I've decided to divide post the full predictions in four separate parts: AFC division-by-division outlook, NFC division-by-division outlook, regular season awards predictions and finally I will cap it off with my playoff/SB predictions.
The AFC divisions will come first. Here's who I have winning each of the four AFC divisions, along with a couple paragraphs on each of the remaining teams of each division.
East: New England Patriots
The defending AFC champion New England Patriots fell just short of another Super Bowl championship last season and, with large improvements on the defensive side of the ball, will once again be the favorites this season. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will make for a one-two punch in the offensive backfield with the departure of BenJarvus Green Ellis, giving the Pats a huge boost in the run game (ranked 20th in league last season) and Tom Brady will once again house one of the top passing attacks in the game.
On defense, the Patriots lacked big-time playmakers in 2011 and ranked 31st in total defense (17th against run, 31st against pass), allowing 411.1 yards per game. The additions of DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower via the first round of April's draft have shown us that coach Bill Belichick has made it a priority of his to focus on improving the defense and adding youth. The improvements on defense and the Ridley/Vereen duo alone is enough for the Pats to repeat as division champs in 2012.
As for the rest of the East, I don't think New England will have much competition. New York, with a struggling offense that will have complete focus on the quarterback drama between Sanchez and Tebow, will once again be a footnote compared with the Pats. Miami's rookie signal caller Ryan Tannehill will need to prove himself to the league and his teammates. Buffalo spent big bucks this offseason with the additions of All Pro Mario Williams and Chicago defensive end Mark Anderson, but lack of improvement in other areas will not be enough to top the Patriots.
North: Baltimore Ravens
If Joe Flacco had a season to finally breakout amongst the elite, this would be the season for him to do so. Ray Rice got his new deal over the offseason, luckily for him, and I'd expect a breakout season for wideout Torrey Smith. The weapons are all there for Flacco and his comfort level and maturity are only improving with each season, meaning the only question on the offensive side this season is the offensive line, which allowed 33 sacks in 2011. Ben Grubbs left for New Orleans and left tackle Bryant McKinnie was nearly cut from the roster a day ago, though luckily the two sides were able to agree on a restructured contract. Due to lack of depth, the o-line will need to stay healthy this season in order to keep Flacco upright.
On defense the Ravens are aging, no doubt about that one. Ray Lewis still has a couple of seasons left in the tank, but this could be 33-year old Ed Reed's last season. Not to mention Terrell Suggs (achilles) will be lost for at least the first six games. Youth was added via the draft with the selection of OLB Courtney Upshaw and it appears as though new defensive coordinator Dean Pees is slowly ushering in a new era. An era which includes Sergio Kindle, Jameel McClain and Upshaw at the linebacking position. It will certainly be a change of pace, but the keys are still there for a top three defense minus Suggs.
Pittsburgh and its newly-formed offense under Todd Haley will be right behind the Ravens, especially if some of the younger pieces in the Pittsburgh defense (Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen) step in and produce. Injuries, unfortunately, have already haunted the Steelers and, if anything, that is exactly what may stand in the way of Pittsburgh and the playoffs. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, David DeCastro, James Harrison, Sean Spence are among just a few of the key injuries. As for Cleveland and Cincinnati, the Browns have a ray of hope in rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson, but aside from that it will just be another season in Cleveland. Cincinnati and second-year signal caller Andy Dalton are just a few steps away from returning to being contenders each year.
South: Houston Texans
Capturing its first AFC South division title since coming into the league as an expansion team in 2002, Houston is looking to add on to its 2011 success. The scariest part of it all? They were without two of the best starters on offense for a portion of the season. Matt Schaub the starting QB (missed six starts) and All Pro wideout Andre Johnson (missed nine starts) were not there for the franchise's first-ever playoff victory. With both back and healthy, not to mention the best running back in the game in Arian Foster, Houston's high-powered offense will have its best season yet.
The Wade Phillips-led defensive squad ranked No. 2 overall last season, accumulating 44 sacks, 17 interceptions and a +7 turnover differential. Mario Williams left for Buffalo, following the money, this offseason, but with the drafting of Whitney Mercilus in April the defense wont skip a beat in his absence––especially since Williams started just five games in 2011 due to injury anyways. Baltimore? Pittsburgh? San Francisco? No. With playmakers such as Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Johnathan Joseph, Houston will have the No. 1 defense in 2012. You heard it here first.
In Andrew Luck's first professional season the Indianapolis Colts will struggle, much like in Peyton Manning's rookie campaign (finished 3-13). Luck will be relatively productive––nothing incredible, just yet––but the Colts just don't have the pieces in place for Luck to immediately succeed. Give him some time. As for the rest of the division, Tennessee and starter Jake Locker will be in Wild Card contention while the Jaguars are bottom-feeders once again. I'm actually a little worried for Maurice Jones-Drew's health, especially when you take into consideration that he sat out of camp and preseason.
West: Denver Broncos
At 8-8 a year ago, this same Broncos offense was carried to a division title with quarterback/fullback/tight end Tim Tebow at the helm. After the miraculous Wild Card victory over Pittsburgh, the celebration was short-lived as they were trounced by New England. The No. 1 rushing attack will be the perfect complement to new Bronco QB Peyton Manning, a future Hall of Famer. As long as he can be protected, Manning will stay healthy and lead this mediocre offense to a second consecutive AFC West title.
Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller will be looking to add on to his early successes with an even better season, alongside a returning Elvis Dumervil (at D-end) and fellow linebacker D.J. Williams. Denver failed to add depth via the draft and lost FS Brian Dawkins to retirement, but I believe the upgraded offense will be enough to make up for a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit. Especially in this division.
San Diego's Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers always puts up the numbers to compete in the West but 20 interceptions last year cost the Bolts, who finished in an 8-8 tie with Denver but lost the tiebreaker. I'm not completely sold on Ryan Mathews being a full-season back, and I don't think they have quite enough firepower to win the West. Hopefully they can avoid missing the postseason for the third consecutive season. As for Oakland and Kansas City, they both have top 10 backs returning from injury, giving plenty of hope for the season (Kansas City has a healthy Matt Cassel back as well). But lack of overpowering defenses may end up holding each of the teams back in comparison with Denver.
Stay tuned for the NFC version.
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