Athlon previews the second half of the 2012 NFL season.
In the 31st annual Athlon Sports NFL preview magazine, the Houston Texans were predicted to defeat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers were slated to topple the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. We picked the Packers over the Texans in Super Bowl XLVII.
At the halfway point, we thought we would reshuffle the deck with what we have learned from the first nine weeks of action and predict how the second half will play out complete with projected records (and current records).
Projected AFC East Standings:
1. New England Patriots: 12-4 (5-3)
2. New York Jets: 8-8 (3-5)
3. Miami Dolphins: 7-9 (4-4)
4. Buffalo Bills: 5-11 (3-5)
The Pats are clearly the best team in this division and will be the only one making the postseason. A showdown with Houston on Dec. 10 could decide home field. The Jets finish with five winnable games against the Cards, Jags, Titans, Chargers and Bills. Miami still has to play New England twice as well as the Seahawks and 49ers and likely have to win one of these to get to 9-7. The only bright spot for the Bills and their 31st-rated rushing defense is four of the last five will come at home in frigid Buffalo.
Projected AFC North Standings:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 11-5 (5-3)
2. Baltimore Ravens: 11-5 (6-2)*
3. Cincinnati Bengals: 7-9 (3-5)
4. Cleveland Browns: 3-13 (2-7)
The injury-riddled Ravens will have to face the Steelers twice in three weeks (Weeks 11 and 13), along with tests against both Mannings and RGIII. This gives the Steelers, winners of three straight overall and six straight at home, the slight edge — especially with two against the Browns and games with Kansas City, San Diego and Cincinnati left on the schedule. Pittsburgh's running game has been rediscovered and this team will finish with three of four at home in the Steel City. The Bengals have lost four straight and face the Giants this weekend before wrapping up the season with road trips to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before the season finale with Baltimore. The Browns locker room and front office is in a great state of transition at the moment and has one or two winnable games left on the schedule.
Projected AFC South Standings:
1. Houston Texans: 13-3 (7-1)
2. Indianapolis Colts: 9-7 (5-3)*
3. Tennessee Titans: 5-11 (3-6)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: 2-14 (1-7)
The Texans are the class of the division and likely the NFL — at least, until they visit the Patriots in Week 14. Trips to Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis could also be tricky, but the Texans should claim the best record in the AFC at season's end. The Colts have been excellent behind the leadership of Andrew Luck but one has to think this team will fade with road trips to New England and Detroit remaining as well as two of their final three coming against Houston. But with a few wins (JAC, BUF, TEN, KC), the Colts could snag a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record. The Titans and Jags have been competitive at times this fall and have looked downright atrocious at others.
Projected AFC West Standings:
1. Denver Broncos: 12-4 (5-3)
2. San Diego Chargers: 8-8 (4-4)
3. Oakland Raiders: 6-10 (3-5)
4. Kansas City Chiefs: 1-15 (1-7)
Peyton Manning is on a roll and Denver has won three straight because of it. They now won't face a team with a winning record until Baltimore in Week 15. They are a near lock to win the West. The Chargers have a much harder schedule with road trips to Denver, Pittsburgh and the Jets as well as a home date with Baltimore. An upset or two and the Bolts may sneak into the playoffs, but is that really what Chargers fans want? Norv Turner and AJ Smith for another year? Oakland has some talent on offense and could easily play the role of spoiler throughout the second half as they face New Orleans, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Denver and San Diego. Poor Kansas City may never lead a game all season long.
Projected AFC Playoffs:
Bye Weeks: (1) Houston and (2) New England
Divisional Hosts: (3) Denver and (4) Pittsburgh
Wild Cards: (5) Baltimore and (6) Indianapolis
Projected NFC East Standings:
1. New York Giants: 11-5 (6-3)
2. Philadelphia Eagles: 8-8 (3-5)
3. Dallas Cowboys: 8-8 (3-5)
4. Washington Redskins: 6-10 (3-6)
The Giants normally wait until the second half to turn things on, so a strong start feels a bit out of place for the G-Men. The Steelers gave the league a blueprint on how to defeat the defending champs in Week 9 and it likely means a loss or two over a tough final two months that features four teams that made the playoffs last fall. The Eagles and Cowboys will square off twice over the next month and those two games should iron out the pecking order behind New York. Both have favorable second-half schedules that could get either or both to at least .500. The Redskins, according to Mike Shanahan, are apparently already looking ahead to 2013.
Projected NFC North Standings:
1. Green Bay Packers: 12-4 (6-3)
2. Chicago Bears: 12-4 (7-1)*
3. Detroit Lions: 7-9 (4-4)
4. Minnesota Vikings: 6-10 (5-4)
This division will likely come down to a Week 15 meeting between Green Bay and Chicago in the Windy City. The Packers can only get healthier while the Bears physically can't play any better than they are right now. The Bears have a brutal second-half schedule with Houston and San Francisco up next before games with Seattle, Green Bay and two with Minnesota. The Bears will play three out of their last four on the road including the final two weeks of the season against Arizona and Detroit (both of whom could be fighting for a Wild Card). When push comes to shove, Aaron Rodgers gets the nod over Jay Cutler in that key showdown at Soldier Field. Speaking of the Lions, two games with Green Bay and one each with Chicago, Atlanta and Houston make their playoff chances slim. Toss in road trips to Arizona and Minnesota with the Colts coming to town and the Lions seem unlikely to return to the playoffs. The Vikings are trending downward and finish with this nasty stretch of games: at CHI, at GB, CHI, at STL, at HOU and GB. Wow.
Projected NFC South Standings:
1. Atlanta Falcons: 15-1 (8-0)
2. Tampa Bay Bucs: 8-8 (4-4)
3. New Orleans Saints: 7-9 (3-5)
4. Carolina Panthers: 3-13 (2-6)
So where do the Falcons lose? At New Orleans, Carolina, Tampa Bay or Detroit? Possibly, but the Giants at home in Week 15 appear to be the most likely culprit. Either way, the Falcons should be the top seed in the NFC. The Bucs have been very competitive and have won three of four games. However, their second half has no easy games and could feature upwards of five or six swing games. This is going to be a fun team to watch down the stretch. The Saints have the talent to beat anyone and could easily win five or six games in the second half. A key road trip to Dallas in Week 16 could determine if either the Saints or Cowboys finish above .500. Carolina got a nice road win this weekend, but Cam Newton still has lots of growing up to do with four of the last six games coming on the road.
Projected NFC West Standings:
1. San Francisco 49ers: 13-3 (6-2)
2. Seattle Seahawks: 9-7 (5-4)*
3. St. Louis Rams: 6-10 (3-5)
4. Arizona Cardinals: 5-11 (4-5)
Three division home games highlight a solid second half slate for Seattle that also features games against AFC East foes New York, Miami and Buffalo. Look for a playoff run from the Hawks. Arizona and St. Louis should battle it out for third place in Week 12 in the desert. After losing five straight, the Cardinals are in danger of losing out — unless they can beat the Rams at home. The Niners are clearly the class of the division and could easily be the best team in the NFC. Jim Harbaugh will have a chance to prove it with games against New England and Chicago as well as road trips to New Orleans and Seattle.
Projected NFC Playoffs:
Bye Weeks: (1) Atlanta and (2) San Francisco
Divisional Hosts: (3) NY Giants and (4) Green Bay
Wild Cards: (5) Chicago and (6) Seattle
Super Bowl XLVII: Houston over San Francisco
-by Braden Gall
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