By Josh Kramer
It has been 208 days since the New England Patriots and more specifically Wes Welker let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. For those of you in need of a refresher, back on February 5th in the house that Peyton Manning built (Lucas Oil Stadium), the New York Giants once again shocked the New England Patriots in a very closely contested Super Bowl game. That was then though and this is now. America’s most popular sport is just five days away from its official kickoff. Who is ready for some football?
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
I am sure you are all shocked at this pick. New England has only won three straight divisional crowns and qualified for the playoffs eight of the past nine years. People are already comparing this year’s squad to the greatest team to ever grace the gridiron, but fail to win the Lombardi Trophy (2007 Patriots). With Brandon Lloyd added to the mix, it is hard to say these comparisons are all that far-fetched. However, it should be noted that the defense has some flaws, and the offensive line will have its fair of struggles due to the absence of Matt Light (retirement), Brian Waters (possibly retirement), Logan Mankins (ACL tear), and Sebastian Vollmer (back injury). Luckily for New England, the Jets appear to have taken a step backwards with the acquisition of “God” Tebow, and the Miami Dolphins appear to just be a horrible team (Hard Knocks has provided clear evidence of this). Buffalo is improved, but does not have nearly the firepower to stick with New England throughout the duration of a grueling 17-week season.
AFC North Champion: Baltimore Ravens
This division is widely regarded as the most physical in football. The presence of Ray Lewis, James Harrison, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu may have something to do with that. Over the past four seasons, the AFC North has produced at least two playoff teams a year, including three in 2011 (no thanks to Cleveland). In addition, no team has repeated as divisional champions since Pittsburgh did back in 2008. That changes this year when Baltimore, a team that had New England on the ropes in the AFC Championship Game last January, repeats as AFC North Champions. Many are saying this will be the year that Joe Flacco finally develops into a star. Whether he does or not, having Ray Rice in the backfield and a stacked defense (Suggs will come back at some point) will get this team to the playoffs. Keep an eye on Week 1 and Week 17 matchups with Cincinnati though. They will have heavy implications on who is crowned AFC North champions in 2012. Sorry Steelers fans, 2012 will be a year to forget as the Black and Yellow limp to a .500 record behind a suspect offensive line and fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
AFC South Champion: Houston Texans
Times have changed big time in the AFC South. For nearly a decade, this division should have been called the AFC Colts, or Peyton Manning’s playpen. Indianapolis won 10 or more games every year from 2002 to 2010. In addition, they won 12 or more games for seven straight years from 2003 to 2009. There appears to be a new sheriff in town these days now that Peyton Manning is officially gone for good. They go by the name of the Houston Texans. Indianapolis will need a whole lot more than “Luck” to compete with the team out of Texas. After making the playoffs for the first time since joining the NFL in 2002, Houston looks poised to repeat as division champions. A healthy Matt Schaub equals a very deep playoff run for the Texans.
AFC West Champion: Denver Broncos
Tim Tebow is gone. Sigh. But a four-time MVP has arrived in town. Have no fear Broncos fans, Peyton Manning is here. Now I am well-aware that Manning has not played in a real NFL game since January 8, 2011. He is still Peyton Manning though. The guy who led Indianapolis to double-digit victories in 11 of his 13 seasons under center (did not play in 2011). Kansas City, San Diego, and Oakland will all be tough this year and in contention for the divisional crown. Do not expect a team to win less than 7 games in this very evenly matched division. But let’s be entirely honest. Denver won a divisional crown last season with Tim Tebow running the show. With Peyton Manning there, you have to like Denver’s chances.
AFC Wild Cards: Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders
Carson Palmer’s old and new team will be in the playoffs come January. The city of Cincinnati is more excited than it has been about their professional football team in over 20 years. Dalton to Green has such a nice ring and will only get better having gone through a full training camp this time around. Despite being the Bengals starter for seven seasons, Carson Palmer clearly was not ready to roll off of his couch and lead Oakland to the playoffs last season. This year, he will be, after going through a full off-season and training camp. Plus, many are cautiously optimistic that Darren McFadden will actually be healthy in 2012, which would pay huge dividends for Oakland (McFadden has started seven or fewer games in three of his first four seasons in the NFL).
NFC East Champion: Dallas Cowboys
No team has repeated as NFC East champions since the Philadelphia Eagles did back in 2004. It is no secret that the NFC East has become the NFL’s marquee division. Not only do they have the most depth, they also have the best rivalries, the most parity, and arguably the best fan followings (huge markets). Dallas, Philadelphia, and New York all three have a great chance to win the division. But a two-year hiatus from the playoffs is far too many for America’s team. Romo will get the job done despite a very injury-depleted receiver corps. Eli and the defending champs will do just enough when they have to and settle for a wild-card spot. This will not be the year that the Redskins break their five-year playoff drought, but RGIII will live up to the hype. Just not quite enough to get them over the hump in 2012.
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers put up an NFL record 122.5 passer rating in 2011. Neither Steve Young nor Joe Montana ever posted a full-season rating of above 112.8 during their illustrious Hall of Fame careers. The NFL has become a pass first league, evidenced by the fact that four of the six highest passing yard totals in a single season were set last year. There aren’t many that can pass better than the Packers. Chicago will be tough, but not nearly tough enough to overtake a very hungry Packers team with unfinished business.
NFC South Champion: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are the sexy pick to shock the world and win the NFC South. I am all aboard the bandwagon. This is largely due to the fact that they have Cam Newton. After Newton’s rookie campaign, I am a firm believer in the former Auburn standout. No player in the present can take over a game in more ways than Cam Newton can. Do not expect the sophomore slump to apply to the former Heisman Trophy winner. Plus, the addition of Luke Kuechly combined with the return of savvy veteran Jon Beason should do wonders for the formerly very shaky Panthers defense. Not to mention off-season problems in New Orleans and quarterback confidence issues in Atlanta will help Carolina’s cause immensely.
NFC West Champion: San Francisco 49ers
We all saw what Jim Harbaugh was capable of in year one. Year two will only get better for Harbaugh with an even more talented roster. In addition, the NFC West is without question the weakest division in football, which will pay dividends in giving the 49ers the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Lastly, wide receiver was a position of weakness for San Francisco in 2011. With the additions of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, it now appears to be a strength. Let’s see what former number one overall pick Alex Smith is really made of.
NFC Wild Cards: New York Giants, New Orleans Saints
Eli and the G-Men always seems to find a way to get the job done when push comes to shove. At least it seems that way. New Orleans has been snakebitten by arguably one of the worst off-seasons in NFL history, but they luckily have Drew Brees on their team. If any quarterback can weather the storm, it’s Brees. Since the wild-card system began in 1970, only ten wild-card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl, with only six of those taking home the Lombardi Trophy. Amazingly though, three of the past seven Super Bowl champions have been wild-card teams (Steelers-2005, Giants-2007, Packers-2010).
MVP: Peyton Manning
Number five will be oh so sweet for Mr. Manning. Many argued that Manning deserved the MVP in 2011 despite not playing a single snap (Indianapolis tied for the worst record in football). After watching his brother Eli capture a second Super Bowl crown, you better believe that Peyton does not take the fact lightly that some are saying his younger brother is the better quarterback in the present. Expect Peyton to come back with a vengeance after going 610 days without playing in a real NFL Game.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots over Houston Texans
Expect an offensive shootout for the ages. Huge offensive star power like Tom Brady, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, and Rob Gronkowski will all be on the same field at once. Though Matt Schaub is a very good quarterback, Tom Brady is a great quarterback. That will be the difference on this day as Brady looks to finally claim an elusive fourth Super Bowl victory.
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers over Green Bay Packers
I know. Aaron Rodgers gets denied again. After coming so close in 2011, you better believe that Harbaugh and the 49ers will take full advantage this time around. Though Green Bay will have the superior offensive unit, the 49ers defense will be the difference in this game. Green Bay’s defense showed in 2011 that they could not stop anybody. Even if that changes in 2012, will it improve enough to beat a team as good as San Francisco? Don’t count on it.
Super Bowl: New England Patriots over San Francisco 49ers
After nearly eight years, Tom Brady will finally capture number four. The Patriots during the 2000s have become the Yankees of football. A year without a ring in New England doesn’t mean a thing. The old saying goes that great defense beats a great offense any day of the week. Not in today’s NFL. New England’s great offense will have the upper hand come the night of February 3rd in New Orleans. We all know Rob Gronkowski will be ready for a fiesta on Bourbon Street.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.