Brian Neal, Assistant Sports Editor
Photo courtesy of sxc.hu.
In sports, people are always making predictions, and it’s very possible to hear one in almost any random place or from any random person. So, whether you’re with your grandma, your barber, your dog-sitter, your neighbor or even your taxidermist — because apparently some creepy people have them — people who watch and care about sports are going to share their thoughts. It is, in a sense, the ultimate small talk. And the beautiful thing about sports is that anybody can have an opinion because even the “experts” get things wrong all the time, especially when they are making guesses. After all, that’s what predictions are: guesses.
That is why I normally hate predictions. I can’t stand it when it’s July before football season or even training camp has begun, and you have these “experts” talking about who is going to win the Super Bowl. I mean, really? Because if one thing is always true, it’s that nothing stays the same in sports.
At the same time, however, I do love to make predictions — please don’t judge — but after the season has started. So, now that we’re about a quarter of the way done with this 2012 campaign, here are my predictions for the playoffs and major awards.
AFC North Winner: Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers are clearly the favorites in this division, as usual. Last season, the Ravens won the division at 12-4 (though the Steelers were also 12-4), and I believe they will remain there. Fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco should be heading into his prime and will help make this offense a little more explosive to match their still-dominant defense. Though they have a tough schedule this year, the three most difficult of their last six games are at home, which will give them the edge over Pittsburgh.
AFC South Winner: Houston Texans.
This prediction takes almost no thought. They are easily a top 5 team right now in the NFL and their competition are the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans who may not even win 10 games all together this year.
AFC East Winner: New England Patriots.
Some people believe the New York Jets might be able to contend with them, but I highly doubt it. You can’t trust Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow at quarterback, and their defense is overrated because of how good Darrelle Revis is (who unfortunately, is now out with a torn ACL). It’s that front 7 that is just so… ordinary. As for the Patriots, they have Tom Brady and a very good support cast. That alone is good enough to make the playoffs, and anything good the defense does is just gravy.
AFC West Winner: Denver Broncos.
This was certainly the most difficult decision in the AFC with a lot of mediocrity across the board the past several years in the West. The San Diego Chargers are always hyped to have a good year and then disappoint; the Oakland Raiders seem to only range from pitiful to average year in and year out, and the Kansas City Chiefs don’t seem to be doing much better. If Peyton Manning can return to some type of form close to what he once was, this division should belong to Denver. They also have the best defense out of the four, and that always helps.
AFC Wildcard: Pittsburgh Steelers.
AFC Wildcard: San Diego Chargers.
NFC North Winner: Green Bay Packers.
Not that I won’t be rooting against this prediction coming true all season, but there’s no doubt that the Packers are the best team in the North right now. They should be on their way to a 13-or-14 win season and either the first or second seed in the NFC.
NFC South Winner: Atlanta Falcons.
Before the year started, a lot of people were picking the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers to win this division, but I say Atlanta is going to be the best team, or at least the most consistent. Offensively, they have the best pair of wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones since the Anquan Boldin-Larry Fitzgerald combo, or perhaps even Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Their defense also seems to be much improved even if personnel-wise there hasn’t been much change — perhaps it’s because of new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan.
NFC East Winner: New York Giants.
I actually don’t like this pick very much, but this division has probably the closest competition of four teams in the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys could easily keep up with the Giants and take it, or there’s even the possibility that Robert Griffin III continues to have a great year and leads the Washington Redskins into that race (though that seems the least likely scenario). Despite these issues, I have to roll with the defending Super Bowl champs. They have the most consistent offense of the four, and definitely the best pass rush (even if the best pass rusher alone is in Dallas).
NFC West Winner: San Francisco 49ers.
I know I said that the AFC South was the easiest choice, but perhaps I spoke to soon. The 49ers may be the best team in the entire league, and their competition is the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. Now those teams may be a bit better competition than Houston’s, but San Fran is still leaps and bounds ahead of their divisional foes talent-wise. This one should be easy.
NFC Wildcard: Chicago Bears.
NFC Wildcard: Dallas Cowboys.
Coach of the Year: Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans.
The Texans will have the best season in franchise history this year and make the playoffsfor the second time (and consecutively, might I add).
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Robert Griffin III.
I think Andrew Luck will be about equally as impressive as RGIII, but Griffin will have more wins and more highlights. However, there is no questioning that this year the draft was correct with the best two players going number one and two.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly.
The rookie linebacker for the Panthers will make his mark this year. He is a supreme athlete with good size, and playing alongside all-pro middle linebacker Jon Beason will give him plenty of opportunities to showcase that.
Offensive Player of the Year: Matt Ryan.
I was close to picking Matt Forte for this because I think if the Bears are going to be a playoff team, he is going to have to be the focal point of the offense. If he’s healthy, he will put up monster numbers. The reason I didn’t is because it’s a “quarterback-driven league,” as people like to say. With that said, I believe this year is Ryan’s break out season. He’s had solid years up to this point, but now the offense is as explosive as ever with White and Jones on the outside. Tony Gonzalez is still playing like he isn’t 36. And the running game they have is punishing with a couple of tough backs in Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. Expect a fantastic year from Ryan.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ed Reed.
The long-time Raven is the best safety in the NFL when healthy. Unfortunately, health has been an issue in the past. If he does stay on the field though, watch out; this man could end up with ten interceptions and more than a few of them returned to the house. Last year, his teammate Terrell Suggs won this award, but he has an Achilles injury that will keep him out until at least November. Even at age 34, Reed will be the biggest defensive threat in 2012.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers.
Guess who gets the repeat for this award? It wasn’t a perfect start to the year, but there is no holding back the best quarterback in the league, and overall perhaps the most complete player at any position. The defense in Green Bay is certainly nothing special, and the running game is almost non-existent most weeks. If this team ends up with at least 12 wins, Rodgers will essentially be the sole reason why. If I’m correct here, it will be only the sixth time a player has won MVP in back-to-back seasons (only his predecessor, Brett Favre, has done it three times consecutively).