2012 NFL Season Prognostications - Part 2 ? The AFC
An inner voice said, "What about the AFC, jerk?" Lee answers his inner voice here with AFC picks.
So there I was, way out on this limb, taking a wild stab at the NFC and making my predictions on each team in that conference and then I heard this inner voice: "What about the AFC, jerk?"
Uh, okay, so what about it? Seriously, if I'm going to go out and make a fool of myself, why do it only once and why not just do it twice?
One thing to keep in mind: Whatever happens in Week No. 1 doesn't necessarily have any bearing whatsoever on what happens in the final week. It's a long struggle and many things can affect each team -- even how their division foes fare during the season. Having said that, only three of 10 teams since 1992 have made the postseason after starting out at 0-1 -- not very good odds.
So, with that, let's have a look at the teams in the AFC, and we will again list them in the order of predicted finish within each division, like we did for the NFC. It's so easy to just replicate how each team finished last year, but that's a mistake because every season is new and every team has changed, either by losing players, gaining players, or changing coaches. That's the fun part of predictions.
New England Patriots – Lost Super Bowl XLVI last February, but have reloaded on defense and added more explosiveness on offense, so it seems unlikely that they will suffer from the Super Bowl Loser Syndrome. Defensively, they already had NT Vince Wilfork and re-signed DL Kyle Love long-term, and although losing DE mark Anderson (Buffalo) and not re-signing DE Andre Carter, they added DE Chandler Jones (Syracuse) and ILB Dont'a Hightower (Alabama), both in the first round. They have emerging ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Rob Ninkovich and Pro-Bowl LB Jerod Mayo, along with solid S Patrick Chung and a now-healthy secondary with DB Kyle Arrington, DB Devin McCourty, and returning CB's Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore, while adding veteran S Steve Gregory (San Diego).
On offense, they lost BenJarvis Green Ellis (Cincinnatti), but have promising RBs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen returning. They also signed WR Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis) to be the dangerous outside threat they lacked last season and have signed TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez for the long-term, and WR Wes Welker is back, having signed his one-year franchise tender. One particular question mark will be whether former first round LT Nate Solder can replace the retired Matt Light to protect QB Tom Brady's blind side.
This team looks poised for another run, but it still comes down to Brady and with that, I'll pick them to go 12-4.
New York Jets – Is a difficult team to gauge. They brought in former Miami head coach Tony Sparano to be the offensive coordinator, but I still don't get exactly what Bill Parcells sees in him. I listened to an interview with owner Woody Johnson this week, and I'd have to say that it was uninspiring, to say the least, and winning, to me, starts at the top. Equipped with up-and-down QB Mark Sanchez, they brought in QB Tim Tebow (Denver) to run the wildcat and push Sanchez. They brought in a guy with a 40 percent completion rate to challenge their No. 1? Sparano will attempt to bring back their ground-and-pound run game that got them to two AFC Championship games with RB Shonn Greene leading the way (6 TDs in 2011), but LaDanian Tomlinson retired.
They parted with both starting safeties and brought in LaRon Landry (Washington) and Yeremiah Bell (Miami), which are upgrades (well, Landry is, Bell struggles in coverage) and drafted DL Quinton Coples (N. Carolina) in the first round, but he comes with questions. They also didn't re-sign WR Plaxico Burress, and if crybaby WR Santonio Holmes can't keep his pie-hole shut, this ship could be in rough waters early on -- like when they toss the rope off the dock. If the defense, starting with CB Darrelle Revis can regain their form, it could carry the team through tough stretches.
This all has the look of a franchise that isn't heading upward anytime soon. The circus has come to town, and I see it ending at 9-7 in a best case scenario.
Buffalo Bills – Have made significant offseason moves, adding former overall first round pick DE (Super) Mario Williams (Houston) and DE Mark Anderson (New England) as well as QB Tarvaris Jackson, who will attempt to do in the AFC what he couldn't in the NFC (Minnesota, Seattle), while not losing much, excluding maybe CB Drayton Florence.
This was a tale of two teams: 1st half of the season (30.1 PPG, 5-2) and 2nd half (17.9, 1-7). A healthy RB Fred Jackson (5.5 YPC) is usually in the discussion for MVP, but is coming back from a broken right fibula. RB C. J. Spiller (5.2 YPC) is a top-flight backup and could be a number one anywhere else. The offensive line is good, but the left tackle spot could have rookie Cordy Glenn (Georgia) protecting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The defense in general is in fairly good shape, on the line, at linebacker and the secondary gets first round pick CB Stephon Gilmore (S. Carolina) to step in opposite CB Terrence McGee. If Anderson and Williams pan out, this team could go places, but I seem to recall previous big name signings that delivered meager results.
I honestly predict that Fitzpatrick will be replaced under center at some point with Jackson because he runs too hot and cold to be effective, in my opinion. One thing about Williams that bothers me: Houston lost him for the season, but didn't miss a beat. Why is that?
I like what they're doing, but this is the same team that hasn't made the postseason this millennium. Given that, I'll offer a 9-7 showing and another playoff miss.
Miami Dolphins – Have a new head coach (again) in Joe Philbin and staff (again) and quarterback (again). Hopefully, this provides a new outlook and better results for the fan base. In the offseason, they signed veteran QB David Garrard, but he didn't make it out of camp, so that leaves rookie first rounder Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) and veteran Matt Moore as the signal callers, with Tannehill named the starter for week one. They let Brandon Marshall go to Chicago for a pair of third round picks and the rest of the receiving corps is young and inexperienced. They do have RB Reggie Bush who gained over 1,000 yards last year (5.0 YPC) and not much else, although their offensive line is fairly solid. On defense, they will switch from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 style and that will have players manning unfamiliar spots from last season. Other than Karlos Dansby and Cameron Wake, the linebackers are unremarkable and the defensive backfield is in flux with Bell now in New York and former star corner Vontae Davis traded to St. Louis.
QB Tannehill was a major reach in the draft at #8 and he will be a reach in the NFL as a starter, so look for Moore in about week #5 or #6. I'll be fair and pick them to go 5-11.
Denver Broncos – Talk about a team in transition and the Broncos are it. One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time – and who didn't play one down last year coming off neck surgery (uh, his fourth) – will take his amazing resume and play for another team. Not since Joe Montana left San Fran for Kansas City, has so much excitement been generated at the new venue. Can Manning return to form? Bronco's president John Elway thinks so. Manning brought along two old friends: TE Jacob Tamme and WR Brandon Stokely to pair with WR Andre Caldwell (from Cincinnatti) and returning wideout Demaryius Thomas along with RB Willis McGahee, who is 31 years old. The Bronco defense has questions, although they do have 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year in LB Von Miller, as well as DE Elvis Dumervil, DE Robert Ayers, CB Champ Bailey and they also signed CB Tracy Porter (New Orleans), but they no longer have S Brian Dawkins (retired) and DL Brodrick Bunkley (New Orleans), so the net gain may be no (or marginal) gain.
It's all about Manning and when you look at this offense, it has too many questions and not enough answers to me. If Manning recovers from the surgery, then anything is possible, but he definitely is intelligent and if his arm strength returns, they could make a move in the AFC. I'll go with an optimistic 11-5 finish.
San Diego Chargers – If they don't make the playoffs, then Norval Eugene Turner will be coaching offense somewhere else. This team has potential, but they've never put it all together, although they have come close, but I think the real problem is GM A. J. Smith and not Turner. Regardless, QB Philip Rivers is very, very good and last year was not indicative of his abilities because Rivers was never the same last season after being pancaked by New England in week #2. Gone is (WR) Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay), but I never thought that he deserved the accolades that he received anyway because if Rivers is your quarterback and you're the number one, then shouldn't you post extraordinary numbers? Well, he really didn't. They did bring in RB Ronnie Brown (Miami), yet I'm not sure what he has left and the O-line isn't their strong suit anymore, but they also have RB Ryan Matthews and TE Antonio Gates, but Matthews is already out with an injury. The defensive side of the ball isn't what it once was and doesn't really have any true standouts, except maybe S Eric Weddle, LB Shawn Phillips and LB Jarret Johnson (from Baltimore) and they did pick LB Melvin Ingram (S. Carolina) in the first round.
Like Denver, this team has a number of questions and with that in mind, I'm giving them a 9-7 nod, mainly because of a healthy Rivers and making it in as a Wild Card.
Kansas City Chiefs – Romeo Crennel gets another chance after Cleveland and I think it's deserved. He is a class act who should have another opportunity to show what he can do. This was the only team to defeat Green Bay last year and they have potential. It's rebuild time after the Todd Haley debacle (remember, he thought they had microphones recording conversations in the facility offices?), but they do have some pieces in place already. On offense, I like the fact that they brought in OL Eric Winston (Houston), RB Peyton Hillis (Cleveland) and TE Kevin Boss (Oakland), with returning RB Jamaal Charles (ACL injury) but the real problem is QB Matt Cassell, who is inconsistent and athletically limited, while his new backup is Brady Quinn, who, if you remember, couldn't beat out Tim Tebow in Denver for the #2 spot. Defensively, they lost CB Brandon Carr (Dallas), but they still have linebackers Derrick Johnson, Jovan Belcher and Justin Houston, while signing defensive lineman Dontari Poe (Memphis), who is a freak that ran a 4.8 in the 40 at the combine while weighing in at 345 pounds (how is that?). They also have former first rounder S Eric Berry returning from a torn ACL suffered in week #1 last season.
As long as Cassell is the quarterback, this squad is limited, so even picking them to finish 8-8 is better than last year's 7-9 final and a testament to Crennel to get the most from his charges.
Oakland Raiders – This is the first full year without former owner Al Davis at the helm and it will certainly be different. They did not have the benefit of a first round pick with the Carson Palmer trade. Palmer had a pedestrian year, but is finally healthy and he has two good targets in WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore and the explosive Darren McFadden at running back. The offensive line is fairly solid and could be a difference-maker for this team. On the defensive side, other than DE Richard Seymour and linemen Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant, they have safeties Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch, but not much else and were forced to cut some higher priced veterans to gain some cap room. Former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has his hands full to turn this team into winners again.
When they surrendered a first and second round pick for Palmer, I thought they were nuts. Now we know they were, so let's go with 6-10.
Baltimore Ravens – Yes, they came within a last-second pass breakup of a Super Bowl berth, but they were actually fortunate to get past an enthusiastic Houston team the week before, with the game in question until the end. The have a solid offensive line that can open holes and protect QB Joe Flacco. On the defensive side, the line has talent and is led by DE Haloti Ngata and consistently puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks. We'll find out what this team is made of now, however because LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed are at the end of their prime (Reed wasn't even sure he would play this season) and they will also likely be without OLB Terrell Suggs (14 sacks, seven forced fumbles) for most, if not the entire season due to a torn Achilles tendon. If he did make it back, would he even be effective? This changes things dramatically, in my mind and there is another consideration in all of this: Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano left to be the HC in Indy and he was replaced by former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees who was on the Baltimore staff last year. The defensive statistics during Pee's tenure with the Patriots was pretty unimpressive.
QB Joe Flacco basically gets it done and RB Ray Rice is all-world and that's the difference along with the head coach, so I'll give them a nod at 10-6, which is not a huge vote of confidence in this black and blue division.
Pittsburgh Steelers – I normally respect this team although, admittedly, I'm not a fan of LB James Harrison. As much as I do respect head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert, I don't respect QB Ben Roethlisberger. It's not that he isn't a good quarterback, because he is and it's not because of the allegations in his private life, it's just that it's always about him and how he needs to be the star. There's other players on this team that are fun to watch, especially on defense and they know how to play the game, like safeties Troy Polomalu and Ryan Clark as well as LB Lamar Woodley and LB Jason Worlids, who is coming on as a pass rusher. LB James Harrison to me, just hasn't been the same since his 2009 Defensive Player of the Year season and he won't be able to start the season having had arthroscopic knee surgery on August 15th. The offense will benefit with the return of WR Mike Wallace, but it was WR Antonio Brown who was re-signed long term. RB Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in January and his return is unknown, so they will turn to Isaac Redman to carry the ball until then and he's been basically pedestrian. Their weakest link is the offensive line and other than solid center Maurkice Pouncey, they have problems. They drafted RG David DeCastro (Stanford) in round one and LT Mike Adams (Ohio State) in the second, but DeCastro is lost for the season already, while Adams hasn't come on in camp, so protecting Roethlisberger again will be difficult. They'll also be without LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, DE Aaron Smith, RB Mewelde Moore and WR Hines Ward.
I don't see how new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is going to upgrade this team because his personality just doesn't fit and the offensive line has problems, but maybe Tomlin can make it work. I can only see them at 9-7 and just managing to make the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals – I like QB Andy Dalton who came on in his rookie season and led them into the playoffs in his first year. 1st year wideout A. J. Green was basically spectacular and they parted with RB Cedric Benson and signed the 'Law Firm', BenJarvis Green-Ellis (from New England) to handle the rushing chores. TE Jermaine Gresham is another rising star on offense. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has put together a good group with a solid D-line, but questions remain in the defensive backfield and former first-rounder CB Dre Kirkpatrick has not been quite as advertised. Marvin Lewis has quietly held this post for quite some time, but I just don't see a deep run in the playoffs coming anytime soon, if ever.
This team may not ever get to elite status, but they could make some noise. The problem is, they've not made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 44 years and I can't imagine that changes now. Let's call it 9-7, but watching the postseason on TV.
Cleveland Browns – This is one tough luck town, let me tell you. The fans have not had a great deal to cheer about and the team has never been run quite right. The Butch Davis days were dark indeed, but there hasn't been a lot of light in the tunnel since then, either. It's the way the team is operated. Look, I greatly admire Mike Holmgren, as a coach. Remember when he left Green Bay for Seattle and more power because he couldn't get that in Wisconsin with GM Ron Wolf and then Ted Thompson? Well he had more power in the Pacific Northwest, but that didn't equate to another ring, although he did get into the Super Bowl and lost to Pittsburgh, but every other season was quite unremarkable. Holmgren the coach and Holmgren the team president are not necessarily going to enjoy the same success. On offense, they will go with two rookies at primary spots in QB Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and RB Trent Richardson (Alabama) and pin their hopes on them. I like Richardson, who I believe will emerge as a top threat with the ball in his hands and make defenses game plan for him, but it's difficult to gauge what impact Weeden will have surrounded by WR Greg Little and Little Else because TE Benjamin Watson will be done with one more concussion. This club needed a franchise quarterback and pass catchers and they didn't get it, folks. For the defense, there's not a lot *yawn* to talk about, really and other than DE D'Quell Jackson, there's just no one to actually fear. Up and coming CB Joe Haden is great to watch, but he's either in trouble one day or facing a suspension for using a banned substance another day, so you can't make a difference when you're not on the field. I'll be surprised if Weeden is actually a better quarterback option than Colt McCoy who didn't even get the benefit of being in a competition.
Let's give them a show of no-confidence that the direction is not necessarily a good one and go with 5-11, which is one win better than last year. What's Brian Sipe doing?
Houston Texans – The best team in the state no longer resides in Arlington. The times, they are a-changing. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has brought this side of the ball to a place where the elite reside. Yes, Bum's kid does what he does best and that's coach defense. When you have a healthy QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson, the offense should be able to put up solid numbers and move the chains. All three could go All-Pro. On defense, they've lost a few, like DE/OLB Mario Williams (Buffalo) and ILB DeMeco Ryans (Philadelphia), but they made the playoffs for the first time even though Williams went down with a torn pectoral muscle. They still have linebackers Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing and CB Jonathan Joseph, along with a good defensive line and added first round pick DL Whitney Mercilus (Illinois).
This team came very close to a meeting with New England for the AFC Championship, so it wouldn't surprise me or anyone that they make that game this time around. I see 12-4 written all over this team.
Tennessee Titans – Are a team without much of an identity. RB Chris Johnson managed over 1,000 yards last season after starting horribly, but he just doesn't look like the same back to me. That's not a good thing because they are going with QB Jake Locker over veteran Matt Hasselbeck behind center. TE Jared Cook looks like he's ready to emerge and they will also have WR Wesley Britt back in the mix and they signed LG Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota). The secondary lost CB Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis), but signed LB Kamerion Wimbley (Oakland) and also have promising linebackers Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy, so the defense, although in flux, shows some possible improvement.
I have trouble seeing another 9-7 finish, although I can't imagine the drop-off too severe, so I'll call it an 8-8 final tally.
Indianapolis Colts – Is a team not easily recognizable with #18 Peyton Manning no longer taking snaps at quarterback. Enter the Andrew Luck Era, the overall number one pick in the draft (Stanford), although they kept WR Reggie Wayne to be the go-to man on offense. They also brought in CB Vontae Davis (Miami), DE Cory Redding and S Tom Zbikowski (both from Baltimore). Along with Manning, they parted with C Jeff Saturday, TE's Jacob Tamme and Dallas Clark as well as MLB Gary Brackett and S Melvin Bullitt. This is a new team with many new players, a new head coach (Pagano) and a new GM Ryan Grigson, so it's difficult to put them into some sort of statistical grouping because there's no telling how it will all sort out. Luck has the pedigree to be top-flight and Pagano brings a different mentality, along with a new 3-4 defensive scheme, but how will DE/OLB's Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis fare in this alignment? That's a big question.
You can be optimistic, but you have to be a realist and let's face it, anything is better than last year's 2-14 debacle, so let's pencil them in at 5-11.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Speaking of teams in transition and this is it. Former first round QB Blaine Gabbert looked fairly mundane last season, but this year he had the opportunity of OTA's and a full training camp to get ready for the season and has looked better in the preseason. If he can capture the nuances of new head coach Mike Mularkey's offense, then they could make some positive strides. First round selection WR Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) comes with incredible athleticism, but also a rap sheet having had behavioral issues previously and was just arrested in June for an alcohol-related incident. The defense is the strong suit having finished sixth overall last season, but many questions abound about this team.
I see them fighting it out with Tennessee and Indianapolis and in doing so, finish at 5-11 like Indy, as long as Blackmon stays out of prison.
This prognostication is provided for your entertainment and enjoyment, so feel free to begin laughing right about now. Being what it is, no one who has made any predictions for the season is wrong at this point and that includes yours truly.
With that in mind, have a happy season.