The 2012 season featured plenty of headlines, but the biggest of them all was the success of three rookie quarterbacks and second-year sensation. In Indianapolis the Colts Andrew Luck took the worst team in 2011 to an 11-5 finish and playoff appearance, Robert Griffin III helped the Redskins go from first to last in the NFC East, Russell Wilson stepped in for the Seahawks and nearly took Seattle to the NFC Championship Game and Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith in San Francisco and came within 5-yards of winning the Super Bowl.
That was just the tip of the iceberg in 2012. Adrian Peterson returned from an ACL injury and nearly broke Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record, Peyton Manning didn’t miss a beat in his first season with the Broncos, guiding Denver to an AFC-best 13-3 record, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt made a serious run at becoming the first defensive player to win the league MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, The Colts rallied around the unfortunate news of head coach Chuck Pagano being diagnosed with leukemia and the Baltimore Ravens sent Ray Lewis out in style with a Super Bowl.
I don’t know about you but the 2013 season can’t come soon enough! Here’s a look at how I see all eight division playing out this season, plus my prediction on who will be holding up the Lombardi trophy at MetLife Stadium in February.
AFC East Champion: New England Patriots
While the Patriots suffered numerous blows this offseason, including star tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder and Wes Welker leaving town to join up with Peyton Manning in Denver, they are still the team to beat in the AFC East. It’s going to stay that way as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady call Foxborough home. The Dolphins were active in free agency and could potentially contend for a Wild Card spot, but I think the expectations have been set a bit high. The Jets could be a sleeper, but that’s only if rookie quarterback Geno Smith exceeds expectations. The Bills don’t figure to pose much of a threat, as they are in the midst of yet another rebuilding phase under first year head coach Doug Marrone.
AFC North Champion: Baltimore Ravens
This was by far the hardest division in the AFC to predict. The North has sent at least two teams to the playoffs in each of the last five years. I know a lot of people are expecting the Ravens to fall back after losing several key players either to retirement, in free agency or trade, but I believe they still are the most talented team in the division. I have Cincinnati edging out the Steelers for second in the division with the Browns once again bringing up the rear.
AFC South Champion: Houston Texans
Despite a horrific collapse late in the season that cost the Texans a first round bye in the playoffs, they still managed to go 12-4 and win the AFC South. Once Manning left Indianapolis, it appeared the Texans would be in control of the division for several years to come. That’s not the case. The Colts are a legit threat to not only get back to the playoffs but win the AFC South. This should be a two-team race the whole way, as I expect little out of both the Jaguars and Titans.
AFC West Champion: Denver Broncos
It’s hard to believe that so many people doubted Manning after missing the entire 2011 season. If it wasn’t for a fluke 70-yard touchdown at the end of regulation in a double-overtime loss to the Ravens in the Division Round of the playoffs, there’s a good chance Denver would have went on to win the Super Bowl. With that said, it’s Super Bowl or bust for the Broncos in 2013. They should have no trouble winning the AFC West. The Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs all finished under .500 in 2012. Kansas City is one of my surprise teams this year, as I think they have a legit shot at earning one of the two Wild Card spots. The Chargers will be about the same as they were a year ago and likely finish around .500, while the Raiders could end up being the worst team in the NFL.
NFC East Champion: Washington Redskins
The NFC East could go in a number of different directions, which makes it nearly impossible to predict. You could make a strong case for all four teams to win the division. That’s right. Even the 4-12 Eagles have a realistic shot. There’s just not a whole lot that separates one team from the next. I took the easy route and picked Washington to defend their title, but that will depend largely on the health of RGII.
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers
I think it’s pretty safe to say the Packers will win the NFC North. We have seen it New England and when Manning was in Indianapolis. When you have one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, more times than not you are going to finish on top the standings in your respective division. Worst case scenario is the Packers make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. The popular pick to finish second is the Bears, but I’m not sold on the new coaching staff just yet. Instead I’m going to go out on a limb and take the Lions to bring home the No. 2 spot. Sorry Viking fans, but I think last year was a fluke. Minnesota goes from playoff surprise to bottom of the pack in the North.
NFC South Champion: New Orleans Saints
The Falcons ran away with the NFC South last year, as they finished with an NFC-best 13-3 record. The Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers didn’t put up much of a fight, as all three teams went 7-9. Most would assume the Falcons are the team to beat, but I think the return of Sean Payton will have New Orleans finishing on top the standings come season end. Atlanta will likely still make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but keep an eye out for Carolina. I think the Panthers could be this year’s surprise team. The same could be said for Tampa Bay, but I’m not a believe in quarterback Josh Freeman.
NFC West Champion: San Francisco 49ers
In my opinion the NFC West is the toughest division in the NFL. They feature two legit Super Bowl contenders in San Francisco and Seattle, a St Louis team that is only going to get better the longer Jeff Fischer is in town and a much-improved team out in Arizona. The 49ers and Seahawks received all the publicity last year, but it was the Rams who posted the best record inside the division. While I think St Louis could surprise, I think this is a two-team race between San Francisco and Seattle. I gave the slight edge to the 49ers, but wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Seahawks won the West.
Wild Card Round
(3) Texans defeat (6) Colts
(5) Chiefs defeat (4) Ravens
(3) Packers defeat (6) Falcons
(4) Redskins defeat (5) Seahawks
(1) Broncos defeat (5) Chiefs
(2) Patriots defeat (3) Texans
(1) 49ers defeat (4) Redskins
(3) Packers defeat (2) Saints
(1) Broncos defeat (2) Patriots
(3) Packers defeat (1) 49ers
Broncos defeat Packers
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