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Packers, Pats the picks for New Orleans

Predictions are an irresistible element of human nature. And in today's information age, it seems just about everybody has an opinion on just about anything.

If it wasn't for our unquenchable desire for prognosticating the future, Las Vegas would be just some two-bit town smack dab in the Mojave Desert. Nostradamus would have simply been some random dude who lived in the 16th century and never got a Wikipedia page. And Facebook and Twitter would never have become gazillion dollar industries if not for people's uncontrollable urge to tell the world exactly what they're thinking.

And if the Mayans are correct, pulling out the crystal ball and forecasting what will take place during this 2012 NFL season would be a needless exercise in futility.

Just in case the apocalypse decides to procrastinate, The Sports Network will take its best stab at guessing which teams will have enjoyable next few months and which ones may be headed on their own collision course of impending doom.

Listed below is a predicted order of standings for each division, with projected 2012 records in parentheses, as well as picks for the playoffs and individual awards.

For game-by-game breakdowns and forecasts for the Week 1 games, check the following link: http://bit.ly/RkOFCr

Here's hoping these turn out better than the Mayans.

AFC EAST

1) New England Patriots (14-2) -- After leading the AFC with 13 victories and reaching the Super Bowl last season, the Patriots look to be even more formidable in 2012 after acquiring playmaking wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to give Tom Brady another dangerous weapon and presumably upgrading last year's shaky defense with high draft choices Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower. Add in a schedule that appears ridiculously easy for a defending division champion, and the Pats are a cinch for a 10th straight season of double-digit wins as long as Brady's on the field.

2) New York Jets (8-8) -- The fact that Rex Ryan isn't making any outrageous boasts about his team's prowess could be taken as a red flag, but those expecting an all-out catastrophe based on the Jets' offensive ineptitude in the preseason may be off base. The defense still has plenty of bite, though scoring points still figures to be a challenge. And never underestimate the power of the Tim Tebow mojo.

3) Buffalo Bills (8-8) -- A lot of folks are touting the Bills as a playoff team. They'll be better after bringing in a couple of impact pass rushers, but if Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the league in interceptions once again, it ain't happening.

4) Miami Dolphins (5-11) -- With a rookie quarterback saddled with possibly the league's worst group of receivers, the Dolphins are bound to be bad in head coach Joe Philbin's first season. The defense is still pretty solid, though, which should help avoid a complete disaster.

AFC NORTH

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) -- Steelers won 12 games a year ago despite ranking 21st in the NFL in points scored. New coordinator Todd Haley has a history for getting the most of his talent -- and there's plenty of it in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the terrific receiver pairing of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown -- making another playoff voyage a good bet.

2) Baltimore Ravens (12-4) -- The loss of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs until probably at least Thanksgiving was a big blow to last year's AFC runners-up, but the Ravens are a resilient veteran bunch with more than enough impact players to maintain their usual high standard of achievement.

3) Cincinnati Bengals (5-11) -- Yes, the Bengals have a good young core and defied the experts by sneaking into the playoffs last season, but an inability to beat the good teams on the 2011 schedule and a lack of offensive threats other than standout wide receiver A.J. Green indicates last year's nine-win total may have been a mirage. Cincinnati also has historically performed poorly when expectations have been high.

4) Cleveland Browns (2-14) -- A looming change in ownership has already made for a turbulent offseason in Cleveland, and the Browns' already-thin depth base has been further ravaged by injuries and suspensions over the past couple of months. With a murderous schedule ahead and tons of unproven players slated for prominent roles, count on an even uglier road ahead for a franchise that's been spinning its wheels for seemingly forever.

AFC SOUTH

1) Houston Texans (12-4) -- The Texans did lose a few key contributors to last year's inaugural playoff run, but a defense that was one of the league's best in 2011 will still be a beast capable of feasting on the division's collection of developing young quarterbacks. And if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson can stay healthy, watch out.

2) Tennessee Titans (8-8) -- If the Titans can get through a hazardous early- season stretch in promising neophyte Jake Locker's first go-around as an NFL starting signal-caller, this is a team capable of being a factor in the AFC playoff race. More than likely, though, Tennessee will do most of its damage in the second half.

3) Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10) -- 2011 NFL rushing champion Maurice Jones- Drew's holdout has caused a slipping of a Jaguars' stock that already didn't hold much value, but the outlook may not be as bleak as at first glance. An underrated defense is pretty solid across the board, and Jacksonville will surpass last year's anemic offensive output after getting second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert a couple of legitimate receivers in free agency and the draft.

4) Indianapolis Colts (4-12) -- Andrew Luck is the real deal, but Indianapolis' rookie prodigy will be handcuffed by a mediocre offensive line and a defense that's basically building from the ground up. Remember Colts fans, Peyton Manning won just three games his rookie season.

AFC WEST

1) Denver Broncos (10-6) -- Manning has also posted at least 10 victories in each of the last nine seasons he's appeared in, though that streak may be threatened in the legendary passer's comeback campaign with his new team if the Broncos don't improve a defense that was overall ordinary during last year's surprise AFC West crown. Still, No. 18's skills and presence make a two-win upgrade from an 8-8 finish in 2011 seem very plausible.

2) Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) -- The Chiefs are hard to figure out, a team well- coached and defensively sound enough to take down the league's upper-crust (as evidenced by last year's upset of Green Bay) and lethargic enough on the offensive end to lose to anyone one the slate. But after getting back young stars Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry after both missed nearly all of last season's 7-9 disappointment, their arrow is pointing up.

3) San Diego Chargers (8-8) -- The Chargers return plenty of firepower from a squad that ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored last season, but there are still too many issues on the offensive line and defense to believe they'll be anything more than an inconsistent tease for a third consecutive season.

4) Oakland Raiders (3-13) -- Salary cap issues forced Oakland's new regime to part ways with a number of good players who could really have helped rookie head coach Dennis Allen in his debut, and they'll likely pay for the late Al Davis' frivolous ways in his final years. A healthy Darren McFadden and a resurgent Carson Palmer could help stop the bleeding, but neither scenario can really be counted on.

AFC Wild Cards: Baltimore, Kansas City

NFC EAST

1) Dallas Cowboys (11-5) -- A troubling tendency for late-season fades in recent years has taken some luster of the Cowboys' star, but don't sell Dallas short. Second-year running back DeMarco Murray has the potential to be one of the league's best, while a secondary that was the team's obvious Achilles' heel in 2011 got a lot better with the acquisitions of free agent Brandon Carr and high-upside rookie Morris Claiborne.

2) New York Giants (10-6) -- Defending champs have a few issues to sort out on defense and weren't world beaters during the 2011 regular season, but last year's Super Bowl run is proof the Giants should never be counted out. It's conceivable that this Big Blue outfit is better than the previous edition, though a hellacious schedule may prevent that improvement from showing up in the standings.

3) Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) -- There's a lot to like about the Eagles, who have a dynamic offense full of big-play threats, can really pressure the quarterback on defense and are eager to atone for last year's failure after having sky-high aspirations. The belief here is that the ever-fragile Michael Vick once again is sidelined for part of the season, and that could be the difference between a possible division title and another playoff miss.

4) Washington Redskins (7-9) -- The Redskins finally have a game-changer at quarterback after making the bold move to land the electric Robert Griffin III. They'll make a little more headway in the rookie's eagerly awaited debut, but there still be may a few too many holes to truly challenge the top three in a loaded NFC East.

NFC NORTH

1) Green Bay Packers (12-4) -- The Packers probably won't be as dominant as their 15-1 steamroll job through the 2011 regular season, but they still possess the game's best player in Aaron Rodgers and the defense shouldn't be as much of a crutch as it was a year ago. There's plenty of motivation as well after being bounced out early in the playoffs, plus Green Bay's won 21 of its last 23 contests dating back to its 2010 march to a Super Bowl title.

2) Detroit Lions (9-7) -- They finally broke through last season after years of doormat status, but can the Lions sustain that success? There are questions that still need to be answered, such as finding a running back that can hold up an entire year and patching up a secondary that was torched down the stretch of the 2011 playoff invite. And although he was healthy and insanely productive last season, it's not as if quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a model of durability throughout his pro career.

3) Chicago Bears (9-7) -- The Bears should be better equipped to withstand the injuries that crippled them over the second half of last season with the astute depth additions of quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush, and general manager Phil Emery's trade for big-time talent Brandon Marshall gives the offense a bona fide No. 1 receiver for the first time in seemingly forever. A dangerous team for sure, but age could be starting to take its toll on a defense that's been Chicago's backbone under Lovie Smith.

4) Minnesota Vikings (5-11) -- There are reasons to believe the Vikings will be drastically more competitive than in last year's 3-13 fiasco, as a secondary that was routinely abused despite the presence of one of the league's best pass rushes seems to be better stabilized and second-year quarterback Christian Ponder should make some strides after a difficult introductory campaign. If he takes a significant step forward and Adrian Peterson proves to be over a potentially devastating knee injury, Minnesota could surprise a few folks.

NFC SOUTH

1) Atlanta Falcons (13-3) -- The offseason tribulations of the rival Saints could very well work to the Falcons' benefit, though there have been signs Atlanta's ready to take off regardless after witnessing the sensational preseason performances of quarterback Matt Ryan and gifted young wideout Julio Jones. Ball-hawking cornerback Asante Samuel and veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan were also nice offseason gets for GM Thomas Dimitroff. Then again, winning games in the regular season has never been a problem for this team in the Ryan/Mike Smith era.

2) New Orleans Saints (10-6) -- It's hard to quantify how the suspension of head coach Sean Payton will impact the Saints, but as long as Drew Brees is chucking pinpoint passes up and down the field, New Orleans will have a chance every time out no matter who's calling the shots. A drop-off could be in order after being hammered in the bounty scandal, but it won't be much of one.

3) Carolina Panthers (5-11) -- Five wins seems like a major undersell with record-setting quarterback Cam Newton now having a year of experience under his belt and the Panthers looking to be more sound on defense. There's still much to prove on that side of the ball, however, especially in containing the pass, and opponents could be better prepared to deal with Newton's unique talents in his encore. Expect a lot of high-scoring games, and Carolina to take a bit of step back before taking another one forward.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) -- The Bucs have really nowhere to go but up after last season's four-win train wreck that triggered the hiring of disciplinarian Greg Schiano, and they should be an overall tougher out in 2012. The future looks bright, but a young roster may still be a little too wet behind the ears to make a splash.

NFC WEST

1) San Francisco 49ers (10-6) -- Defending division champs won't be catching anyone off guard after last year's unexpected 13-win output and NFC Championship Game appearance, but the Niners still appear to be the undisputed cream of the NFC West crop thanks to one of the league's most stifling defenses. However, it remains to be seen as to whether San Francisco has enough scoring punch to duplicate its outstanding 2011 accomplishments.

2) Seattle Seahawks (7-9) -- There's little question that Pete Carroll's boys are gaining some dark-horse appeal off a highly impressive preseason display, and a defense full of upward-trending young players is playoff-caliber despite its lack of notoriety. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson looked like a future Hall of Famer in the exhibition games, but may still face a learning curve before Seattle escapes from another year of mid-level status.

3) Arizona Cardinals (5-11) -- Sure, John Skelton went 5-2 as a starting quarterback last season, but is anybody really buying into him or the marginally talented and injury-prone Kevin Kolb as the answer? The offensive line is in shambles as well. Too bad, as the Cards have a good defense and the playmakers on offense to give San Francisco a real run with better play under center.

4) St. Louis Rams (2-14) -- Anyone who thinks Jeff Fisher will just wave a magic wand and make all the problems that have caused the Rams to be the league's perennial punching bag disappear is delusional. This is a massive rebuilding job he and new GM Les Snead are undertaking, and St. Louis is likely to take its lumps for at least another year before progress is made.

Wild Cards: N.Y. Giants, New Orleans

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC Wild Card Round: (3) Texans over (6) Chiefs, (5) Ravens over (4) Broncos NFC Wild Card Round: (6) Saints over (3) Cowboys, (4) 49ers over (5) Giants

AFC Divisional Round: (1) Patriots over Ravens, (2) Steelers over Texans NFC Divisional Round: (1) Falcons over Saints, (2) Packers over 49ers

AFC Championship: Patriots over Steelers NFC Championship: Packers over Falcons

Super Bowl XLVII: Packers over Patriots

AWARDS CASE

Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, New England Offensive Player of the Year: Brady Defensive Player of the Year: Patrick Willis, San Francisco Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Defensive Rookie of the Year: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Coach of the Year: Mike Smith, Atlanta Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, Denver