Sunday, January 8, 2012

4 Questions for 2012: The NFL

2012 is already a week in, and if this last 365 days in sports is any indication, 2012 will be one crazy year. From Tebowmania to the improbable run of the St. Louis Cardinals, 2011 was truly a year to remember. Over the next four days, I am going to ask four questions, one in each major, American professional sport. I will then attempt to peer into the crystal ball and determine the answer to these queries. Fully aware that this will probably serve as comedic relief in a year or so, we will start first in the NFL.

There were six 8-8 teams that did not make the NFL playoffs this year. Which, if any, of these teams (Chargers, Raiders, Jets, Cowboys, Eagles, Bears) will bounce back to make the playoffs in 2012?

Some franchises, such as the woebegone Cleveland Browns, would leave their city to be 8-8. (Wait, hasn't that already happened?) But these six teams failed this year, each in their own spectacular way. In the NFC, the Eagles fell to the ridiculous expectation of being a "dream team." They also did smart things like install their offensive line coach as their new defensive coordinator, and just could not finish games. The Chicago Bears flamed out due to injuries and a lack of depth. Once Jay Cutler and Matt Forte got injured, a promising 7-3 start turned into an 8-8 debacle. After beating quarterbacks like Phillip Rivers, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford, the Bears lost to guys like Tyler Palko. The Cowboys, well, were the Cowboys of late. Their defense failed when it mattered most, and they lost games due to puzzling coaching decisions. I like Jason Garrett, but icing your own kicker should come up in a special section of "common man." With everything on the line against the Giants in the last game of the season, they got their butts kicked.

In the AFC, the Chargers literally found ways to lose games. The most talented team does not always win, as the Chargers have found time and again. Phillip Rivers was not himself this year, throwing over twenty interceptions. The Raiders showed potential and guts in the trade for Carson Palmer, but set a league record for penalties. This team is maddening, and I really like Hue Jackson, but he has to get these guys under control. Finally, the Jets just could not live up to their own hype. Sanchez was terrible this year, and the vaunted Rex Ryan defense got burned on several occasions.

These teams have demons that need to be exorcised. The team most likely to get back to the playoffs is the Philadelphia Eagles. The talent on this team is astounding, and if the DeSean Jackson contract situation clears up, watch out. This Philadelphia team really started rolling near the end of the season, and expect that to continue as the Eagles fly under the radar in 2012. The team least likely to make the playoffs in my opinion is the New York Jets. In a tough AFC with up and coming teams like the Bengals and Texans, along with entrenched powers like the Ravens, Patriots, and Steelers, the Jets need to win a lot of games and score a lot of points just to make the playoffs. Watching Mark Sanchez this season was like watching a bad horror movie: You wanted to stop watching and even wanted to laugh at times, but just couldn't avert your eyes from the spectacle. If Sanchez can stop making mistakes and the Jets go back to "ground and pound," this team has a chance. That is a big if.

As for the rest of the teams in the middle, there are some big questions marks. The Chargers and Raiders need to pay attention to the little things, and change the culture of their football teams. In a winnable west, the inches will make all the difference. The Cowboys need an attitude change as well. Tony Romo is always awesome in November. But what the Cowboys need is a big win in December against a playoff contender, which would do wonders to change the mindset on this team. The Chicago Bears, along with getting a big play wide receiver, need to stay healthy. With Urlacher, Briggs, and Peppers all in their 30s, the window of opportunity on this team is closing fast. When the Bears were healthy and at 7-3 in 2011, it seemed there was hardly a team that could beat them. But, in a cutthroat division, one mistake will spell disaster for these Bears.

500 means different things to different teams. In the cases of these clubs, anther mediocre season would be disastrous. Which one of these talented teams will step up?

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