With the NFL season set to kick off on Wednesday, Jonathan Tjarks and John Stathas joined me to preview the 2012 NFL season -- with an NFC twist. Don't worry, we also give you our fearless Super Bowl predictions as well.
What NFC team (besides the Cowboys) do you think is most likely to make the jump into the playoffs this season?
Tjarks: Some of the best candidates for 2012 surprises are 2011 disappointments. The Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles were both playoff teams in 2010, and while there were lots of reasons for why they slipped last season, injuries were the most glaring. Philadelphia went 1-2 without Michael Vick and Chicago went 0-5 without Jay Cutler; if they can keep their franchise QB's upright they should both be right back in the mix this season.
Stathas: I'll say the Bears. The addition of Brandon Marshall is a huge boost to their offense. Now the Bears have a legit passing threat and that will expand their already stout rushing attack; Matt Forte could see career numbers. The Bears also benefit from a weak schedule. They play the Jaguars, Colts, Rams, Seahawks, and Cardinals. Toss in the two divisional games against the Vikings and you're looking at seven games that should be wins. I don't see them winning the NFC North, but they've got a great shot at snagging one of the two wildcard slots.
Starkey: The Eagles are the easy and obvious answer, and it won't shock me at all if they find a way to run away with the NFC East and make a deep run into the playoffs. This is a very talented team that severely underachieved in 2011, and Andy Reid might just be coaching for his job this year.
On the other end of the spectrum, what team is most likely to slip and fall out of the playoffs?
Tjarks: Regression to the mean is a fact of life in the NFL, so teams that surprised in 2011 are more likely to disappoint in 2012. The San Francisco 49ers, as a defensive-oriented team, are less vulnerable to injury than the Detroit Lions, who are one hit to Matt Stafford from falling back to the pack. Of course, the same could be said for the Giants, Packers or Saints, but Stafford has been more injury-prone in his young NFL career than many of the other top QBs in the NFC.
Stathas: I can see that happening to the Lions very easily. The divisional dominance of the Packers coupled with the rise of the Bears will squeeze the Lions out of the playoffs. Their plaguing off-the-field problems may turn into on-the-field problems. And a shaky running game will lead to offensive inconsistency. I don't see the Lions taking a huge step backward from their 2011 success, but they won't replicate it this season.
Starkey: Two candidates for me: the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. New York has a very difficult schedule, and playing in the NFC East is no picnic. All I have to say about San Francisco is Alex Smith.
Who has the better rookie season -- Andrew Luck or RG3?
Tjarks: I've got nothing but love for Baylor's finest, but there's a reason Luck went No. 1 overall. He's the prototype QB -- 6'4 235, cannon arm, great feel for the pocket, surprising athleticism (4.67 in the 40), extensive college experience running an NFL-style offense. My main concern with RG3 is his ability to stay healthy -- at 6'2 225, he's a lot more spindly than Luck. People forget that he already tore his knee once in college.
Stathas: I'll go with Luck on this one. RG3 may put up some better fantasy numbers because of his legs, but in terms of numbers through the air, Luck comes out ahead this season. Watching him play in the preseason is a real indicator of how successful he can be. He already progresses through reads like a 5-year veteran and has a habit of making good decisions. Coby Fleener remains Luck's best friend and Reggie Wayne has a bounce-back season. It all translates to success for Luck.
Starkey: I'm taking Luck here, too. Luck is going to have a much easier schedule than RG3 will, and gets to play his home games in a nice, domed environment. Both players should be awesome, but they probably won't be awesome in 2012. I think Luck will enjoy more success, though.
What young QB do you think will make the leap this season?
Tjarks: This is going to be a show and prove year for three -- Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman. All three have flashed the talent to be a franchise-level QB's, but none has consistently put it together over an entire season. In terms of physical ability, Freeman is probably the best of the three, but his 2011 season (16 TD's, 22 INT's) was pretty ghastly. The one sleeper is Andy Dalton, who one of my TCU friends still calls "red-headed Jesus". He had an excellent rookie season, but so did Ryan and Bradford; the next step is no guarantee in the NFL.
Stathas: Jake Locker has really impressed me this preseason. He's shown great confidence running the Titans offense in Munchak's second season. Chris Johnson also looks like he'll have a bounce-back season. That will take a lot of pressure off Locker. Kenny Britt and Nate Washington are great weapons for the young QB and Jared Cook will emerge as a top five tight end by season's end. Look for Locker to lead a surprise Titans team to an AFC South championship and playoff appearance.
Starkey: I'm taking Sam Bradford. I think if he can stay healthy, he'll still be the franchise quarterback that the Rams hoped they had when they drafted him. It's unfortunate for Bradford that he's had a different offensive coordinator each year in the league, but I think he'll be able to thrive under Jeff Fisher.
Who is the team to beat in the NFC -- the Giants, the Packers or someone else?
Tjarks: I don't think there necessarily are "teams to beat" in the NFL. A win or go home football game is more like a seven-game baseball series than a seven-game basketball one: the sample size is too small for the best team to always win. Look at last year's playoffs: Saints/49ers, Giants/Packers and Giants/49ers were all coin-flip games. If you can make it to the second round, you've got a puncher's chance.
Stathas: Team to beat has to be the New York Giants. They're the kings until someone knocks them off their thrown. The emergence of Victor Cruz has given Eli Manning two great receiving weapons (Hakeem Nicks being the other) and their defense looks to be improved. The NFC East will once again be a chaotic battleground, but Eli and the Giants continue to show grace under pressure year after year.
Starkey: The team to beat is the Green Bay Packers, even still. They've got one of, if not the, most explosive offense in the entire league, and they've got that nice home field advantage at Lambeau, as well as the reigning NFL MVP. I don't think the Packers end up in the Super Bowl, but I do think that the road to New Orleans goes through Green Bay this year in the NFC.
Super Bowl Prediction
Tjarks: The NFL has become a passing league, so the first thing you want to look for is a team who can pass the ball and stop the pass. Look at the Giants -- they're built around an elite QB and an elite pass rush. This year, I'm going full homer and picking the Dallas Cowboys with Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Ware and a revamped secondary. The Houston Texans are probably the most complete team in the AFC, so here's an off the wall all-Texas prediction: Dallas 24, Houston 20.
Stathas: Green Bay Packers in dominant fashion. People seem to have forgotten how great the Packers were last season, and now they're out to prove something. That's a recipe for success. The defense looks improved and Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. Go Pack Go!
Starkey: Shocking development here -- I'm taking Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl, as they return to the Superdome to win Super Bowl XLVII, 31-21 over the Atlanta Falcons.