2011-12 NFL Season Projections: Divisional Breakdowns and (Fearless) Predictions

Every season I do a breakdown of how I think the NFL's divisions will shape out. Last year, I pegged the Jets going 11-5 (which they did) and had them winning the Super Bowl. This year, am picking them to return to the postseason but to lose in the divisional round ... Which really means, the Jets will win the Super Bowl this year (thank me later).

Anyway, here are my projections and a short writeup for each division. Obviously, teams are ranked and listed in order of projected finish.

AFC East:

1) Patriots
(As much as this pains me. Remember: It took nearly a year and a pact with an ex-member to not refer to them as the "Cheats" anymore. )
2) Jets (Wild Card)
3) Dolphins
4) Bills

NE is still the class of the division as it appears Jets may endure more issues in the trenches this upcoming season than in previous years. I think Jets will compete all season and garner a Wild Card berth; split with Patriots in two season matchups; but come up one game short (10-6 vs. 11-5) in AFC East race. Belichick took a big risk signing veteran defensive linemen and the drama queen WR Chad Ochocinco, but if anyone can pull it off and find a role for them, it's him. Jets had a great opportunity to win the East last year but came up short -- this season will be tougher, especially with a few of our ex-players now on their roster attempting to help them figure out our blitz schemes (bastards!) .. and a lot of film to watch during the long offseason.

Patriots and QB Tom Bieber are motivated after Jets spoiled their Super Bowl dreams and delivered a huge dagger win in Foxboro back in January. And this year, Mr. Bieber has loads of targets at every position on offense and should be able to put up 27+ points on any given night. Belichick took a chance and bolstered their defensive front tremendously by bringing in veterans that weren't contributing to their former teams. Pass rush was an issue last year and Belichick looked to rectify that in free agency. Obviously the experiment could fail, and durability is certainly a concern with aging, veteran acquisitions, but NE coaching staff cycles guys in and out often as they run a hybrid defense so I think it'll work. Fat Albert and Wilfork alongside eachother in a 4-3 would be ... fat.. Coverage by safeties and (hit-or-miss) defensive front experiment are main red flags.

The key to beating this team will, once again, come down to winning the time of possession war/racking up yards in small chunks on offense and keeping Brady off the field.

Jets are loaded at WR/CB and I think Sanchez will have his coming-out party in his third season as Schottenheimer opens up playbook/he takes the reins on offense -- so long as he sharpens his pre-snap reads and develops more consistency. The Plaxico Burress addition should help Jets red-zone woes. But surprisingly, the "Ground and Pound" run game has slowly regressed dating back to last season (ranked #9 in rushing YPA but only 4.4 YPA and Brad Smith padded the stats, too). LT is likely in his last season in NY and there's a lot of pressure on both young RB Shonn Greene and QB Mark Sanchez to step up and take the reins. Also, offensive line has Pro Bowl talent at C, RG and LT but will have issues in certain gaps with both Vlad Ducasse and Matt Slauson starting due to OT Wayne Hunter's injury. Jets also lack depth & are thin up there which worries me late in the season.  On defense, I worry about the lack of pass rush to disrupt opposing QBs' timing. We've installed some young, athletic guys up there so hopefully this will improve as season goes on. But remember, roughly 40% of Jets sacks last season came from players no long on the team (Taylor, Ellis, Coleman, Ihedigbo) .  

I think the Jets passing game will improve, but the run game and lack of pass rushing will be what keeps them from taking their first division title in nearly a decade.

Dolphins have an inaccurate, inconsistent, leadership-lacking QB. Add in a weak WR corps where even BRIAN HARTLINE is a star; lame-duck head coach who should have been fired last year; and owner who is more interested in a "night-life", party atmosphere rather than competing. The Dolphins are a joke right now and will be lucky to go .500. Bills are still rebuilding and will struggle in trenches on both sides of the ball.

(For the rest of the NFL and my Super Bowl selections, please follow along after the jump.)

AFC West:

Bolts
Chiefs
Raiders
Broncos

Bolts are still the class of the division and all of the marbles are on the line: This could be Norv Turner's final season if they stink in September and/or clash-and-burn in postseason once again. Team is loaded with athletic, explosive guys on both sides of the ball. Chargers offense is dangerous as they have plenty of balance, led by QB Philip Rivers (entering his prime) and a strong RB duo in Mathews-Tolbert. Turnovers from young guys were the death of them last season -- an error that is certainly correctable. If Bob Sanders manages to stay healthy this team will be a contender for sure. Can Norv actually get it right once?  Chiefs are due for regression losing OC Charlie Weis; and Matt Cassel's inaccuracy and lack of receiving targets will render them run-heavy and predictable.  Opposing teams will attempt to stack the box against the strong Charles-Jones tandem. Defensive front and offensive line will be issues. Raiders installing a brand-new system and actually signed Terrelle Pryor -- who may, somehow, start at QB at some point for them. Broncos are rebuilding with a new system.

AFC South:

Texans
Colts
Jags
Titans

Texans are loaded with weapons on offense, and the trio of Schaub-Foster-Johnson alone is lethal. They are installing a new system on defense and bolstered their atrocious secondary (which was the death of them last year) in free agency but could have issues w/ chemistry early in season. Interior of DL could be an issue, too, although they made moves to rectify that. Colts will as go as far as Peyton Manning takes them, and his neck issues have me doubting he'll start 16 games. Colts reps say there is no timetable on his return date, either. They lost a few players on defense in free agency. Issues are apparent and lay in defensive unit: secondary, run-stuffing and tackling at all levels. Jags have needs at nearly every position on offense (and a sub-par secondary) and Titans are rebuilding in a new system.

AFC North:

Steelers
Ravens (Wild Card)
Browns
Bengals

Steelers are still the class of the division with a stout defensive front and QB Ben Roethlisberger (6-0 career vs. Joe Flacco) running the offense with a group of speedy receivers and veteran WR Hines Ward in red zone. Offensive line and depth at RB will be an issue for them, though. Ravens lost some receivers and the result will be a more predictable, run-heavy offense. Although, that's not a bad thing for RB Ray Rice with FB Vonta Leach blocking for him. Pass defense w/ new-look secondary -- replacing CBs and S Dawan Landry -- will also be an issue and that'll be what keeps them from winning division. Losing veterans TE Todd Heap and DT Kelly Gregg will hurt, also. Browns and Bengals are installing entirely new systems and rebuilding.

NFC East:

Eagles
Cowboys (Wild Card)
Giants
Redskins

Eagles
are loaded w/ talent and were the talk of the offseason with major acquisitions on their defensive unit, but how will new DC Juan Castillo adjust to his new job (former OLine coach)? Vick's (as well as Maclin and Jackson's) health is also a season-long concern. Cowboys will continue to struggle in coverage defending the pass but have enough weapons on offense (OLine only issue) to win 9-10 games. Giants are restructuring defensive front and also still have issues in secondary. They were thin as it is and losing CB Terrell Thomas is huge. CB Aaron Ross is a huge liability in coverage. Redskins have severe issues w/ passing game -- Beck is not a starting QB and their WR corps is weak. On defense they will sport a relatively new-look secondary which could also be an issue.

NFC South:

Falcons
Saints (Wild Card)
Bucs
Panthers

Falcons will have trouble defending the pass over the middle (issues at nickel back/safety) but are loaded on offense and defense should generate a very good pass rush, too. Saints have OLine issues and even w/ offseason upgrades I worry about defensive front -- especially LBs. Safety play last season was very inconsistent, too. Saints defensive backs sometimes are too opportunistic/aggressive and give up the big play as result. Bucs continue to build a solid offensive unit but are a .500 team in my eyes and one year away from contending for division -- they will regress from 10 wins last season, no doubt. Still a couple of acquisitions away. Panthers are rebuilding everything. But, umm, they do have a great OLine!

NFC West:

Rams
Niners
Cardinals
Seahawks

This division sucks and a .500 team will probably win it. Rams have QB Sam Bradford in his second year in system and additions of WR Mike Sims-Walker and RB Cadillac Williams should help matters. Defensive front is solid yet underrated and defensive backs are consistent and don't take many risks. Niners are somehow still rolling with QB Alex Smith and still have major issues in their secondary. Expect pass-heavy teams to roll them. Cardinals made some big moves in offseason but are still currently rebuilding. Main issues are in secondary and lack of a run game, too. Seahawks are rebuilding and second/third-string-caliber QBs Tarvaris Jackson/Charlie Whitehurst will be behind center. No, seriously, they will be.

NFC North

Packers
Lions
Bears
Vikings

Packers
are led by Aaron Rodgers and a highly-potent passing attack that spreads defenses out and keeps them on their toes. Rodgers will likely surpass Brady as No.1 NFL quarterback in 2012-13 season (assuming he stays healthy). GB is loaded on both sides of the ball but lost a couple of guys in defensive front and I expect a Super Bowl hangover in September (a la 2010 Saints). Still see them defending their title in January, though. Lions had a tremendous draft and offseason but QB Matt Stafford's health will still be an ongoing issue and I think they're one year away from really competing. But on any given Sunday, they should pass for 250+ yards. And defensive front boasts tons of talent and will be cracking skulls for sure.  Bears have major OLine issues still, an inconsistent, non-leader in Jay Cutler, young WR corps and safeties in pass coverage will be an issue (loss of Danieal Manning). Vikings have issues at QB and OLine and WR Sidney Rice loss will be big. They are rebuilding the defensive front as they were the oldest team in the NFL last season, especially on the line. I think this will be their weakest defensive unit they will field in years.

AFC Championship: Chargers beat Patriots
NFC Championship: Packers beat Falcons
Super Bowl: Chargers beat Packers

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