Looking ahead at NFL 2012 season

Rob Woodfork, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – At long last. Football season is upon us.

There were plenty of story lines to keep up with this offseason, tantalizingly because there was an actual offseason (unlike 2011 when it was all about the lockout). So before I get to my predictions for 2012, here’s some of the topics to watch closely this season.

How long will the referee lockout last?

Let me shoot straight on this one: The league loses the right to bloviate about how they’re so concerned with player safety when they’re pulling guys off the high school gridiron to ref NFL games. The National Football League is way too fast to leave its officiating to the untrained eye. Plus, the NFL happens to be the most lucrative thing in the world that isn’t illegal, so league officials need to stop acting like its broke, like the NHL. Even though we get on the regular refs when they get calls wrong, they get way more right than we give them credit for. Time to give them their due — and their money — so we can get the best officiating the league has to offer.

And so we can go back to reaming them out for bad calls.

Madden Curse? Try Super Bowl host city curse

As the 2012 NFL season is set to begin, and I unwrap the latest version of Madden (which, by the way, is the absolute worst I’ve ever played) and wonder when Calvin Johnson’s slump/injury/dumb luck comes to pass, it brings to mind that just like the cover athlete for the ever-popular video game is “cursed,” so too is the team that offers up its home stadium for the biggest sports event in the U.S. of A.

Think about it: not only has no team ever played in a Super Bowl it’s hosting, but in the last 11 seasons, the host team hasn’t even made the playoffs (the 2000 Bucs were the last team to do it).

So obviously, this doesn’t bode well for the New Orleans Saints. Between Bountygate and the contentious contract situation with Drew Brees, they had the offseason from hell (more on that coming up). My guess is that their regular season won’t be much better either, starting with an upset by the Washington Redskins in Week 1. You heard it here first.

Rookie QBs will be a huge storyline in 2012

An NFL-record five rookie passers enter the season as the starters for their respective teams: Andrew Luck for the Colts, Robert Griffin III for the Redskins, Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins, Brandon Weeden for the Browns, and — most surprisingly of all — 3rd round pick Russell Wilson for the Seahawks.

At least three of these guys will play well in their inaugural NFL season. I have no statistical basis for this; just a gut feeling.

That said, don’t be surprised if Wilson ends up outplaying either Luck or Griffin this year. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, just don’t be shocked if it does.

Wilson is a first-round talent who just happens to be 2 or 3 inches shorter than you want your franchise QB to be. He’ll make a lot of teams sorry they passed on him. Believe that.

This is the year Tim Tebow gets exposed

Things happen when Tebow gets on the field. He makes big runs, fluke plays fall in his favor, and no matter how pedestrian his numbers, he finds a way to get all the credit for wins.

That ends this season.

Last year, he was playing with house money. He took the reigns of a 1-4 Denver team that nobody expected anything from and helped get them to the playoffs in a bad division. This time, he’s got to face the Patriots (who destroyed his Broncos twice last year) and the up-and-coming Bills (who destroyed his Broncos once last year) a total of four times. The Jets D is good, but not good enough to withstand a QB that can only complete 50 percent of this throws (and that’s if he’s having a good day).

Right or wrong, there are expectations in New York. Even though he’s not the starter (yet), Tebow is the biggest change to the roster. If this team doesn’t win 10 or more games, heads will roll.

Maybe even Tebow’s.

Alright, enough of that. Let’s get down to business:

NFC East

Eagles 10-6

With Michael Vick picking up where Vince Young left off, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that these clowns haven’t learned their lesson and will end up choking again.

Not so fast.

While I doubt anyone in this division finishes with an extraordinary record (arguably the top three divisions in football — NFC South, NFC East, AFC North — are all on the docket this year), Philly is best equipped to handle a tough schedule. Vick remains a tremendous X-factor, they have one of the best running backs (LeSean McCoy), one of the best pass rush tandems (Trent Cole and Jason Babin), and a talented defensive backfield to take advantage of the great rush.

I’m not confident in a 12-win season, but it wouldn’t shock me. So this is the Eagles’ year to do it. If they don’t, it could be over for Andy Reid and company.

Giants 9-7

New York is perhaps the toughest team in the league to peg right. When they underachieve, they win the Super Bowl. When they put together a fine regular season, they go one-and-done (like they did in their last post-championship season of 2008).

Eli Manning is elite. That can no longer be denied now that he outright won this latest title. The D-line remains the most feared unit in the league, and Martellus Bennett could be an underrated pickup at tight end.

But this time around, the schedule is way too tough for them to go 12-4. They’ll be back in the playoff hunt. Like many Giants teams in the Tom Coughlin era, count on a strong start and a less-than-impressive finish.

Redskins 9-7

I know, I know, I totally look like a homer here. But understand this: Washington was a competent (not elite, not good, simply competent) QB away from being the team to steal the division at 9-7 last year. They swept the eventual Super Bowl champs and came within a final drive of beating the Patriots with Rex Grossman.

Injuries and the The Human Turnover is what had them 5-11, not their talent level.

Quietly, the Skins have enjoyed the most stability they have in the Snyder Era: the same head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator are back and running the same exact systems for three years and counting.

With the systems established, the team now has a solid foundation to build around. The front seven on defense is as good as any 3-4 team in the conference (although the secondary scares me). RG3 is the missing ingredient; he’s a perfect fit for the offense, he’ll help guys like Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon flourish like they haven’t before, and the ground game could be better just by virtue of having a viable threat under center.

So even if he doesn’t match Cam Newton’s 2011 numbers (and I think he can, sans the insane rushing totals), RG3 can at least be efficient and effective enough to help this team win more games than it loses.

Cowboys 8-8

This team continues to be the most overrated squad in all of football.

Tony Romo remains an enigma. He’s supremely gifted, but just has a mental block about breaking into the elite class of quarterbacks. He’s got some weapons, but his prime target (Jason Witten) enters the season banged up. Plus I have some serious questions about their secondary.

The Cowboys don’t respond well to pressure, and this year the pressure is on for them to break through the NFC to the Super Bowl. And much like when they hosted it two years ago, they’ll fail miserably.

NFC North

Packers 12-4

Aaron Rodgers is easily one of the top three QBs in the game, and if he doesn’t win back-to-back MVPs he’ll come close. Greg Jennings is in a contract year too, so expect the same high-octane offense in Titletown. It’s just a matter of whether the defense holds up its end of the bargain. The D should be better than last year, but not quite as potent as they were when they won it all two years ago.

The Pack will get close to another title, but it’s hard to feel confident about their Super Bowl hopes when the Lambeau Field mystique is long gone (four home playoff losses in the last 10 years).

Bears 10-6

I’ve seen quite a few people pick Chicago as their sleeper team. I won’t go that far, but I definitely like their chances to return to the playoffs. The Mad Scientist (Mike Martz) is gone, and the Bears are returning to their ‘grind it out on the ground’ roots under Mike Tice. Even with questions surrounding the health of Brian Urlacher, I believe Chicago is balanced enough to grab a wild card spot in the NFC … and maybe even win a game or two.

Lions 9-7

I had Detroit as my sleeper team last year, but I just can’t see them making a move forward this year simply because I’m scared of their secondary. Between injuries and mischief, their defensive backfield is depleted to the point they’re pulling guys off the street to play corner. Not a good sign. Oh, and did I mention Calvin Johnson is on the front of Madden? Trust me, nine wins is a best case scenario.

Vikings 6-10

I’m not even sure how I found six wins for these guys. Adrian Peterson is coming off of a serious injury. The jury is still out on whether Christian Ponder is a legit franchise QB. You can’t list a Viking defender not named Jared Allen without making me laugh. If Ponder makes a huge step forward in his second year, perhaps this team is decent. But without any consistent weapons for him to throw to, I don’t see it.

NFC West

49ers 8-8

I know what you’re saying: “Are you crazy? This team was 13-3 and a muffed punt from being in the Super Bowl!” Yeah, I know. But San Francisco was the willing beneficiary of an awful division and an easy schedule.

The division is still pretty bad (but probably won’t be quite as bad) and the schedule won’t be as forgiving this year. Plus, teams see the Niners coming this time around, so don’t bank on teams giving games away to them anymore. I’d like these guys much more if they won the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes, but they didn’t. And the consolation prize is another year of Alex Smith. That’s like losing out on a Mercedes and driving home in a jalopy.

Rams 6-10

I like Jeff Fisher, but he’s got to be the most overrated coach in NFL history. He spent nearly two decades in Tennessee and, save for a single Super Bowl appearance, has little to show for it. That said, he’ll probably return the Rams to respectability. Just don’t count on it happening this year.

I think they’ll get out to a fast start and fizzle as the season wears on. But let’s face it: There’s nowhere to go but up from 2-14. A six-win season isn’t a bad first step. If Sam Bradford can stay healthy and do his best Matthew Stafford impersonation in year 3, and the defense makes a dramatic improvement (which is possible with guys like Chris Long and James Laurinaitis entering their prime), St. Louis could even mess around and break .500. That’s just a lot of ‘ifs.’

Seahawks 6-10

If you didn’t get the message at the beginning of this post, let me be clear: I love Russell Wilson. In fact, if the Redskins didn’t move up to get RG3, I would’ve wanted the Skins to take Wilson in the second round, regardless of his height. I’m that high on him (no pun intended).

Bottom line: Seattle’s gonna love this kid. He’s mobile, smart, driven, and has all the tools to be a fine NFL QB. All he has to do in his rookie season is be efficient with this throws, steer clear of turnovers, and make a couple plays with his legs. If he does that — coupled with bruising runs from Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch — the offense will be effective. I’m not sold on that defense yet, but by next year Seattle could be nipping at the Niners’ heels.

Cardinals 4-12

I’ll make this quick. When your choices at QB are a fifth round pick from Fordham (John Skelton) and any signal caller from the QB Class of 2007 (Kevin Kolb), you’re doomed. Add a questionable defense and non-existent ground game, and I’m not sure how much more mileage Ken Whisenhunt gets from that one, unexpected Super Bowl run four years ago.

NFC South

Falcons 12-4

I’m stubborn. Which is why after three years, I refuse to get off Atlanta’s bandwagon. I know Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game. I know this team has two new coordinators. But this offense has the talent to be one of the most potent in the game, and the defense is solid. With New Orleans expected to be reeling, this division is up for grabs, and nobody is more equipped to snatch it up than the Falcons.

Saints 8-8

Like I said, Bountygate hurt the Saints bad. Even with the player suspensions overturned, New Orleans will open their 2012 campaign at home against the Redskins with a third-string head coach and a defense that they describe as different as “night and day”. That doesn’t exactly lend itself to a great start.

Drew Brees has finally been paid, and the offense should be as explosive as ever. But head coach Sean Payton can’t as much as send a Christmas card to his team without getting nailed and I doubt his interim will be as good as he is. The fans won’t have bags on their heads, but this is going to be a long year in the Bayou.

Panthers 6-10

I wanted to pick Carolina to be closer to 8-8, but I just couldn’t find eight wins in their tough schedule. Cam Newton will get better and so will the defense in Year 2 of Ron Rivera’s tenure. I like their two-headed rushing attack with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but those guys tend to struggle to stay healthy. It wouldn’t be a shock if Cam and Company won eight games, just don’t bet on it.

Bucs 5-11

There’s a good feeling in Tampa. Rookie coach Greg Schiano has his guys talking about accountability. Confidence in Josh Freeman is at an all-time high, and Mark Barron looks like a difference maker on defense. However, I’m automatically leery of any NFL team led by a college coach. And last time I checked, Schiano was coaching Rutgers last year, not a pro squad. Time will tell if he can get the job done in the long run, but even with the memory of Jim Harbaugh’s rookie campaign still fresh in my mind, I just can’t give the benefit of the doubt to a college guy.

AFC East

Patriots 12-4

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the endless benefit of the doubt for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick needs to stop. They haven’t won a title in eight years and counting, and since then, they’ve twice been beaten in Super Bowls to inferior Giants teams. Even with that morsel of truth, they’re still the best team in this division and one of the best in the conference. If New England can’t give Tom Brady some help this year, they won’t get back to the Super Bowl, let alone win it. Heck, even if they can I doubt they make a stroll down Bourbon Street in February.

Bills 10-6

This Bills defense could be one of the league’s best. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus might be the best tackle tandem in the league, and adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson as edge rushers makes their D-line about as impenetrable as the one that just won the Super Bowl. A healthy Fred Jackson and a return to form for Ryan Fitzpatrick makes this my sleeper team of 2012. The playoff drought in Western New York is over.

Jets 8-8

From Tim Tebow to Rex Ryan to owner Woody Johnson, it seems this team is far more interested in generating headlines than winning football games.

Even if I’m wrong about that, this squad isn’t any better than the 8-8 team of a year ago. In fact, they’re largely the same 8-8 team only now they’ve got a major distraction with some guy wearing #15. Count on another season of talking loud and saying a whole lot of nothing on the field.

Dolphins 5-11

The only thing worse than shedding star talent like Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis is shedding star talent like Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis without viable replacements on hand. That’s not to mention the ensuing shot to team morale and nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders from management.

There’s a lot to like about Ryan Tannehill, but we may not see it for a couple years. He’s got nobody to throw to, nobody to run for him, and heaven only knows what that defense is gonna do under rookie head coach Joe Philbin (an offensive guy).

So basically, the “reality” show won’t be the only Hard Knocks happening in Miami.

AFC North

Ravens 11-5

Baltimore hasn’t exactly had a good offseason. Ed Reed is unhappy with his contract, Terrell Suggs won’t be able to defend his Defensive Player of the Year award since he’s probably out for the season, and the team didn’t do much to upgrade the corner or receiver positions.

However, they still have Ray Rice and Joe Flacco behind a solid offensive line. Ray Lewis continues to rule the defense. They have more than enough to take this division and if T-Sizzle returns, maybe even the AFC.

Steelers 10-6

It’s easy to jump off the Pittsburgh bandwagon right about now, especially when you see how many names from their Super Bowl seasons are ailing or no longer in Black and Gold: Casey Hampton is coming off a knee injury, and gone are stalwarts like James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward.

But we all know the two most important figures on a pro football team are head coach and quarterback. Virginia-native Mike Tomlin is easily one of the top three coaches in the game and Ben Roethlisberger remains the QB I’d want to have the ball in his hands if my life depended on the outcome of a football game. His rotator cuff injury is worrisome, but this is Big Ben we’re talking about. You could shoot him in that arm and he still throws for 300 yards the next week. (I fear I may have given Ravens fans an idea.) No way he misses more than a couple games, if any.

The Steelers will be good, just not as good as we’re used to.

And perhaps not better than their arch-rival on the Inner Harbor.

Bengals 6-10

Can you remember the last time you saw Cincinnati put together two solid seasons in a row? Me neither. Which is why I’m not picking them to do it now.

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will be a fine combination for years to come, but then again, so was the Carson Palmer-Chad Johnson tandem. We know how far that went. I like the Bengals D (saved me in fantasy football last year), but it’s inconsistent. Plus, there’s nobody that scares me at running back.

Furthermore, it’s Cincinnati. We don’t have to see the reasons why it’ll go south. We just know history suggests it eventually will.

Browns 5-11

It’s got to be awfully hard being a Cleveland fan. As if losing the Browns to Baltimore wasn’t bad enough (sitting helplessly while the team wins a Super Bowl and enjoys continued success with their former Hall of Fame tight end, Ozzie Newsome, calling the shots), they now have to live with the cruel irony that their team was just bought by a Steelers fan.

But I digress. I like Brandon Weeden at quarterback, but he’s probably not much more than a system guy at best (think Matt Schaub). All indications are the team got a steal in the supplemental draft with Josh Gordon, but the defense is still trying to adjust to a return to the 4-3. Playing a tough schedule won’t help matters.

Sorry, Cleveland. It’s just not your century.

AFC West

Broncos 10-6

If Denver can go 8-8 with Tim Tebow and his record-low completion percentage, then adding a sure-fire Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning will do wonders for this team (provided his neck is healed). The defense is unbelievably underrated, and if the Broncos have the horses to run the ball and take the pressure off Manning, this team could be even better than expected. But the schedule is brutal, so don’t count on a gaudy record. Luckily for Denver, you don’t need one to win the annually mediocre AFC West.

Chiefs 7-9

I really wanted to go out on a limb with this team, but I just can’t. I like head coach Romeo Crennel, and I think he got a bit of a raw deal with the Browns. But I still don’t have a reason to get excited about Matt Cassell under center. They have some good pieces in place, but I don’t see KC putting together a playoff masterpiece until 2013 at the earliest.

Chargers 6-10

Nobody does less with more than Norv Turner. So in keeping with my theorem for handicapping Turner teams, I’ve taken what I think San Diego is (8-8) and subtracted two games to come up with the total. Even if Philip Rivers returns to form, all he’s got to throw to is a creaky Antonio Gates, who may not have much left. When this team underachieves (again), heads will roll: Norv will be fired, and A.J. “Lord of the No Rings” Smith will be thrown out on his face. Much like the below video:

Raiders 5-11

It’s a new era in Oakland. The Raiders start the year without late owner Al Davis for the first time since 1962, and even though I like the new direction of the franchise, it’s going to take years for this team to undo all the missteps of the senile-yet-legendary Davis. Starting with Carson Palmer. This is his last year in the league, unfortunately for Raider Nation, we’ll all see why.

AFC South

Texans 13-3

I. Love. Houston. In fact, I’ve been high on them for years. Only this time, I’ve got company. Matt Schaub is back healthy (we hope), Arian Foster and the ground game should be on top of their game, and the defense looks stout in year 2 under Wade Phillips. The only question I have is whether the O-line can hold up for a full season. Otherwise, the road to the Super Bowl should go through Houston, literally and figuratively.

Titans 7-9

Jake Locker beat out Matt Hasselbeck for the starting gig in Tennessee, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the Titans in 2012. Locker has a tremendous upside, and certainly gives the team a wrinkle (mobility) that Hasselbeck simply can’t. But I question a guy that goes in the top 10 of the draft and doesn’t play right away in this new age of starting rookie passers immediately. Chris Johnson and the defense will keep this team competitive, but the schedule won’t give them much chance to recreate (let alone improve on) last year’s surprising nine-win season.

Colts 6-10

I don’t care what Merrill Hoge says. This is still a losing team. There’s plenty of reasons to like this team’s future with Andrew Luck taking the reigns from Peyton Manning, but in the here and now this team is still largely the one that went 2-14 last year. The offensive line is still bad, the defense is switching from a Tampa-2 to a 3-4 without the talent to successfully make said switch (ask the Redskins how that went year 1). Much like Carolina last year, a four-game improvement with a rookie QB and little else is a huge first step in the rebuilding process.

Jaguars 3-13

If Tim Tebow doesn’t want to play for you (and he’s from Jacksonville, no less), you know you’re in trouble. The only notable player on the roster, Maurice Jones- Drew, held out and enters the season in spot duty. Blaine Gabbert looked good in preseason, but then again, so did John Beck last year. First-year coach Mike Mularkey has head coaching experience, but it wasn’t a good one in Buffalo. Notwithstanding a good year from Gabbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the clock.

Super Bowl XLVII: Texans over Falcons

Reporter’s Note: I’ve correctly picked at least one Super Bowl participant every year I’ve done this. So now that I’ve sufficiently jinxed myself for this season, feel free to bet on one or both of these teams, at your own risk.

As for my picks for the 2012 regular season awards:

  • MVP: Aaron Rodgers
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Arian Foster
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Ray Lewis
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Robert Griffin III
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Mark Barron
  • Coach of the Year: Gary Kubiak

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