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NFL 2012: 5 Bold Predictions For a Magical Season

Posted on September 08, 2012 by Dean Hybl

Only the uniform looks different when Peyton Manning is in the pocket.

After the NFL appetizer on Wednesday night, it will be time for the full feast Sunday as the NFL begins a five month run dominating television sets, computers and minds across the nation.

Below are five predictions for what we can expect to see during the 2012 NFL season:

NEW UNIFORM, SAME RESULTS

It seems strange looking at Peyton Manning in an orange and blue uniform with a horse head on the helmet rather than his familiar blue and white with the horseshow. However, once you overcome the initial shock, watching Manning play in the preseason seemed relatively familiar as his mannerisms and passing style were no different from the old days.

Reading predictions for what Manning will accomplish in 2012 has been quite interesting. Some, including Sports Illustrated guru Peter King, have predicted that Manning will quickly regain his previous form and lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl.

Others, including Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports, have suggested that Manning has always been given more credit than he deserves and that he will be good, but not spectacular during his return to the NFL. Whitlock goes as far as saying that Manning is one of the 10 to 15 best quarterbacks of all-time, but not deserving of being considered among the top five, which is where most experts rank him.

I expect that what we will see from Manning in 2012 will be somewhere in between. I do not think Manning will be the NFL MVP or make it to the Super Bowl, but I do think he will have a “Manningesque” season with statistics and a team victory total that remind everyone of how great he has been for the last decade.

A BOUNTY BY ANY OTHER NAME

Regardless of whether you gave a cheer or a jeer when the suspensions of players involved with the New Orleans Saints “Bounty Gate”, I am sure you have a somewhat different view of the New Orleans Saints than when they won Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010.

Jonathan Vilma may get to take the field in 2012, but can the Saints win without their coach?

Perhaps what the Saints did in some formal manner isn’t significantly different than has been done by many other teams across the league. However, it is obvious that both the players and coaches knew that they were doing something wrong, but continued the practice for multiple years. The coaches and administration have accepted their punishment, but the players have now won a victory to overturn their punishment and avoid accountability for their actions. You can expect that this isn’t the end of the story, but for now it looks like the players will get to play for at least the time being.

What the loss of head coach Sean Payton and the return of Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith mean for the 2012 Saints?

While Smith may play immediately, it is likely to take a couple weeks before Vilma will be able to return due to a knee injury.

It is the loss of Payton that would seem to make the biggest difference for the Saints in 2012. Assistant coach Aaron Kromer is leading the team for the first six games in place of assistant Joe Vitt, who was suspended for six games for his role in the scandal. With such a revolving door in leadership, it will be up to the Saints players themselves to provide leadership and pull together for the season.

The team does have a strong leader in quarterback Drew Brees, but defensively will they be able to stick together for the entire season given that the leaders of the unit are the same players who wouldn’t accept any responsibility for their actions in the bounty scandal.

I predict that the Saints will start the season strong as they are favored in their first three games against the Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs, but the next six games against the Packers, Chargers, Buccaneers, Broncos, Eagles and Falcons will be hard to overcome. I look for the Saints to finish 10-6, but expect they will just miss the playoffs in the tough NFC.

RUNNING FOR THE MONEY

There is no doubt that Maurice Jones-Drew has been one of the top running backs in the NFL over the last five years. However, with two years left on his contract the 2011 NFL rushing champion was unsuccessful in his effort to receive a new contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Following his holdout t will be a challenge for Maurice Jones-Drew to repeat as NFL rushing champion.

Given that new head coach Mike Mularkey seems intent on increasing the passing game around second year quarterback Blaine Gabbert and backup running back Rashad Jennings will likely siphon carries away from Jones-Drew, it seems unlikely that Jones-Drew will have a better statistical season in 2012.

A year ago, it was Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson who held out and then had the worst season of his career. After getting his money, Johnson rushed for a career-low 1,047 yards and scored only four touchdowns while averaging four yards per attempt.

Others over time who have missed the entire preseason while holding out have struggled with injuries and never been able to return to past success. Though Jones-Drew is a hard worker and talented runner, it seems unlikely that he will repeat as NFL rushing champion and will have a harder time convincing the Jaguars to redo his contract.

TO TEBOW OR NOT TO TEBOW

When Peyton Manning decided to sign with the Denver Broncos, it started a chain of events that resulted in the end of Tim Tebow’s interesting two year tenure with the Broncos and more turmoil and notoriety for a team that already seemed to be above its limit.

With Tim Tebow looking over his shoulder, it could be a long year for Mark Sanchez.

Even though quarterback Mark Sanchez has led the New York Jets to the AFC Championship Game twice in three seasons, the fourth year quarterback from USC has struggled to win the confidence of Jets management and fans.

While he has increased his passer rating, completion percentage and number of touchdown passes each season, Sanchez has yet to illustrate that he can be an elite NFL quarterback. His 18 interceptions and 10 fumbles in 2011 have some questioning if he can truly be the offensive leader of a team.

Bringing Tebow into the mix has the potential to disrupt the mental confidence of a quarterback who is at a critical stage of his development. The Jets made an increased financial commitment to Sanchez for 2012, but still could go a different direction if he is unable to continue his upward trend.

While few will dispute that Sanchez is a more polished quarterback than Tebow and actually has more playoff wins than the former Heisman Trophy winner, some believe that Tebow has more mental toughness and is better suited to run the attack.

Few NFL players have ever been as polarizing amongst NFL experts than Tebow. Some point to his winning attitude and ability to make big plays in the final minutes as an indication that he can be a successful NFL quarterback. Others point to his disjointed passing style and inability to throw crisp passes on a consistent basis as evidence that he will never be a quality NFL player.

The Jets have been consistent in their message that Sanchez is their starting quarterback and that they brought Tebow in to make plays in key situations and to help win football games. Though they didn’t show any of it during the preseason, it is believed that the Jets have created a Wildcat style offense for Tebow that they will use during specific situations to confuse the defense.

After opening the season by hosting the Buffalo Bills, the Jets play four of their next six games against playoff teams from a year ago (Steelers, 49ers, Texans, Patriots). If Sanchez isn’t playing at top form and they have a losing record at mid-season, you might start hearing calls for Tebow to receive a chance to become the full-time quarterback for the Jets.

While it appears that both Sanchez and Tebow are very good team players, given that the Jets locker room is not known for being one of the most stable in the league, any quarterback controversy could split the locker room and turn an awkward situation into a combustible mess. And since head coach Rex Ryan has been known for adding gasoline to fires, it could be a rough season in New York.

Look for the Jets to finish with a 7-9 record and out of the playoffs for the second straight year. I also expect that Tim Tebow will make at least one start for the Jets and wouldn’t be surprised to see him as the regular signal caller by the time the Cardinals come to town on December 2nd.

ENOUGH WITH THE ROOKIE QUARTERBACKS ALREADY

It used to be that when a highly regarded rookie quarterback entered the NFL you could expect a two or three year apprenticeship before they were given the reigns of a franchise. That has absolutely changed as this year there are five rookie quarterbacks starting on opening day and 10 teams whose starting quarterback is either a rookie or second year player.

Much is expected of top draft pick Andrew Luck and second pick Robert Griffin III (RG3). Both players seem to possess that generational greatness that could make them an elite player for years to come. However, both are also on relatively bad teams.

Andrew Luck is not only trying to start as a rookie quarterback and number one pick, but he is also replacing a legend in Indianapolis.

After posting double digit victories for a decade under Peyton Manning, the Colts could win just two games in 2011 and ended up with the worst record in the league. Luck is a significant upgrade to the quarterbacks the Colts had a year ago, but the team has purged a great deal of the talent that helped them reach the Super Bowl in 2009 and is basically starting fresh. Luck will show flashes of brilliance and the Colts will win more games than a year ago, but it will be a couple years before Luck is ready to flourish. Hopefully the Indianapolis faithful will remember that Manning was 3-13 in his first year and give their new franchise quarterback time to shine.

The Redskins are slightly stronger as a team than the Colts, but Griffin will also have to grow with a team that isn’t yet Super Bowl ready. His athleticism will be greatly challenged, but much like Cam Newton a year ago, look for Griffin to put up some big numbers against certain teams, but struggle against the top defenses.

Of the three other rookie starters it will be interesting to see which emerges as a long-term NFL starter.

The Dolphins have gone “all in” on Ryan Tannehill and since they are not expected to be a playoff team this season, unless he really struggles expect him to get lots of chances to show he can be an NFL starter.

Russell Wilson has emerged as the “exciting new hit” of the preseason, but with Matt Flynn having been brought in to be the starter, expect Wilson to have little wiggle room. A slow start will likely land him back on the bench very early.

I have not understood the why the Browns have insisted from the beginning that their 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden was going to be their starter for opening day. They have a solid third-year quarterback in Colt McCoy and few offensive weapons. I believe that Weeden’s potential for success is as much tied to whether rookie running back Trent Richardson can come in and give the Browns an offensive playmaker as it is to his own abilities.

BONUS PREDICTION: PACKERS AND RAVENS FINALLY FACE EACH OTHER IN SUPER BOWL XLVII

This wouldn’t be a true NFL preview column if I didn’t follow the masses and make Super Bowl predictions that I will likely want to forget come December.

Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings will look to get the Green Bay Packers back to the Super Bowl.

With the last two Super Bowl Champions having barely made the playoffs and then gotten hot at the right time, it appears that overall record really isn’t that important anymore in determining which team will be in the big game in February. Instead, the teams that have been having success are generally teams that have needed to post big wins just to get into the playoffs and then stay hot for the rest of the year.

Of course it is just as hard to predict which teams will need (and then secure) big late-season wins, but it is a roadmap that can be used to make choices for the season.

Playing in the tough AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens will have to be on their game every week as they play eight games against playoff teams from a year ago and also have games against potential playoff teams in Philadelphia, Dallas, Kansas City and San Diego. I predict the Ravens will not have as strong a regular season record as their 12-4 mark a year ago, but they will enter the post season after playing tough games in the final three weeks against Denver, the New York Giants and Cincinnati and will ride that wave a step further than last season and into the Super Bowl.

Remember in the 1990s when Chris Berman used to pick the 49ers and Bills to play in the Super Bowl every year? One of the two appeared in a Super Bowl every season between 1988 and 1994, but they never faced each other.

This is the third time in the last four years that I will be predicting a Super Bowl matchup between the Ravens and Green Bay Packers. Last year I picked the Packers to repeat, but to face San Diego instead of the Ravens. Given how badly I missed with the Chargers pick, I am going back to the Ravens for 2012.

However, I am comfortable in picking the Packers for the fourth straight year, even though I have actually only been right once in the three previous seasons.

Last year the Packers were 15-1 and throughout the regular season looked very much like a team capable of repeating. However, they struggled toward the end of the season once they had clinched home field advantage and in the playoffs were not able to turn it back on against the Giants.

While I again expect them to easily make the playoffs, I don’t think they will repeat their 15 wins from a year ago. Instead, they will have to be playing at peak form in December games against the Lions, Bears, Titans and Vikings to secure a good draw for the playoffs.

Offensively the Packers have no peers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made the Lambeau Field faithful forget that interception machine that served as their quarterback before his arrival.

The defense must be better than a year ago (they were last in the NFL). Look for Clay Matthews and company to regain some of the swagger they displayed during their Super Bowl run.

I expect it will be an exciting Super Bowl, but the offense of the Packers will eventually overwhelm the Ravens defense in a 27-17 victory for the Cheeseheads.

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