Two months ago, amid a backdrop of post-convention political posturing, replacement-official rationalizing and rookie-quarterback ratification, I tried to see the future, "Hot Tub Time Machine"-style.
Alas, as with all such fortune-telling endeavors, it was a fiasco waiting to happen. While some of my predictions (the New Orleans Saints' struggles, Matt Cassel's benching, the Baltimore Ravens' transition to an offense-driven team) proved to be spot-on, others missed the mark more blatantly than one of Tim Tebow's passes — wait, bad analogy. Put it this way: From writing that we won't see the real Peyton Manning until 2013, to picking the Bills to make the playoffs, to forecasting big things for the Eagles' "Wide Nine," there are a few calls I'd like to have back.
Now, at the unofficial midpoint of the 2012 season, it's time to make some halftime adjustments. And while I know this is a game I can't possibly win, at least I won't be able to blame the outcome on the replacement refs.
On that note, here are eight predictions for the second half of 2012 — one for each remaining week of the regular season:
1. The Packers and Seattle Seahawks will both make the playoffs — and Green Bay will be the last NFC North team standing
After the Fail Mary reversed the rightful outcome of the Week 3 Monday night game and triggered a swift and merciful end to the officiating lockout, I worried about the lasting damage. Specifically, I talked about how brutal it would be if the Packers were to miss the playoffs by virtue of that defeat, and/or if the bogus victory were to allow the Seahawks into the postseason at another team's expense. Ever the optimist, I'm going to predict that Green Bay (5-3) and Seattle (5-4) will both get in organically; if we're lucky, they'll play each other in the first round. The Packers are far removed from the regular-season rampage upon which they embarked in 2011, but I see this more like a 2010 flashback: The Bears (7-1) may well win the division, but the Pack, my preseason Super Bowl pick, will go further in the playoffs.
2. Peyton Manning and the Broncos will own November and December
I've already revised my MVP prediction from Aaron Rodgers (preseason) to Manning (late October), and I don't foresee having to make another switch. More significant, the Broncos — who play one team (Ravens) that currently has a winning record the rest of the way — are poised to run away with the AFC West and position themselves for a favorable postseason path. I still believe the Houston Texans (my preseason pick to win the AFC) are the best team in the conference, but Denver could be a formidable challenger come January.
3. Tim Tebow will do something that leaves people wondering, "Why didn't Rex Ryan hand him the ball earlier?"
I'm not saying the Jets should bench Mark Sanchez, or even that Rex Ryan will. However, I have a feeling that sometime before the end of this lost season, Tebow will get a chance to play some quarterback for Gang Green — and that he'll do the Tebow Thing, as he did for the Broncos at the end of 2010, throughout much of 2011 and in that epic playoff victory over the Steelers that now seems like it took place about 100 years ago. It may not look pretty, but if Tebow's efforts help the Jets win a game or two, it will set up a very interesting offseason in Florham Park. N.J.
4. The Atlanta Falcons won't go undefeated
This is hardly a bold prediction, though in fairness, Atlanta (8-0) only plays one team that's currently above .500 the rest of the way. On Dec. 16, the Falcons host the Giants, the team that skunked them (save a second-quarter safety) in an embarrassing playoff defeat last January. Atlanta will be up for that one, but it won't be 13-0 at the time. In fact, later this week — if I have any guts — I'll pick the Saints to upset the Falcons at the Superdome on Sunday.
[Midseason Awards Matt Ryan over Peyton Manning for MVP]
5. Chris Palmer won't last the season in Tennessee
The Titans have issues, beginning with the fact that owner Bud Adams is pushing 90, is extremely grumpy and just doesn't give a damn. Adams' strong critical comments following the team's 51-20 defeat to the Bears last Sunday seem to have created a sense of panic throughout the organization, as cbssports.com columnist Mike Freeman reported Monday, and that usually leads to someone getting thrown overboard. In this case Palmer, the offensive coordinator whose schemes and game plans have privately been questioned by players and others inside the organization, is most likely to be the first casualty. Whether that means Palmer is fired or quietly stripped of his responsibilities remains to be seen, but keep an eye on this during the team's upcoming bye week. As for Adams, if he's not starting to appreciate just how effective former Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher was at compensating for the Titans' organizational dysfunction, someone should enlighten him.
6. The Miami Dolphins will sneak into the playoffs
Yes, I know, this directly contradicts one of my preseason predictions, and it sets me up for some Super Bowl-week humiliation. (On a Yahoo! Sports video segment in early September, I declared that if Miami were to win at least eight games, I'd wear a Ryan Tannehill jersey onto our set in New Orleans. I may or may not have added something about another article of clothing; if so, it's something I think we'd all prefer never comes to fruition.) I believe that the Dolphins (4-4) will win more than eight games, will legitimately challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC East crown and will reach the postseason as a wild-card team. Part of this is because of Tannehill: The rookie quarterback is far more advanced and proficient than I expected him to be at this stage, and general manager Jeff Ireland deserves props for picking him. Also, the Dolphins are better overall than I expected them to be — again, Ireland deserves credit for putting together a roster short on frills but reasonably well-stocked with talent. Finally, rookie coach Joe Philbin is doing a heck of a job. Like the Fonz, I was wr….
7. The Redskins will launch a belated rally toward respectability
Every year, there's a team (or two) already eliminated from playoff contention that goes on a late-season run, thereby positioning itself as a trendy preseason playoff pick for the following season. In some cases, the optimism proves to be unwarranted — it's easy to play loose and sneak up on opponents when there's nothing to lose. The 'Skins, however, will be likely to justify their hype next season, as Robert Griffin III grows into his franchise-quarterback pedigree, some key players get healthy and Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen continue to retool their roster. Oddly enough, though Shanahan got a lot of grief for saying last Sunday that he planned to use the remainder of 2012 to evaluate players for next season, I expect his team to finish strong.
8. The Saints will head into 2013 on a high note
Hosting a Super Bowl after a nightmarish season isn't all that much fun — just ask Jerry Jones. Yet I believe Tom Benson's franchise, which has experienced one body blow after another for the past 10 months, has some good news on the horizon. For one thing, the 3-5 Saints could well be one of those teams that hits its stride toward the end of a rough season, as I expect the Redskins to be. Secondly, for all the talk about Sean Payton's impending free agency in the wake of a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter that the league voided the contract extension to which the coach and team agreed last season, I'm not buying the Payton-to-Cowboys inevitability. Payton is an exceptionally competitive man who wants to strike back at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — and all those he deems responsible for the franchise's struggles — by winning another championship in New Orleans. I think he wants to stay, and with Tuesday's report by the New Orleans Times Picayune that the NFL has given the Saints permission to begin negotiating with Payton on a new, kosher extension, there's a strong chance he'll never hit the open market. Getting Payton's deal done won't erase the blemishes caused by the pay-for-injury scandal, but it will allow Benson — and Saints fans — to smile their way through Super Bowl week and look forward to a 2012 revival.
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