2012 NFL Season: 7 Bold Predictions
I had a lot of fun on my MLB Bold Predictions column, and I couldn't wait to write this similar column for the upcoming NFL season. And if you look at the staff's predictions regarding division winners, you can see that I stand by my seven bold predictions when it comes to picking the playoff teams. So with that, I give you my seven bold, yet very realistic predictions for the 2012 NFL Season.
1. The Buffalo Bills Will Make The Playoffs
The Bills started off the 2011 season with a very surprising 5-2 record. That included one victory when Buffalo was down 21-3 against the Raiders and another when the Bills trailed 21-0 against the Patriots. The Bills were led by their high-flying offense and a phenomenal turnover differential. Then, the injuries hit and the Bills lost several key starters, including running back Fred Jackson, nose tackle Kyle Williams, and center Eric Wood. The Bills subsequently lost eight of their final nine games and finished where they were expected to, in the AFC East basement.
In the offseason, the Bills focused on addressing their main weakness, the pass rush. So they went ahead and signed the biggest prize in the 2012 free agent class, Mario Williams. Williams was signed to a $96-million contract with $50 million of it guaranteed because when healthy, he is one of the best at getting to the quarterback in the NFL. Additionally, the Bills signed former Patriot Mark Anderson. Anderson had a career year last season with 12.5 sacks and will be a solid upgrade at the other defensive end position. These two offseason acquisitions will be joining two other studs on the defensive line, the aforementioned Kyle Williams and second-year defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. These four will give the Bills one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
The Bills drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the first round of the NFL Draft to help shore up their secondary. Gilmore has a lot of upside, and he played in the SEC against several NFL-caliber wide receivers. The Bills also have two very good ballhawking safeties in Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. With all of the pressure that will occur up front this season, the secondary led by those three will have lots of opportunities to come up with interceptions.
The offense has a lot fewer question marks simply, because it showed last season how explosive it can be. It averaged over 30 points per game through the first eight games of the season. The four biggest pieces in the Bills offense are quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running backs Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, and wide receiver Stevie Johnson. Fitzpatrick isn't a star, but he is certainly an efficient thrower who can definitely lead an offense. Jackson was an absolute star before he went down with a fractured right fibula, with almost 1,400 total yards in not even ten full games.
The running game did not skip a beat when Jackson went down, because Spiller exceeded expectations and was the focal point for the offense in the second half of the season. Both running backs averaged over five yards a carry as well, which can be attributed to their talent and an offensive line which is very strong at run-blocking. Johnson had 1,004 receiving yards last season, as he became the first Bills wide receiver to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. This offense has a lot of talent and last year showed that the team can prevail in shootouts.
Along with the great amount of talent on this team, the Bills' schedule and the fact that the rest of the division outside of the Patriots is very bad are two more reasons why they will be making the playoffs this season. The Jets and Dolphins have severe problems at quarterback and at offensive skill positions, so they will not be able to compete with the Patriots or the Bills at the top of the division. Also, the Bills only play four games against teams that made the playoffs last season (Patriots twice, 49ers, and Texans). And during the stretch run (weeks 11-17) here is their schedule: Dolphins, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks, Dolphins and Jets. This seems like a perfect recipe for the Bills to play in their first playoff game since 1999.
Fitzgerald is the second-most talented wide receiver in the NFL (only behind Calvin Johnson) and he's had five straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more despite playing for terrible quarterbacks for most of them. Fitzgerald actually accumulated more than 1,400 receiving yards last season with the same putrid quarterbacks (John Skelton and Kevin Kolb) that he'll have this year. So why do I think that this will be the first year that Fitzgerald has fewer than 1,000 receiving yards since 2006? It's all about his supporting cast (again). While Fitz put up phenomenal yardage totals again last season, his catches dropped quite noticeably. He only had 80 catches last season, his lowest (by at least ten catches actually) since 2006, his last year under 1,000 yards. Fitzy attained 1,400 yards because he posted the highest yards per reception in his career, a whopping 17.6 yards per catch. The only thing is, his previous YPC career high was 14.9, so you would think that he wouldn't be able to sustain such a high YPC this season. Also, do you really trust Arizona's fringe quarterbacks to consistently hit Fitzgerald on these deep throws?
Skelton and Kolb's lack of accuracy on passes definitely contributed a lot to Fitzgerald's reception reduction, but the fact that defenses constantly double-teamed Fitzgerald hurt him, as well. The constant defensive attention is why Fitzgerald wanted the Cardinals to draft Michael Floyd in the first round in this past offseason's NFL Draft. Larry got his wish, but Floyd is currently fourth on the depth chart due to an unimpressive preseason. Floyd only caught five balls in the Cardinals' five preseason games. Other wide receivers Andre Roberts and Early Doucet are decent, but there is no other guy that will take any attention away from Fitzgerald. Ever since he lost his partner in crime when Anquan Boldin signed with the Ravens, Fitzgerald's receptions dropped from 97 (his last year with Boldin) to 90 to 80 last season. Teams are paying more and more attention to Fitzgerald, and the Cardinals have not been able to address the problem.
There were four rookie QB's chosen in the first round of this offseason's NFL Draft. Russell Wilson was not one of them, yet I think he has the best chance of making the postseason out of any of them this season. No one thought Wilson would end up being the Week 1 quarterback for the Seahawks after Matt Flynn signed a three-year contract for $26 million. Instead, Wilson had a sensational preseason and coach Pete Carroll gave him the starting job. Wilson is not the most talented rookie QB, but he inherits the best situation in terms of surrounding talent and schedule.
The strength for this Seahawks team is their defense. It starts with their defensive line in regards to their pass rush and run defense. Seattle only recorded 33 sacks last season, so it wanted to complement its top pass rusher Chris Clemons in the offseason. Seattle drafted West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin, who had 22 sacks in his two seasons there. Irvin may be undersized, but he more than makes up for that with his speed and will be a big part of the defensive end rotation. The Seahawks got additional pass rush help by signing versatile defender Jason Jones from Tennessee.
Seattle also had a very stout run defense thanks in most part to two of its other defensive linemen, Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane. Seattle only allowed its opponents to have a 3.8 yards per carry average last season, which was good for fourth in the NFL last season. The other strength to Seattle's defense is its young, but very talented secondary. In fact, three Seahawks defensive backs went to the Pro Bowl last season: safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, along with cornerback Brandon Browner. These three combined for 12 interceptions, as each safety had more than 95 tackles last season. The Seahawks' other two cornerbacks, who figure to play a prominent role in a secondary that allowed just 18 passing touchdowns last season, are Richard Sherman (the other starter) and veteran Marcus Trufant.
The offense has a couple pieces, as well, that will help Russell Wilson in his rookie season. Running back Marshawn Lynch had a phenomenal year in 2011 with more than 1,200 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns. He may start off the year with a suspension, but there is no doubting his in-game impact. WIlson also has an abundance of targets to throw to in Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. For most of these guys, the biggest question if whether or not they can stay healthy because the talent is definitely there. Wilson's ability to throw and run effectively will definitely help an offense that finished 28th in scoring last season.
Another huge reason Seattle can sneak into the playoffs this season is its easy schedule. They play in the same division as the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, two teams projected to be amongst the worst in football. They play less than a third of their games against teams that made the playoffs last season, and two of them will be against division rival San Francisco 49ers, whom many people expect to regress this season. The talent on their roster and their weak schedule are the biggest reasons why the Seahawks are the team with the best chance to make the playoffs with a starting rookie quarterback. I simply just don't see any way that the Colts, Redskins, Dolphins or Browns do so. I can definitely see the Seahawks being the surprise winner of the NFC West in 2012.
After Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos, the football world went crazy. Peyton's brother Eli had won the most recent Super Bowl and Peyton was taking over a team that had made the playoffs the previous season. People were already predicting an all-Manning Super Bowl. While I don't see either guy partaking in this year's Super Bowl, I felt the need to go further in predicting that only one of the Manning brothers will get the opportunity to play in a postseason game this season.
I am a lot more skeptical about the Broncos making the playoffs than the Giants. First, the Broncos have to rely on a guy who has had multiple neck surgeries, and one major hit on Peyton could lead to the end of his career and the end of the Broncos' season. He also missed all of last season, so who knows how long it will take for Peyton to get readjusted to the NFL game? Denver's offensive line is solid, but even though Peyton's blindside protector Ryan Clady made the Pro Bowl last season, he still allowed six sacks.
The Broncos' defense is also a weakness of the team. They do have a couple studs in Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, and Champ Bailey, but they have a lot of holes, as well. They lost their top run-stuffer Brodrick Bunkley after he signed with the Saints. Veteran linebacker D.J. Williams is suspended the first six games of the season due to his off-the-field problems. The two Broncos' safeties, Rahim Moore and Mike Adams, aren't exactly guys who you would trust as your last line of defense, either. This was already a defense that allowed more than 24 points per game last season despite boasting a very time-consuming offense on the other side of the ball. With a much-improved offense expected in 2012, it's hard not see this defense giving up more points than last season.
The Giants know how to avoid a Super Bowl hangover, they went 12-4 in 2008 after they beat the then-undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl the season before. However, just like the Broncos, the Giants have a brutal division and schedule that will make their road to the playoffs much tougher. In fact, in the divisions in which the Broncos and Giants play (AFC West and NFC East, respectively), there are seven teams with a legit shot to win the division (everyone except the Redskins). And the Redskins with their own dynamic rookie quarterback won't be an easy win anymore. Those six games against their divisional rivals can definitely hinder each Manning's chances at a playoff spot.
The Broncos and Giants both additionally play the NFC South and AFC North, with at least five very tough games in those matchups including the Saints, Falcons, Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. Also, since both of these teams finished in first place last season, they have to face two other teams in their conference that won their divisions last season. For the Giants, they get to play the Packers and 49ers while the Broncos face off against the Patriots and Texans. With the two toughest schedules by far for the 2012 NFL season (based on their opponents' 2011 winning percentage), it's plausible that the Broncos and Giants both will not make the playoffs. But, I'll stick with my prediction and say that only one Manning-led team does.
I'm only including the regular season, because if this was postseason wins as well, this would have been a very easy prediction to get correct. Last season, the three teams from Florida (Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) barely edged out the Patriots in victories last season, 15 to 13. However, thanks to tough schedules, new head coaches, and ineffective quarterbacks, along with the Patriots having one of the best teams in football and the easiest schedule in football, this feat will occur this season.
A lot of people from Florida were upset that their three big college football teams (Florida, Florida State and Miami) are no longer college football powerhouses. However, the situations of the pro football teams in Florida are significantly more dire. These three teams simply do not have a lot of talent. They combined for six Pro Bowlers last season, while the Patriots had eight alone. And out of those six, one of them signed with another team (Brandon Marshall), one is lost for the season due to injury (Davin Joseph), one just returned to his team after a very long holdout (Maurice Jones-Drew, and there are obvious effects for running backs holding out, just look at Chris Johnson last season), and one was voted on for special teams (Montell Owens). All three of these teams have new head coaches (Mike Mularkey, Greg Schiano and Joe Philbin) and new schemes to learn throughout the season. These teams all have young starting quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert, Josh Freeman and Ryan Tannehill) who have potential, but have had trouble adjusting to the NFL level.
The Buccaneers and Dolphins play in, arguably, two of the toughest divisions in football (I wouldn't want to play the Patriots and Bills or the Saints and Falcons four times), and the Jaguars have the most games in the NFL this season versus opponents who won nine or more games last season. I believe that the Buccaneers and Dolphins are locks for last place in their divisions this season because there is clear separation between those two teams and the probable third-place finishers in those respective divisions in the Panthers and Jets. The Jaguars have a very good shot at finishing in last place as well, as it depends on whether or not Andrew Luck can make a substantial impact his rookie season and give the Colts a modest win improvement from their disastrous year last season.
The Patriots, on the other hand, have a stacked team and the easiest schedule in football (according to 2011 win percentage). Their passing offense will be simply incredible this season with Tom Brady getting to pass to four elite targets in Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. And while they did lose two key players in the offseason in Pro Bowl defensive end Andre Carter and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the running back who never fumbled, they are able to fill those holes with capable players. The Patriots got younger and better on defense by drafting immediate impact guys Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. New starting running back Stevan Ridley showed a lot of potential last season, and the Patriots have a lot of depth at running back. Plus, they don't really need to have a good running game when they will have such an elite passing offense this season. They also have one of the best coaches in Bill Belichick, and with the fact that the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004-2005 season, there will be plenty of urgency to win as many games as possible.
The Bears were well on their way to making the playoffs last season by starting off with a 7-3 record. Then, in Week 11 when they were facing the Chargers, starting quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb. While they did beat the Chargers, the Bears would not win another game until Week 17 against the lowly Vikings. However, it was too late because the Bears had already knocked themselves out of the postseason race with five consecutive losses to the Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers. They also lost star running back Matt Forte for the season during their Week 13 battle, an eventual loss against the Chiefs. Two weeks later, the Bears lost their top wide receiver Johnny Knox for the season against the Seahawks, but every Bears fan knew that the season would not include a postseason berth by then. It was too bad because when they were healthy, the Bears combination of a good offense, a very good defense, and an elite special teams made them one of the top teams in the NFL before the injury bug hit.
This offseason, the Bears addressed their two biggest needs on offense, effective backups to their quarterback and running back and lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Signing Jason Campbell and Michael Bush to back up Cutler and Forte is a much more formidable situation than having Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber run this team into the ground again. However, acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins was the Bears' signature move of the offseason. Marshall is a very physical wide receiver who is a perfect fit for this Bears' offense. He also reunites with his former quarterback in Cutler and his former offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. When those three guys teamed up in Denver, the Broncos had incredible offensive years and those were the best statistical years for Cutler and Marshall. The Bears also drafted South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the second round. He was a former top 10-15 prospect, but wasn't in shape throughout the entire season last year, so his stock dropped. But, with several guys who are great motivators on this team, it's easy to envision the Bears getting the best out of Jeffery. These two offseason acquisitions give the Bears a suddenly very deep wide receiver corps.
The Bears have a lot of Pro Bowl talent on their defense and special teams. Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, and Lance Briggs are all All-Pro defenders, even if they are getting up there in age. The Bears added to their pass rush by drafting defensive end/linebacker Shea McClellin from Boise State. The 2012 first-round pick is not only great at causing havoc on the quarterback, but he is also a solid cover linebacker. Along with the front seven, the Bears' secondary is fantastic, as well. As a unit, they allowed only 6.8 yards per attempt in 2011, which was good for seventh in the NFL. The two starting cornerbacks, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings allowed just one passing touchdown between them along with intercepting five passes as well.
And the Bears' special teams is the best in the NFL. Devin Hester is the best return man in NFL history, and he showed why again last season with his three return touchdowns and an unreal 16.2 yards per return on punts. Kicker Robbie Gould hit 28-32 field goals (including 6-6 from 50 yards or more), and is one of the top kickers in the game. The Bears also acquired very good kick returner Eric Weems this offseason, improving what was already an elite special teams. Along with having a rather easy schedule, which includes facing the NFC West and the AFC South, the Bears are in prime position to be one of the best teams in football and the best team in the entire NFC.
This prediction really isn't a question about McFadden's talent; it's really about whether or not he can stay healthy. In the six full games he played last season (he had another game with two carries for four yards before he got injured), he averaged more than 100 yards per game over that span. The year before that, McFadden played in 13 games, and if you take out the two where he was playing with significant pain and only had 16 yards on 18 carries (weeks 8 and 9), he averaged once again more than 100 yards per game.
McFadden will get a lot of carries, because he is the main back with no backup who will take away that many carries from him. He also plays in a division where the three other teams (Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs) all finished with run defenses of 20th or worse last season. The Raiders' offensive philosophy is to ground and pound with McFadden, and when he has been healthy, he has shown that he can be a very special running back. The Raiders also have a decent pass offense so that opposing defenses can't entirely focus on the run thanks to quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receivers Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Raiders' offensive line is also one of the best units in the league in regards to run defense. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Darren McFadden plays 15 or 16 games this season and runs crazy on the league in 2012.