It’s back – another year of NFL football (actual referees not included). With that, you’ll get the super-fast Ultimate Capper preview, including 10 key storylines to watch in 2012, full division picks, and the first pick of the 2012 season completely free of charge!
Ten Biggest Storylines
1) How will Peyton Manning play this year, and what does it mean for Denver and the rest of the AFC?
If Manning is able to return to form, the Broncos should be the heavy favorite to win the West and probably a legitimate AFC championship contender. Despite some playoff failures, he’s not a quarterback that’s going to fear going to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, or Foxboro in the postseason – and he may not have to if Denver runs away and hides during the regular season. After all, only the Patriots, Steelers, and Manning-led Colts have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since 2002. If he’s even remotely close to his last couple years before the neck surgery, Manning could single-handedly add another team to that list in 2013.
2) What do the suspensions of Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton, and Joe Vitt mean for the New Orleans Saints this season?
This has been discussed at length in multiple places, but it’s still worth a quick analysis. The Saints were clearly one of the NFC’s best last year, and were one defensive stop away from hosting the Giants in the NFC Championship Game – a game they likely would have won with that dynamic offense. Now, even with Drew Brees under contract, this organization is reeling as they try to cope with the loss of their two main architects for the entire season, as well as their interim coach for six games. That doesn’t even include the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith. This clearly wasn’t an elite defensive unit before Bounty-gate, and now it’s even less so. That will put more pressure on the Saints offense, and that may just be too much to ask, even of a unit as good as this one.
3) How will the use of replacement referees affect the games on the field?
I don’t know that there’s going to be a tremendous difference between the regular officials and the replacement referees, especially not to the general football fan. Players and coaches may see some slight differences, especially in the way penalties are called (or not called), but even still it likely won’t cause a dramatic difference in the play on the field. The only fear I would have as an NFL player or team representative is how the new officials will handle hits to the head and similarly potentially dangerous plays. The league will definitely have to monitor the way those decisions are handled, considering the emphasis on player safety in recent years.
4) How will Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow co-exist in New York?
Trick question – they can’t! It was a dumb trade at the time, as the Jets really should have allowed Tebow to go to Jacksonville, revitalize that fan base, and save themselves the headache. Instead they’ve split their fan base and forced Sanchez to suddenly make “the leap” with the least talented offense around him in the four years he’s been in New York. The Jets will still be playoff contenders because that defense is still that good, but expecting more than 8-9 wins is outrageous regardless of who’s quarterbacking that awful offense.
5) Will Michael Vick be able to give the Eagles 16 games this season?
If he can, there’s a good chance the Eagles could win 12 games and run away in the NFC North. I’m putting their number more at 10, which would once again likely provide a nice three-way battle between Philadelphia, New York, and Dallas. I just don’t see how a guy who’s never been able to slide early and avoid big hits is suddenly going to make it through an entire NFL season uninjured. It’s too difficult for him to change the way he plays this far into his career, so it’s a pretty good bet Nick Foles will get at least a start or two this season.
6) How will the plethora of starting rookie quarterbacks (Luck, Griffin, Wilson, Wheaton, and Tannehill) handle the pressure and speed of the NFL?
Believe it or not, Luck actually enters the best situation, because the Colts weren’t nearly as bad as their 2-14 record last season. Rarely does the top overall pick actually wind up with the best roster of any rookie QB, but that’s the case here. Wilson and Griffin also both have chances to lead their teams to the postseason, albeit very small ones. But all five will have to learn quickly that the speed of the NFL game is drastically different than college, regardless of who played in what conference. Wheaton might have an advantage being 28 and a bit more mature, but the rest of the group should also translate nicely. If you’re looking to pick the biggest “bust,” go with Tannehill, who’s started just one full season at the college level and has now been handed the keys to an NFL offense. Side note: For all those SEC-lovers out there, how many of those five QB’s played in the SEC last year? Answer: NONE! Because a QB going from the SEC to the NFL nowadays works about as well as Danica Patrick going to NASCAR or Michael Jordan playing baseball. So stop it already – your defenses are outstanding and your offenses stink. Get over it. End side note.
7) Which team will make the biggest leap from “bad” to “playoffs” this season?
It happens every year – a team that was putrid the year before suddenly gets some talented draft picks, imports and impact free agent or two, maybe changes coaches and/or quarterbacks, and rides an easy schedule into the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49’ers both did it in 2011, so who will do it this year? Odds are the Seattle Seahawks may be able to find their way onto that list, considering Arizona and St. Louis will still be relatively weak, but that will be contingent upon Russell Wilson exceeding expectations. Carolina and Buffalo have also been trendy playoff picks, but I think the biggest improvement will be Indianapolis. They may not actually make the playoffs, but there’s plenty of talent still on a roster that once again features a very good quarterback. 8-9 wins is not at all out of the question for that group.
8) Which team will see the biggest fall from “good” to “awful” this season?
Ah, the inverse of the question above. Quite frankly I don’t see too many teams taking a huge step backwards – I could see the 49’ers, Giants, Packers, Saints, Cowboys, Ravens, Jets, Titans, Bengals, and Chargers all winning less games than last year by one or two, but I don’t foresee any major drop offs. Picking one from that list, though, I’ll take Tennessee. Eight wins was a bit surprising last year, and if the Colts are going to make a 6-7 win jump, those need to be accounted for in the loss column somewhere. So let’s knock the Titans down to 5-11 and say they’ll be the NFL’s biggest loser.
9) Will the Patriots be able to repeat as AFC champions?
Bill Belichick has taken New England to five Super Bowls in his tenure, and considering he still has the best quarterback in the AFC in a pass-happy league, odds might be in his favor. The AFC East is weaker than it’s been since the Jets have fallen off, so home field might also be within reach. The Ravens, Steelers, Broncos, and Texans all have legitimate Super Bowl hopes as well, so it’s not as if the Pats are playing in their own world all by themselves, but considering the circumstances surrounding all of those other teams are less favorable than New England’s, it’s hard not to roll the dice in predicting a return trip for Brady, Belichick, and company.
10) Will the Giants be able to repeat as NFC and Super Bowl champions?
There hasn’t been a repeat champion in the NFL since the Patriots pulled it off in 2003 and 2004. Many teams have tried – teams that were actually better than the Giants in the regular season. Considering how fortunate the Giants were to simply be in the playoffs last year, and the relative difficulty of winning the NFC East yet again, odds are there will almost definitely be a new Super Bowl champion this year.
And now the division picks:
AFC East – Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins
Buffalo has talent, but the Jets defense will still be good enough to win more games. Neither will have any real shot at catching New England, though, while Miami will struggle to get 4 wins this season.
AFC North – Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns
Give Cleveland a year and they’ll be on the list of surprise teams, but right now it’s all Baltimore. Defense is better that Pittsburgh’s, and the argument could be made for Flacco over Big Ben right now too. Cincinnati will have another dip thanks to a very hard schedule, but look for them to rise in 2013 as well.
AFC South – Texans, Colts, Titans, Jaguars
This is Houston’s world, everyone else is just living in it. Indy should be able to rebound nicely with Andrew Luck, while the Titans won’t hang around nearly as long as they did last year. And the Jags… well… there’s always Los Angeles.
AFC West – Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers
I don’t like the roster around Phillip Rivers anymore, and both the Raiders and Chiefs have solid defenses. These picks obviously revolve around Manning’s health, but even at 75% he’s an upgrade over Tebow.
NFC East – Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Redskins
I almost picked Dallas last here – I just don’t like their chemistry. Griffin will have an immediate impact in DC, but circle September 30 and December 30 – the two Eagles-Giants games will ultimately decide the division.
NFC North – Packers, Lions, Bears, Vikings
Aaron Rodgers is still the best QB in the division, and the Lions are now dangerous. I think the Bears need a full season from Brian Urlacher, and I’m not sure they’ll get it, so I can’t buy in completely.
NFC South – Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Buccaneers
I think Newton can lead the Panthers to the playoffs, but the team around him isn’t as good as the rosters assembled in Atlanta or New Orleans. The Falcons get my nod because of Bounty-gate, the Bucs are a 7-win team in any other division.
NFC West – 49’ers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals
Arizona still hasn’t found their replacement for Kurt Warner, wasting the prime of Larry Fitzgerald’s career. Seattle should challenge San Fran for the division title, but that 49’er defense is definitely elite and should carry the day.
AFC Wild Card teams – Steelers, Colts
I don’t like anyone else in the AFC East or West, so ultimately it came down to the Colts and Bengals for me, and I’m going with Indy. I mean, come on – a guy named “Luck” playing with a horseshoe on his helmet? How can I go against that?
NFC Wild Card teams – Saints, Lions
I find the AFC South to be the toughest division in football, so getting two teams into the playoffs might be tough, but I love the New Orleans offense so much I’m doing it anyway. It’s really hard choosing between the Saints, Lions, Giants, Bears, and Cowboys, but that’s the order I think they finish so we’re going with Detroit over the defending champs.
AFC Champion – New England Patriots
I can’t envision any of the other AFC playoff teams on my list coming into Foxboro and beating the Pats with the exception of the Ravens. And, since they didn’t do it last year, I’ll go chalk this year and take the home team again.
NFC Champion – Green Bay Packers
They may not have home field like they did last year, but their roster is the best in the NFC, and that’s basically what preseason predictions are – who’s got the best roster. The Saints, Eagles, and 49’ers are all close, but they’re simply not as stacked top-to-bottom as Green Bay.
Super Bowl Champion – Green Bay Packers
I’m a Jets fan, and will never pick the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Plus, after watching New England choke away two in a row against the Giants – with two first-round playoff exits and a missed postseason in between – I think the luster is wearing a bit off of the two-headed monster that at one time was Brady-Belichick.
And finally, we open the season with our very first pick.
Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants
Wed, 8pm, NBC
Line: Giants by 4
Eli and company begin their title defense by hosting the team they beat twice in the final month last year to wrestle away the division and make the playoffs in the first place. Don’t think Jason Garrett and Tony Romo have forgotten – after all, there’s no way Jerry Jones would let them. But the Giants are still the better football team, and I just don’t see Big Blue losing on opening night, at home, to the Dallas Cowboys
Pick: New York 27, Dallas 20
Record last season
Straight Up: 177-90
Against Spread: 133-121-13