August 26, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Decker (not pictured) during the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

2012 NFL Predictions: The Final Standings and Playoffs: AFC

Aug 29, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass during the first quarter of the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

AFC East

New England Patriots 12-4

Buffalo Bills 9-7

New York Jets 5-11

Miami Dolphins 4-12

The New England Patriots stopped trying to be so “cutesy” with peddling draft picks and actually used a lot of their arsenal to improve upon the second-worst defense in the NFL in many years. They also happened to be the second-worst defense last year – next to the Green Bay Packers. Drafting Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower should help, but the secondary still needs work. The Pats can score nearly at will with Tom Brady & Co. if he’s not facing a furious pass rush, so outscoring opponents wasn’t a problem. Now, with the Jets’ defense always stingy and the Bills building a solid squad, the goings won’t be quite so easy this year in Foxboro. However, Head Coach BB has kept their offense playing like a fine-tuned clock with the help of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. Belichick is a defensive guru but has earned a reputation as an offensive innovator and should cruise to another AFC East title. Next year, another team could possibly overtake them…

…and that team would be the Buffalo Bills. Since the failed Aaron Maybin experiment, the Bills have generally drafted well the past two seasons. They’ve been building a defense designed to stop the New England Patriots and are the team best headed in the right direction in the AFC East. DE “Super” Mario (Williams) was the biggest defensive free agent probably since Reggie White. A pair of very good tackles, Marcel Dareus and Kyle WIlliams, will help plug the middle against the run better than anyone since the days of Marcus Stroud. Nick Barnett should continue being a good tackler to keep the middle sealed, and first-round draftee CB Stephon Gilmore from South Carolina will be expected to start right away. If mammoth, spry, but green rookie LT Cordy Glenn can nail down the blind side for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, this team has a chance to make some noise for a Wild Card spot. Give them another year to gel and pick up a few more pieces, and the AFC East title will actually be a fight with the Pats in 2013.

The New York Jets have a top-5 defense and a bottom-5 offense. It’s not all Mark Sanchez’ fault, however, as especially the right side of their OL has been in flux. It’s pretty bad when you think that Jason Smith is an upgrade, as former Jets (now Rams) RT Wayne Hunter recently found out. The Jets did not score a single touchdown in the preseason and 1st-yr OC Tony Sparano looks like he’s installing an offense like he had in Miami – able to move the ball in fits and starts, but sets up a LOT of field goal attempts. K Nick Folk could be a fantasy stud this year. WR Santonio Holmes is their only established WR and 2nd-rd pick Stephen Hill is very, very raw but just as physically gifted, so the team lacks a true #1 WR. Tim Tebow should see a couple of series a game as a Wildcat QB so that should be worth watching, but the team should struggle to score points. It’s a good thing they have that defense, who will wind up winning them a few games and keeping some others close. They’ve taken a step back from last year’s 8-8 finish, but have the NFL’s best CB duo in Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis.

HBO’s Hard Knocks, whose season finale is tonight, has given us a great up-close look at the new Regis Joe Philbin era in Miami. His demeanor is very calm and he insists that players watch their language as he tries to change the lax team culture in South Beach. I think he’ll be exactly what they need on the coaching end, but they still lack bodies at wide receiver. In fact, they’ve got the least-talented group in the entire NFL, and will lean on their running backs to produce. Versatile Reggie Bush will be asked to catch short passes and run – something he’s quite well-versed in doing – while rookie Lamar Miller and second-year pro Daniel Thomas compete for time behind Reggie. At least their West Coast Offense is tailor-made for average talent at wideout but the backs are the strength of this team. Defensively, they haven’t played well in preseason but have an underrated roster. 3rd year pro DE Jared Odrick should really come into his own and the ‘fins have a pretty darned good front seven. 3rd year strongside LB Koa Misi needs to pick things up, but they have a solid group up front. After trading streaky CB Vontae Davis to the Colts for a second-rounder in 2013, they need depth at corner but have a pair of adequate ones to start. Sean Smith could step up and become a real force with his 6’3″ frame as he can defend the jump ball. Until they get some talent at WR, however, rookie QB Ryan Tannehill (whom I’ve been saying since the draft that he would be the starter, THANK YOU, in “Kuechly, Tannehill: the Search for George“) will struggle behind a talented but struggling offensive line.

2 wins below .500 for the AFC East

Aug 30, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) passes the ball in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

AFC South

Houston Texans 10-6

Tennessee Titans 7-9

Indianapolis Colts 6-10

Jacksonville Jaguars 2-14

The Texans should repeat by default – not that they’re bad at all, just no challengers in the division. They lost Super Mario to free agency but still have a number of players capable of rushing the passer. Second-year DE J.J. Watt should only improve upon his 5.5 sacks as a rookie. LB Connor Barwin had 11.5, and 2 of the other 3 LBs in their 3-4 had at least 4 sacks so they can bring pressure from a number of places. While I think the loss of Williams won’t help, they should have enough talent remaining and on the upswing to absorb his loss with group effort. Don’t forget rookie LB Whitney Mercilus, last year’s NCAA’s sack leader. On offense, if QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster can stay healthy, they have a potent offense as well. WR Kevin Walter needs to improve if he’s going to draw coverage away from Andre, but RB Ben Tate is one of the best backup RBs in the NFL should Foster’s hamstring give him more trouble.

The Tennessee Titans will be starting 2nd-yr pro Jake Locker. Locker gives them athleticism at QB that veteran Matt Hasselbeck never could, so he can extend plays or move the chains with his feet. RB Chris Johnson is a threat to score every time with his speed, and rookie WR Kendall Wright gives them a weapon in the receiving corps that can do the same with his shiftiness. If WR Kenny Britt can stay on the field after his game-one suspension, he has the ability to take over a game and frankly is a top-5 WR when he’s healthy. Too many variables that have to fall into place on the defense along with a rookie QB make it hard to see them finishing much above .500.

While Tampa Bay was the most active team in free agency this year, the Indianapolis Colts had the biggest total roster makeover of anyone in the NFL in the offseason. They’ve tried to make the best of it, drafting Andrew Luck, his favorite target, TE Colby Fleener also from Stanford, and Clemson TE Dwayne Allen to improve an anemic offense from 2011. They kept 37 yr old WR Reggie Wayne to help with the passing game. Defensively, they lost MLB Pat Angerer to injury but at least traded for Miami Dolphin CB Vontae Davis so they do finally have 2 starting-caliber corners. With longtime sack artists Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis becoming OLBs in their new 3-4 scheme, they’ll have a lot of things to get settled to be consistent winners. However, they appear to be on the right track.

Poor Blaine Gabbert. He had such a horrible rookie season but a new coach seems to have given him new life as he has had a nice preseason. With a new pair of WRs to throw to – rookie Justin Blackmon and former Cowboy Laurent Robinson, he should really improve if he’s able to. Maurice Jones-Drew just reported and should be up to speed in two or three weeks at most, giving their offense some real threats. Defensively, they’re very uninspiring but if rookie Andre Branch from Clemson can rush the passer, that’ll help. They still need a lot more help on that D-line and really all over the defense to be able to win many games.

7 wins below .500 for the AFC South

August 24, 2012; Cleveland, OH USA: Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden (3) throws a pass during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles in a preseason game at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USPRESSWIRE

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens 14-2

Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5

Cincinnati Bengals 7-9

Cleveland Browns 4-12

A year from now, this division could look any way you want to stack them, almost, but the Ravens have taken the mantle as the team to beat in the bruising AFC North. For the first time in ages, their offense might be better than their defense, and their corners should help keep other teams from winning a shoot-out-style game with them even though defensive NFL MVP, Terrell Suggs, got injured in a pickup basketball game over the offseason and won’t be available until probably December at the earliest. The defense will lean on aging veterans Ed Reed and a slimmed-down Ray Lewis to lead them once again. The offense is loaded with WR Anquan Boldin being a fearless receiver over the middle while second-year pro Torrey Smith looks to breakout and be that deep threat he showed signs of being last year. RB Ray Rice is a complete back and very dangerous threat, so they’ve got weapons.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are another team aging on defense but their outlook is similar to that of the Ravens. Both teams have weakness on the offensive line as compared to the rest of the team but the Steelers really need a running back to emerge. Right now, they’re just about all hurt, and they lost rookie RG David DeCastro for the season to an MCL tear. Their other rookie, LT Mike Adams, hasn’t shown a lot and Max Starks will once again anchor Big Ben’s blind side…while making the league minimum salary. Amazing.

The Cincinnati Bengals were the first team in NFL history last season to have a Pro-bowl rookie QB and a Pro-bowl rookie WR. The Dalton-to-Green connection should be just as strong this year, and rookie Mohamed Sanu was “PUNK’D” then actually drafted by the team some jerk “PUNK’D” him about drafting him in a phone call. The call didn’t come from the Bengals, but the real call did in round 3. A tougher schedule and the fact they didn’t beat ANY team that had a winning record in 2011 leaves me unconvinced that they can step up to the next level, despite a top-ten defense last season. They will need to beat the Ravens and Steelers at least once before I’m a believer.

The Browns have molded their team like that of the Steelers and Ravens, but still lack talent at WR to take pressure off the running game. However, that should be some running game with rookie powerhouse Trent Richardson, said to be the best RB prospect to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. He’s struggling to come back from the knee surgery he had in January, but eventually he should be good to go – week 1 or week 2 at the latest. Fellow rookie Brandon Weeden takes over from Colt McCoy as the field general, and their offensive line is actually the best unit in the division. If WR Josh Gordon can contribute and second-year WR Greg Little can become more consistent, they could actually make some noise. Given their youth and a few holes to fill on defense, they’re in a similar position to Cincy last year – without the stud WR but a stud RB. They’ll be playing from behind too much to win many games, but they could make the AFC North the toughest division in the NFL…NEXT season.

2 games above .500 for the AFC North

AFC West

Denver Broncos 11-5

San Diego Chargers 8-8

Kansas City Chiefs 7-9

Oakland Raiders 4-12

The 2011 version of the Denver Broncos went 8-8 with a power running game that was the closest thing you’ll see in the NFL to the Wishbone offense in quite some time. Head Coach John Fox is aptly named, molding his playcalling to fit his personnel. Rest assured, we won’t be seeing that this season with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at the helm. Peyton WILL improve upon Tim Tebow’s horrendous passing stats last season, but there’s a rumor that won’t die saying that Peyton the elder has trouble throwing the ball to his right side. If so, that will be exposed in week one. Defensively, the pass rush dynamic duo of LB Von Miller and DE Elvis Dumervil should continue to pressure opponents, and with a more explosive offense, opponents will be forced to throw more and right into the strength of the Denver Defense. They were soft up the middle, but added DT Derek Wolfe from Cincinnati (college) in the draft and DT Ty Warren returns from injury to help there.

The Chargers’ QB Phillip Rivers should improve his career-high 20 interceptions from 2011. He lost Vincent Jackson but replaced him with New Orleans Saint Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal from the Broncos. WR Malcom Floyd averaged 19.9 yds/catch so he’s a bona-fide deep threat. Aging star TE Antonio Gates can still be productive in spurts, and 3rd-yr RB Ryan Matthews could be a stud out of the backfield with his ability to both run and catch the ball so their offense should be fine. The defense added South Carolina OLB Melvin Ingram, a versatile player who is used to playing OLB and DE both under the Head Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, and should be able to help the pass rush. That’s a good thing, because LB Shaun Phillips leads their projected starters in sacks from last year…at only 3.5, his career-low total. Unless he can return to his old form, I see a lot of shootouts in the Chargers’ future and a lot of their success or failure will depend on their corners Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer.

The Kansas City Chiefs are the most difficult team here to prognosticate. They actually have an outside chance of winning the division – depending on the play of their underachieving defensive line, and if early returns are indicative of future results (unlike the caveats you see if you trade stocks), this year will be very similar. Massive rookie and Combine hero Dontari Poe so far looks like a “Workout Warrior” but the Chiefs can’t say they weren’t warned – he did NOT star at small-school Memphis and I’ve always said when in doubt, check the film. A guy as huge, strong, fast, and agile as this guy is should defy natural law, but the game tape proves that he doesn’t. Rookie slot WR Devon Wylie could be a sleeper with sub-4.4 speed that similarly-framed Dexter McCluster (4.5-40) lacks. Their D-line now has 3 first-round picks that include busts Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. The two combined for one entire sack in 2011. LB Tamba Hali had a dozen, so they at least have someone to rush. Their offense should be quite potent with RB Jamaal Charles coming off an injury, RB Peyton Hillis being the “hammer” of the two, and 3rd-yr pro TE Tony Moeaki coming off injury following a nice rookie campaign. Romeo Crennel has some work still to do, and I’ll be surprised if the overpriced D-line remains intact in 2013.

The Oakland Raiders have RB Darren McFadden on offense who, when healthy, can be a Pro-Bowl player with speed to truly burn. However, this franchise was as wrecked as any could be in one year under loudmouth Head Coach Hue Jackson. He gave away WAY too much for over-the-hill QB Carson Palmer, and if I were coach Dennis Allen, I’d be developing the heck out of QB Terrelle Pryor. He’s 6’6″ 240 lbs, runs a 4.3-40, and has a strong if inaccurate arm. With some coaching on fundamentals and footwork, he could be a star if given the chance. Don’t be surprised to see him starting the second half of the season, when the Raiders are 2-6 or some such. Their non-divisional schedule isn’t kind, with games against Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New Orleans, Carolina, and Cincinnatti. WR Denarius Moore could break out and at this point has much more upside than the infamous top-ten pick Darius Heyward-Bey.

2 games below .500 for the AFC West

Wild Cards: Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills

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