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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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Cigar Aficionado’s gridiron guru has analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each team, predicts how each will finish in their divisions, and calls the Super Bowl winner.
AFC East
1. New England Patriots
Classy owner Robert Kraft’s players dedicated 2011 to his beloved late wife, Myra, and almost wrote a storybook ending, only to lose the Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years on a last-minute touchdown. The Pats nevertheless further established themselves as the NFL’s model franchise with their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years. Tom Brady’s arsenal of WR Wes Welker (a league best 122 receptions and 1,569 yards), and matchup nightmare TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez was strengthened with the addition of Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and RB Joseph Addai. Bill Belichick upgraded his 31st-ranked defense with first-round draft selections Syracuse pass rusher Chandler Jones and 265-pound Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The Krafts never lose back-to-back Super Bowls.
2. New York Jets
Super Bowl odds prediction
The surprise trade for Tim Tebow brings a sexy QB controversy to Broadway. Judge Judy’s courtroom had more harmony than Rex Ryan’s locker room last season, where inmate Santonio Holmes nearly ran regressing Mark Sanchez (78.2 QB rating) out of the asylum. “We don’t need Tim Tebow,” tweeted CB Antonio Cromartie.  “I don’t think they know what they’re doing,” added Jet icon Joe Namath. Tebow shrugged it off.
With Plaxico Burress jettisoned, GM Mike Tannenbaum drafted Georgia Tech blazer Stephen Hill to ease the burden on the Ground-and-Pound Ryan and Tony Sparano have in store. If No. 1 pick DE Quinton Coples (North Carolina) can’t upgrade the pass rush, Ryan might be forced to start Tebowing at the feet of owner Woody Johnson. For now, Ryan guarantees no more guarantees. Guaranteed that won’t last.    
3. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo stampeded to a first-place start before QB Ryan Fitzpatrick injured his ribs and Fred Jackson broke his leg. The offensive line allowed the fewest sacks in the league and No. 2 pick Cordy Glenn, as big as a buffalo, replaces LT Demetress Bell. A porous defense that surrendered a franchise-worst 5,938 yards doomed the Bills, which is why there is such a buzz about the signing of heralded free agent DE Mario Williams. DE Mark Anderson (Patriots) and No. 1 pick CB Stephon Gilmore will help, but Coach Chan Gailey still needs a bookend for WR Steve Johnson. Journeyman QB Vince Young won’t threaten Fitzpatrick. “I think we have a legitimate chance to win the division,” says Gailey, who may be watching too many Rex Ryan press conferences.
4. Miami Dolphins
The Fish (6-10) became a laughingstock after a floundering offseason of futility. First, owner Stephen Ross lost Jeff Fisher to the Rams and settled for former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who couldn’t recruit QB Matt Flynn to the Sunshine State. David Garrard, who was sidelined last year with a surgically repaired back, was summoned to back up Matt Moore as Peyton Manning didn’t want to take his talents to LeBron James’ South Beach. Moore lost WR Brandon Marshall to the Bears, then watched the club draft Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick. Philbin, the seventh coach for the Dolphins in 10 years, is hoping to build his offense around Reggie Bush, but if Kim Kardashian’s old flame is bitten again by the injury bug, well, there’s always Jeb Bush.
AFC North
1. Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh was a dropped pass away from winning the AFC title and getting to the Super Bowl, as WR Lee Evans let QB Joe Flacco’s end zone pass slip through his fingers in the closing minute against the Patriots, denying coach John Harbaugh his first Super Bowl berth. RB Ray Rice was the Ravens’ standout with 2,068 rushing-receiving yards (76 receptions). Baltimore was 9-0 when he toted the mail at least 20 times.
Led by 37-year-old Ray Lewis, quarterback menace Terrell Suggs (who may miss at least half of the season with a torn ACL) and massive roadblock Haloti Ngata, the defense is still a powerhouse. Ozzie Newsome drafted OLB Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) to keep it that way.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Sheridan's odds regular season wins graph.
Rebounding from an opening-day trouncing in Baltimore, the Steelers won 12 of their next 15 games to make the playoffs. They overcame a number of injuries as the defense allowed the fewest regular-season yards (4,348). QB Big Ben Roethlisberger had a big year (4,077 yards, 21 TDs) but took a big beating (40 sacks) and missed two games. He was ecstatic when Mike Tomlin made Stanford guard David DeCastro and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams his first two picks. RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery) is a question mark. Rising star WR Antonio Brown became the perfect complement to Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders replaces “Dancing With the Stars” star Hines Ward, who retired. ILB James Farrior also retired, but Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did not.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The youthful Who Deys (25.7 average age) surprised as a wild card with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton (3,398 yards and 20 TDs), who replaced QB Carson Palmer and made an immediate connection with fellow rookie WR A.J. Green (65 catches, 1,057 yards). RB Cedric Benson (1,076 rushing yards) is gone, replaced by BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Pats). Mike Zimmer’s defense did its part with 45 sacks, fifth in the NFL. Marvin Lewis moved swiftly to infuse new blood to the secondary with No. 1 pick CB Dre Kirkpatrick after the defection a year ago by Johnathan Joseph (Texans), and bolstered his offensive line with fellow first-round pick G Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin).
4. Cleveland Browns
Where have you gone, Jim Brown? The Mistakes by the Lake have gone 56-105 the last 20 years. They lost all six division games and 11 of their final 12 to finish 4-12. The offense sputtered behind QB Colt McCoy (57.2 completion percentage), who was victimized by a lack of play-makers. Team president Mike Holmgren earned widespread praise for drafting Alabama RB Trent Richardson to replace Peyton Hillis (Chiefs)—except from Brown, who called him “ordinary.” McCoy, who may or may not be able to throw with more velocity than owner Randy Lerner, barely had time to revel in his new toy before Holmgren pulled the rug out from beneath him by selecting 28-year-old QB Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) with the 22nd pick.
AFC South
1. Houston Texans
Coach Gary Kubiak was a magician in winning the franchise’s first division title with stars QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson and DE Mario Williams among a dozen players on injured reserve. Third-string rookie QB T.J. Yates closed out the 10-6 season, defeating Cincinnati in the wild-card playoff before being ousted 20-13 by Baltimore.
Johnson (hamstring) was limited to 33 catches as RB Arian Foster (1,224 rushing yards) couldn’t carry the offense all by himself. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips hopes that No. 1 draft DE Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) is not a one-year wonder (16 sacks, nine forced fumbles) because Williams (who went to the Bills) is gone. If Mercilus turns out to be merciless? “Houston, we no longer have a problem.”
2. Tennessee Titans
Sheridan's odds mvp graph.
The Titans were a surprising 9-7 under first-year coach Mike Munchak, missing the playoffs in a tiebreaker with Cincinnati. QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will have to fend off 2011 No. 1 pick Jake Locker, enjoyed one of his best seasons (3,571 passing yards), starting 16 games for the first time since 2007 even though he was handicapped by the league’s worst running attack. RB Chris Johnson had conditioning issues following his lengthy holdout and struggled to reach 1,000 yards. No. 1 draft WR Kendall Wright (Baylor) is insurance for the unreliable Kenny Britt, but owner Bud Adams is still searching for a pass rush and a cornerback to replace Cortland Finnegan (Rams).
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The ineptitude of rookie QB Blaine Gabbert cost Coach Jack Del Rio his job, which is why the Jaguars brought in QB Chad Henne. Gabbert, who finished at the bottom of the AFC passer ratings, is new head coach Mike Mularkey’s biggest challenge. NFL rushing king Maurice Jones-Drew set career highs in rushing (1,606) and attempts (343).  Mularkey imported ex-Dallas wideout Laurent Robinson to help, and is hopeful that No. 1 draft Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon (232 receptions the past two seasons) will remind longtime Jag-watchers of Jimmy Smith. “I think we can be a playoff contender,” says GM Gene Smith. Drafting punter Bryan Anger in the third round leaves me shaking my head, but No. 2 pick DE Andre Branch (Clemson) could be a double-digit sacker.
4. Indianapolis Colts
After 13 years, 54,828 yards, and an average 10.6 wins a season, the glorious Peyton Manning Era is over. QB Andrew Luck, the first overall selection in the 2012 draft, better brace himself for growing pains. New coach Chuck Pagano needs help everywhere, especially in the secondary. The horseshoes are years away from relevance. When Manning took over in l998, the Colts went 3-13—with Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison. I don’t see anybody like that on the Colts’ roster. But Luck was grateful the Colts drafted TE Coby Fleener (Stanford), TE Dwayne Allen (Clemson) and speedy WR T.Y. Hilton (FIU). The shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s Steak House will make Luck’s eyes tear almost as much as Pagano’s defense.
AFC West
1. Denver Broncos
Tebowmania electrified the Mile High city—until Manningmania displaced it before you could say God almighty! Despite a 46.5 completion percentage, Tim Tebow willed the Rocky Mountain Men to the playoffs. But Manning is John Elway’s idea of a Super Bowl quarterback, and that’s why Denver is now Peyton’s Place.
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.
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