King I fear the perpetually banged-up secondary will be a bad Achilles heel for the Giants all season.
Banks Four consecutive NFC champions have made the playoffs the following year (Green Bay, New Orleans, Arizona and the Giants), but this year Tom Coughlin's team will deal with too many injuries, a brutal schedule and won't have the luxury of an underachieving NFC East in its favor.
Burke The Lions' offense should put up points in bunches, but the franchise's failure to find enough help at running back and cornerback might come back to haunt them. Also, anything better than a 3-3 mark in the tough NFC North would be a feat.
Trotter Detroit is loaded offensively and along the defensive line, but young teams often struggle the year after a breakthrough season, and the Lions, who weren't sharp in the preseason, will find dealing with success tougher than any opponent on their schedule.
Dillon The AFC North has become the league's best division. Cincinnati will have another solid season with quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, but it won't be enough to edge the Ravens or the Steelers.
Byrne They were barely .500 in 2011, the first champ in history to surrender more points than they scored, while pulling out several clutch wins and getting hot late. A lot of events went their way that will not in 2012.
Perloff The Bengals will be right in the mix of a very competitive AFC North, especially with a soft early season. But they'll need to beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh in high-pressure games to return to the postseason.
Diamond They've got a difficult first place schedule and are in the tough AFC North. The defense will feel the loss of Terrell Suggs and also the effects of their aging leaders on defense, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. New kicker Justin Tucker experiences growing pains.
Mantzouranis They've perfected the art of seeming great and then being just pretty good. The Falcons will be closer to great in 2012, especially on offense, but it won't matter in a stacked NFC that could see a 10-6 or 11-5 club on the outside in January.
Team With the Worst Record
King They'll go 3-13, but Jeff Fisher didn't take this job for a one-season fix. They need too much help all over the map.
Banks They won't sink as low as in 2007, when the Dolphins went 1-15, but it's going to be a long, Hard Knock-filled season for the rookie combination of Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill.
Burke There are a few other candidates, but the Browns' heavy reliance on youth just does not mesh well with a really tough schedule.
Trotter So much of their season depends on rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, and there's reason for concern with each -- Richardson because of his recent knee surgery, and Weeden because he'll be cutting his professional teeth against the perennially strong defenses in the AFC North.
Dillon They have a first-time head coach, a rookie quarterback, and the other three teams in their division are much better. It looks like a season of "hard knocks" in Miami.
Byrne The Rams have averaged just three wins per year since 2007 and there's little reason to expect that trend to change in 2012 under Jeff Fisher. Sam Bradford will likely struggle again and the NFC West overall has only grown more competitive.
Perloff Don't let Blaine Gabbert's preseason fool you, he's still not ready to lead this offense. The Maurice Jones-Drew holdout puts the team's best player at risk of a letdown season and the owner's questionable commitment to the city will sour the fan base.
Diamond It's literally hard knocks, as the Dolphins have another down season with a new coaching staff, rookie QB and grumbling locker room. They'll face a decision in 2013 on staying with Tannehill or drafting Matt Barkley of USC with the No. 1 overall pick, and will opt for Barkley to help sell tickets in apathetic South Florida.
Mantzouranis Ryan Williams isn't going to save a team that has no quarterback, no offensive line and a middling, at best, defense. Look on the bright side, Larry Fitzgerald: Next year you'll finally get a competent QB again in Matt Barkley.
King Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: Holdouts who come in late at skill positions are a hamstring injury waiting to happen.
Banks Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: After missing the entire camp and preseason, MJD won't have a great follow-up to his 1,600-yard season of a year ago. His contract holdout will of course be blamed for the drop-off.
Burke Frank Gore, 49ers: By bringing in Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, the 49ers seem more committed than ever to reducing Gore's workload. It will be hard for Gore to produce as usual -- or find any sort of sustained groove -- with just 15 or 20 touches per game.
Trotter Michael Turner, Falcons: Atlanta is moving toward an up-tempo, spread offense, which could reduce the carries and effectiveness of a veteran bruiser who believes he gets stronger with more work.
Dillon Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: He won't have Hines Ward to throw to, and it will take some time to establish rhythm with Mike Wallace, who was absent for most of the preseason. Most of all, Big Ben will miss former coordinator Bruce Arians, who had been his guiding light since coming into the league in 2004.
Byrne Tim Tebow, Jets: His star power has certainly outshined his ability to pass the football. The Jets offense looks like it will be a disaster this year no matter who's at QB, tarnishing the Tebow legend in the process.
Perloff Matt Forte, Bears: Almost every running back that gets a big contract in their mid-to-late 20s has a disappointing season afterward. Forte's not alone this season -- all the running backs who cashed in in the offseason could struggle.
Diamond Adrian Peterson, Vikings: It usually takes until the second season following a torn ACL for a skill position player to return to full effectiveness, so Peterson will struggle. Defenses stack the box to stop him and force Christian Ponder to try to beat them, while the team trails often, forcing them to the air.
Mantzouranis Brian Urlacher, Bears: He's 34 in a defense that needs its middle linebackers to do a lot more than attack downhill, and is already in doubt for the season opener. It's been a great run, but age is going to catch up to Urlacher in a big way.
King Brooks Reed, Texans: He's going to have so much help from his young friends in the Texans front seven -- J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus -- that he'll have a Clay Matthews-type impact.
Banks Dez Bryant, Cowboys: New Dez Rules and all, Bryant is poised to finally show the NFL world why the Cowboys have been willing to be so patient with him. He'll become the go-to, big-play receiver Tony Romo has lacked.
Burke Eric Decker, Broncos: Even if Peyton Manning isn't at his full ... uh ... Peyton Manningest, the Broncos' new QB will need to find some go-to receiving options. Decker could double the 44-catch, 618-yard totals he had in 2011.
Trotter Ryan Williams, Cardinals: He missed last season with a knee injury, but has been impressive in camp. With Beanie Wells battling a knee issue, Williams could see ample playing time.
Dillon Kevin Boss, Chiefs: Matt Cassel will look long and often for Boss, a free=agent acquisition in the offseason who will become the next tight end to emerge as a star.
Byrne John Skelton, Cardinals: The unheralded backup has quietly pieced together a clutch resume, with six game-winning drives in 11 starts, more than any QB in football at a similar point. He'll get his chance to shine early this year.
Perloff Percy Harvin, Vikings: Christian Ponder was immediately comfortable with Harvin last season, and the speedy fourth-year receiver will get as many targets as any in the league. He'll also face some leaky secondaries in the NFC North in games where the Vikings will be trailing and forced to go to the air.
Diamond Mark Ingram, Saints: He was a college star and No. 1 pick in 2011 but Ingram struggled through injuries and limited production as a rookie. In 2012, he benefits from the Saints' prolific passing attack and explodes for a 1,400-yard season behind a strong O-line.
Mantzouranis Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons: With Michael Turner breaking down rapidly and the Falcons dead-set on being more explosive, Rodgers will get a lot more looks in his second season. The team thinks this poor man's Darren Sproles can be an every-down back; at the least, he'll be a reliable source of big plays.
First Coach To Get Fired
Norv Turner :: Tony Medina/SMI
King Norv Turner, Chargers: This seems almost like piling on. It wouldn't surprise me if he lasts until the end of the season, though.
Banks Norv Turner, Chargers: Another playoff-less season in San Diego should bring the curtain down on the team's Turner era. If the Chargers hit the skids in early or midseason, Turner may not get to finish what he started in 2012.
Burke Leslie Frazier, Vikings: Given the talent deficiencies Frazier faces compared to the other NFC North teams, this might not be 100 percent fair. But if the Vikings lose to Jacksonville and Indy out of the gate, look out.
Trotter Andy Reid, Eagles: I don't believe a coach will be fired during the season, so the question is, which one will be the first to be fired after the season. Although Reid's a terrific coach, 14 seasons in one place is a century in coaching years. And with the Eagles missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time during Reid's tenure, ownership likely will want a fresh start.
Dillon Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals: He is going into his sixth season as the head coach of the Cardinals -- an impressively long tenure for anyone who has worked for Bill Bidwill -- but the owner's patience can last only so long.
Byrne Norv Turner, Chargers: Turner inherited a 14-2 team in 2007 but has won more than nine games only twice in five years. The hammer falls as a porous defense ruins chances for a playoff appearance.
Perloff Leslie Frazier, Vikings: Frazier is 6-16 in one-plus seasons and has a lot of youth on his roster. He'll get no help playing in the brutal NFC North.
Diamond Norv Turner, Chargers: Turner has been living on the edge, having survived the past two non-playoff seasons, but a third straight year out of the postseason costs him as the Chargers finish 7-9.
Mantzouranis Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals: The stench of the Kevin Kolb trade will be impossible for Whisenhunt to wash off in the Cards' third-straight playoff-less season. There's no one else to blame for the complete failure to properly prepare for life after Kurt Warner, especially when it jeopardizes the loyalty of one of the franchise's all-time best players.
King Saints at Broncos, Oct. 28: Drew vs. Peyton, for the first time since their compelling Super Bowl meeting three seasons ago, and probably for the last time they'll ever meet. Unless they meet in another Super Bowl.
Banks Broncos at Patriots, Oct. 7: We were deprived of our annual Peyton Manning-Tom Brady glamour showdown last season, but hopefully not this time. Having Manning play for a Denver team that had its season ended by the Patriots last year in the playoffs just adds a little more juice to this rivalry.
Burke Packers at Texans, Oct. 14: My favorite matchups each year tend to be the interconference games. This is a doozy (and a potential Super Bowl preview). Can the Packers cover Andre Johnson? How will Houston attack Aaron Rodgers? I can't wait to find out.
Trotter 49ers at Packers, Sept. 9: The season opener will be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. And what's not to like when an irresistible force (Packers offense) meets an immovable object (49ers defense)?
Dillon Saints at Packers, Sept. 30: You've got to love a matchup that features Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and two of the most prolific offenses in the league. It will be a rematch of the 42-34 scorefest the Packers won in Week 1 last year.
Byrne Texans at Patriots, Dec. 10: The Texans would have been AFC champs last year had they not lost Matt Schaub. This Monday night showdown will be a primetime measuring stick for two star-studded teams, one of which is likely to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Perloff Saints at Packers, Sept. 30: Two of the best offenses in NFL history square off in Lambeau -- neither defense stands a chance.
Diamond Packers at Giants, Nov. 25: The last two Super Bowl champs and likely division leaders. It's a great matchup of Aaron Rodgers vs. the Giants' outstanding pass rush as the Packers try to avenge last January's playoff loss.
Mantzouranis Saints at Packers, Sept. 30: Last year's contest between these teams might have been the best of the entire regular season, and there's no reason not to expect the league's two most explosive passers, a host of playmakers and a pair of defenses that create and give up big plays to do it again.
How Will the Saints Respond in the Post-Bounty Era?
Sean Payton :: Steve Nesius/AP
King They'll go 10-6, earn a Wild Card spot and win two playoff games. In the end, Steve Spagnuolo's defense will be better than Gregg Williams', but not quite good enough.
Banks Nothing will come quite as easily for New Orleans this season without suspended head coach Sean Payton. But when all is said and done, the Saints will win their third NFC South title in four seasons, and survive the specter of Bountygate.
Burke They'll make it to the NFC Championship, but lose. The coaching situation is obviously a concern, and I'm far from sold on the defense. But I still think the Drew Brees-led offense is arguably the best in the conference, so it's hard to expect too hard of a fall.
Trotter New Orleans will start strong, using the bounty discipline as motivation. They'll fade down the stretch and miss the playoffs, though, because it's tough to win on emotion over 16 games. They'll also miss the playcalling of Payton, who is one of the best in the business.
Dillon The Saints are whistling in the wind if they think losing their head coach for the entire season, their GM for a big chunk of it and playing a carousel game with their interim coaches is not going to have negative effects. One of the effects: They won't make the playoffs.
Byrne The Saints are still a playoff team behind that brilliant Drew Brees-led offense, but they have too many question marks to be a true Super Bowl contender. It will be an interesting season to gauge the impact of a head coach on a talented team.
Perloff Drew Brees' nasty competitive streak is going to come out this season and the Saints will follow suit. They're not going to lose at home and will win the NFC South.
Diamond With a giant post-bounty chip on their shoulders, the Saints shrug off their suspensions and feed off their fans to repeat as NFC South champs at 12-4. They'll be the NFC's No. 2 seed, but they won't make it past the divisional round of the playoffs. Still, a great year for the Saints as they overcome lots of adversity.
Mantzouranis With Drew Brees and Pete Carmichael still around, the Saints will miss Sean Payton's fiery attitude more than his playcalling. Still, they'll be fine. The offense will be the offense and the defense is improved from both a personnel and scheme standpoint. Expect 11-plus wins, another NFC South title and deep -- but Super Bowl-less -- playoff run.
King Peyton Manning will play 16 games, throw for 4,316 yards, 31 touchdowns, 9 interceptions ... and win another MVP, the fifth of his career.
Banks He'll play 15 games, with 3,955 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, 15 interceptions -- Manning will look and play better as the season wears on, but he might start slowly as his rhythm and timing with his receivers remains a work in progress. Health-wise, he'll miss a game somewhere along the way, but hold up reasonably well at age 36, returning the Broncos to the playoffs.
Burke He'll play 16 games with 3,775 yards, 30 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. I don't think Manning would be playing if he had any doubts he could get through the whole year. By his standards, though, this will be a subpar season.
Trotter For the first time since entering the league in 1998, Manning has a new offense, coordinator and receiving corps. Adjusting to that is a process, as he likes to say. My guess: He will start all 16 games and throw for 3,500 yards, 26 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Dillon He'll play 16 games, with 4,250 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. A big comeback at his age (36) after missing an entire season with a neck injury will be the feel-good story of the season.
Byrne Count on 14 games, 3,750 yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Manning's production has declined steadily since 2004 and his last season, 2010, was his worst statistically since 2002. He is older now, coming off a catastrophic injury and playing outdoors. Do not expect to see him near the peak of his powers.
Perloff Manning will play all 16 games and throw for 3,900 yards, 28 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Even on Manning's successful passes in the preseason, the ball seemed to flutter more than usual. Defensive backs will start jumping routes, and Manning will have more INTs than he's had in any season since 2001.
Diamond I predict 16 games with 4,250 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. A good but not great season for Peyton, who uses his smarts, anticipation, touch and leadership to compensate for his slightly lessened arm strength. Teams load up in the short and intermediate zones with Manning's deep passing not yet fully back to pre-injury form, which leads to some big plays but also a fair share of interceptions.
Mantzouranis Let's say 12 games, 3,500 yards, 25 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. I don't think the neck will be a major issue, but he's going to miss a stretch thanks to a line that isn't the best at keeping its quarterback clean. More than injury, the natural decline of age and 15 outdoor games will be his undoing.
King Tebow will start for the Jets by Week 7 ... but he'll eventually lose the job to third-stringer Greg McElroy.
Banks Barring a Mark Sanchez injury, no. The Jets will use him plenty, but primarily as a rushing threat, not a passer. He'll provide a spark to New York's offense in a few games, but he won't be able to fully rescue a Jets attack that lacks in playmakers.
Burke He'll be starting by Week 6. If the Jets open the season 1-4 -- a real possibility -- Rex Ryan won't have a choice but to shake things up. Doing so for a home game vs. Indianapolis would put Tebow in a perfect spot to succeed.
Trotter I didn't think anything could rival Favre Fatigue, but infatuation with Everything Tebow is a legitimate contender. That being said, he'll take over the starting job by no later than midseason. His scrambling ability actually makes him a better fit for the offense than Mark Sanchez, who will struggle because he lacks established threats on the perimeter after wideout Santonio Holmes.
Dillon Only if Mark Sanchez gets hurt. The Jets drafted Sanchez fifth overall in '09 because they believed he could be their franchise quarterback. If they want to maintain peace in the locker room and faith among their fans, they have to stay with Sanchez through good times and bad.
Byrne Tebow will take over the No. 1 job in the first half of the season, but lightning will not strike New York the way it did Denver in 2012. The bigger question may be: When will Greg McElroy -- also a former national champion out of the SEC -- finally get a shot?
Perloff Tebow will supplant Mark Sanchez in Week 6, after the Jets go through a merciless stretch of great opposing defenses, including Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston. The Jets will commit to a conservative offense, although Sanchez will get another shot later in the season.
Diamond Tebow gets limited playing time early in the regular season in the wildcat. But after a 4-5 start, Rex Ryan looks for a spark and makes the move to Tebow for the game at the Rams on Nov. 18, which serves as a warm-up for the critical Nov. 22 Thanksgiving night home game with arch-rival New England.
Mantzouranis He'll get his chance as a starter by Week 6, but Tebow's not going to prove the miracle worker he was in Denver. Desperate, and under pressure from fans and the media, Rex Ryan will go back and forth between Sanchez, Tebow and Greg McElroy all season, hoping futilely that one provides a spark.
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