It was a busy and unsettling offseason in the NFL, as the Saints lost players and coaches to suspension, high-profile quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow landed in new homes, and former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau was found dead following an apparent suicide, prompting calls for further concussion vigilance.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
2. San Diego Chargers
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Coach Greg Schiano (Rutgers) inherited a mess as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell from 10-6 to 4-12 last season and ended with a 10-game losing streak. QB Josh Freeman was plagued by a poor receiving corps that Schiano immediately addressed by signing ex-Charger Vincent Jackson, and the additions of all-pro guard Carl Nicks and No. 1 draft Boise State RB Doug Martin will upgrade a pedestrian ground attack. Just because 37-year-old Ronde Barber is back and CB Eric Wright was added doesn’t mean the secondary issue has been solved, although No. l pick S Mark Barron (Alabama) is a stud. If Schiano can’t immediately change the culture, dinner at Bern’s Steak House is certain to lift his spirits.
1. San Francisco 49ers
First-year Coach Jim Harbaugh, who inherited a losing culture with maligned quarterback Alex Smith, won the West with a 13-3 record and came within a punt return of reaching the Super Bowl. Smith had his best season, but that didn’t stop Harbaugh from wooing Peyton Manning. Behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, RB Frank Gore rumbled for 1,211 yards.
Harbaugh, needing deep threats to complement Michael Crabtree, added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, who sat out last year and isn’t likely to impress Jerry Rice. Perhaps No. 1 pick WR A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) will. Speedy No. 2 pick RB LaMichael James (Oregon) adds a big-play dimension. The defense remains formidable.
2. Seattle Seahawks
For the second straight year, the Hawks went 7-9, but this time it wasn’t good enough to win the West. Tarvaris Jackson wasn’t the answer at quarterback with only 3,091 yards, which is why Pete Carroll was quick to sign ex-Packer QB Matt Flynn. RB Marshawn Lynch displayed beast mode form (1,204 yards, 12 TDs) even though No. 1 WR Sidney Rice missed almost half the season. Doug Baldwin was a pleasant surprise (51 catches, 788 yards). Carroll used the 15th pick of the draft on pass rushing DE Bruce Irvin (West Virgina), a high risk because of character concerns.
3. Arizona Cardinals
After failing to lure Peyton Manning to the desert, Coach Ken Whisenhunt needs to identify his starting quarterback. Kevin Kolb opened 2-6 last season before Fordham Flash John Skelton took over and finished 5-2. WR Larry Fitzgerald is the Lethal Weapon (1,411 yards) while RB Beanie Wells contributed 1,047 yards despite a weak offensive line that allowed 54 sacks, second worst in the NFL. Fitzgerald lobbied openly for Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd and was delighted when Whisenhunt made him his first-round draft pick. OT Bobby Massie (Mississippi), a fourth-round steal, will help.
4. St. Louis Rams
After winning 15 games in five years, the Rams received federal aid from the nation’s capitol when the Redskins traded them four draft picks. They’ll need more after the NFL suspended new coach Jeff Fisher’s designated defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for his role in Bountygate. Trash-talking CB Cortland Finnegan bolsters the secondary, and first-round-pick DT Michael Brockers (LSU) should improve the run defense. Steven Jackson did all he could while Sam Bradford suffered through an injury-marred season as the Lambs owned the NFL’s worst offense. Bradford has a new toy in rookie WR Brian Quick (Appalachian State). Fisher will have his boys Ram-tough and challenging for a Super Bowl within three years.
Super Bowl Prediction
One year later, Gisele’s prayers are answered. Tom Brady will join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana and Bill Belichick will join Chuck Noll in the exclusive club of four-time Super Bowl winners with a Big Easy shootout victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers—which won’t be easy at all.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for U.S.A. Today, for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events for its website.