1. The Vikings will return to top 5 form in run defense:
In a seemingly minor coaching change this off-season, the Vikings fired defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Dunbar was widely regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the league and his release came as a bit of a surprise at first. Once they hired, or re-hired, Brendan Daly to replace him, things became clear.
Daly was the coach that brought together Pat and Kevin Williams to create the “Williams Wall,” which was the most impressive Vikings defensive force since the Purple People Eaters. Daly had the Vikings line consistently in the top 5 rushing defenses in the NFL during his tenure.
His return combined with the release of DT Remi Ayodele spells great things for this defensive line that already has one of the better DE tandems in the league.
2. The Packers will lead the NFL in sacks as a team:
The Additions of Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Anthony Hargrove fix the Packer’s biggest weakness of their 2011 campaign: their pass-rush. The green and gold saw their secondary shredded with Clay Matthews as their only legitimate pass-rusher. With the addition of two new starting pass-rushers and some depth and DE, the Packers will return to being one of the most feared defenses in the NFL. With Perry and Matthews coming off the edge, the Packers secondary should hold up a lot better in 2012 than it did the previous year.
3. The Lions will finish 3rd in the division standings:
With QB Matthew Stafford’s impressive 5,000 yard season and the emergence of Calvin Johnson as the league’s most dominant wide-out, the Lions future looked very bright after 2011. They will continue to be a force in 2012 and still make the playoffs, but they will fall behind Chicago in the division standings.
The Bears still have a weakness in their offensive line, but they added two receivers that could potentially be one of the league’s most dangerous tandems. Brandon Marshall is a crafty veteran that knows how to stretch the field and is very capable of making big time catches. Alshon Jeffery went into the draft as, in my opinion, the most underrated WR, and will be playing opposite Marshall with a chip on his shoulder. When you add a healthy Matt Forte in the backfield and a healthy Jay Cutler calling the plays and Chicago is as dangerous an offense as any in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Lions have Johnson and Stafford, but none of their other offensive “weapons” have been able to stand out as legitimate threats. Combine that with the fact that the Lions’ players can’t seem to stay out of trouble and you have the recipe for a season with some setbacks. Don’t get me wrong, the Lions will still vie for a wildcard spot, but Chicago has their number this season.
4. Three NFC North teams will have playoff berths in 2012:
As you may have picked up from the last paragraph, I’m expecting the Bears and the Lions to both win the NFC wildcard bids and have three teams represent the division in the playoffs.
The Packers are still the biggest fish in this pond and with the kind of off-season they’ve had, the rich have clearly gotten richer. I don’t necessarily expect the Pack to go 15-1 again, but a healthy 12-4 or 11-5 could be enough to edge Chicago and win the division for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, Chicago will be in the 11-5 to 9-7 range and the Lions will be in the mix as well. A 9-7 finish for the Lions could certainly mean another playoff berth for Detroit.
Minnesota will round out the division with a few more wins than last season, but the Vikings offense is not ready to compete with the big boys yet.
5. The Packers will return to the Super Bowl:
This is probably the most daring or bold prediction I’ve made so far, but the Packers have very few weaknesses and should certainly be a favorite to return to the Super Bowl after winning it two seasons ago. The 12-4 record I’m predicting they finish with will be enough for a first round bye and a determined, focused team will have them in the hunt once again. I’ll probably change my mind on this prediction eventually, but for now, the only NFC team I see competing with the Packers in 2012 is the 49ers (Sorry Eli, I still don’t believe in you).
6. Jordy Nelson will lead the division in receiving yards:
Calvin Johnson may be the league’s most dominant receiver, but he certainly is not un-coverable. I’m not about to cite the Madden Cover Curse as a reason for a drop in production for Megatron, but with my prediction that the Lions will take a step back in 2012, Johnson’s will as well.
In 2011, Nelson was 9th in the NFL in receiving yards, trailing the league leader Johnson by just under 400 yards. With the continued development of Randall Cobb creating havoc out of the slot and Greg Jennings doing his thing on the outside as well, Nelson will have a breakout year and show that he is one of the league’s best.
With the best QB in the league throwing him the ball, this is not out of the question at all.
7. Jared Allen will lead the league in sacks and break the single-season record:
Last year, Jared Allen proved he is the best 4-3 Right Defensive End in the NFL with his performance that culminated in 22 sacks. Allen fell just .5 or a sack away from breaking Michael Strahan’s record and says he’s determined to do it in 2012.
Allen’s 2011 performance was nothing short of miraculous considering the Vikings were almost constantly playing from behind, playing against the run and having the worst secondary in team history. With the additions of Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson to a secondary that will be stabilized by the return of Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield who both missed most of 2011, Allen should have a field day against opposing QBs. Who knows, maybe he’ll get to 25 like he said “could definitely happen.”
8. Alshon Jeffery will lead all rookie WRs in touchdowns, win Offensive Rookie of the Year:
As you may have figured out by a previous paragraph, I’m pretty high on Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery’s size and ball skills will make him Chicago’s most dangerous target and their go-to guy in the redzone.
With Brandon Marshall getting all of the attention from opposing secondaries, Jeffery will blow up in his rookie year and show that he was worth the first round pick that no one wanted to spend on him.
Jeffery will catch 10+ touchdowns, which will lead all rookie receivers and he will be playing for a dangerous playoff team that will be hungry to get back to the NFC Championship game and stick it to their long-time arch rivals, the green and gold. This combination of statistics and relevance will make Jeffery stand out as the league’s best offensive rookie. He will shine above players like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III who will learn their role as NFL QBs and Trent Richardson struggles to carry the lowly Browns on his back.
9. Matt Forte will play his last season in a Chicago Bears uniform:
The contract dispute between the Bears and star RB Matt Forte has been very public. Though Forte recently said that he expects to get a deal done before the deadline, I expect that to be all talk and for the deadline to come and pass without Forte’s long-term deal.
This means that after the 2012 season, Forte will hit the open market potentially making him one of the most sought after ball carriers of the off-season.
Fortunately for Chicago, if this happens, Forte will be motivated to earn some big money in a contract year and prove that he’s one of the league’s elite play-makers. This essentially translates into some great production out of the backfield, if he can stay healthy.
10. Toby Gerhart will rush for more yards than Adrian Peterson, lead the division in rushing yards:
Adrian Peterson expects to be ready for the week one opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. His recovery from reconstructive knee surgery is supposedly ahead of schedule and he should be able to eventually return to form as one of the best RBs in the NFL.
Because the Vikings likely won’t be pushing for a playoff spot, however, it would be foolish to push Peterson into a workload that he is not ready to handle.
The Vikings have Toby Gerhart ready to be their workhorse in 2012 and he should receive a significantly higher amount of carries than Peterson. Gerhart is a very capable runner and could be one of the best in the division with Peterson sidelined. The Vikings are a run-first team and he will certainly see his workload go up from 2011.
The Lions and Packers really don’t show much of a run-game and neither has a consistent starter in their backfield. With Chicago’s addition of two starting receivers, their passing game will become much more prevalent and Forte will see his touches decrease.
That in consideration, Gerhart could easily be the division leader in rushing and could command some trade offers when Peterson is healthy.
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