10.) San Diego Chargers: I think the AFC West is the worst division in the league – but somebody has to win it, and when in doubt I pick the team with the best QB. Year after year, regardless of his receiving corps Philip Rivers puts up great numbers. Last year was in many ways Rivers’ worst season – he threw 20 INTs and had a career-low in TDs per pass attempt. The Chargers are not nearly as explosive as they were a few years ago, but I look for Rivers to bounce back somewhat. If RB Ryan Mathews is healthy, the ground game will take some pressure off of Rivers as well. Overall, even with their struggles this was a top-5 offense last season and I expect them to remain well above-average.
Defensively, the team made bold moves to address their deficiencies – they spent their top three draft picks on impact defenders, and added LB Jarrett Johnson and SS Atari Bigby through free agency. I still don’t see this as a top defense, but I think they can improve to average – which should be good enough to get the Chargers to nine or 10 wins. The schedule is not easy and the window may be closing in San Diego, but I foresee one more run from this group. 9-7 and the division title for the Chargers.
9.)Tennessee Titans: Call it a hunch, but in a seriously mediocre division I think the Titans will be competitive in 2012. Last season their star running back held out and really was not himself most of the season; their QB was at the end of the line and performed average at best; their best wideout missed 13 games; and the defense only forced 23 turnovers – yet thanks to a solid overall defense, the Titans went 9-7. This season Chris Johnson should be much improved, Kenny Britt is healthy, Jake Locker takes over at QB, and I expect the offense to take a step forward in 2012.
Defensively, a stout unit got stronger via the draft thanks to the additions of LB Zach Brown and DT Mike Martin. This is an extremely young unit that is still developing and I expect them to be just as strong in 2012 even with the loss of CB Cortland Finnegan. The real problem is the schedule – the Titans play the stout NFC North division, as well as the Chargers, Steelers and Patriots. The first six weeks are brutal – if the Titans can get to Week 7 even at 3-3, they should be primed to make a run. I think there are too many tough opponents for 11+ wins, and Locker is likely to have some growing pains – but the Titans are primed to supplant the Texans in 2013. 9-7 and the wildcard for the Titans.
8.) Houston Texans: The Texans finally got over the hump last year, not only recording their first division title but also dominating the Bengals and playing the Ravens tough in their second playoff game, despite losing QB Matt Schaub after their 10th game. Schaub has always been injury-prone, but if he can find a way to stay on the field the pieces are in place for Houston to have a dominant offense – Arian Foster is healthy, as is WR Andre Johnson. Owen Daniels is a very good TE, and the team drafted two wideouts to push Kevin Walter. Losing two offensive linemen to free agency hurts, but this team should still score plenty of points.
The defense is more of a concern – they went from allowing 427 points in 2010 to only 278 in 2011 – give defensive coordinator Wade Phillips much of the credit for that, but such an improvement will almost certainly regress this season somewhat – expect the Texans to allow over 300 points this year, especially given some of the high-powered offenses they will face. In addition, the loss of Mario Williams to free agency will harm the pass rush – the team spent their 1st-round pick on DE Whitney Marcelius to replace him, but the odds are they will have less pass rush this season.
Schaub is great when healthy, but he has played a full season only twice in five seasons as Houston’s starter – hard to predict a full season from him. Combine that with the likelihood of a defensive regression and the difficult schedule, and 10-6 again seems about right for the Texans – and if Schaub misses significant time again, they may well lose the division.
7.) San Francisco 49ers: Let’s start with the idea that from year to year, turnover differential is essentially random – teams that are great at forcing turnovers one year do not show the same tendency in following years. The 2010-11 Steelers are a perfect example. The 2012 49ers will test this theory – they led the league with a +28 turnover margin, and their QB threw only five INTs all season. The safest bet in the NFL is that Smith will at least double his INT rate in 2012, and correspondingly the 49ers will have a smaller turnover ratio. Frankly I’m still not sold on Smith and think the 49ers erred badly in bringing him back in 2012 as the starter. He does at least have a lot of skill around him – Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, and free-agent addition Mario Manningham will keep some pressure off of Smith – but if this offense is to thrive, Smith is the key.
The defense returns virtually intact, and was a top-3 defense in 2011 – and #1 against the run. San Francisco was vulnerable through the air at times, and the 9ers play the Pats, Packers, Giants, and Saints this season – so look for their defensive ranking to slip slightly. Still, I have no real concerns on defense, this is a stout unit and should keep San Francisco in almost every game.
I still believe the 9ers are the class of the West – but their non-division schedule is pretty rough, and if Smith takes a step back points may be hard to come by. I think San Fran will lose one or two divisional games and four or five others, and finish 10-6.
6.) Detroit Lions: Many are picking them to take a step back this season, and normally I’d agree – after all, this was a terribly unbalanced team in 2011. They couldn’t run the ball consistently, they gave up tons of yards on defense, and basically their season relied on Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson playing at a superior level. I do think Stafford will regress slightly – he’s not going to throw for 5000 yards again – but here’s the thing: this is a VERY young team. Stafford is only 24, Johnson is 27, and 10 defensive starters are under 30 – several are under 25. In short, this team has not peaked yet.
Coach Jim Schwartz’ specialty is defense, and while the Lions’ ‘D’ was not good a year ago I expect marginal improvement there, especially if Ndamukong Suh can channel his anger effectively. The secondary remains a concern – they will likely give up lots of passing yards, especially in their pass-heavy division – but I expect the run defense to be much improved. Offensively, as long as Stafford and Johnson are healthy this team will score plenty of points – they are the best passing combo in the league today. The schedule is actually not terribly hard – the Lions draw the weak AFC South and NFC West, and finish with five of their last seven games at home. I think this is the year they split with Green Bay, and while I think they will lose a few games and still have some growing pains, I think they are solid enough win 10 games again. 10-6 for Detroit.
5.) Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are a team on the decline, in my view – their defense, while upgraded, is still an older unit and their wise attempts to address the offensive line via the draft were hampered by preseason injuries – leaving the O-line as a concern heading into the season. However, they still have the best QB in the division, the defense DID lead all of football in points allowed even though they forced very few turnovers, and Pittsburgh has gotten much younger on the defensive line. Troy Polamalu is nearing the end but probably has a good season or two left, and the linebacking corps is solid.
Offensively, this was a below-average unit in 2011, scoring only 325 points (21st of 32 teams). There’s simply too much offensive talent for this team to be a bottom-third offense again, look for them to move up a few slots in points scored – especially if Isaac Redman capably fills in for Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers also finished 28th in turnover margin, and as mentioned before, turnovers tend to even out over a few years – look for them to improve that substantially this season.
Overall I look for the defense to decline a bit in terms of yards and points, but I look for the offense to score a bit more and for the Steelers to improve their turnover ratio – I don’t think they are a 12-win team, but I think they are good enough to win the AFC north one more time at 11-5.
4.) Philadelphia Eagles: Philly was in many ways the NFL’s unluckiest team in 2011 – they finished eighth in points scored and 10th in points allowed, they gained 400+ yards in eight games and only allowed 400+ twice – yet they started 3-6 and could only fight back to an 8-8 record. Philly finished 30th in turnover ratio, after finishing fifth and second in 2009 and 2010 – as mentioned above, expect some improvement in this area.
Offensively, the team is explosive as long as Michael Vick is healthy – they have a top RB in LeSean McCoy, three capable wideouts and a good TE in Brent Celek. Since 2000 Andy Reid’s offense has been in the top 12 in scoring all but two years – he knows how to score points, and I see no reason to expect a serious decline in 2012. The only worry is Vick – he hasn’t played more than 12 games since he joined the Eagles, and he needs to find a way to stay on the field for the Eagles to really excel.
Defensively, the team struggled against the run but spent their top three draft picks (all amongst the top-60 in the draft) on front-seven defenders. This should pay immediate dividends in terms of QB pressure and run containment. The team defended much better in the second half of 2011 and I look for that to continue in 2012. I see the Eagles as an 11-5 team in the tough NFC East and they should win the division.
3.) Atlanta Falcons: This division is typically wide open, but I think Atlanta is primed to claim it in 2012. The Saints are in turmoil, the Panthers aren’t quite ready, and the Bucs are just picking up the pieces…and let’s not forget, Atlanta has plenty of offensive talent – they have scored 400+ points the past two seasons, and QB Matt Ryan seems to be hitting his prime. Roddy White and Michael Turner are starting to age a bit, but young WR Julio Jones should take over as the top receiver this season and the offense should not miss a beat.
The Falcons allowed 350 points in 2011, a below-average figure. Atlanta acquired Asante Samuel to shore up the pass defense, but did not address the defense through the draft – so I do not expect much improvement on this side of the ball. Atlanta was decent against the pass but vulnerable to the run, which cost them in their playoff game against the Giants. Atlanta has some flaws but they have the makings of a great offense, and should have the talent to win the division. 11-5 for the Falcons.
2.) Green Bay Packers: I’m not going to spend much time discussing Green Bay’s offense – with their receiving corps, as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy this is one of the top two or three offenses in the league, and should be for several years. Green Bay has proven that you can win in today’s NFL without a consistent running game; I see no reason to expect less this season.
Defensively, it’s another story – despite going 15-1, the Packers were absolutely TORCHED through the air last year. Now, part of that was teams playing from behind…but they also allowed 10 teams to rush for over 100 yards, and they recorded only 29 sacks. Only their +24 turnover differential kept them from really getting run over – and we’ve discussed turnovers already. To their credit, the Packers clearly realized they had a problem – they spent their top-5 draft picks on defense, and both LB Nick Perry and CB Casey Hayward should be immediate contributors. This still won’t be an above-average defense, but they should give up less yards than in 2011.
They won’t score 560 points again (they likely won’t even get to 500), and they won’t win 15 games, but they should allow less than 360 points this time and still win 12 games. Call it 12-4 and the top NFC seed again for the Packers.
1.)New England Patriots: Much like Green Bay, I’m going to skip over the offense for the most part – the Pats have the best QB in the game, the best TWO tight ends, the best possession receiver, and have been a top-10 offense for eight straight years…unless Brady gets hurt, this team will score.
New England’s defense, however, has been getting worse – their yards-allowed rank has gone from 10 to 11 to 25 to 31 the past four years. Bill Belichick took decisive action, spending four top-90 picks on defense, particularly in the front seven. This still will be an average defense at best, but they should allow a few less yards in 2012.
The biggest factor in the Pats’ favor, however, is the schedule. Their division is, in my opinion, terrible and their non-division foes are fairly weak this year. They do have three tough road games in the first six weeks (TEN, BAL, SEA) – but if they win all of those, they could realistically be looking at a 16-0 season. I think they will drop one of those games, and maybe one other ‘upset’ along the way…but I think 13 wins is the low end for this squad. I’m going to say 15-1 for the Pats this season as they should run away with the #1 AFC seed.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.