2012 Football Forecast

Our sports expert makes bold predictions for the NFL season after an offseason of scandal and high-profile trades.

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Manning is confident he can thrive with the league’s top running game, led by Willis McGahee (1,199 rushing yards) and John Fox’s emerging defense, led by OLB Von Miller. He has a pair of young, promising wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and familiarity with ex-Colts TE Jacob Tamme and WR Brandon Stokley. Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) is the 6-foot-7 QB of the future.
2. San Diego Chargers
Sheridan's odds offensive rooke of the year
Considered a Super Bowl contender, Chargers GM A.J. Smith and Coach Norv Turner barely survived an 8-8 season. QB Philip Rivers floundered, but could thrive again with RB Ryan Mathews primed for a breakout year. The Bolts were electrocuted by the departure of deep threat WR Vincent Jackson (Bucs) so  they imported Robert Meachem from the Saints. Now that they play Peyton Manning twice a year, the urgency to find a pass rusher compelled Smith to grab 6-foot-1, 264-pound defender Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) in the first round. Asked about Ingram’s short arms, Smith responded: “I think Melvin will have the same problem Tyrannosaurus Rex had millions of years ago.”
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Interim coach Romeo Crennel impressed management by spoiling the Packers’ bid for a perfect season. Crennel, the defensive coordinator for five Super Bowl-winning teams, has a leader in OLB Tamba Hali (12 sacks, four forced fumbles), but needs to improve an offense that scored the second lowest in the league. Adding Peyton Hillis to pair with RB Jamaal Charles (back from an ACL injury) is a step in the right direction. But can the Chiefs win with Matt Cassel throwing to Dwayne Bowe? Nose tackle Dontari Poe was the team’s No. 1 pick because no 345-pounder had such an eye-popping combine workout, but the Chiefs better keep him away from Arthur Bryant’s barbecue.
4. Oakland Raiders
The Silver & Black suffered their ninth straight year without a winning record (they’ve had 99 losses since their 2003 Super Bowl appearance) and mourned the death of legendary owner Al Davis. An NFL-record 163 penalties and a 29th-ranked defense sabotaged the 2011 season. The Raiders dealt two high draft picks to acquire QB Carson Palmer, who went 4-5 as a starter. Electric RB Darren McFadden needs to stay on the field now that backup Michael Bush is a Bear. Palmer hopes that blazer Darrius Heyward-Bey will finally mature into his go-to guy. Dennis Allen, the seventh Raiders coach since 2003, must strengthen the linebacking and secondary.
NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles
The Dream Team was a nightmare. Only a four-game winning streak in December to finish 8-8 may have saved Coach Andy Reid’s job. Philly has playmaking talent in RB LeSean McCoy (1,309 rushing yards, 17 TDs), WR DeSean Jackson (961 receiving yards), and DE Jason Babin (18 sacks), but needs QB Michael Vick to rebound and Demetress Bell to effectively replace LT Jason Peters (Achilles). Reid and GM Howie Roseman enjoyed a dream defensive draft when they secured DT Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), LB Mychal  Kendricks (California) and DE Vinny Curry (Marshall). Roseman, who filled a huge hole by signing free agent MLB DeMeco Ryans, earned a much-deserved pat on the back from Reid.
2. New York Giants
Sheridan's odds defensive player of the year graph.
Eli Manning proclaimed before last year’s season that he was an elite quarterback and proved it by beating Tom Brady again in the Super Bowl. Manning threw for a career-high 4,933 yards as Tom Coughlin’s bunch (9-7) became the first East champs to win fewer than 10 games. WR Victor Cruz (1,536 receiving yards) was a salsa-dancing revelation alongside dangerous Hakeem Nicks. A resilient defense that overcame injuries with sack-happy Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck sparked the Giants’ epic run.
Injury-plagued RB Ahmad Bradshaw now has a new partner in crime in Virginia Tech RB David Wilson, as RB Brandon Jacobs left for San Francisco along with Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham. GM Jerry Reese was thrilled to find pro-ready LSU WR Rueben Randle still on the board in the second round, and he may have a sleeper in ex-Dallas TE Martellus Bennett. “There’s a group down in Dallas who call themselves America’s Team,” co-owner Steve Tisch told a post-parade celebration at MetLife Stadium. “But these guys are America’s dream.”
3. Dallas Cowboys
Owner Jerry Jones insists that Tony Romo is as good as any quarterback.  Despite one of his better seasons (4,184 yards, 31 TDs), Romo is 7-12 in December. The Cowboys (8-8) lassoed only one team that finished .500 or better. America’s QB has talented targets in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten, and RB DeMarco Murray reminded Jones of Eric Dickerson last season. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be more dangerous now with free agent cornerback Brandon Carr and No. 1 draft LSU CB Morris Claiborne shutting down receivers long enough for predator OLB DeMarcus Ware to eat quarterbacks in the backfield. 
4. Washington Redskins
The Redskins surrendered three No. 1 picks and a No. 2 to select QB Robert Griffin III. One former Super Bowl-winning coach confessed to me that no No. 1 is worth two No. 1 picks, let alone three, but Mike Shanahan was desperate, and you would be too after watching Rex Grossman (RG minus III) and John Beck (who’s been released) throw more INTs than TDs. Shanny raised more eyebrows taking QB Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) in the fourth round. With his dashing legs and dazzling arm, Griffin has a chance to be another Cam Newton. Adding ex-Colt WR Pierre Garçon, a deep threat, will be a godsend. OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can bring the heat.
NFC North
1. Green Bay Packers
What a shocking end for a 15-1 team that was an odds-on Super Bowl favorite.  MVP QB Aaron Rodgers ignited a high-octane offense that produced an NFL-high 35 points a game with one of the greatest years by a quarterback. His Herculean work with WR Jordy Nelson playing Robin to Greg Jennings’ Batman was sabotaged by a defense that was last in yards allowed. Mike McCarthy’s secondary surrendered a league-high record 299.6 yards a game despite pulling down the most interceptions (31).
Craving a pass rusher opposite Clay Matthews, GM Ted Thompson sacked No. 1 pick OLB Nick Perry, and drafted six straight defensive players, trading up for three of them. “That tells you that we’re going to win another championship,” gushed CB Charles Woodson.
2. Detroit Lions
The Lions returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 as Matthew Stafford established himself as a top-tier quarterback, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs after missing 19 games his first two years. Stafford has an unstoppable weapon in WR Calvin (Megatron) Johnson (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 TDs) but needs a healthy Jahvid Best (390 yards) to recharge a 29th-ranked rushing attack. No. 1 draft OT Riley Reiff will be protecting Stafford for most of the next decade. Ndamukong Suh is the king of beasts on defense, as long as he doesn’t rattle Roger Goodell’s cage and stomp on any offensive linemen. The next Jim Schwartz-Jim Harbaugh postgame handshake needs to be a pay-per-view event.
3. Chicago Bears
QB Jay Cutler won over his detractors before sustaining a broken thumb, and Da Bears (8-8) lost five of their last six games without him. Cutler is now reunited with ex-Miami WR Brandon Marshall, who torched secondaries for 2,590 yards in 2007 and 2008 in Denver. “I’m happy to get him,” beamed Cutler. The Bears need to fortify the offensive line, which was bulldozed last season for 49 sacks. While hoping RB Matt Forte bounces back strong from a torn medial collateral ligament, the Bears prudently added ex-Raider RB Michael Bush. No. 2 draft WR Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) gives Cutler another big target. Lovie Smith hopes he has a Monster of the Midway opposite DE Julius Peppers in No. 1 draft DE Shea McClellin (Boise State).
4. Minnesota Vikings
Viktor the Viking hasn’t had much to cheer about lately, especially since those evil Saints put that bounty on old Brett Favre. The deal for Donovan McNabb was a McFlop, and Christian Ponder ended his rookie season with a 70.1 rating. WR Percy Harvin (87 receptions, 967 yards) was his only ally after RB Adrian Peterson was lost with a torn ACL. Aside from DE Jared Allen (NFL-best 22 sacks), the Purple People Eaters starved with a feeble secondary that went from a Cover 2 to a Cover No One. No. 1 draft tackle Matt Kalil (USC) will keep Ponder in one piece. Safety Harrison Smith (Notre Dame) and CB Josh Robinson (Central Florida) are needed against Rodgers, Stafford and Cutler.
NFC South
1. New Orleans Saints
Who Dat fans are undoubtedly drowning their sorrows on Bourbon Street in the wake of the Bountygate suspensions of Coach Sean Payton for a year, GM Mickey Loomis for eight and assistant Joe Vitt for six, the loss of two draft picks, a $500,000 fine and the one-year suspension of MLB Jonathan Vilma (replaced by Curtis Lofton) and a four-game penalty for DE Will Smith.
Following a flirtation with Bill Parcells, management wisely named Vitt interim coach. But every little breeze seems to whisper Drew Brees, who threw for an NFL record 5,476 yards and 46 TDs with a 70.2 completion percentage. He was fortunate that guard Ben Grubbs will replace Carl Nicks (Bucs). Expect more fireworks from TE Jimmy Graham and RB-KR Darren Sproles.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Despite their regular-season success (10-6), the Falcons have been blown out in the playoffs by the Packers and Giants the last two years.  After a slow start, QB Matt Ryan had his best season statistically (4,177 yards, 29 TDs). Michael Turner led the NFL in rushing (1,340 yards) while rookie WR Julio Jones (959 yards) looks like a can’t-miss star opposite Roddy White. The trenches need to be upgraded for the Birds to reach the next level, and No. 2 draft pick Peter Konz (Wisconsin) is a keeper. Coach Mike Smith strengthened the secondary by acquiring CB Asante Samuel from Philly. At least owner Arthur Blank can take solace knowing that Bobby Petrino no longer has the keys to the complex.
3. Carolina Panthers
Jerry Richardson’s decision to draft swaggerlicious rookie QB Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick gave Panther fans plenty of cheer as he set rookie records (4,051 yards, 21 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing TDs while rampaging for more than 500 yards). He lifted a 2-14 sad sack team to a 6-10 mark, with three of the losses by five points. WR Steve Smith played the biggest part in Newton’s success along with RB DeAngelo Williams, but Coach Ron Rivera needs to bolster a defense that was drilled for a franchise-record 6,237 yards. DE Charles Johnson still needs help from a pass-rushing sidekick, but at the very least he has a tackling machine behind him in Luke Kuechly (Boston College), who was the first linebacker drafted.
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