2012 Season Outlook

Everyone wants to project and predict how their teams will do this season. Sometimes fans think a little too highly of their team while others chalk it up as a lost season before the opening kickoff. Either way everyone is making an attempt. So, here’s mine. Before I begin there are a couple things to take into account…

– I am going to specify certain injury prone players whose health directly relates to their teams success, but for the most part, all predictions are under the impression that no major injuries occur.

– I am providing a prediction and a best-case scenario. Think of this as my prediction on what sort of season each team will have and a best-case scenario where everything goes right. Of course, any team has the possibility of going 16-0 — however remote — so may assessment is taking in more realistic possibilities.

– When I give possible win-loss records, I look at the schedule and predict how many of those games they will win or lose, but I don’t specifically track which games a team will win. For example, I see 6 games where New England could lose. My win-loss prediction is 12-4 because I think the Patriots will lose 4 out of those possible 6, but I did not specifically choose which teams would beat New England. These means that all the records are more based on what sort of record I predict each team will finish with after looking at the season as a whole. If you add up the records, you will most likely find they don’t add up properly.

– These are my assessments of how divisional races could play out. There are always surprises, both positive and negative. I wish I could predict all of them, but I can’t. But seriously… that would be awesome…

AFC East

New England Patriots – The Patriots are the class of the division. They have a high powered offense, an improving defense and a fantastic coach. The offense should put up a lot of points and any improvement defensively will make the Super Bowl runner-up all the more dangerous. I personally look at their schedule and see a 12-4 season. They look better than last season’s team, but they take on a couple tough opponents and potential trap games.

Best-case Scenario – 16-0 and strong push for the Super Bowl. I have seen this prediction elsewhere and while I have a lot of trouble predicting a team to go undefeated, New England looks very good on paper. They have a better defense than the team that barely lost the Super Bowl last season and while there are a couple tough games this season, the Patriots are more than capable of winning those.

Buffalo Bills – The Bills were big spenders this offseason as they tried to improve their defense and specifically their defensive line/pass rush. Their offense stalled midway through last season after Buffalo surprised people early on – including New England. While Buffalo has yet to put together a full season, they have the pieces to, at least, be in the playoff race at the end. I think 8-8 when I look at their schedule.

Best-case Scenario – 11-5 and playoffs. This is a definite stretch in my eyes with New England being the proven team in this division. In order for this to happen, Buffalo will need to surprise the Patriots at least once, sweep the Jets and Dolphins and win some tough games against tough opponents. Not impossible, but Buffalo will need to put together a full season. When you look at their schedule, they play the AFC South and the NFC West. Those are very favorable divisions to be matched up with. They should be able to win 5 out of those 8 games and then at least win 2 divisional games.

New York Jets – There is a lot going on here. The whole QB situation with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, Rex Ryan (who is always saying something) and the defense which should be stellar again. The defense will carry this team. The offense will do its fair share of sputtering, but the ground game and Sanchez should score some points. The Jets just appear to be heading into the season without any momentum to speak of. That could change, but that’s partly why I see the Jets finishing 7-9.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6 and a wildcard spot. Sanchez needs to play well, the defense needs to do what they are supposed to do and the media circus needs to die down around the organization, but it is possible. As I mentioned in the Bills outlook, the AFC East plays the NFC West and the AFC South. Even if the Jets struggle this season, they should be able to do some damage with those games on their schedule.

Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are a team in transition. They have rookie QB, Ryan Tannehill as their starter, a solid RB in Reggie Bush and a new offensive head coach who has a history of leading great offenses. The problem is, they lack legitimate wide receivers for Tannehill to rely on. They traded All-Pro WR Brandon Marshall and cut former All-Pro Chad Johnson (who is on the decline anyway). Miami’s defense won’t be bad, but there could be a lot of pressure on them with Tannehill still adjusting to the pro game.

Best-case Scenario – 6-10. It’s really hard to predict much from a team that is starting a rookie QB and lacks any real threat on the outside to help him out. Miami, at least on paper, looks like the worst team in this division. They may steal some wins in the division, but Miami should have some struggles this season. Head Coach, Joe Philbin, has put together top offensive attacks throughout his coaching career though, so if a WR emerges, Miami could be dangerous by the end of the season.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens has a tremendous amount of talent on both sides of the ball. They have Joe Flacco who is a very capable QB who may finally join the elite this season. RB Ray Rice is a beast and even the receivers are talented led by 2nd-year WR Torrey Smith. The defense is always solid and while the loss of OLB Terrell Suggs is a problem, Baltimore always finds some way to put pressure on the QB. When I look at their schedule, I see an 11-5 season. Baltimore plays in one of the most challenging divisions in the league and they will be challenged despite their talent.

Best-case Scenario – 14-2 and a Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore is a trendy pick to appear in the Super Bowl. If they stay healthy and can manage this rough division, they could put together an incredible season. It will certainly be a challenge though with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, an improved Cleveland team and matchups against the AFC West and the NFC East.

Pittsburgh Steelers – For years the Steelers have been picked to drop off because of their age at defense and lack of a solid offensive line. For years Pittsburgh then followed that criticism with a playoff run. This is the year I feel Pittsburgh finally shows signs of that age and poor offensive line play. They just don’t have any momentum heading into the season. Their running game is a huge question mark and losing rookie G, David DeCastro, is a huge loss. Despite all that, I still think Pittsburgh manages a wildcard spot at 9-7 because that’s what they do. They are too proven to just write off, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t make the playoffs this season.

Best-case Scenario – 11-5 and deep playoff run. Pittsburgh is a team lacking momentum heading into the season, but the defense, as always, should be solid and if QB Ben Roethlisberger can play at the elite level he is capable of, Pittsburgh will be just fine.

Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals traditionally follow up a surprising, successfulseason with a down year with a top-10 draft pick. I don’t think that happens this year. Cincinnati has a better team dynamic this time around and their roster is actually very talented. They are young, but when young players play with confidence, they can get on a roll. The defense should be top-10 in the league and 2nd-year players, QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, should lead an offense that could surprise and be very effective. The running game is a huge question mark following a preseason where they looked awful. I see Cincinnati finishing around 9-7 this season and possibly getting in as the other wildcard team.

Best-case Scenario – 11-5 and a deep playoff run. As I said, young teams are dangerous with confidence and this Bengals team is young and talented. With Pittsburgh potentially struggling more than in years past, Cincinnati could make a move. Cincinnati didn’t beat a playoff team last year though so, obviously, a playoff run depends on beating those types of teams.

Cleveland Browns – The Browns are relying heavily on rookies and young players as they continue to rebuild. They are going to have their struggles, but at the very least rookies, QB Brandon Weeden and RB Trent Richardson, will have their moments. Unfortunately, Cleveland plays in a division with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Browns have a solid defense, but their struggles across the board will make wins hard to come by. I will give the Browns a 4-12 season after looking at their schedule. Their schedule is rough for a team rebuilding.

Best-case Scenario – 5-11. Unfortunately for Browns fans, I don’t see many scenarios where Cleveland can win more than 5 or 6 games. They have a very rough schedule with their divisional games, the AFC West and the NFC East. While Cincinnati managed to surprise people last season, Cleveland doesn’t have the favorable schedule that Cincy had. They might be able to sneak a game or two from their divisional opponents, but there are only two games (Indianapolis and Washington) where Cleveland may be favored.

AFC South

Houston Texans – Heading into last season, there were questions about Houston’s ability to rise to the occasion and play well when they were supposed to. Last season they were supposed to be the best team in the AFC South and they looked the part. They fought a litany of injuries and still managed to get to the divisional round of the playoffs before they were overwhelmed by Baltimore. That was all with 3rd-string QB, rookie, T.J. Yates. After getting healthy, Houston should be even better. The AFC South plays the AFC East and the NFC North and factoring in that difficult schedule, I see Houston finishing around 11-5 this season.

Best-case Scenario – 13-3 and pushing for a Super Bowl appearance. This team is really good and are a very deep team that can handle injuries. They have tough games against Green Bay, Baltimore and New England, to name the key ones, but Houston’s top-5 defense and explosive offense (when healthy) make them a top team. The one thing that could derail Houston is injury. QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson missed significant time last season with injury and while the Texans fared very well, I have trouble believing Houston could do it again. Their strong running game and defense can always keep them competitive, but injuries could limit their ceiling.

Tennessee Titans – Tennessee quietly finished last season just out of the playoffs.They are now relying on 2nd-year QB, Jake Locker, to lead an offense that still has playmakers like RB Chris Johnson and WR Kenny Britt (if he stays healthy and out of trouble). There are questions about how good Tennessee’s defense is, but all in all, Tennessee has the potential to put together a good season. Looking at the schedule, I can see Tennessee finishing 9-7. I see Tennessee as a quality team that doesn’t quite have enough to make the playoffs, but they should push for a wildcard spot.

Best-case Scenario – 11-5 and playoff appearance. Tennessee would need to beat some very good teams to get to this record, but it is possible. Tennessee almost made the playoffs with Chris Johnson playing awful. If Johnson returns to 2010 form, like I think he will, Tennessee’s running game and the improved play by Locker could make Tennessee dangerous.

Indianapolis Colts – The Colts will be better than last season. They have rookie QB, Andrew Luck, they still have WR Reggie Wayne and DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They recently traded for CB Vontae Davis and are welcoming a new 3-4 defense. Things are looking up in Indianapolis, but they are still rebuilding following the Peyton Manning Era. I see Indianapolis finishing around 7-9. I think Indianapolis could be the surprise team of the league and make a real push towards the playoffs. At this point I can’t just chalk the Colts up as playoff team, but they have the potential.

Best-case Scenario – 9-7 and wildcard spot. Indianapolis has Luck, who is better than Bengals QB, Andy Dalton, as a rookie, they have Reggie Wayne who will be a huge for Luck’s development and they have new head coach, Chuck Pagano, who is installing a Baltimore-like 3-4 defense with Mathis and Freeney playing as rush linebackers. All this adds up to a team that could surprise teams and make a run. They don’t have enough talent to make a legitimate run at a deep playoff run, but they have enough to maybe get in as a wildcard, following Cincinnati path last season.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Jacksonville should be better this season. They finally have RB Maurice Jones-Drew back at practice and I honestly believe QB Blaine Gabbert will be much better this season. I think Gabbert can be a solid QB in this league. Rookie WR, Justin Blackmon, is also a promising player who, I think, will have a great rookie season. Jacksonville’s defense is also a unit that played surprisingly well last season despite the offense’s struggles. They finished the season 6th in total yards allowed. The problem with Jacksonville this season is they don’t have the pure talent to compete with Houston or Tennessee and I believe Indianapolis may pass up Jacksonville because Colts QB, Andrew Luck, will play very well for a rookie this season. I see Jacksonville struggling with a final record of 5-11.

Best-case Scenario – 7-9. They play the AFC East and the NFC North. On paper, they only look like they are capable of beating 3 of those 8 matchups (Minnesota, Miami, NYJ). If Jacksonville gets on a roll though and Gabbert plays better than expected, Jacksonville has the defense and run game to surprise and upset some of the better teams on their schedule. Many things would need to go right, but a solid season is possible for Jacksonville.

AFC West

Denver Broncos – I like the Broncos this season. I personally believe QB Peyton Manning is back. I know there have been questions about his arm strength, but I guess I’m going to give one of the best quarterbacks of all-time the benefit of the doubt for now. Manning should make this team dangerous. Couple that with a quality run game that Manning hasn’t played with for years and you have the makings of a strong offensive attack. The defense should also be better this season, which helps Denver’s chances at returning to the playoffs. With all that said, the AFC West has to play the AFC North and the NFC South this season, which creates some very difficult matchups for all these teams. On top of that, Denver has to play New England and Houston (last season’s first place finishers in the AFC East and AFC South respectively). This division will most likely come down to a tiebreaker and I think Peyton Manning makes sure Denver takes care of divisional matchups. I see Denver finishing 8-8 and taking the 4th-seed in the playoffs.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6 and this may be pushing it. If Manning does in fact play like he has throughout his career, Denver could knock off any team on this schedule (if Tebow could finish 8-8, what can Manning do?), but the schedule is absolutely brutal so best-case scenario, I still see Denver only managing 10 wins. Denver’s easiest games may actually be against their own division, which are far from gimmes.

Kansas City Chiefs – I wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas City made the playoffs and won the division. Kansas City went to the playoffs in 2010 after leading the league in rushing. After signing RB Peyton Hillis in the offseason and finally getting key players back from major injuries last season (QB Matt Cassel, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Tony Moeaki and S Eric Berry), the Chiefs are more than capable of winning the division and clinching a playoff berth. I think the Chiefs will return to their power running game from 2010 and take pressure off of Cassel. The defense should also be much better, which should make a huge difference. If that happens, I think Kansas City surprises some people on their schedule. I think the Chiefs finish 8-8, tied with Denver, but Denver wins the tiebreaker on divisional record.

Best-case Scenario – 9-7 and winning the division. If Manning and the Broncos stumble, I honestly think Kansas City is the team to take the division. Everyone in the AFC West plays the same AFC North and NFC South opponents, but their other two games are based on last seasons final standings. With the Chiefs finishing 4th in their division last season, they are matched up with the 4th place finishers from the AFC East (Buffalo) and AFC South (Indianapolis), which are winnable games for this team.

San Diego Chargers – San Diego has a lot of pressure to do well this year and get to the playoffs. They have missed out in the last two seasons and with the rough schedule, return of Kansas City’s playmakers from injury and the addition of QB Peyton Manning to Denver, San Diego could be missing out again. QB Phillip Rivers turned the ball over way too much last year, RB Ryan Mathews couldn’t stay healthy enough to be the star he was drafted to be, San Diego lost starting WR Vincent Jackson to free agency and the defense couldn’t get enough pressure on opposing QBs to get off the field on 3rd down. I personally don’t see these issues getting much better. Their schedule also makes me think they will only be able to manage 6-10. It’s hard to predict that bad of a schedule for a team like San Diego, but all those problems I brought up before could be too much for a team that hasn’t lived up to expectations in years past.

Best-case Scenario – 8-8. This division will beat up on one another. They are all teams that have a shot at winning the division and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a division race that comes down to the final week. For San Diego to be the team to win the division, they will need Rivers to not force throws, Mathews to stay healthy enough to carry the running game and their defense will need to improve on last season. While I think it is unlikely all those things will come together, it is possible.

Oakland Raiders – On paper Oakland looks really good. They have talent on offense and a defense that should improve. QB Carson Palmer should be more comfortable after an offseason of preparation and the young WRs should be much improved. RB Darren McFadden is a stud who will probably finish as the top rusher in the league if he plays the entire year. The problem is, Oakland won’t remain healthy. McFadden has yet to play more than 14 games in a season. The young wide receivers always seem to be fighting some injury. Wideouts Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford are just a few of the WRs already missing time due to injury. I can’t help but feel Oakland struggles this season. There are so many questions surrounding this team’s ability to stay healthy and what they will even be able to do when healthy. Palmer can still play, but he has noticeably taken a step back after the injuries he dealt with in Cincinnati. I think Oakland finishes 5-11.

Best-case Scenario – 7-9. The schedule sucks and questions about health make it hard to predict a great season from Oakland. They have talent and with a little momentum they can capitalize on it. They could be a team that is in it until the very end, but that will most likely only be the case if they avoid the trainer’s room.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys – I’m cheating a little with this being after the first Cowboys vs Giants game, but nonetheless, I feel good about Dallas this season. Dallas always had an offense that could put pressure on opposing defenses, but now they have a secondary (with the additions of CB Brandon Carr and CB Morris Claiborne) capable of covering top WRs. LB DeMarcus Ware is one of the best pass rushers in the game and with the new secondary help, he should be even more disruptive. I also think QB Tony Romo finally has a season where he plays like a top QB. He has always put up numbers, but he has also made numerous mistakes at key moments of games. I think this is the season where all the parts are in place for a great season. RB DeMarco Murray is also a great player if he stays healthy. I think Dallas, in one of the most competitive divisions, will finish 9-7 and win the NFC East.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6. I don’t think any team in this division can do much better than 10 wins. The competition within the division is just too good. If Dallas can beat the Giants a second time and then at least split the series with Philadelphia, Dallas will be set.

New York Giants – New York is the defending Super Bowl champion and has been pretty quiet despite last season’s finish. Nobody really likes New York to repeat. I think QB Eli Manning is elite, the WRs are fantastic and the defensive line is still dominant. The problem is that New York’s secondary isn’t airtight and, even going back to last regular season, New York wasn’t the team to beat. They won the NFC East, but they didn’t win it until the final week. They were by no means favored to win the Super Bowl when the playoffs began, but they still managed a run and knocked off New England. I see New York having a similar regular season where they play well enough to be in the playoff picture, but not enough this year to take down Dallas. I see New York finishing 9-7 and losing a tiebreaker to Dallas.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6 winning the division and probably getting hot for another Super Bowl run. It is really difficult for any team to distance themselves from the other divisional teams. New York is good enough to certainly make the playoffs, but they have their work cut out for them.

Philadelphia Eagles – Philadelphia is talented. You can’t deny that. As I said before, this is a very competitive division where Philly, New York and Dallas all have great chances at winning the division. Even Washington is better than past teams. A lot of Philly’s success is dependent on QB Michael Vick’s health and that’s where I think they finish 3rd in the NFC East. Their defense turned it on at the end of last season and their defensive line may be the most athletic and most intimidating in the league. The run game is fantastic with RB LeSean McCoy carrying the rock, but again, if Vick misses time like we have come to expect, Philadelphia is beatable. Also factor in that rookie Nick Foles is the backup. Philly is looking at a 8-8 season in my mind.

Best-case Scenario – 11-5. If Vick stays healthy, Philadelphia is the team to beat in the NFC East. Even if he misses time, Philly has the talent to compete. Year two of the “Dream Team” could be where we begin to see dividends. Vick’s health is the key.

Washington Redskins – QB Robert Griffin III is the new star on the block. He is the guy Washington is looking at as their future superstar QB. The thing with Washington is they are a team for the future. I don’t think RG3 will play well enough to keep up with any of the other top QBs in this division. The focal point of the offense is through the run game, setting up RG3 on play-action. Washington’s defense isn’t too bad, but again, they play in one of the most competitive divisions in football. I see some growing pains in Washington, but they are on the right track. I could see a 5-11 season for Washington.

Best-case Scenario – 7-9. This is assuming the running game becomes unstoppable and/or RG3 plays like Washington fans are hoping he does. Realistically I think Washington has the talent to surprise teams that they shouldn’t beat on paper, but it’s going to be tough.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers – The Packers finished the regular season 15-1, but lost to the New York Giants in the Divisional Round. The Giants then went on to win the Super Bowl. The Packers were dominant last season on offense as QB Aaron Rodgers put together an incredible season. The defense struggled though as they gave up a lot of yards and couldn’t get to the QB like they wanted to. This offseason has been about improving that defense and maintaining the explosive offense. Green Bay is the team to beat in the NFC North until another team knocks them off. Chicago and Detroit can challenge in this division, but as of right now, I think Green Bay wins the NFC North at 12-4.

Best-case Scenario – 14-2. I don’t think Green Bay can replicate last season’s success. Even this “14-2” prediction seems like a stretch considering how good some of their opponents are this year. Green Bay plays San Francisco (Week 1), New Orleans (Week 4), Houston (Week 6) and has matchups with Chicago (Week 2 and Week 15) and Detroit (Week 11 and Week 14), which should present some challenges.

Chicago Bears – The Bears have widely been considered the “winners” of the offseason after they traded for WR Brandon Marshall from Miami, brought in RB Michael Bush from Oakland and drafted well. Chicago certainly has offensive talent. QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte are two players capable of leading Chicago to the playoffs and with the Bears defense, which isn’t as good as it used to be, but is certainly capable, the Bears have a real shot at pushing Green Bay for the North title and certainly a playoff run. I see Chicago looking at a 10-6 season with a wildcard berth.

Best-case Scenario – 12-4 and winning the NFC North. Green Bay is the team to beat in the NFC North, but Chicago did some great things this offseason to make a strong push. If Marshall and rookie WR Alshon Jeffery play to their ability, Chicago’s offense will be very good. If Chicago’s defense plays like the “Monsters of the Midway”, Chicago will be in business.

Detroit Lions – Detroit has a great shot at pushing for a playoff spot. Detroit has a very good QB in Matt Stafford and a superstar in WR Calvin Johnson. The offense can move the ball with the best of them. The defense has some playmakers in the front 7 and they can get to the QB. The questions in Detroit are about a nonexistent running game (mostly because all of the RBs are injury prone) and a secondary that may not be able to matchup with solid passing attacks. Detroit has to play two of those passing attacks in Green Bay and Chicago. I think Detroit is going to push for a playoff spot, but I don’t think they will be able to beat out the Bears and Packers. I see Detroit as an 8-8 team.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6 and playoffs. To keep this simple, Detroit has a shot at a playoff season if they stay healthy and the secondary plays better than expected, Detroit has a shot. They need to win against the top teams in their division and if they do, they can return to the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are in rebuilding mode. 2nd-year QB, Christian Ponder, played well last season as a rookie, but needs to improve this season. RB Adrian Peterson is working his way back from a major knee injury and his health will be key for Minnesota. The youth across the board and the lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball makes this a team capable of surprising some teams, but Minnesota won’t be favored often, if at all. I do think Minnesota, and specifically Ponder, will show improvement as the season progresses, but it could be rough. I think Minnesota could go 3-13.

Best-case Scenario – 5-11. If Peterson comes back to play as well as he did prior to the injury, Minnesota could really surprise teams. Ponder’s development is also key if Minnesota hopes to be a factor in years to come, much less this year. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the NFC North is too crowded at the top for them to really make much noise.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – I like the Falcons this year. They have new coordinators who willbring new styles to the offense and defense and they still have QB Matt Ryan, who has been fantastic during the regular season and then struggles in the postseason. WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones make for an explosive passing attack, which will be utilized this year more than years past. Atlanta has all the makings of a playoff team, at least on paper, now they just need to follow through. Despite my ranking of Atlanta as the top team in the NFC South, the division will be won by going through New Orleans. QB Cam Newton in Carolina can’t be ignored and Tampa Bay is back on the rise, but the division will come down to beating New Orleans. I think Atlanta finally gets the upper hand and finishes 10-6.

Best-case Scenario – 12-4. Atlanta’s offense should be stellar this season. They’re defense isn’t a liability and playmakers are all over the roster. Again, the division will be won by going through New Orleans. The best case scenario is Atlanta sweeping the Saints and winning any potential tiebreakers. I think this division will be decided by a last week result and/or tiebreaker. Winning in the division is huge for Atlanta.

New Orleans Saints – New Orleans just got their players back (at least for awhile) and New Orleans still has all the pieces in place to make another Super Bowl run. The offense will not miss a beat with head coach, Sean Payton, being suspended for the season. QB Drew Brees is too good for that. The run game may be surprising this year. The Saints have a “pass-first/finesse” reputation, but they are more than capable of running the ball with their stable of backs and solid offensive line. I personally just feel that Atlanta finally figures it out. I think New Orleans still makes the playoffs as a wildcard (it’s hard not to see them in the picture at least) and finish 10-6.

Best-case Scenario – 13-3 and winning the division. New Orleans isn’t an lesser of a team compared to Atlanta. The Saints actually are one of the top teams in the league and with “Bountygate”, this team could take an “Us against the world” approach. If that happens, the talent on this team will make them serious contenders as the season concludes.

Carolina Panthers – There is a lot to like about Carolina this season. They have QB Cam Newton. Newton helped transform Carolina into one of the more dangerous offenses in the league. WR Steve Smith and the litany of RBs give him plenty of skill players to work with. The defense is the problem. They have some playmakers, but injuries contributed to a 6-10 season where Carolina gave up a ton of rushing yards. They drafted LB Luke Kuechly, who will be great, to help shore up the rush defense and with injured players coming back, they should be better. I’m just not sure it will be enough to dethrone New Orleans or Atlanta. I think Carolina finishes somewhere around 8-8.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6. Carolina has been a trendy playoff pick. They have Newton, who accounts for a lot, and they have improved their defense. The playoffs are certainly not out of the question, but I personally have trouble believing it happens this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tampa Bay is on the rise. They have a new coach, new RB, new WR and new defenders. Coach Greg Schiano’s team is being based around discipline and toughness. Schiano is expected to utilize the running game with rookie Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount. QB Josh Freeman could return to the form of two years ago when he was a rising star and the defense, led by up and coming rookies, LB LeVonte David and S Mark Barron could be very exciting to watch. As I have said before, youth and talent can be a very dangerous combination for opposing teams. Unfortunately, I have trouble believing Tampa Bay can actually make a serious run to the playoffs. They can definitely steal a couple games from top teams (and probably will), but it could be rough. I see Tampa Bay as a 5-11 team.

Best-case Scenario – 8-8. A lot needs to go right for this to happen, but after what Cincinnati did last season, it’s not out of the question. Youth and talent is a dangerous combination because, with confidence, they can compete with better teams, they may just be inconsistent. While the NFC South is certainly challenging, it is important to point out that the NFC South is notorious for “worst to first” meaning – the team that finishes last in the division, wins the division following year. Something for Tampa Bay fans to consider.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers – San Francisco was two botched punt returns from a Super Bowl appearance. They were dominant last season with the top defense in the league. They had a powerful run game led by RB Frank Gore and they had an opportunistic passing attack, which utilized smart decisions by QB Alex Smith. The only really thing to happen over the offseason was San Francisco made a strong push for QB Peyton Manning, they eventually lost and resigned Smith, they brought in a solid draft class and created depth in the receiving core and backfield. On paper this team is a real Super Bowl contender. The biggest question is if Alex Smith is enough to push the 49ers over the top. I believe he is, but I think San Francisco will also get more competition from an up and coming Seattle team. Either way, I think the 49ers finish 12-4 and make a deep run.

Best-case Scenario – 14-2. San Francisco has a relatively easy schedule. They play the AFC East, the NFC North and their division, which is weak, and they have a team capable of beating the top teams on their schedule. I wouldn’t be surprised if San Francisco puts together a great run this season.

Seattle Seahawks – Seattle is a team I think could could really be in for a goodseason. Seattle has a strong run game with RB Marshawn Lynch and rookie Robert Turbin (who could be a factor this season) and their passing attack has looked sharp with rookie QB Russell Wilson calling the shot. While a rookie QB normally is a major question mark, I think Wilson will be just fine. He is capable of being a solid player this season. The offensive line played well last season and should be good to go this year. The defense could be the real strength of this team with their big, physical secondary players, a playmaking safety in Earl Thomas and a defensive line that has played well. The addition of the rookie pass rushing specialist Bruce Irvin, could put these defense over the top. I think Seattle will be good this season and will win some games against good teams. I think they finish 9-7 and push for a wildcard spot.

Best-case Scenario – 10-6. Seattle should be good. If Wilson plays well and the running backs stay in the lineup (injury/suspension), Seattle could beat some good teams. They would need some help to beat out San Francisco for the division, but a wildcard spot is certainly possible if Seattle does what they are capable of.

Arizona Cardinals – Arizona’s success is directly related to their QB play. Unfortunately for Arizona, the chance of good QB play seems unlikely. QB John Skelton is the starter right now and QB Kevin Kolb isn’t far behind, but Skelton is really a starter by default after neither played well during the preseason. Skelton is willing to take chances getting the ball to star WR Larry Fitzgerald, which certainly gives Arizona a better shot. Arizona has some playmakers, but inconsistent QB play, injury-prone RBs and the lack of a game-altering defense could make for a rough season. I see Arizona finishing around 4-12.

Best-case Scenario – 6-10. Arizona could beat some better teams. Skelton does give Arizona a shot. He played well enough at the end of last season to have an outside shot at the playoffs. I don’t think Arizona will be able to do that again with their schedule, but if they get on a roll, they may finish better than anyone expects at this point.

St. Louis Rams – St. Louis is getting better. They had a solid draft class where they potentially drafted a couple playmakers. If they can get something out of rookie WR Brian Quick, the offense could be solid with QB Sam Bradford at the helm. RB Steven Jackson is slowing down after carrying the team for so many years, but the addition of rookie RB Isaiah Pead should help with the work load. DT Michael Brockers is injured right now, but when he makes it back, his development will be fun to watch. He isn’t the only young playmaker on defense. The Rams are on the rise, but this season could be another rough one for St. Louis fans. I see a 4-12 season.

Best-case Scenario – 6-10. Head coach, Jeff Fisher, gives the Rams hope. St. Louis is getting better and they could be a dangerous team by the end of the season. QB Sam Bradford is good. I think he gets better this season. I think a guy to watch in St. Louis is former Giants and Eagles WR Steve Smith. If Smith or any of the other receivers make a legitimate claim to the top WR spot, Bradford and the St. Louis offense could be in business. I think the future is bright for St. Louis, but the youth at key positions on this team is too much to overlook.

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