AFC North: Ravens, Steelers*, Bengals, Browns
This division just keeps on keepin' on. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will battle for the top spot, the Bengals will make it interesting but fall a bit short and the Browns will be arguably the worst team in the NFL. The jury will finally come in on Joe Flacco this season as if he doesn't produce. My Ravens fan brother has claimed that Flacco will thrive in 2012 since this is the first year that ol' Joe will have the same offensive coordinator for two straight seasons and virtually all of his offensive unit returning. So basically, Flacco has no excuses if he doesn't up his game and stop looking like a borderline top-15 quarterback. Flacco is also playing for a contract extension, so that adds even more incentive for Captain Delaware. Anyway, the Ravens can eke out this division even without Terrell Suggs, though I'm not sure they'll be able to get much further.
The Steelers are the Steelers. The Browns are the Browns.
Cincinnati was a bit of a surprise last year and, frankly, are actually pretty well-positioned for now and in the future thanks to the Andy Dalton/AJ Green combination. Keep in mind, however, that nobody saw their 2011 success coming. This was a team that many thought would be the worst in the NFL last season, so they're a prime regression candidate. Is it wrong to punish the Bengals for the expectations of others? Well, maybe, but looking over this roster, it's hard to believe that this squad actually cracked the postseason last year.
AFC South: Texans, Titans, Jaguars, Colts
I'm hard-pressed to think of a scenario where Houston doesn't win this division. Other favourites at least have the "if so-and-so gets hurt, they'll be in trouble" card, but Houston lost pretty much all their stars last season and still won the South. This might well have been a Super Bowl team last year had everyone stayed healthy; I mean, T.J. Yates (T.J. Yates!) nearly led this team over Baltimore in the playoffs.
The other factor in the Texans' favour is that every other team in this division is varying degrees of terrible. Tennessee is okay at best, while the Jags and Colts are battling for the first overall draft pick. Jake Locker will be back on the bench by Week 6, which is also the week that Vegas has set as the over/under for picking when Mojo Drew will suffer a major injury thanks to holding out for most of training camp. As for the Colts, last year they were at least sucking for Luck, whereas now they'll just suck.
AFC West: Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers
A lot of folks see this as the most hard-to-predict division but I think it'll be pretty straight-forward. If Peyton Manning is able to return to even 85% of his old form, Denver wins. If not, they don't win, as the Broncos won't be able to luck out behind a mediocre QB for two straight seasons. The Chargers just seem like a team that's finally hit the end of the road and now face a 4-12 mark and a total rebuild (plus maybe a move to Los Angeles) on the horizon. The Chiefs have too many holes on the roster and aren't worthy of their dark horse status….
….and yet even though Oakland has about as many holes, they're my pick to win. I hate this pick even though I love it. Maybe it's a residual belief that things would immediately improve for the Raiders with new management, or that I expect big things with former Packer exec Reggie McKenzie in charge. Carson Palmer has been mediocre ever since the Steelers blew out his knee in the playoffs and now I'm picking Palmer to lead a team to a division title?! At the end of the day, I don't see Manning staying healthy and thus somebody has to pick up the pieces. It might as well be the Raiders.
AFC East: Patriots, Bills*, Jets, Dolphins
It would take a miracle (or a Tom Brady injury) to keep the Pats from winning this division. New England looks like the most complete team in the AFC and would be my Super Bowl pick….if it weren't for the nagging feeling that they got a bit lucky last year and that it's *very* hard to have back-to-back SB appearances. Expect a minimum 12-4 record but another disappointment at the end of the year for the Patriots.
Bills fans, what the hell, I'm throwing you a bone. Enough has gone wrong for this franchise that I'm jumping on the Mario Williams bandwagon and predicting a sixth-seed playoff appearance for the ol' Bills this season. If you thought my Raiders pick wasn't goofy enough, I'm now doubling down with this one. God help us all. Also, I'm not sure you've heard, but do you realize that Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard?
I'm as tired of hearing about the Jets as you are, so I'll just say that their laughable offensive attack will ruin them.
The Dolphins theoretically have some good pieces in place but they suffer from Redskins-itis, a.k.a. doomed by a terrible owner. It's possible Ryan Tannehill could surprise us all and have a big rookie year, but it's far more likely that Tannehill plays like hot garbage and drags the Fins down in his wake. I'm not really sure why Matt Moore isn't the starting QB here.
NFC North: Packers, Bears*, Lions*, Vikings
The North division teams get both the AFC South and the NFC West in intra-divisional play this year, so basically the easiest possible slate outside of the 49ers, Texans and a possible trip to Seattle. This means that besides the Packers, the Bears and Lions should both be seen as major playoff contenders simply by dint of their weak-ass schedule. Green Bay gets the duke as the favourite but man, I'm still not sure how a team with no running game, a completely unreliable tight end, a so-so offensive line and a swiss cheese defence can legitimately compete for a Super Bowl. Yet, that's just how damn good Aaron Rodgers is in this pass-happy era of the NFL. I'll hold back my criticism about the Pack as a whole for later in the season (hopefully in a playoff preview) but really, another playoff appearance seems like more or less a sure bet, barring a Rodgers injury that would possibly literally kill me.
The Bears and Lions, thus, are playing for second and I'm picking Chicago to get the duke in this battle. Last season the Bears were looking like legitimate contenders before both Matt Forte and Jay Cutler got hurt, so if they're both back up to code, there's no reason on paper why Chicago couldn't again be a force. While the Bears got all the bad luck in 2011, the Lions (for once) seemingly got all the good and returned to the playoffs for the first time in umpteen years. Can't help but feel some regression is coming for Detroit as I can see them with a winning record, but fighting for their postseason lives. I think they have fewer flaws than some of the other NFC contenders, hence my prediction that they'll be the sixth seed.
The Vikings suck. Moving on.
NFC South: Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers, Panthers
This is a tricky one since while I'm endorsing Atlanta to win a tough division, my prediction is that they'll immediately fold in their first playoff game. Sorry, I just can't go with "Matty Ice" as a legit playoff QB until he stops playing like Matty Ass in postseason games. The Falcons will be the main beneficiaries of the Saints' multitude of offseason suspensions, as I can see the Saints winning a few games early by sheer dint of personality and the ol' "everyone is out to get us" team spirit, but they don't have the guns to really keep up over 16 games.
The Buccaneers and Panthers are kind of both in the same boat as rebuilding units and it's really a coin toss to see which one finishes third and which finishes fourth. Given New Orleans' problems and Atlanta's love of underachieving, it wouldn't totally shock me to see either Tampa or Carolina be this year's outta-nowhere division winner. The Panthers might still be a year away from being serious contenders while the Bucs will get a three- or four-win new coach boost. I mean after all, they did hire the man who turned Rutgers into a national powerhouse and led them to….uh, a 38-26 record over the last five years. And no Big East titles. Geez, Greg Schiano couldn't even win the Big East?
NFC West: Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals
I admit to being a quiet supporter of the Seattle Seahawks. In fact, if I weren't a Packers fan 4 life, it's very possible I'd be a full-fledged Shawks fan. I dunno what it is…maybe it's just a long-standing admiration for the city of Seattle itself, thanks to years of watching 'Frasier.' So I freely acknowledge that picking them to win the division could be based on semi-homerism but this team has talent. All that seemed to be hurting the Seahawks last year was incredible ineptitude at the quarterback position but that might've been solved thanks to Seattle's offseason signing of Matt Fl…wait, what? They're going with the unheralded, 5'9" third-round draft pick instead? Uh…okay…. Well, even if Russell Wilson backfires, there's still Flynn for the win, though it's probably not a good sign that Flynn couldn't beat Wilson out in training camp.
The 49ers were a couple of muffed punt receptions away from making the Super Bowl last year but I'm down on them solely due to the regression factor. Even moreso than the Lions, everything went right for Frisco in 2011 and I can't see everything breaking correctly again. Like, do you really think Alex Smith will continue to be competent? Do you actually believe Randy Moss isn't anything but a washed-up shell of a shell of his former self? The 49ers are another 'winning team but out of the playoffs' candidate. Of course, since San Francisco is playing Green Bay in Week 1, I've now doomed my Packers to eat a loss to this team that I'm terribly underrating. Dammit.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Rams make a big jump in the win column to 6-10 or even 7-9 simply due to Jeff Fisher now running the show. Fisher isn't a miracle worker but he is a very good coach and this seems to be one of those Schottenheimer-esque situations where adding just a very good coach can instantly shape up the program. Remember, a lot of dumb people thought the Rams had the talent to win the division last year, so they have some pieces.
The Cardinals need a damn quarterback in the worst possible way. Without one, and unless Patrick Peterson actually is a super-charged Devin Hester, Arizona will just flail around in this league.
NFC East: Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins
This year New York will make things easier on us by simply being good from day one, thus leaving no "wait, what?" feeling that summed up the entire 2011-12 playoffs. In fact, I can see this being a lot like the Giants' last post-Super Bowl season in 2008…they look like powerhouses and then choke it up in the playoffs, essentially reversing their narrative from the previous year. Such a choke might be harder to come by this year, however, as the Giants are just so stacked and great on the defensive line that barring a couple of injuries, that one huge advantage will keep them in every game no matter how the secondary or the offence is performing.
My initial thoughts of this NFL season were to rank the Eagles as big-time powers in the NFC but now I've busted them down to missing the postseason entirely. Quite simply, I don't think this team is really all that good. Cue my usual criticisms of Michael Vick being perhaps the most overrated player in football, and also cue my "seriously, they made the offensive line coach the defensive coordinator and then let him keep his job?!" spiel. I just see too many problems in Philadelphia to take them seriously.
The Cowboys are an enigma team. I can see this team finishing anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6 and it wouldn't surprise me a bit, so I might as well bite the bullet and simply predict 8-8 and yet more disappointment for Jerry Jones. (Not that I don't enjoy predicting disappointment for Jerry Jones.)
It's a shame that an exciting, immensely likeable young star like Robert Griffin III is stuck on this entirely unlikeable team playing for this idiot. Even if Griffin wows everyone and plays up to his potential immediately, Washington still probably doesn't have enough to crack 8-8.
Ravens over Bills
Steelers over Raiders
Lions over Giants
Seahawks over Bears
Packers over Lions
Falcons over Seahawks
Ravens over Patriots
Texans over Steelers
Packers over Falcons
Texans over Ravens
Super Bowl 47
Houston over Green Bay…..there, that reverse jinx should work nicely. Unless talking about the reverse jinx out loud will reverse it. Ah, crap.