have my doubts. I also think the Bears will have the better defense in this game and if it turns into a quarterback duel, I have my money on Jay Cutler.
Pick: Chicago

Chicago Bears vs. Houston Texans
Well we have ourselves a pretty intriguing Super Bowl matchup (of course I find it intriguing, it's my scenario) with two teams that I think can match up pretty well. Both have talented quarterbacks, good rushing games and quality defenses. Houston would have the advantage in one area, their pass rush against Chicago's line. The Bears' offensive line has sucked over the past few years and while I think it will not be enough of a hindrance to keep Chicago from getting to New Orleans, I think it will haunt them here.
Pick: Houston

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