Last week, we previewed the teams I expect to be the 11 worst in the league. This week, we’ll look at the ‘middle eleven’ – teams that should finish with 7-10 wins and have legitimate playoff aspirations. History shows that at least one of the teams I listed last week will make the playoffs, and at least one of the teams I list this week will have an awful season – the NFL is rarely predictable. That said, let’s get to it!
24.) Seattle Seahawks: One of the dangers of doing these columns over a 3-week span is that in the preseason, teams are constantly in flux and sometimes make surprising decisions. The Seahawks’ decision to start third-round draft pick Russell Wilson over newly-signed QB Matt Flynn qualifies as surprising, to say the least – and causes me to drop the Seahawks significantly in my standings. Last year Seattle went 7-9 but improved immensely over their 2010 7-9 campaign – but all of the improvement was on defense, as their offense was below-average both years. I thought the signing of Flynn, who looked great in limited duty for the Packers, would vault the Seahawks into true contention for a wildcard – but it appears he’s hurt, and the 5’11” Wilson will almost certainly struggle once the regular season begins.
In addition, the Seahawks spent eight of their 10 draft picks on defense, even though they have a need for elite playmakers both at RB and WR. I think their defense will remain stout and possibly even improve…but unless Flynn is healthy and the starter, I think the offense will REALLY struggle in an improved NFC West. Based on the current depth chart, I’m saying 6-10 for the Seahawks.
20.) Miami Dolphins: I know a lot of pundits are picking Miami to struggle, and with a lack of skilled receivers and rookie starting QB Ryan Tannehill, I agree that there’s a lot of risk here. However, the backup QB, Matt Moore, was a decent QB a year ago so I think the team will have a ‘quick hook’ if Tannehill struggles. Reggie Bush had a breakout season, averaging five yards per carry, and I really like this young offensive line.
Defensively, the Dolphins allowed only one team to score 30+ points, and held eight opponents to 20 or less points. This is a solid defensive team – not flashy, but stout, particularly against the run. Miami went 6-3 in their last nine games, and actually outscored their opponents on the season – indicators of a team better than their 6-10 record.
There’s no question that this team needs additional skill on the outside, but assuming Tannehill isn’t a total disaster, there’s potential for eight or nine wins here. I think the upside is limited because their offense will be 20th or worse, but I’m saying 7-9 for the Dolphins.
19.) Denver Broncos: Look, I’m a huge Peyton Manning fan – I think he’s an inner-circle Hall of Fame guy, one of the top-5 QBs ever to play the game – especially mentally…but the Broncos have ‘bet the farm’ on a 36-year-old QB who missed a whole season with neck and arm-strength issues – and who wasn’t exactly mobile in his prime. Denver was outscored by 89 points a season ago – by far the worst among playoff teams, and among the worst all-time! They scored only 309 points, lowest of any playoff team, and their defense allowed almost 400 points. Don’t let the upset of the Steelers fool you – this was NOT a good team in 2011, and while there is some young talent here I don’t see this as a vastly improved team in 2012.
If Manning is even 80% of what he was, he’s a big improvement over Tebow…and the defense is bound to be somewhat better this season – but there’s no way they make the playoffs if they get outscored again, that’s just too ‘fluky’ to repeat. Also, if Manning gets hurt again, they are likely to completely collapse as they have NO QB depth at all now. I’m going to say 7-9 but that’s only because I believe Manning still ‘has it’…if I’m wrong or if he gets hurt, it could be a very long year in Denver.
18.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs were actually 4-2 last season before utterly collapsing and losing their last 10 games, and the last six weeks were particularly ugly. So why do I think the Bucs will be more competitive in 2012? First, I think coach Raheem Morris completely lost the team, and that’s evident by the way the team more or less quit in December. I cannot fathom that new coach Greg Schiano will allow that to happen. Also, the team brought in all kinds of help on offense – Dallas Clark and Vincent Jackson will be a huge upgrade in the passing game, while Doug Martin and LaGarrette Blount should provide an effective 1-2 punch at RB.
Defensively the Bucs drafted two immediate starters at LB and SS, and this group is far too talented to allow 490 points again. The schedule is somewhat easier in 2012, but in my mind the season comes down to the effectiveness/leadership of Schiano and QB Josh Freeman. With these weapons and now in his fourth season, there are no more excuses – if Freeman is a legit top-15 QB in this league he has to show it in 2012. I think they still have some holes to fill, but the rest of the division is somewhat down and I see an opportunity for Tampa Bay to climb back towards .500. Call it 7-9 for the Bucs.
17.) Cincinnati Bengals: I know they are a trendy pick in some circles to win the division, but they beat only ONE team with a winning record last year – the 9-7 Titans. Their defense is solid but unspectacular, they won’t sneak up on anyone, Ced Benson is gone (replaced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, at best this is a wash), and aside from AJ Green I see no playmakers on this team at all. Add to that the likelihood of some regression from second-year QB Andy Dalton and I just don’t see them improving in 2012. I think they will be a factor in the division all year, and watch out if they make some solid moves in 2013…but I foresee a step back to 7-9 in 2012.
16.) Chicago Bears: Chicago appears to have developed a pattern the past three seasons – below-average offense. They have scored between 320-350 points every year since acquiring Jay Cutler, and frankly that’s not good enough in this division. The acquisition of Brandon Marshall may help some, but the bigger problem is that Cutler is neither durable nor especially accurate. At least he has a solid backup now in Jason Campbell, which should keep the team competitive if (when?) Cutler gets hurt.
The Bears’ scoring defense has also been below-average three of the last four seasons under Lovie Smith, and I don’t see them becoming a top-tier defense while dealing with the Packers and Lions four times per season. This is a good-not-great unit on a good-not-great team.
If everything breaks right – and either the Lions or Packers stumble – the Bears could win 10 or 11 games. However, I think they clearly are the third-best team in the division and they will struggle to get above .500. 8-8 again for the Bears.
15.) Kansas City Chiefs: 2011 was nightmarish in KC – their stud RB was lost for the season in Week 2, QB Matt Cassel missed seven games (and his backups were HORRIBLE), and the team scored only 212 points. Somehow, they managed to win seven games while being outscored by 120 points…the good news is, all of the above-mentioned players are now healthy, and the team has added even more skill on offense via the draft and free agency. Peyton Hillis is the perfect complement to Jamaal Charles at RB, and the team also addressed the offensive line with two high picks.
Defensively the team was already solid and they drafted a stout nose tackle to clog up the middle – and they already were a top-12 defense. Given the relative weakness of the division, assuming Cassel stays upright it’s not hard to see the Chiefs as a contender for the division. I think 10 wins will do it, but I am not picking the Chiefs to get there – maybe in 2013. 8-8 for the Chiefs.
14.) New York Giants: Yes, I’m picking the defending champs to miss the playoffs. Their amazing postseason run obscured one immutable fact – for 16 games, they were a VERY poor defensive team, and they have allowed 400+ points two of the past three seasons. I think their Super Bowl title may have blinded management as to the team’s faults, because they only drafted one defensive player in the first six rounds and essentially head into 2012 with the same starting lineup.
Offensively, Eli Manning has proven that he is a big-time, big-game QB – and the Giants offense has consistently been a top-10 offense the past four seasons. However, the loss of Mario Manningham, the injury to Hakeem Nicks, and the lack of a running game may make this Eli’s most challenging season to date. The Giants will still score plenty of points, but I think their defense will keep them from a title defense: 8-8 for the G-Men.
13.) New Orleans Saints: Let’s see…their top linebacker, GM and coach are suspended for the season, the ‘interim’ coach is suspended for six weeks, they didn’t have a draft pick until the third round, and they were 24th in yards allowed last season. The odds of putting up two straight 500-point seasons are long even without all the offseason turmoil, and combining that with the likelihood of a defensive decline makes another 13-win season a longshot at best.
The offense is still among the best in the game (as long as Brees is healthy at least), and features a plethora of skilled backs and receivers. Even though 500 points is unlikely, I’d consider it a major shock if this wasn’t one of the top five offenses in 2012. The defense is another matter – it is short on playmakers and having to change coordinators may mean a slow start.
Overall, New Orleans is perhaps the toughest team to judge – will all of this adversity pull the team together, or will it be too much burden to bear? I lean towards the latter, and have the Saints JUST missing the playoffs at 9-7.
12.) Baltimore Ravens: Age always wins in the end, and I think age is finally going to catch up with Ed Reed (33) and Ray Lewis (37) in 2012. Age, plus free agent losses (Jarret Johnson and Tom Zbikowski), plus the injury to Terrell Suggs, suggests to me that one of the NFL’s most feared defenses is likely to take a major step back this season. They will still be a good unit, but I predict that they will allow more than 300 points for the first time since 2007.
Offensively, they have some weapons – Ray Rice has become an elite back, and while Anquan Boldin is in decline young Torrey Smith showed exceptional promise at WR. Unfortunately, at this point it’s fair to say Joe Flacco will not become an elite QB – in his fourth season he completed only 57% of his passes – the lowest figure of his career. He has settled in as an average NFL QB, one who can guide a good offense but not a game-changing player. I do not believe the offense can overcome a significant decline by the defense, I think the schedule is much tougher this season, and I see the Ravens barely making the playoffs as a 9-7 wildcard.
11.) Dallas Cowboys: Dallas made strides last season and had control of their playoff chances with two weeks to go, but losses to Philly and the Giants meant another disappointing finish in ‘Big D’. The team attacked the defense hard via the draft, spending their first four picks on defenders. Rookie CB Morris Claiborne is revered by scouts and should help shore up a porous secondary. The Dallas ‘D’ was average last year, but they should be slightly improved in 2012.
Offensively, the pieces are there for a very good offense – if they can stay healthy. The running backs were effective but injury-prone in 2011, and Dez Bryant is a fantastic WR if he can stay out of trouble. QB Tony Romo puts up great numbers but seems to fade in big moments – he needs to have another solid year for Dallas to make the postseason. The division is always competitive and the schedule (AFC North) is rough, but I think Dallas will grab the last wild-card slot in the NFC at 9-7.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.