EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — This is all you need to know about the 2012 NFL season: there are five rookie quarterbacks starting Week 1, Peyton Manning is in Denver, Eli Manning is back with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the New Orleans Saints will have to survive “Bountygate” and they probably will, Calvin Johnson is on the cover of Madden 2012 (and it won’t hurt him) and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have the best team in the NFL.
The 2012 season is upon us. It opens Wednesday night as the Dallas Cowboys face the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in New York. 7:30 CDT on NBC and TSN.
So let’s not waste any time. For your consideration and debate, here are our playoff-bound NFL teams for 2012, plus our annual pre-season Super Bowl outcome, which I’m proud to say has been close-to-right twice in the last decade, but what the hell, it’s just for recreational use anyway. Please, no gambling:
Green Bay Packers: It could be argued that this was the best team in the NFL last season (with all due respect to the Super Bowl champion Giants) and there is no reason to believe they won’t be back at the top again. In fact, I believe they’ll beat Denver in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers has already given the Packers what Peyton Manning will give the Broncos – a smart, cool leader with tremendous personal and physical gifts. Throw in a solid Packers defense with the likes of Cedric Benson, Jordy Nelson and James Starks, the Packers are skilled, power team that could win 15 again.
Wild Card, Detroit Lions: Any team with Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson at wideout has a chance to win football games. Throw in a monster defense with Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley, you have a team that will win 10 games and could win 12. I know, they don’t have much of a running game, but that’s why they won’t win 14. So many people love the Chicago Bears this season. Sorry, I’m not one of them.
New Orleans Saints: Frankly, after watching Drew Brees in the pre-season, I have this feeling that the Saints don’t need a head coach to win. They have one and he wears No. 9. With offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Brees should have no trouble putting up points and with weapons such as Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, the Saints will still provide their fans with one of the best offenses in the game. Sure, there might be nights when they have to outscore the opposition, but it doesn’t mean they won’t win the south.
New York Giants: The Giants have two things that the other three teams in the East don’t have: the best quarterback in Eli Manning and the best coach in Tom Coughlin. The Giants were 9-7 last year, but they were in a division that beats itself to a pulp all season long (the NFC North will do the same to itself this year). However, after that run to the Super Bowl last year, the Giants come in with a belief that they can win every game and that will make them a better team. With Victor Cruz, Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks, Manning has skilled players around him who know how to win. Knowing how to win is half the battle.
Wild Card: Philadelphia Eagles: I like the Eagles over the Cowboys for one bug reason. Philly’s Michael Vick will find a way to win important games. The Cowboys’ Tony Romo gets into important games and does this: he panics, he starts running around and he then he curls up into the fetal position. Philly has a better offensive line than Dallas and a better defense. Dallas has more stars. But when it matters Philly will win and Dallas won’t
San Francisco 49ers: I love Russell Wilson in Seattle, but I disagree with many of my colleagues who believe the Seahawks will somehow finish ahead of a 49ers team that went 13-3 last season. Alex Smith is still Alex Smith and if Randy Moss has his head screwed on properly (and that’s always a concern), it just gives Smith an extra target to go along with Vernon Davis, Ted Ginn, Frank Gore and Mario Manningham. I’m one of those people who believe it’s the Niners and then everybody else.
Baltimore Ravens: Yes, the Ravens defense is getting old and Ray Lewis isn’t the player he once was, but the Ravens are still tough on D, still have a great secondary and can still put up enough points to win. Ray Rice might be the best all-around back in football and Joe Flacco does just enough to win football games. Like San Francisco, they also have a Harbaugh as head coach and in Baltimore that matters. He instituted the no-huddle during the pre-season and that might fire up an often-creaky offense.
Wild Card, Pittsburgh Steelers: It’s easy to love Baltimore, a team that went 12-4 last season, but 12-4 Pittsburgh wasn’t bad either. The Steelers still have one of the game’s great “winning” quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. He might not have the best numbers in the league, but when the game is on the line, there are few who are better. The defense, as always will be rock solid and with Mike Wallace, Jericho Cotchery and Heath Miller, Big Ben will have plenty of targets
Houston Texans: When you can head into a season with an efficient, healthy quarterback like Matt Schaub, a stud runningback in Arian Foster and got to receiver named Andre Johnson, your offense is in good shape. The offensive line isn’t the best in the AFC, but it’s not the worst by a long shot, so Schaub will have plenty of time to get things done. This is a team that will outscore its opponents on most occasions and should win 11 games.
New England Patriots: It’s Tom Brady. He is, consistently, the best quarterback in the game and as long as he gets enough time to throw, he’ll be a threat to win 10-12 games per season. On defense, Bill Belichick gave his team a significant makeover. He has three new faces in the secondary in Steve Gregory and rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner and both first-round draft choices, DE Chandler Jones and (LB) Don’t’a Hightower, will start. The Patriots are younger and faster on defense and full of talent on offense. They are better than the Jets, Buffalo and Miami.
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning has had a terrific pre-season, if that really means anything, but what was most important about the practice season was that Manning was completely healthy and got great protection. If he has enough time to throw, Denver could win 13 games. And even if you don’t believe Manning is the answer in the Mile High City, consider this: Despite the occasional blow up (the Broncos lost 40-14 at Buffalo and 41-23 to New England) they allowed fewer than 20 points on seven occasions in an 8-8 season. With Manning at quarterback, the Broncos will be better than 8-8.
Wild Card, Kansas City Chiefs: There are many insiders who believe the Chiefs will win the AFC West. I’m not one of them, but I do think that with their schedule, they can grab a Wild Card spot in the AFC. This will be a big year for a team that went 7-9 last year, however much will depend on keeping QB Matt Cassel upright. If he has time to throw, Cassel has Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston to throw to and Jamaal Charles to carry the mail. The offensive and defensive lines will be the big story in K.C. If the bug guys get it done, the Chiefs will play in January.
Green Bay Packers over the Denver Broncos 37-28.