(Note: The O/U totals are discussed for entertainment only. Please don't risk anything — money, trading stamps, jelly beans, Methuselah rookie cards — on these things.)
The NFL has long been a reshuffle league, especially in the salary cap/free-agency era. It's easy to laugh at most of the teams I'm listing here — only one of them had a winning record in 2011 — but it's important to have a short memory when forecasting this game. We're only a month away from the "This Is the Craziest Season Ever!" Mad Lib the mainstream media keeps throwing at us.
Pillow and pajama time. Let's uncover some sleepers.
-- Seattle Seahawks (over/under 7.5): There's been a lot of summer buzz about Russell Wilson, and if I'm not driving the bandwagon (my colleague Doug Farrar was very early to the Wilson story, up close and personal), I'm at least sitting in a good seat. But even if Wilson doesn't justify the love, this offense should be just fine in the hands of Matt Flynn. And the Seahawks surely grab your attention with their defense (the secondary might be the NFL's best), their significant home-field advantage and a manageable schedule.
Seattle just completed a dominant 4-0 preseason, outscoring opponents by 78 points, and while that doesn't guarantee a thing going forward, a strong August has correlated to a strong season over the last couple of decades (mind you, it didn't help Seattle in 2009, when a 4-0 preseason led to a 5-11 mark). I'm expecting the Seahawks to post a winning record in 2012, and they should challenge San Francisco for the division title.
-- Cleveland Browns (over/under 5): Mostly this is a statement about how I don't trust the rest of the division. The Ravens have an aging defense, and the Terrell Suggs injury is a monumental loss. I can't see how the Steelers keep Ben Roethlisberger upright for 16 games. Too many things went right for the Bengals in 2011; that club has regression written all over it. The Browns quietly had a credible defense last year (307 points allowed, 6.7 YPA allowed); if there's even a marginal improvement on offense, they'll junkyard dog their way to a 6-10 or 7-9 record.
-- New York Giants (over/under 9): How is it the Giants won the Super Bowl in February and yet are somehow under the NFC East radar six months later? Is everyone still chasing the Philly dream from 2011? Does the Cowboys name brand carry that much weight with public perception? I'm bullish on Robert Griffin III like everyone else, but he's not going to turn the Redskins around overnight (good luck behind that spotty offensive line, rookie).
I accept New York's title had some fluky elements; when you're outscored in the regular season, you're not supposed to win a division title (let alone the Lombardi Trophy). But I trust Eli Manning in all situations and I love Big Blue's pass rush, and that goes a long way in today's pinball NFL. The Giants will be a playoff team again.
Blaine Gabbert's rookie season was a nonstop dumpster fire, we can all see that. But if new head coach Mike Mularkey can get even modest improvement from Gabbert in Year 2 — summer results have been encouraging — the Jaguars will be competitive most weeks. It's common for young QBs to show growth at this point in their career. I'm not asking for Gabbert to be Superman, just don't torpedo the entire offense like you did in 2011.
The skill players here are respectable (I fully expect a happy ending to the MJD standoff), and there are plenty of soft spots on the Jacksonville schedule (playing in the weakest AFC division doesn't hurt). At least we don't have to watch this story up close and personal, like we did in 2011 (you couldn't get away from Jacksonville football in prime time last year). I'll be tracking this story from the ticker, not from the film room.
-- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (over/under 5.5): Generally I'm not the type to call out professional athletes for their effort. It's a slippery slope. But I dare anyone to watch the Tampa Bay-Atlanta tapes from last year and defend the effort the Buccaneers showed, especially on defense. If ever a unit quit on its head coach, the 2011 Bucs tanked on Raheem Morris. No team needed a new voice and direction more than this club.
Josh Freeman was as lucky as he was good in 2010 (note the fluky interception rate), then regression bit him in the backside last year. He's ready to make amends; he came to camp lean and mean, and there's new toys in the offense (Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson). The schedule plays nice for Tampa: It drew the AFC West for the crossover, and in-conference games against St. Louis and Minnesota. A six or seven-win season doesn't seem like too much to ask.
I've said my piece. What teams do you expect to shock the world (or at least mildly surprise us) in 2012? The floor is yours.
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