Welcome back, football fans. This is now the seventh year in which I have committed myself to picking the winner of every single NFL regular season game.
As a reminder, I pick the winners straight-up, although I do offer my best guess as to what the margin of victory will be. My goal, as always, is to beat ESPN’s NFL experts: Eric Allen, Mike Golic, Merril Hoge, Ron Jaworski, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Mark Schlereth, Seth Wickersham, Tom Jackson, Mike Ditka, Cris Carter, and Keyshawn Johnson, as well as the “Accuscore” and “Pick ‘em” predictions.
Writing these columns is much more fun when my readers get involved, so please offer your own predictions in the comments section below.
Now it’s time for my picks for the NFL’s first week of the 2012 season.
*Wednesday, September 5, 2012*
Dallas at New York Giants 8:30 p.m. [Line: Giants by 3.5]
Dallas last season: 8-8, no playoffs. New York Giants last season: 9-7, won NFC East, won Super Bowl.
The Cowboys upgraded their offensive line with Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings at guard. At cornerback, they brought in Brandon Carr and drafted Morris Claiborne. QB Tony Romo should have a big year. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the NFC East this season.
The Giants released Brandon Jacobs in the offseason, so Ahmad Bradshaw is now their top RB. They have three of the best defensive ends in the league (Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora). Don’t be surprised if Eli Manning struggles a bit this year. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the NFC East this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Cowboys by 4
*Sunday, September 9, 2012*
Indianapolis at Chicago 1:00 p.m. [Line: Bears by 9.5]
The Colts finished 2-14 last season, no playoffs. The Bears were 8-8 last season, no playoffs.
Indianapolis drafted QB Andrew Luck with the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Expectations are for Luck to quickly become an elite NFL quarterback, but the roster around him is currently not very impressive on either side of the ball. New head coach Chuck Pagano is known for his innovative defenses. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the AFC South this season.
Chicago added Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery (rookie) at wide receiver. Linebacker Brian Urlacher’s health is a big concern. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the NFC North this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Bears by 3
Philadelphia at Cleveland 1:00 p.m. [Line: Eagles by 7.5]
The Eagles finished 8-8 last season, no playoffs. The Browns finished 4-12 last season, no playoffs.
The Browns are expected to start four rookies on offense: Trent Richardson at RB, Brandon Weeden at QB, Josh Gordon at WR, and Mitchell Schwartz at tackle. A young offense, coupled with a porous run defense, likely means another long season in Cleveland. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the AFC North this season.
The Eagles have high expectations, as usual. But QB Michael Vick can’t seem to stay healthy, and there remain questions on defense. Another disappointing season and head coach Andy Reid could be kicked out of Philly. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the NFC East this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Eagles by 2
New England at Tennessee 1:00 p.m. [Line: Patriots by 6]
New England finished 13-3 last season, won AFC East, lost in Super Bowl. Tennessee finished 9-7 last season, no playoffs.
The Patriots have the league’s easiest schedule this season. The offense remains very potent, and the defense is improved with the addition of rookies Chandler Jones at DE and Dont’a Hightower at LB. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the AFC East this season.
The Titans will be starting Jake Locker at quarterback. RB Chris Johnson should rebound from a disappointing season in 2011. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the AFC South this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Patriots by 17
Atlanta at Kansas City 1:00 p.m. [Line: Falcons by 2.5]
Atlanta finished with a 10-6 record last season, losing in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Kansas City finished 7-9 in 2011, no playoffs.
Atlanta has a new offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) and a new defensive coordinator (Mike Nolan). The Falcons have a number of weapons on offense, with Julio Jones and Roddy White at WR, Michael Turner at RB, and Tony Gonzalez at TE. Will this be the year QB Matt Ryan finally wins a playoff game? ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the NFC South this season.
The big question for the Chiefs is QB Matt Cassel. If he stays healthy and completes a high percentage of his passes, KC could compete for the division title. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish either 2nd or 3rd in the AFC West this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Kansas City by 5
Jacksonville at Minnesota 1:00 p.m. [Line: Vikings by 3.5]
Jacksonville was 5-11 last season, no playoffs. Minnesota was 3-13 last season, no playoffs.
The Jaguars will be starting Blaine Gabbert at QB again, despite his awful rookie season in 2011. Chad Henne is the backup quarterback. RB Maurice Jones-Drew ended his holdout, so there is some good news in Jacksonville. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the AFC South this season.
The Vikings are rebuilding, and part of that process is developing Christian Ponder into a legitimate NFL starting quarterback. RB Adrian Peterson underwent knee surgery in the offseason due to a torn ACL and MCL he suffered in Week 16 last season, but he is expected to be a week one starter. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the NFC North this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Vikings by 1
Washington at New Orleans 1:00 p.m. [Line: Saints by 7.5]
The Redskins finished 5-11 in 2011, no playoffs. The Saints finished 13-3 in 2011, won the NFC South, lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
The Redskins picked QB Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. While he has generated a ton of excitement, few believe that the Redskins will be very competitive this season. Washington’s secondary is pretty bad. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the NFC East this season.
Because of Bountygate, the Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season. Joe Vitt, assistant head coach and linebackers coach, is the team’s interim head coach…except he is suspended until Week Eight as a result of Bountygate. So the interim-interim head coach for the first six regular season games will be Aaron Kromer, the team’s offensive line coach. As for the players, the offense is still really good, and the defense isn’t bad. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish either 1st or 2nd in the NFC South this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Saints by 13
Buffalo at New York Jets 1:00 p.m. [Line: Jets by 3]
Buffalo was 6-10 last season, no playoffs. The New York Jets were 8-8 last season, no playoffs.
Mark Sanchez is the starting quarterback for the New York Jets going into week one. I suspect that will change at some point during the season, and Tim Tebow will replace him under center. But even if Sanchez remains the starter all season, Tebow is still expected to get a lot of playing time because offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is likely to make liberal use of the Wildcat formation. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the AFC East this season.
The Bills added defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in the offseason. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are a couple of solid running backs. But QB Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to cut down on the interceptions this season if Buffalo is going to compete for a playoff spot. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the AFC East this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Buffalo by 6
St. Louis at Detroit 1:00 p.m. [Line: Lions by 7.5]
The Rams were 2-14 last season, no playoffs. The Lions were 10-6 last season, lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
The Rams have a new head coach in Jeff Fisher and a new offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer. This is a rebuilding year in St. Louis, and the big question is if Sam Bradford can show significant improvement over a disappointing 2011. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the NFC West this season.
Detroit had success last season despite two big weaknesses: lack of a consistent running game and a poor secondary. They enter this season with two main concerns: the running game and the secondary. Sigh. The Lions drafted tackle Riley Reiff and WR Ryan Broyles, both of whom are good enough to start. The defensive line is stacked, and the passing game should be one of the best in the league as long as QB Matthew Stafford remains healthy. But they play in arguably the toughest division in the NFL. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the NFC North this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Detroit by 15
Miami at Houston 1:00 p.m. [Line: Texans by 10]
The Dolphins were 6-10 last season, no playoffs. The Texans were 10-6 last season, won the AFC South, lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
Joe Philbin is Miami’s new head coach. The Dolphins will be starting rookie Ryan Tannehill at QB. That shouldn’t be too concerning since by all accounts he has the skills, the intelligence, and the maturity to be a legitimate NFL starter. The problem is, who is he supposed to throw to? Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess are not exactly elite receivers. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the AFC East this season.
Houston is a team that has few, if any, weaknesses. Matt Schaub is a solid quarterback, bordering on elite status. Andre Johnson is a Pro Bowl wide receiver. Arian Foster is an excellent running back. The defense is quite good, even after losing DE Mario Williams to free agency. A deep playoff run is expected. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the AFC South this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Houston by 16
RJ’s Game of the Week: San Francisco at Green Bay 4:25 p.m. [Line: Packers by 5]
The Packers were 15-1 last season, won the NFC North, lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The 49ers were 13-3 last season, won the NFC West, lost in the NFC Championship Game.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the league MVP last season, with a ridiculous 45-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. They have the second-easiest schedule in the league. They have improved their defense with young draft picks (linebacker Nick Perry, DE Jerel Worthy, cornerback Casey Hayward, and safety Jerron McMillian). They added Cedric Benson at RB. This team simply has to be the favorite in the NFC. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the NFC North this season.
The 49ers were defined by a dominant defense last season, and they lost none of their defensive starters in the offseason. They added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to a receiver corps that already included Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn. But there are concerns about the OL, and QB Alex Smith still does not inspire much confidence. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the NFC West this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Packers by 9
Seattle at Arizona 4:25 p.m. [Line: Seahawks by 2.5]
The Seahawks were 7-9 last season, no playoffs. The Cardinals were 8-8 last season, no playoffs.
Seattle will be starting rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback, a surprise move after they had gone out and acquired Matt Flynn in free agency. Casey “Gus” Bradley is one of the top defensive coordinators in the league, and will likely be a head coach somewhere in the near future. Marshawn Lynch is solid at running back. This is a young team that could surprise if the play from the quarterback position is decent. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the NFC West this season.
Arizona will start John Skelton at QB over Kevin Kolb—at least to start the season. Running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are both coming off knee injuries. Ken Whisenhunt is a good head coach, and Larry Fitzgerald is an elite wide receiver, but you get the feeling that this is going to be an ugly season for the Cardinals. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the NFC West this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Seattle by 7
Carolina at Tampa Bay 4:25 p.m. [Line: Panthers by 2.5]
The Panthers were 6-10 last season, no playoffs. The Buccaneers were 4-12 last season, no playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s new head coach is Greg Schiano, formerly the head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. QB Josh Freeman three 22 INTs last season compared to just 16 TDs. The defense was awful last year, and there isn’t much reason why anyone should expect a significant improvement this season. Don’t expect much (or any) improvement over last season’s record. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the NFC South again this season.
Carolina has a potent running attack featuring Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart. The defense is expected to be improved over last season. But when you talk about the Panthers, you have to focus on quarterback Cam Newton. Most analysts expect him to improve over his impressive rookie season in 2011; I’m not so sure. But whether he improves or takes a step backward, this team is unlikely to make the playoffs this season. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the NFC South again this season.
RJ’s Pick: Carolina by 10
Pittsburgh at Denver 8:20 p.m. [Line: Broncos by 1.5]
The Steelers were 12-4 last season, losing (to Denver) in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Broncos were 8-8 last season, won the AFC West, and lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
The Steelers are getting older, and no longer have the dominant defense of years past. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley (formerly head coach of the Chiefs) is expected to focus on the running game. RB Rashard Mendenhall is going to miss the first few games this year with a knee injury, so look for Isaac Redman to get 20+ carries per game until Mendenhall returns (which means he’d be a good fantasy starter in the early weeks of the season). ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 1st in the AFC North this season.
As everyone on the planet is already aware, Denver signed Peyton Manning during the offseason to be their starting quarterback, and then they traded last season’s hero Tim Tebow to the New York Jets in exchange for some roadside litter. The Broncos have the second-toughest schedule in the league this season. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 2nd in the AFC West this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Denver by 6
*Monday, September 10, 2012*
Cincinnati at Baltimore 7:00 p.m. [Line: Ravens by 6]
The Bengals were 9-7 last season, losing in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Ravens were 12-4 last season, won the AFC North, and lost in the AFC Championship Game.
Cincinnati has a star in WR A.J. Green and a good, young quarterback in Andy Dalton. They also have a stout defense led by defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. It would not be shocking if they won their division this year. That being said, ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the AFC North this season.
Baltimore has a questionable offensive line. Safety Ed Reed will be turning 34 in a few days, linebacker Ray Lewis is 37, and linebacker Terrell Suggs could be out for the year. They released playoff goat Billy Cundiff, a one-time Pro Bowl kicker. I don’t think the Ravens are going to be particularly good this season, but ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish either 1st or 2nd in the AFC North this season.
-RJ’s Pick: Bengals by 3
San Diego at Oakland 10:15 p.m. [Line: Chargers by 1.5]
The Chargers were 8-8 last year, no playoffs. The Raiders were also 8-8 last year, no playoffs.
Oakland has a new head coach (Dennis Allen) and a new general manager (Reggie McKenzie). RB Darren McFadden, who suffered a season-ending foot injury last year, is the most important player on offense. QB Carson Palmer needs to improve over his disappointing performance last season, in which he threw 16 interceptions in 10 games. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 4th in the AFC West this season.
San Diego is still employing Norv Turner as head coach, and he has yet to have a losing season, but this could be his last year with the team unless they make it back to the playoffs. Look for TE Antonio Gates to have a big season. Rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram should make an immediate impact. ESPN’s NFL experts pick them to finish 3rd in the AFC West this season.
-RJ’s Pick: San Diego by 11