NFL predictions for 2012
The Saints will win their second Super Bowl in three years, beating the Ravens
The Colts and Peyton Manning will split; Manning will come back strong
Packers backup QB Matt Flynn will generate a lot of interest this offseason
1. The Saints will beat the Ravens in the Super Bowl. May as well start off with a prediction bound to lead to angry responses, right? This one's not so much an indictment of the Packers, who might be on the verge of becoming a dynasty again, as it is an admission that the Saints are really, really good. Almost all of that confidence comes from Drew Brees' continued spectacular performance. The Saints took Green Bay to the wire in Week 1. On the other side of things, even with the AFC road likely going through New England, the Steelers and Ravens have the best mixes of offense and defense. Baltimore has had Pittsburgh's number this season and looks poised to take the AFC North crown. That means the Steelers might have to win in Batimore to get to the Super Bowl, which the Ravens won't allow.
2. Andrew Luck -- not Peyton Manning -- will be Indianapolis' quarterback. The longer Manning's rehab drags on, the less and less likely it is that he's in a Colts uniform next year. If you put emotion aside, there's no way a rebuilding Indianapolis team can commit a $28 million March bonus to a soon-to-be 36-year-old QB with major injury question marks. Fortunately for the Colts, Luck will be sitting there when the No. 1 pick comes around in April, giving them the perfect opportunity to transition from one QB era to the next. It won't be easy to say goodbye to Manning, but it's the option that makes the most sense. (Of course, the whole scenario -- not to mention the draft's entire outlook -- changes if the Colts lose the first pick to the Rams.)
3. Robert Griffin III will be a top-five pick. More and more people are arguing for Griffin as the 2012 draft's best player over Luck, the longtime sure-fire No. 1. While it's still hard to see Griffin leapfrogging Luck, especially given Indianapolis' current offensive system, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor has watched his stock rise exponentially in the past year. Cam Newton's success won't hurt Griffin, either -- Griffin has a lot of the mobility and athleticism teams coveted in Newton, plus throws a better ball. If no team in need of a QB lands between the Nos. 2 and 5 picks, look for a Washington or Miami to trade up for Griffin.
4. Bill Cowher will coach ... somewhere in 2012. NFL teams have raced to the firing line lately, with Jack Del Rio, Todd Haley and Tony Sparano all being handed their walking papers within a few days of each other. They don't figure to be the last head coaches shown the door either, with Indianapolis, San Diego, Philadelphia, Washington, the Giants, Tampa Bay and St. Louis all possible spots where change could be in the offing. Cowher could stick with his TV gig -- fellow CBS analyst Dan Marino said last week that's what he believes Cowher will wind up doing -- but if the right scenario pops up, it would be hard to keep him off the sideline. Going out on a limb: If the Giants don't win the NFC East, Tom Coughlin gets fired and Cowher takes over there. Otherwise, despite Marino's talk, bet on Miami.
5. Matt Flynn will be the league's breakthrough quarterback. Flynn has spent his entire four-year career behind Aaron Rodgers, but he's set to be a free agent after this season, and teams with question marks at quarterback would be foolish to ignore him. It will be hard for Green Bay to keep Flynn around if he has a chance to win a starting job elsewhere, and between his time learning by watching Rodgers and Flynn's own skill set, he ought to get that opportunity. Consider all the teams in the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes as possible landing spots for Flynn, then add in places like Kansas City and Seattle.
6. Philadelphia will contend for the NFC's best record. I know, I know, the Eagles played us all for chumps this season, but there's just way too much talent on that roster for the struggles to last forever, regardless of who the coach is. With lowered expectations in 2012 and the possible departure of wide receiver/gigantic distraction DeSean Jackson, the ship should sail a little more smoothly in Philadelphia next year. That will be especially true if Juan Castillo's defense continues to take steps forward, as it has over the past couple of weeks.
7. Denver will bring in a veteran to challenge Tim Tebow for the starting job. No matter what happens for the remainder of 2011-12, "Tebow Time" will forever be one of the themes of the current season. However, it's still up for debate just how much faith John Elway and the Broncos' brass have in Tebow to keep this magic alive going forward. Kyle Orton's no longer around, and Brady Quinn likely will depart as a free agent. But Denver will fill the void on its QB depth chart by bringing in an experienced guy who can compete with Tebow -- and might be able to steal some snaps, if Tebow regresses. There could be some intriguing names on the market for Denver, including Shaun Hill, Chad Henne, Josh Johnson or even Rex Grossman.
8. Sleeper teams for the 2012 season: Carolina and Miami. A lot of what happens with the Dolphins will depend on two questions: Who will be the coach, and who will be the starting quarterback? The Dolphins surged over this season's second half with Matt Moore at the helm, so they may opt to give him a shot in 2012. He has played well enough in 2011 to be in the mix. And Miami's defense is better than most people realize -- only seven teams have given up fewer points per game than the Dolphins.
Carolina's present and future, meanwhile, rests with Newton. A sure bet to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, Newton gives the Panthers a dynamic weapon at quarterback that very few teams (if any) can match. Unlike the Dolphins, Carolina has had almost no defense to speak of this season. But a few upgrades on that side of the ball plus a few more months under Newton's belt will make the Panthers a difficult foe.
9. Roger Goodell will keep pushing for overseas expansion. Just in case the novelty of the league's annual regular-season game in London has worn thin, the NFL has decided to hold an additional game abroad next season. And, just like after this season's game, the commissioner will point to the eventual sellout crowds at those contests as proof that the NFL could thrive in an overseas market. Back at home, the argument will be made -- smartly -- that Los Angeles should reclaim an NFL team before any consideration is given to an England-based franchise. That won't stop Goodell from taking baby steps in that direction.
10. Awards predictions for next season:
MVP: Drew Brees, QB, Saints. He could be in the mix this season, especially after setting the single-season record for passing yards. It's impossible to overemphasize how important Brees is to the New Orleans offense.
Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. Rodgers and Brees may wind up flip-flopping these awards from 2011 to 2012 -- Rodgers remains the favorite to claim the league's MVP this season, though Brees has a case.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants. The sky is the limit for New York's dynamic pass rusher, who has gone from promising player to full-on star in his second season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. He could have been a first-round pick in the 2010 draft and should be a top-five selection this time around. With a terrific blend of speed and athleticism (not to mention the type of hands and route-running ability that teams crave), he'll be a high-impact rookie.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina. Coples might be the first defender to come off the board -- LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is another standout prospect -- and he could step in on a decent defense and have an Aldon Smith-like impact in his first season.
Coach of the Year: Pete Carroll, Seahawks. Given all its struggles this season, the fact that Seattle made its way back into the playoff chase -- one year after reaching the divisional round -- speaks to Carroll's hold over his players. Give him a quarterback and a better start to the season, and Carroll can get his team back to the postseason.
Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, QB, ???. This pick is either too obvious or too dependent on Manning's questionable health. If Manning gets back to 100 percent for the 2012 season, whether with the Colts or not, he'll be an MVP candidate and probably a no-doubt pick here.