A new NFL season dawns Wednesday, as the Dallas Cowboys take on the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants . One of the early themes will be the league’s use of replacement officials, as the NFL and officials union are still at a stand-off . Some horrendous preseason calls did little to assuage the players’ and public’s confidence, and if that trend continues, look for a deal to be made sooner rather than later. Now, on to the picks for 2012:
AFC East: The New England Patriots remain the class of this division, especially with rivals Miami and the New York Jets declining and Buffalo not yet ready to challenge for the title. New England has added wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and good-looking running back Stevan Ridley to an already potent offensive attack, and Bill Belichick addressed last year’s defensive shortcomings by spending six draft picks on a unit that ranked 31 st last year.
Predicted finish: 1. Patriots, 2. Bills, 3. Jets, 4. Dolphins.
AFC North: The Baltimore Ravens have an ascending offense, and even with linebacker Terrell Suggs out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, the defense still has Ray Lewis and enough bite to lead the Ravens to the top of the division. The Steelers will take a step back with an aging defense and questions along the offensive line, as well as the issue of how hard-charging offensive coordinator Todd Haley will mesh with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger . The Bengals are improving but are not elite yet.
Predicted finish: 1. Ravens, 2. Steelers, 3. Bengals, 4. Browns.
AFC South: The Houston Texans made a major breakthrough last season, burying the ghost of Peyton Manning and the Colts to win the franchise’s first division title and make its first playoff appearance. And the Texans even won a game and nearly beat the Ravens in Baltimore with their third-string rookie quarterback calling the shots. This is as complete a team as there is in the conference, with a high-powered offense led by a healthy Matt Schaub , Andre Johnson at wide receiver and the best running back duo in the league in Arian Foster and Ben Tate . But it was the defense that lifted Houston to the playoffs, as Wade Phillips proved to be a difference-maker in his first year as defensive coordinator, with up-and-coming stars like J.J. Watt and Connor Barwin . Jake Locker needs to shine in his first year if the Titans are to make the playoffs, and the Colts and Jaguars are in the midst of rebuilding.
Predicted finish: 1. Texans, 2. Titans, 3. Colts, 4. Jaguars.
AFC West: The Kansas City Chiefs staggered after winning the division in 2011, falling to 7-9. But the pieces are there for the Chiefs to make the playoffs again. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll worked wonders with little talent in Miami, and he has Matt Cassel , Jamaal Charles , Peyton Hillis and Dwayne Bowe to form the nucleus of what could be a good offense. Defensively, the Chiefs tightened up after the arriving of Coach Romeo Crennel , finishing eighth, and handing the Green Bay Packers their only loss of the regular season. The Broncos have Peyton Manning , but little defense, and the San Diego Chargers’ window of opportunity is closing fast as their stars age. Oakland will probably finish last in this competitive division.
Predicted finish: 1. Chiefs, 2. Broncos, 3. Chargers, 4. Raiders.
NFC East: The New York Giants made a Herculean run just to get to the playoffs, then Eli Manning and the pass rush did the rest, and the Giants won their second Super Bowl in five years. The defense will be strong with the addition of Prince Akukamara , who missed most of last season due to injury, and the offense features Manning, Victor Cruz , Hakeem Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw , who helped the unit rank eighth last year. The Eagles will challenge for the division behind the talents of Michael Vick and a defense that can rush the passer, while the Cowboys will slip to third as injuries have already ravaged the team, and the season hasn’t even started. The Redskins still face an uphill climb to respectability.
Predicted finish: 1. Giants, 2. Eagles, 3. Cowboys, 4. Redskins.
NFC North: The Packers are still the top dogs in the division after finishing with a franchise-record 15 wins last season. The offense runs through league MVP Aaron Rodgers , who had one of the greatest quarterback seasons ever (45 TD passes, 6 INTs). The defense slipped to last in the league, but should be formidable again with the addition of three highly-touted draft picks – linebacker Nick Perry , end Jerel Worthy and cornerback Casey Hayward . The Bears will be right behind the Pack with the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey at receiver to take the pressure off quarterback Jay Cutler . The Lions will fall to third, not because of Matt Stafford or Calvin Johnson , but because of a porous defense that did nothing to improve in the secondary. The young Vikings will dwell firmly in the cellar.
Predicted finish: 1. Packers, 2. Bears, 3. Lions, 4. Vikings.
NFC South: The Falcons will open up the passing game, which will benefit Matt Ryan and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones , and the defense, which already ranked 12 th last year, will be bolstered by the addition of top cornerback Asante Samuel . The Saints will be in the mix as always because of their explosive offense, but Bounty-gate and all the other off-field issues, as well as a soft defense, relegate them to second. Cam Newton made huge strides in his rookie year in Carolina, but he will be undone by a defense that statistically was even worse than the Saints. The Bucs are retooling under new coach Greg Schiano .
Predicted finish: 1. Falcons, 2. Saints, 3. Panthers, 4. Buccaneers.
NFC West: It’s been the worst division in football now for several years running, but there are signs the West is starting to reverse that trend. The San Francisco 49ers surprised everyone by going 13-3 last year and reaching the NFC Championship Game, but this year the Seattle Seahawks will be the surprise team. Russell Wilson looked like a seasoned veteran leading the offense this preseason, and Marshawn Lynch was one of the toughest backs in the league. But it was Seattle’s defense that fueled a near-playoff run last season, as Richard Sherman , Brandon Browner , Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas comprise one of the top secondaries in the league. The Niners are still strong defensively, but Alex Smith needs to show that last season was no fluke, and the receiving corps still does not strike fear in the hearts of anyone. The Cardinals have no quarterback, and the Rams are still trying to reach respectability.
Predicted finish: 1. Seahawks, 2. 49ers, 3. Cardinals, 4. Rams.
AFC Wild Card: Broncos over Chiefs, Ravens over Titans
AFC Divisional round: Texans over Ravens, Patriots over Broncos
AFC Championship: Texans over Patriots
NFC Wild Card: Seahawks over 49ers, Giants over Bears
NFC Divisional round: Falcons over Giants, Packers over Seahawks
NFC Championship: Packers over Falcons
Super Bowl XLVII: Texans over Packers