Thursday, August 30, 2012

NFL 2012 Predictions: Stars and Scrubs

Over the past few years, the teams that have won in the NFL haven't been dynastic, or even dominant. Instead, we've seen clubs get hot and/or healthy in the final month, with turnover differential being the only statistic that matters; the games feel more or less random. We're told that this just shows how wildly competitive the league is, and how it's an inevitable trend with everyone copying what everyone else does.

And in 2012, that's going to change. A lot.

This year, we're going to see 12 teams -- the ones that go to the playoffs -- be a lot better than the teams that don't. We're going to see multiple teams go undefeated and winless deep into October and beyond. We're going to see more 20+ point wins than nail-biters, more run it up moments than overtime games, more games that get cut away in the third quarter.

Why? Because (1) all trends change over time, and (2) we're going to start the year with fake refs. And do you know what fake refs do? They defer to loud home crowds (from, well, the more established franchises), and they defer to stars and big names. Not so much as to be an obvious inquiry, but enough to make Green Bay and New England Fan very, very happy. (Like those people needed more happiness.)

And what that, it's time, folks, it's time: the annual NFL predictions column. Over the many years that I've written FTT, these have gotten better and better, all the way past random chance. So why get off the Pain Train now? Let's get into it. Oh, and click here if you are looking for sportsbook review information.

NFC East

Philadelphia 11-5
New York 10-6
Dallas 7-9
Washington 6-10

Don't let the records fool you, or buy into the routine anti-East hype; this will be a very solid division, as opposed to last year's gaggle of mediocrity. Let's start with the also-rans, where Washington will finally be somewhat watchable thanks to Robert Griffin III, but the cabal of running backs (hint to fantasy players: this "attack" was 30th in the league last year, so just staying away from Mike "Not Really A Genius" Shanahan is your best option) won't help him at all. Pierre Garcon is fine as your #2 WR but not your #1, and Santana Moss is spent. TE Fred Davis will have numbers, but the depth here is not good, and neither is the line. But the biggest problem is on defense, where MLB London Fletcher has to get old one of these decades, and the secondary isn't up to snuff. Expect a lot of 31-24 games, with Griffin piling up numbers late.

As for Dallas.... don't you just love the hubris of an owner who talks about the Super Bowl window of opportunity closing on talent that has won one -- uno, singular, unique -- playoff game in this century? The skill players are already hurt, RB DeMarco Murray will be soon, and the secondary is about 1-2 years away from losing its sieve state. They'll win some games early, since that's what they do, then fall apart down the stretch despite the Thanksgiving gift the league keeps giving them. And you will hear more about them then any other pretender...

New York, the defending Super Bowl champions, will be better than they were last year and not win. That's just the way the NFL works; Green Bay was better in 2011 than 2010, but just not at the close. The schedule gets a lot harder, people get too comfortable, etc.; winning a Super Bowl is just that hard. I just don't see the running game doing enough to offset the regression to Eli Manning's numbers (if nothing else, Victor Cruz isn't getting a half-dozen home-run scores this year), and the secondary targets don't impress. On defense, the LBs are vulnerable and the secondary can't stay healthy. Don't go crazy, they will still be good, just not as good as...

My Philadelphia Eagles, who will shake off injury worries at the QB position and coordination worries on defense to put together a run at the end of the year and win the division. (This will also convince them to extend Mike Vick and Andy Reid and Juan Castillo, which just made any number of my Eagle Fan friends look for something to stab themselves with.) Look for big things from the defensive line, who will lead the league in sacks and havoc, and just enough plays from the LBs and DBs to get the hell off the field more often than not. Offensively, they will crush weak teams and struggle against good teams, the same way they've done for years... but this defense has a chance to be special, and some of those bad bounce balls from last year are going to even out in 2012. (Unfortunately, this will not become playoff success. Sigh.)

NFC North

Green Bay 13-3
Chicago 10-6
Detroit 6-10
Minnesota 4-12

The best team in the NFC for the second straight year will be the Pack, who have to be considered the overwhelming favorite to win the conference. The defense is going to be better, the running game a little more consistent, and it doesn't hurt at all to have the best QB in the world during a historical era when that matters more than any other. Watch out for reserve WR Reggie Cobb as the new flavor of the month here, especially if WR Jordy Nelson regresses or WR Greg Jennings can't shake the concussion issues... but honestly, QB Aaron Rodgers needs new weapons the way that a grizzly bear needs the first swat. (Oh, and there's also this: they will benefit the most from Fake Refs.)

I really like this Chicago team. The defense is a little old in the tooth but that usually means good things if they stay healthy. The special teams are always good for a stolen win or two, and the offense is actually deep for once. WR Brandon Marshall might be the first guy in franchise history to justify a double team, RB Michael Bush will keep RB Matt Forte fresh, and with passing idiot savant Mike Martz gone, QB Jay Cutler might get through the year in one piece. Lots to like here, and remember, they were looking at a playoff berth last year before Cutler got hurt.

As for Detroit, last year's darlings do not impress me now, to the point where I'm wildly below their current Vegas expected wins number. The RB situation is a carousel, QB Matthew Stafford looks ready for another big injury, and the other targets outside of WR Calvin Johnson don't impress. I think this is the year that HC Jim Schwartz loses the reins on his troubled defense, and that secondary, outside of S Louis Delmas, is fungible. For a club like this, it's much better to be on the rise than on the close. Young and undisciplined works for no expectations; it doesn't work for expected to contend. And if you read tomorrow that Ndamokung Suh did something arrest-worthy, would you even be surprised?

Lastly, Minnesota. Woof. An even worse secondary than Detroit does not work, especially in this division, and the pass rush to cover for their mistakes is getting old. On offense, QB Christian Ponder still makes the big telegraph mistake, the OL hasn't ever built back up from their Favre-inspired heyday, and if you see RB Adrian Peterson rushing back too soon to get hurt again, you aren't alone. I like TE Kyle Rudolph to make some noise and they do get a bit of a home crowd bump, but someone's got to be this division's bitch, and that's the Vikings.

NFC South

Atlanta 11-5
Carolina 8-8
New Orleans 7-9
Tampa 5-11

I'm not sold on the Falcons being a true contender, but you have to love how the division has opened up for them. Carolina doesn't look quite ready to me, New Orleans is going to suffer in the wake of BountyGate, and the Bucs hired a college coach, which never works. With Matt Ryan slowly but surely raising his game, a set of weapons that's got another year of dominance if Tony Gonzalez doesn't lose effectiveness, and an offensive game plan that looks like it's getting away from Michael Turner, they will be plenty effective enough to run this division. Oh, and if Jacquizz Rodgers has the lion's share of the RB work by midfield, they could be downright dangerous.

As for the rest, Carolina does have dark horse potential, and the defense can't be as hurt as they were last year. But healthy doesn't equal great, and I have my doubts about WR Steve Smith keeping his effectiveness at this age. WR Brandon LaFell is your sleeper pick here, but Newton cuckolds the RBs at the goal line, which has to worry you in the long run; as big and powerful as the man is, that's a lot of pounding that most QBs miss. I like their chances for 2013 more than 2012; this year has Sophomore Slump and Learning Experience written all over it.

For the Saints, there's always the scary potential of Drew Brees throwing down another 5,000 yard / 40 TD kind of year to keep them afloat, but I think they suffer on blitz pick up without Sean Payton to coach them up, and if Brees ever misses time, this club has a chance of turning into the 2011 Colts. I'm also not ready to buy into the idea that Darren Sproles is going to be this good forever and ever, or that the depth they have at RB isn't more along the lines of a bunch of guys who do one thing well, but aren't really good at anything else. I also suspect they'll miss WR Robert Mechem more than they think; WR Devery Henderson isn't really a consistent deep threat anymore, and WR Marques Colston and WR Lance Moore aren't getting deep. TE Jimmy Graham is still a nightmare, but I think you can start to roll up the safeties on this passing attack, and that will make for more INTs.

Finally, the Bucs promise that they will try this year, unlike last... but as Walter Matthau said in "The Bad News Bears", quitting is a tough habit to break. But not nearly as hard as breaking the tackling efforts of this defense. RB Doug Martin has a great nickname (The Muscle Hamster) and will rack up counting stats, but QB Josh Freeman looks like a turnover waiting to happen, and losing G Davin Joseph is going to cause all kinds of cascade failure on that OL. At least the locals know how to put up with a losing team.

NFC West

San Francisco 11-5
Seattle 10-6
Arizona 5-11
St. Louis 4-12

San Francisco is primed to be great, which means they won't be, if for no other reason than Alex Smith won't get as lucky in 2012 as he did in 2011 with potential picks. They also have five prime-time appearances, which usually does not bode at all well for a young team. Finally, I'm not sold that a dozen meh options at WR and RB is quality depth, rather than just a bunch of guys who can't be counted on to make a play in crunch time.

But it's not as if anyone is going to notice in this division, which might have the two worst teams in the conference in Arizona and St. Louis; the less said about each, the better. Other than if this were baseball, Larry Fitzgerald and Stephen Jackson would have been traded away from these distressed franchises years ago. (Both, for the record, will provide their usual numbers, simply because they are too professional not to. See y'all in Canton one day, gents.)

The fun team will be Seattle, who will ride rookie QB Russell Wilson to all kinds of entertainment, and that defense has moments, too -- they get after the run really well, and the secondary has all kinds of big DBs that match up well with the oversized post-up guys that are becoming all the rage. Eventually Wilson will make mistakes and/or get hurt, and I don't trust HC Pete Carroll to win big games, but they'll be a highly entertaining fraud, and make SF work deep into the schedule to lock down the division. (They'll also cost them home field. Which matters a lot, really...)

Division winners: Philly, Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco

Wild cards: Chicago and New York

First round: Philly over New York, Chicago over San Francisco

Second round: Philly over Atlanta, Green Bay over Chicago

Conference round: Green Bay over Philly

AFC East

New England 14-2
Buffalo 8-8
New York 5-11
Miami 5-11

Has there ever been a more gift-wrapped division? New England is going to go 6-0 in this division with an average margin of victory of over 20, to the point where we're all going to have to endure more regular season worship of these empty calorie marvels. With the possible exception of Buffalo, there's no one here that can rush the passer enough to disrupt the timing of the Brady Bunch, and the addition of Brandon Lloyd is going to make things even harder for defenses that don't have absurd abilities to cover tight ends. There's even hope for the defense, in that they are all gaining experience in dealing with this kind of pace, and the running game is going to be a lot better now that it's in the hands of talented kids, rather than retreads with heart. Luckily, the notoriously circumspect and respectful Boston media and fan base won't jump to conclusions or make everyone who watches NFL football spend 2012 worshiping at the altar of Team Cheat. Oh, wait, they will? Crap.

I'd like Buffalo a lot more if Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't a retread with suspect arm strength and injury history; I'm just smelling a lot of picks coming from him this year, and paying WR Stevie Johnson sounds like it's just asking for trouble. The defense is going to keep them in games, and the RBs (especially the criminally under-appreciated Fred Jackson) are solid as well, but the plain and simple fact of the Bills is that they (a) don't have enough talent, and (b) have paid through the nose to keep the talent that they do have here, which means they have content talent. Ouch.

As for the New York Tebows, never in the course of human history will so much be written about so little. I don't want to add to the fire, other than to point out that even the vaunted defense isn't all that great, with the aforementioned Stevie Johnson torching CB Darelle Revis. This will be a nothing but a train wreck.

Miami closes it out as perhaps the NFL's least consequential team, unless you'd like to give that title to Jacksonville. I'd feel bad for you, Florida Football Fan, if you didn't live in Florida. Since you do, I pretty much have to assume you are some kind of face-eating freak, and deserve to watch plodding 5-11 football with reach QB picks, terrible OLs, and the worst WRs this side of the Arena League. If this franchise has any kind of plan, they are doing a marvelous job hiding it. (Oh, and nice job firing people on camera for HBO. That's not going to come back to bite you on the ass karmically for a long time or nothing.)

AFC North

Baltimore 11-5
Pittsburgh 9-7
Cincinnati 8-8
Cleveland 4-12

Not a great year for this division. I'd feel a lot more comfortable with my Baltimore pick if DL Terrell Suggs wasn't on the shelf, and S Ed Reed and MLB Ray Lewis weren't on their last legs, but the offense should pick up the slack, especially with WR Torrey Smith ready to make the leap to true WR1 status. Besides, the replacement refs don't know to screw them, the way the regular ones do, and RB Ray Rice is still just 25, which means he might be the best in the world. For another 1-2 years. Wow, RB is such a meat grinder of a job...

Pittsburgh's disturbingly old in key places, especially on defense, and the OL can't run-block well enough to keep Big Ben from chucking it 40 times a game. Oh, and chucking it 40 times a game means taking 12-15 big hits, since the big galoot has never learned the trick of getting rid of the ball before getting crushed. Take it from a guy who's going to watch Vick through his hands this year; that doesn't work nearly as well when you are over 30.

Cincy is an entertaining dark horse for a lot of teams, particularly if you are in manlove with WR AJ Green, but I'm not sold on QB Andy Dalton and the running game, and the defense also makes too many mistakes for a repeat playoff appearance. At least they won't torture their fans with Cedric "Three Yards And A Cloud Of Suck" Benson anymore... but outside of the warm cocoon that is the New England offense, BenJarvus Green-Ellis might not be any better.

Cleveland will continue to be Cleveland; the team with the worst QB performance, year in and year out, of any team in the league. (Seriously, this is a team that, other than one mirage year of Derek Anderson to Braylon Edwards, has never been anything other than putrid. Hard to do in this era.) At least they employ a lot of ex-Eagles, which means they are doing what they can to keep the streets safe. Thanks, Cleveland!

AFC South

Houston 12-4
Tennessee 10-6
Indianapolis 6-10
Jacksonville 4-12

The stars and scrubs year continues, with the Texans primed to roll over the rest of this division. QB Matt Schaub is going to enjoy the fruits of a great backfield and healthy targets, and while the defense will miss Super Mario Williams, it's not as if they've never played without him before. HC Gary Kubiak is going to get canned for playoff failures, not regular season ones. Oh, and RB Ben Tate is going to bollix up your pick of RB Arian Foster, because Kubiak did study at the hooves of Lucifer Shanahan.

I like Tennessee to make a playoff run, not because I'm totally sold on their talent -- QB Jake Locker is inaccurate, RB Chris Johnson was awful last year, and WR Kenny Britt could be arrested or injured at any moment of the day -- but they are going to win at least four games in the division without too much trouble, and the defense has playmakers. They'll be an easy playoff out, though.

Indy gets to enjoy the first of many promising years of QB Andrew Luck, and if he had credible WRs -- Reggie Wayne is fading, Austin Collie is concuss-able, and there is no credible third option -- he'd put up better numbers. The defense is still a speed and finesse outfit that isn't built to be on the field for more then 25 minutes a game, and the special teams have been horrible forever. Luck and the home field is going to win them some games, but not many.

Finally, Jacksonville. I really want some other team to move to LA first, just to completely screw new ownership, and for the games in London to not draw. That's what you deserve for boning RB Maurice Jones-Drew, the only reason to watch this sorry-ass club for the past five years. On the field, they have added intriguing rookie WR Justin Blackmon, and QB Blaine Gabbert has shown signs in preseason of elevating his game all the way up to average... but preseasons lie. This team's gonna suck. Hard.

AFC West

Denver 9-7
Oakland 9-7
San Diego 7-9
Kansas City 7-9

The improbable choice for the NFL's most entertaining division, with four wildly variable and flawed teams battling each other to the gun for playoff spots. Seriously, this might be the best division in the AFC when it comes to QB play (even Matt Cassell is tolerable), the home field advantages are substantial, and it's not as if each organization doesn't have glaring weaknesses to draw them back to the pack.

Let's start with Denver, where new QB Payton Manning is going to (a) love his WRs (DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker), who are better -- yes, better -- than what he's had to work with in Indy for awhile, (b) hate his RBs, where Willis McGahee is nearing the end and the kids don't know blitz pick up, (c) check down to his TEs a ton, and (d) not enjoy the second half of the year, when his home games are subject to winds and snow that he never had to put up with before. I don't think he gets through the year unscathed, and the neck is really scary on every level, but I think there's enough here to get out of the division with a crown.

Next up is Oakland. Were you aware that RB Darren McFadden is injury-prone? That seems to be the breathless news that every fantasy football writer has imparted about this club, as if RB wasn't, by definition, an attrition position, or that they were telling us something that wasn't obvious. Anyway, the real issue in Oakland is whether or not QB Carson Palmer can cut down the turnovers (some, but not enough), and if the team as a whole can stop giving the opposition 100+ yards a game of DURRR through flags. (No, no, they can not.) Despite the best talent in the division, they only get the wild-card.

Everyone seems to think that QB Philip Rivers is due for a bounceback from the lackluster 2011, and I kind of hope he does -- I own him in my keeper league. But the WRs and OL are already hurt, and every division rival has guys who can get to the QB. If Rivers ever does go down, Charger Fan is starting down the barrel of Charlie Whitehurst again, which is to say that Charger Fan is staring down the barrel of a gun. That he's carrying, cocked, and placed in his mouth, R Budd Dwyer style...

KC brings up the rear as football's best last-place team. The defense is better than you think, especially with do-everything S Eric Berry and secret pass rushing demon LB Tamba Hali, and the offensive skill players -- Jamal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Dwyane Bowe, Jon Baldwin and the sneaky-good TE Tony Moeaki -- are all credible. Unfortunately, Cassel is not, and it's just the wrong era to have a fourth-tier QB.

Division winners: New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver

Wild cards: Tennessee and Oakland

First round: Baltimore over Oakland, Denver over Tennessee

Second round: New England over Denver, Houston over Baltimore

Conference round: New England over Houston

Super Bowl: Green Bay over New England

So there you have it -- the next six months, predicted to perfection. Think of all the time I've saved you. Or, um, not...

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