August 30, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

2012 NFL Predictions: The Final Standings and Playoffs: NFC

With the first 2012 NFL regular-season game to be played Wednesday night at 8:00 pm when the Dallas Cowboys face off in New York against the Giants, I figured it’s time to take a look at what the final standings may look like in 18 weeks after the final whistle blows:

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles 11-5

New York Giants 10-6

Dallas Cowboys 10-6

Washington Redskins 7-9

The strongest division in the NFL, top-to-bottom, will see no team separate themselves from the pack very much. The infighting has any team in this division able to beat any other on any given day. The Eagles are overall the best team, ironically, because of the good preseason of their backup QB, Nick Foles. Since Michael Vick’s style continually puts him at risk for injuries, Foles should be called upon to start 3 or 4 times. The safeties are the only weak spot on the Eagles’ roster, and that should vault them to a division title.

The New York Giants have uncharacteristic issues on the offensive line and in the interior of their defense, but have enough at the skill positions on offense and the NFL’s best pass rusher in DE Jason Pierre Paul to challenge for a the division crown. They’ll have to settle for a Wild Card spot again, but they seemed to do just fine in this position last season.

The Cowboys will be improved with now the deepest group of CBs in the NFL on paper, but problems with the offensive line and overall chemistry will keep them from winning the NFC East outright, but they should be in the hunt for a Wild Card. That is, if Head Coach Jason Garrett learns to stop icing his own kicker.

Even the Redskins will have their moments with a young offense, but their defense and Head Coach Mike Shanahan’s experience is what will keep the REdskins in most games. With the haul of draft picks they spent to get RG3, Shanahan has still somehow managed to go through a number of players to find the best guys he could to help his bright young signal-caller succeed and I will NOT be surprised when they are mathematically still alive to win the division when the calendar hits December. This is a very underrated young team with the stablizing influence of a two-time Super Bowl winning Head Coach at the helm. Don’t be shocked when they pull off a couple of big upsets; by the same token, don’t be surprised when they fall to a team they should beat. It’s called youth.

6 wins over .500 for the NFC East

August 16, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) runs after a catch in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 12-4

Carolina Panthers 10-6

New Orleans Saints 9-7

Tampa Bay Bucanneers 6-10

The NFC South could easily wind up being the strongest division depending on how the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers play in the second half. Otherwise, circumstances favor the Falcons to win the division this year. It’s been some time since a division champion repeated the following year, and the Falcons have the best combination of veteran leadership and lack of off-field issues that should keep them focused on their goal.

The Carolina Panthers have had a year to get Cam Newton up to speed on the intricacies of the theory behind Ron Rivera’s vertical passing game, and that thought should be scary enough. They DO have the best offensive backfield in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and now Mike Tolbert. Newton just adds to the threat on the ground as well. The Panthers’ starting front seven had more games missed due to injury than any other NFL squad in 2011. With the addition of All-Pro-looking rookie LB Luke Kuechly and the return of already-All-Pro LB Jon Beason in addition to the experience the younger guys got filling in last year, they suddenly have breadth and depth up front. If 4th-round pick DE Frank Alexander and 2nd-year DE Thomas Keiser can bring some heat on the QB, this defense should be in the 11th-15th area in yards allowed. And that means a playoff birth.

The off-field issue comment was squarely aimed at the New Orleans Saints. While they still have Drew Brees and a potent offense, Bountygate robbed them of the top of their draft, which means they really haven’t improved much since last season. They’ll also be without sneaky-genius coach Sean Peyton…and if his absence were “not the big deal” we’re told, why has everyone been touting that genius the past 5 years or so? He’ll definitely be missed, if the suspension holds up. Still, they’ll be a competitive team but without their edge – “us against the world” mentality or not. Their biggest wild card will be RB Mark Ingram. If he can stay healthy, he could have a thousand-yard rushing campaign and shorten games when they need it done…which would be enough to vault them over the Panthers for second. It’ll be crowded near the top until week 17.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had by far the biggest roster makeover of any team from 2011 and it shows in two ways. First, their defensive front seven has gotten a LOT faster, especially at OLB. Secondly, they’ve really beefed up their skill positions on offense by adding Vincent Jackson from San Diego and good-looking young RB David Martin via the draft. Pro-Bowl guard Davin Joseph was lost for the season in preseason action but they still have G Carl Nicks. Depth on the O-line is a concern and although they’ve added those fast OLBs, their ILBs are average at best and they could be victims to what the Panthers suffered from in 2011…trouble stopping the run. After a slow first half of the season, however, they could be “That Team” in the second half that nobody wants to play. They’ll begin making noise in 2013.

5 wins over .500 for the NFC South

NFC North

Green Bay Packers 14-2

Detroit Lions 9-7

Chicago Bears 8-8

Minnesota Vikings 2-14

The Green Bay Packers lost one game in the regular season and were shockingly upset in their first-round game in the playoffs last year. They also happened to have the worst defense in the NFL in the past 20 seasons, which they tried to address in the draft. They should get just enough help in the pass rush department that Clay Matthews shouldn’t be the only defender to worry about. AR-12 is the NFL’s top QB, but he also happens to have the best complement of weapons at WR and TE in the NFL. It’s a team very much like the Miami Dolphins of the 1980′s – but with more passer-friendly rules. Talk about a scary thought! Once again, few teams will be able to matchup with them in their shootouts.

The Detroit Lions will be spinning their wheels a bit after improving steadily since drafting Matthew Stafford. They went into the draft needing help in a big way in their back seven, and exited same draft with more guys for the offense. DT Ndamukong Suh should still be an impact player – both before and after the whistle – but they lost safety Louis Delmas in the preseason. Only the Vikings have such little talent left in the secondary, and it’ll cost them a few games and they’ll miss the playoffs.

The Chicago Bears greatly improved their talent at WR for QB Jay Cutler to heave to. Brandon Marshall and 6’5″ rookie Alshon Jeffery will give Cutler the tallest pair of starting WRs in the NFL and Matt Forte will be a safety valve and explosive threat out of the backfield but questions linger about a porous offensive line from 2011 that they did little to address. 34 yr old MLB Brian Urlacher had 3 procedures done on his knee in the offseason so his effectiveness could well be reduced in 2012. I see the Bears as one of the more up-and-down teams in the NFL this season and that won’t quite get it done.

The Minnesota Vikings simply had too many holes to fill coming into 2012 to possibly address them all. They’re headed in the right direction if you buy into Christian Ponder as a franchise QB (I don’t) and added Matt Kalil, Panthers’ All-Pro center Ryan’s little brother, with the 4th overall pick to protect Ponder’s blind side. That’ll pay dividends down the road. Right now, with Adrian Peterson being slow to start (although amazing that he’s come back this quickly) due to an ACL tear in 2011 week 17, and a lack of targets other than Percy Harvin, the offense will be forced to rely on the ground game more than it wants to…considering AP’s rehab. They’ll be 0-6 in the division with their horrible secondary and facing AR-12, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford each twice. That’s also Megatron, Brandon Marshall, and pick-your-poison-in-GB 6 times. That said, going 5-5 in their other games is a pretty big stretch.

1 win over .500 for the NFC North

NFC West

San Francisco 49′ers 12-4

Seattle Seahawks 7-9

St. Louis Rams 6-10

Arizona Cardinals 3-13

The San Francisco 49′ers are the deepest team across the board in the NFL. However, their team MVP isn’t Patrick Willis; it’s actually QB Alex Smith. They’ve got nobody behind him. As long as he stays healthy and plays within the system like he did last season, they should be every bit as good as they were and more. With only 3 reception yards from their WRs in the 2011 NFC Championship Game, they brought in a truckload of bodies to beef up that position. Harbaugh & Co. won’t win 14 games, but they’ll win or wait for the other team to lose 12 of 16. Even though Smith won’t have the perfect-for-him season he had last year, it’ll be good enough.

The Seattle Seahawks are another team with questionable talent at WR although the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. While Mike Williams and Braylon Edwards aren’t the answers, if Sidney Rice can stay healthy he might be. The defense is this team’s strength and surprise first-round pick Bruce Irvin should be a beast off the edge in those second- and third-and-longs. While Wisconsin rookie QB Russell Wilson earning the starting job in camp was a surprise, he’s an exciting, dynamic player that shows good deep accuracy and has that running ability that uber-expensive backup Matt Flynn doesn’t have. They’ll be a distant second-place at 7-9.

The St. Louis Rams will have a healthy Sam Bradford and a now-imposing defensive line with a coach that knows how to get players to buy into what he’s doing. They’ve added some receiving talent for him and RB Isiah Pead should be a good change-of-pace back for aging but still-effective bruiser Steven Jackson. Other than MLB James Laurinaitis, the Rams have little behind that line to stop the run and that will hurt them in this division more than if they played in any other, save the AFC North.

By now we’re all aware of the complete disaster that is the QB situation in Arizona. In Seattle, they signed Matt Flynn for $8 million a year but he’s sitting because a rookie came along and outplayed him and wowed everyone. In Arizona, they signed Kevin Kolb before last season for a similar amount, but he’s sitting because John Skelton is very slightly less horrible than Kolb is. Their interior OL is a shambles due to injuries already and all this should render their strength, their WRs, ineffective. Larry Fitzgerald will struggle to even get 1,000 yards and rookie phenom Michael Floyd certainly won’t get there. Someone has to get the ball to them and if the Dolphins are serious about moving Matt Moore, the Cards should give it up to sign him.

4 games below .500 for the NFC West

8 games over .500 for the entire NFC in 2012.

Wild Cards: Carolina Panthers, New York Giants

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