Midway through the 2011 season, in the midst of a cross-country flight to the next outpost on a football writer's not-so-tragic adventure, I sought diversionary solace in the movie "Hot Tub Time Machine".
The plot sent a group of friends inadvertently back to the 1980s and in my favorite scene, two of them end up at a bar watching the classic AFC championship game between the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. Lou, played by Rob Corddry, keeps cashing in bets by predicting the sequence of events burned into his memory, and as John Elway is preparing to lead the visitors on "The Drive," his agitated adversary demands to know the secret of his success.
An indignant Corddry replies – and I paraphrase – "I know the gosh-darn future, dufus."
It's a line I knew I would steal immediately, and as we close in on the first Sunday of another NFL campaign, this seems like an ideal time to trot it out.
As many of you know, I am asked to know the future on a weekly basis, an endeavor which, I'm told, played out quite nicely in 2011. And you'll be thrilled to learn that I've already laid out my Super Bowl XLVII picks for the camera, as well as my choices for the AFC's and NFC's division winners.
[Les Carpenter: D.C.'s fascination with QB Robert Griffin III goes beyond race]
Yet, like the wild squirrel who distracted Mark Jackson in that "Hot Tub Time Machine" scene, I'm not quite ready to call it a wrap. I may not actually know the gosh-darn future, but I'm confident that there's no time like the present to lay some more prognostications on a nation salivating for pro football.
So, in honor of the late ex-Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell – one of The Drive's true antagonists – here are a dozen unimpeachable predictions for the '12 season:
1. Mile-high miracle on hold
Peyton Manning, who hasn't played a real game in 20 months, will come back strong – or, at least, strong enough to win his ninth career division championship – but we won't see the real Peyton Manning until 2013. The ultimate stickler for detail, Manning will take awhile to adapt to his new surroundings, and it'll take his new teammates some time to adapt to the nuanced instructions he imparts. The more they play and practice together, the more likely Manning becomes the master of his domain. In the meantime, he'll be good enough to win a bad division – as the Broncos managed to do with Tim Tebow playing quarterback last year – and Denver will be the Smile High City come January, with the best yet to come.
2. Tight end battle in New England goes to …
Aaron Hernandez will have a better year than Rob Gronkowski. As much as last year was a breakout season for one of New England's young tight ends, and as much as said tight end may have enjoyed the so-called "Summer of Gronk", his Patriots position-mate will have the bigger impact in 2012. My reasoning is simple: Opponents, having studied the Pats' offense all offseason, will try to take away Gronkowski. Tom Brady, who is nothing if not adaptable, will make them pay by finding his other big, fast, tough-to-cover target. Either way, the Patriots win – that's why the franchise's powers that be made a point of paying both tight ends over the summer.
[Michael Silver: Only winning will cure Cam Newton's pouting]
3. The Bills will finally make the playoffs
I was there for the Music City Miracle in January of 2000, and if you'd told me that would be Buffalo's last postseason appearance for at least 13 seasons, the league's longest current drought, I'd have given hugs to every fan behind the visitors' bench. (Not really – I was too busy racing down the Bills' sidelines in a vain effort to match Kevin Dyson stride-for-stride … but I'd have felt for those fans as I peeked in on Tennessee's end-zone celebration.) Buffalo has had a couple of strong starts in recent years, only to see it all unravel. The Bills had a big offseason, what with the Stevie Johnson re-signing and the Mario Williams signing, and there's a sense of momentum in the Western New York air. With a little health and a little luck, I believe Buffalo will finally get some satisfaction.
4. DeMeco Ryans will make the Wide Nine Shine
In March, the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick to the Texans to acquire linebacker Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who allegedly didn't fit Houston's 3-4 scheme. Here's what I think: Ryans, perhaps the most highly respected Texans player in recent years – a tough tackler revered for his intelligence and leadership – is an asset to any scheme, and the Eagles should be investigated for grand theft. Don't cry for the Texans – they're still very good, and I picked them to go to the Super Bowl – but give a hearty golf clap to the Eagles, who may have turned one of last year's biggest weaknesses into a strength. Part of the reason defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's Wide Nine scheme was so maligned in 2011 was the substandard play of its linebackers, including overmatched rookie Casey Matthews in the middle. Now, with Ryans filling that spot, and flanked by second-round draft pick Mychal Kendricks and veteran Akeem Jordan, the middle may not seem so soft.
5. The Dolphins will Biff For Barkley – and they'll screw it up
With USC quarterback Matt Barkley filling the Andrew Luck role (and, perhaps, Landry Jones as RG3), fans of struggling teams will be casting googly eyes at the would-be saviors the 2013 draft can provide. And make no mistake – unless 2012 first-round pick Ryan Tannehill tears it up as a rookie, South Florida will be abuzz with Barkley fever (if the Dolphins are as lousy as I think they'll be) the way so many loyalists of the Colts and other flailing teams had "Suck For Luck" on the brain last year. With owner Steve Ross and his wandering eye, one never knows what the next power play will be (just ask Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Fisher, Brandon Marshall, etc.) – just that it's very unlikely to work out. Oh, and don't blame the Dolphins' demise on Hard Knocks; they simply don't have enough good players, or any clear sense of direction as a franchise.
6. The Seahawks will be the surprise team of the NFC
Yeah, I was moved by Russell Wilson's charisma when I met the rookie last month, and I can see how his new teammates would be inspired to rally around him. He'll make plays, and he'll make mistakes, and he'll do fine – but he won't be the biggest reason why Pete Carroll's team makes the playoffs. As with the Texans last year, this defense is better than most people realize, with a pair of big, menacing, in-your-face corners (Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman) setting the tone. The Seahawks battled the powerful 49ers on virtually even terms last December, and I think the two teams will stage a spirited fight for the NFC West crown in 2012, with Seattle surprisingly prevailing.
7. Joe Flacco will air it out as the Ravens become an offense-driven team
With Terrell Suggs likely to miss much (or perhaps all) of the season as he recovers from an Achilles tendon tear and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed nearing retirement, Baltimore, which came so close to making the Super Bowl last January, needs to take a little stress off its always formidable defense. Flacco, meanwhile, wants to get paid, and (like Eli Manning a year ago) to have elite status conferred upon him. The obvious solution: With halfback Ray Rice loosening up opposing defenses and providing a legitimate play-action threat, and a young, speedy wideout in Torrey Smith to complement ultra-tough possession receiver Anquan Boldin, let Joe throw and get out of the way. I think coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will do just that, and Flacco and the Ravens will set all sorts of franchise scoring and yardage records.
8. Blaine Gabbert won't suck
I'm not saying the Jags' second-year quarterback will be in Cam Newton's stratosphere, or even Andy Dalton's 'hood, but I don't think he'll resemble the overwhelmed and possibly gun shy, scatter-armed passer of a year ago. After spending some time with the kid and watching him form an instant connection with first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon, I'm wondering if this situation might be salvageable after all.
9. The Saints will buckle under the weight of the bounty scandal
I realize that New Orleans is a good team with a great offense, and I don't envision a complete collapse in the Crescent City. But that whole Drew-Brees-is-the-coach-anyway narrative? I'm not buying it. Sean Payton is a shrewd coach who might be the NFL's best play-caller, and hell yeah the Saints will miss him. The whole interim-interim thing is a stupid idea, and I don't think the organizational martyr complex is productive. Also, the Saints are transitioning to a new defensive scheme, and that tends to take time. Sorry, Saints fans: No redemptive season; no hometown Super Bowl; no playoffs (PLAYOFFS?), no dice.
10. Philip Rivers and DeSean Jackson will have bounce-back seasons
Each of these ex-Pro Bowl players had a forgettable 2011 campaign – Rivers for no apparent reason, and Jackson for a totally obvious one. Rivers, so prolific and dependable throughout his career, threw 20 interceptions last year, by far his highest single-season total. If he was injured or dealing with some sort of off-the-field adversity, he successfully concealed it. Whatever happened, I have a hard time believing that he has suddenly declined at age 30, and I think he'll revert to his old self.
Jackson, on the other hand, was completely bugged out by his contract situation, a perspective that was not considered irrational by many of his teammates. He played like an unhappy, undersized dude who was hesitant to subject himself to injury because it might jeopardize his chance of a payday (in Philly or elsewhere); heck, he has basically admitted this in several interviews. Somewhat surprisingly, the Eagles worked out a deal with Jackson after the season. Some players shut it down after they get paid (Albert Haynesworth, cough cough); I believe Jackson will do the opposite. Having achieved financial security, he'll go back to being an exhilarating, fearless presence on an increasingly fearsome offense.
11. Matt Cassel won't be the Chiefs' starting quarterback by midseason
If you believe some of the garbage that has come out of Kansas City the past couple of years, you think that former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was the reason for Cassel's stunning success in 2010, when Tom Brady's ex-backup made the Pro Bowl and helped K.C. to an unlikely AFC West crown. If you know the real story, you regard Weis as a fraud, ex-Chiefs coach Todd Haley as a miracle worker (at least for that one season, which began with Weis reluctant to coach Cassel, causing Haley to step in) and Cassel as a disaster waiting to happen. With the ever-delicate Brian Daboll now on the job as new coach Romeo Crennel's offensive coordinator, count on it happening.
12. The Jets will pull an October Surprise by signing Brett Favre … just before Halloween
Trick or treat? Yeah, I'm just messing with you – at least, I think I am – though you have to admit, the idea of Rex Ryan persuading Mike Tannenbaum and Woody Johnson to coax Favre out of retirement a second time doesn't seem completely outside the realm of possibility. That said, it's likely a moot point, because either Mark Sanchez will step up to the intense pressure and evolve into a true franchise quarterback, or Tebow will do to the Big Apple what Adam and Eve once did to the forbidden apple. Yeah, I know, bad analogy. For the record, as much as another Favre comeback would warm my columnist's heart, I'm sending out positive vibes to Sanchez (who I think has it in him to be highly successful) and to Tebow (who won me over as a player, because his success flies in the face of rational thought, and as a guy, because he's just so damn likeable in person). I'm also hoping that the circus tent doesn't collapse under its own weight. And if all else fails? Three words: Call Chad Pennington.
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