Thursday, August 23, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: AFC West

Norv is back, and even he can't explain why
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

Last year, I took a huge risk and predicted a Patriots-Packers Super Bowl. (Having something whispered in my ear). Huh? You mean, everyone predicted a Patriots-Packers Super Bowl? OK, so I didn’t go out on a limb and make some idiot prediction like, oh say, the Giants winning the Super Bowl. I mean, who would be dumb enough to do that, right? Still, I dominated in predicting the rest of the league, with gems like:

Chargers 12-4, AFC West champs
Broncos 5-11
Rams 9-7, NFC West champs
49ers 6-10
Buccaneers 8-8
Bengals 4-12

You know what…let’s just stop there before I put a gun in my mouth. And yes, I’m still making the 2012 predictions. And yes, I expect them to be equally as bad as last year’s, if not worse. Let’s get to it!

AFC West

Gone is Tebow Time, the magical journey that found a way to capture the league’s most mediocre and uncompelling division. Arriving is Manning Madness (no? not good?), the robotic journey that probably should capture the league’s most mediocre and uncompelling division. After all, not only is Manning the best QB in the division, he’s also the best coach.

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. Denver Broncos: 9-7

Biggest Addition:  Peyton Manning – He’s no Tim Tebow…and it saddens me to admit that’s a good thing. Even if Manning is only 70%, he’s still a huge upgrade at the most important position on the field. Imagine a world where Broncos receivers aren’t overthrown by 15 yards, or where the defense gets more than two minutes of rest between defensive possessions. Unthinkable last year, but reality now. So yeah, this was kind of a big get.

Biggest Loss:  Tim Tebow – You knew this was going to be here, right? Let’s just move on before anyone punches their computer screen.

X-Factor(s):  Rahim Moore/Quinton Carter – As rookies, the talented FS battery was an unmitigated failure last year. There were flashes, but they were too few and far between to convince anyone these guys are the future of the Broncos defensive backfield. However, with Brian Dawkins retiring and the team essentially ignoring the safety position, there time has to be now. If they fail again, the defensive backfield is going to be in big trouble.

Biggest Question (not involving Manning’s neck):  Can the defense build on their progress from last season? They allowed 5 fewer PPG last year than they did in 2010 and had one exceptionally strong stretch in the middle of the season, so there was some definite progress there, most of which can be attributed to Von Miller. He should be even better in Year 2, but there are still plenty of question marks around him. How the defense develops will largely determine what their ceiling is.

Forecast:  Popular thinking seems to be that, since Denver made the second round of the playoffs with Tim Tebow, they should be Super Bowl contenders with Peyton Manning, right? Eh, probably not. This was a team that gave up over 25 PPG last year, and didn’t upgrade on defense. This was a team that saw 8 of their 9 wins decided by a TD or less, including an unreal 4-0 record in OT games. Reality is that Denver just wasn’t close to being an elite team, and I find it hard to believe that 36 year old, “I haven’t played football in a year because my freaking neck is broke” Peyton Manning pushes them to that level. More legitimately competitive and likely winners of a terrible division, yes. Running through Baltimore, New England, Houston, and Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl, no.

2. San Diego Chargers: 7-9

Biggest Addition:  WR Robert Meachem – He’s still a downgrade from Vincent Jackson, but it’s still a mile better than the Legedu Naanee type of crap they threw out there the year before when Jackson was holding out. Like Jackson, Meachem is a big vertical threat, and finally getting an opportunity to be a priority target might be exactly what he needs to have the “breakout” type year we’ve all been waiting for.

Biggest Loss:  Kris Dielman – We saw what the Chargers O-line looked like without Dielman in the latter half of last year. It wasn’t good. Now that Dielman is retired, the Chargers will get the whole season to see just how bad it can be. More specifically, Philip Rivers gets 16 games to see just how fast opposing pass rushers can drive him into the ground.

X-Factor:  Antoine Cason – The Chargers defense dropped off precipitously last season, largely due to a pass defense ranked as the third worst in the NFL. They’ll have to shore that up if they want to compete for the division. Cason, a former first round pick, has a break-out year in 2010, but struggled last season. They’ll need him to figure things out because there just isn’t much behind him at CB.

Biggest Question:  How the heck does Norv Turner still have a job? Second year in a row I’ve used that question…wonder why…

Forecast:  I’m done believing in the Chargers. Not only have they proven to be consistent under-achievers, but they probably don’t even have enough talent left to actually be considered under-achievers. The offensive line is a mess, the defense is aging and without enough playmakers, and now the receivers are average, at best. There are just no real strengths other than, perhaps, Philip Rivers…if he can avoid throwing 20+ INT’s. 

3. Kansas City Chiefs: 6-10

Biggest Addition:  Dontari Poe – I get what you’re thinking…and yes, Poe is definitely a BIG addition (fat). Also, he’s the first legit NT they’ve had since switching to the 3-4. He has tons of talent and a great opportunity to make an immediate impact. If KC is to compete for the playoffs, they’ll have to do it on defense, and every great 3-4 has to have a stalwart in the middle. Poe can be that guy, which makes him one of the most important guys on the team. 

Biggest Loss:  Brandon Carr – The secondary was Kansas City’s strong point, specifically the Carr-Flowers duo at CB. Bringing in Stanford Routt minimizes the impact of Carr’s loss some, but it’s a clear downgrade. 

X-Factor:  Eric Berry – Berry was a monster as a rookie, and was well on his way to superstardom when he blew out his knee in the first game of last season. He’s back, he’s fully healthy, and he’s ready to terrorize the rest of the league. 

Biggest Question:  Can Matt Cassel stay on the field? Also, is Matt Cassel even the best QB on the roster? As limited as Cassel is, the downgrade from him to Tyler Palko was completely brutal. Nobody can win that way, no matter how much talent is around the QB. To address this, the team brought in Brady Quinn. I’m not saying he’s a “hidden gem” or anything, but there’s a chance he’s better than Cassel. Also, given Cassel’s injury history, there’s a (100%) chance Quinn might get to prove it.

Forecast:  The Chiefs Pythagorean Expectation was that of a 4-12 team last season, making it clear they’re more than just a solid QB away. Even if Cassel were to play up to his incredibly average potential, Kansas City is, at best, probably an 8 win team. But since it is Matt Cassel we’re talking about, I’m going to assume the worst and give them just 6 wins.

4. Oakland Raiders: 4-12

Biggest Addition:  Darren McFadden – The Raiders are shockingly frisky with McFadden on the field, going 2-1 against playoff teams when he was in the lineup. Without him, too much responsibility falls on the arm of Carson Palmer, which inevitably ends up in too many footballs falling into the arms of defenders. Needless to say, getting him back is huge.

Biggest Loss:  Most of their good players – The exodus of what little talent they had was hard to believe, even as it was going on. Stanford Routt, Samson Satele, Michael Bush, Jason Campbell, Kevin Boss, Bruce Campbell, Kamerion Wimbley – all gone, and that isn’t even the complete list. 

X-Factor:  Terrelle Pryor – Not because he’s good, but because I’m assuming he’s going to play this season. Carson Palmer is hopelessly awful at this point in his career and Oakland is most definitely not going to be in contention. It makes total sense to see what they have in Pryor. Even if he sucks – and he probably will – at least Oakland will know that he’s not the answer. Best case scenario; he turns out to be the QB of the future. Worst case scenario; he sucks and Oakland wins the Matt Barkley Sweepstakes. Win-win situation, here.

Biggest Question:  Can McFadden stay on the field? His 10 missed games* last season was a career high, which is obviously not a good sign from an injury prone 24 year old. The difference in the Raiders was so obvious without him, too. In his 6 full games, Oakland never scored less than 23 points and posted 30 or more two times. In the 10 full games without him, Oakland posted 4 games of less than 20 points, including a shut-out, and failed to produce another 30 point game. So yeah, they need him. Bad.

*McFadden was hurt very early in Week 7, so I’m counting that against him

Forecast:  The biggest issue on this team isn’t continuity or chemistry or any other intangible that Oakland constantly tries to sell us on. It’s a lack of talent, pure and simple. Going forward, the plan makes a ton of sense. In the present, it’s going to result in a lot of losses.